Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Laughing In Death's Face

Some people like to celebrate important milestones in their lives; others live in dread of yet another disaster. How one views the passage of time depends a great deal on one's outlook on life in general.
  • Do you remember how you felt when you moved from the safety of your elementary or middle school to high school
  • Do you remember how you felt on the day you got your learner's permit? Or, for those old enough to recall, the day you received your notice from the Selective Service?
  • Do you remember how you felt the first time you voted? Or fell in love?
  • Do you remember what it felt like when you turned 30? Were you one of those people who felt like your life had essentially ended?
  • Do you remember what it was like a few months before you turned 50 and received your (unsolicited) AARP card in the mail?
In anticipation of turning 65 this summer, I recently applied for my Medicare card. While some people view this milestone as a sign that the grim reaper is just around the corner, I was delighted that I could qualify for Medicare benefits.

Upon hearing someone else piss and moan about how turning 65 was just another nail in the coffin, I thought about how many seniors used to die in poverty. Just look at how The Beatles regarded the aging process in their 1968 animated film, Yellow Submarine.

The older we get (and the more friends and family members we lose), the more we learn to accept the fact that death waits for no one. And yet, despite all the doom and gloom, there can be some wonderful things about dying:
  • All of the waiting and suspense is finally over.
  • There's no longer any need to worry about how you will die.
  • For some people, death can be a wonderful release from pain and suffering.
  • You'll never have to do the laundry again.
Truth be told, there is plenty of comic gold to be mined from laughing in death's face.

Two films that were recently screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival found new comic riches in the most unfortunate of deaths. One was a short piece of animation, the other -- quite amazingly -- based on a true story.

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Greek mythology informs us that Oedipus was a king of Thebes who murdered his father, married his mother, and thereby did a splendid job of destroying both his family and his city. While Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Achaeus of Eretria, Nichomachus, and Xenocles all wrote plays about Oedipus, the man who kept his name before the public for the past century was Sigmund Freud (who first used the term "Oedipus complex" in 1910).

Fans of Bill Plympton's animation won't want to miss a new twist on the Oedipus legend by Paul Driessen. Instead of taking the usual approach to the story, Driessen traces each calamity backward in time, causing great hilarity, confusion, and a sense of wonder that anyone's death could become such a source of mirth. Here's the trailer:

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When it comes to certain types of American humor, you know what they say: There's The Simpsons, there's Family Guy, and then there's Texas.

The state which gave us Mary Martin, Ann MillerMolly Ivins, Barbara Jordan, and Ann Richards also blessed us with Alberto GonzalesLouis Gohmert, Anna Nicole Smith, and Rick Perry. The state which gave us the world premieres of Greater Tuna, Where's Dick? and Nixon in China also inspired The Best Little Whorehouse in TexasKing of the HillThe Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and I Love You Philip Morris.

Jack Black as Bernie Tiede

Add to this curious cast of characters an unctuous closet case of an assistant funeral director named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a nasty, rich old widow (Shirley MacLaine), a small town district attorney who smells fame (Matthew McConaughey), and you've got yourself a tall Texas tale to tell.  In his director's statement, Richard Linklater explains that:
"Back in December of 1998, I read Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly story [Midnight in the Garden of East Texas] about Bernie Tiede, Marjorie Nugent, and the town of Carthage and something just clicked. It’s hard to articulate what exactly draws one to a particular story, and what would compel one to undertake the often lengthy and often fruitless task of trying to make a movie out of a real life story. Maybe it was my being a native East Texan and feeling like I knew everyone involved. Maybe it was Bernie’s unique character and the complex relationship between him and Marjorie. He played roles in her life from chauffeur to chef to best friend and confidant. Maybe it was the interesting legal proceedings that were playing out at that time. Maybe it was what I saw as the dark humor surrounding the entire story. I optioned the rights, and not long after we were attending some of the trial, where I would first see the real Bernie, Danny Buck, Scrappy, the many visitors from Carthage and the jurors from San Augustine where the trial had been moved. It all ended for Bernie in the opposite way it felt it was going at the time of the article."
Bernie (Jack Black) folds Majorie's laundry
"In the movie, it is overly apparent during the trial that those on Bernie’s side truly believed that he had done nothing wrong and didn’t deserve to be punished. One witness even says 'It’s not as bad as people say; he only shot her four times, not five.'Early on, Skip gave me all his journalistic notes and the treasure was revealed: with Marjorie now gone and Bernie sitting in jail, unable to give interviews; it was what the many townspeople were saying about them that would be the record. Whether you like it or not, on a perception level, you are what they say you are, especially in a small town. The majority of the story is told through townspeople’s accounts of what happened and their feelings of Bernie and Marjorie. They are the narrators. I’d never seen a movie told from the perspective of a group of gossips, but in this case it seemed like the proper narrative technique that would reveal everything you could ever really know about the town and the people involved. And what characters! There’s no storytelling like that of a townsperson from East Texas with that deep Southern drawl. It was also this unconventional storytelling device that almost kept the movie from ever getting made."
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) charms the locals

This is one of the most restrained performances I've ever seen from Jack Black, who captures the kind of Dudley Do-Right sincerity that endears him to the local townspeople and embodies the kind of gay man who finds satisfaction in becoming the caregiver in a hag/fag relationship. While hardly the Mother Teresa of East Texas, Bernie means well and reaps the benefit of his devoted attention until, his emasculation nearly complete, he is pushed to his breaking point. Just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, there is no such thing as an unlimited meal ticket.

As for Shirley MacLaine's portrayal of Marjorie, let's be frank. Mrs. Nugent could easily be described as a varmint ("an obnoxious, irritating, troublesome person who is considered undesirable") or a termagant ("a harsh-tempered, quarrelsome, scolding woman, a shrew"). As one of the townspeople describes Marjorie, "She walks around with her nose stuck so far up in the air she could drown in a rainstorm."

Either way, you get an archetype that the 78-year-old MacLaine has honed to perfection in such films as 1988's Madame Sousatzka and 1994's Guarding Tess. It takes very little effort for MacLaine to play an irascible old crone (watch her trying to chew her refried beans 25 times before swallowing). She's got the rich bitch niche down pat.

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in a scene from Bernie

Because of the way the story is told (through the recollections of the people who knew Bernie and Marjorie), this film meanders around, taking its time to focus on character rather than narrative. Instead of filming a funeral service for Marjorie, Linklater uses an ongoing chorus of testimonials to show how much Bernie's kindness was appreciated by the residents of Carthage -- and how much they despised and resented Marjorie's behavior.

While the endless testimonials make Linklater's film seem weak in places, the final revelation (that Bernie is based on a true story) adds a deliciously deranged Texas twang to the proceedings. Here's the trailer:

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