Great Movies: 'Bernie' and the Career of Director Richard Linklater

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By Mark Gould

Bernie, the new film directed by Richard Linklater, (b,1960 in Houston, Texas) and written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, is an unusual black comedy,  based on the real life story of Bernie Tiede, the companion of a Texas woman, a millionaire.

After her husband dies, Bernie is devoted to the widow, and over time  her  only friend.  Generous and kind, Bernie, who is devoted to helping people in his community, also has an obsessive, obedient side to his personality. Over time, he, becomes resentful of the way he is treated by the widow  even though she gives him control of her finances and lavishes gifts on him.

The film stars Jack Black as Bernie Tiede, Shirley MacLaine as the elderly widow, Marjorie Nugent, and Matthew McConaughey as the local district attorney.

The film is based on a 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article by Hollandsworth, "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,”  that chronicles the 1996 murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent in Carthage, Texas by her 39-year-old companion,  Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede. Nugent was shot in the back four times with a rifle by Tiede, who confessed to the 1996 murder. According to the Amarillo Globe-News, police searched Tiede's home and found videotapes showing Tiede having sexual relations  with local married men. Tiede admitted the murder to police in August 1997 and was sentenced to life in prison.

In an interview with Linklater, the director told IndieWire that the screenplay he co-wrote with Skip Hollandsworth was a boring read, and that "the gossip element almost kept the film from being made, because it reads boring. I said, “But they’ll be funny characters. I could just imagine the accents.”

The making of the film,  has divided many of the citizens of Carthage, Texas, the small town in East Texas where the Nugent murder occurred. In the film, Linklater includes interviews with several Carthage residents about their feelings of support for Bernie Tiede. Some citizens hope the film will stimulate an increase in tourism, while others have voiced anger that a comedy film was derived from the events surrounding the murder of an 81 year-old woman.

"You can't make a dark comedy out of a murder," says Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (portrayed in the film by McConaughey). "This movie is not historically accurate," adds Davidson, who says that Nugent's story is missing. "The movie does not tell her side of the story.”

"If it was fiction it might be funny, but this was a real person in a real town and no, I don't think it's funny at all," says Carthage resident Toni Clements who knew both Tiede and Nugent.

"I've now seen the movie Bernie twice and, except for a few insignificant details ... it tells the story pretty much the way it happened," Joe Rhodes, Nugent's nephew, wrote in The New York Times Magazine shortly before the film's general release. However, his cousin Rod, Nugent's only child, did not return his calls and had his lawyer sent Rhodes a letter strongly insinuating the possibility of legal action. "I guarantee he won't like it."

David T. Johnson, an associate professor of English at Salisbury University, is the author of Richard Linklater, a new volume in the University of Illinois Press Contemporary Film Directors series.  In this Q&A conducted by the University of Illinois Press  he discusses Linklater films.

Q:  On paper, the subjects of Linklater’s films seem very diverse—Before Sunset, Fast Food Nation, School of Rock, Waking Life, etc.  Is there a pattern to how he has chosen his projects?

Johnson:  That’s a really interesting question, and it’s actually how I begin the book:  how do we compare that moment when Jesse first sees Celine in Before Sunset to the moment when Sylvia takes her place on the slaughterhouse line in Fast Food Nation, neither of which are really at all like the moment when the kids rock out over the closing credits in School of Rock

The answer is, in one sense, we can’t—these are totally different moments that reflect totally different films.  So there isn’t a clear answer there, at least initially, but my argument has been, let’s not allow that to stop us from taking these films seriously or talking about them as a group. 

One of the fascinating aspects of the writing right now on Linklater, for example, even if we look just at the reviews that have been coming out around the release of his new movie Bernie, is how much of it reflects this very idea—that there isn’t a really clear pattern in his work.  I think this response has often led to a certain trepidation, on the part of writers, whether journalists or academics or both, to talk about his film making with the kind of seriousness it deserves—that and the fact that humor plays such an important part in so many of the films.  And that’s too bad, because it’s meant we tend to undervalue the work that Detour, Linklater’s production company, has been putting out now regularly for over two decades. 

My own approach has been to say that, like others, I recognize that the movies do not present any identifiable patterns—but let’s push past that and see what else the movies have to say.  Let’s treat them seriously and put them into dialogue with one another, while trying to respect what makes each one unique. My entrance into that conversation has been the subject of time, which broadly encompasses many different impulses within the films, even though I try to acknowledge that this is just one of many ways we might talk about them.

Q:  What drew you to these films in the first place?

Johnson:  I had one of those experiences in my twenties where I  realized that several movies I admired a great deal were all directed by the  same person—Linklater!  And then, while I  was in graduate school, I had a friend with whom I’d often talk about  Linklater’s movies, but we’d complain that we couldn’t really find any articles  or books about his films that treated them at greater length. 

A few years later, some great material started to show up, particularly online—the online journal Reverse Shot did a symposium on him, with a long interview, that  really inspired me quite a lot.  But I  still felt as though we had not yet reached a point where there was enough critical material on his work.  And so I thought that this book might provide an opportunity for us to start to talking even more seriously about the films, and my hope is that others, too, will continue to move that conversation forward.

Q:  Where did Linklater’s preoccupation with the concept of time arise?

Johnson:  Linklater began by making films that were directly indebted to the avant-garde tradition, which itself was fascinated with time in the work of filmmakers like James Benning or Chantal Akerman (two filmmakers Linklater has cited as direct influences).  His first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, really reflects that tradition (what P. Adams Sitney termed the “structural film”—think static camera shots, often long takes, of a character doing very little that a more conventional film would deem narratively important).  Another important influence was the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose book on filmmaking, Sculpting in Time, Linklater has cited in a number of interviews. And of course, many of his films have frequently been limited to a very specific amount of time, particularly in the early part of his career—Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and subUrbia all take place over roughly twenty-four hours or less. 

But he has gone in the other direction too, stretching films out narratively over years and years, as in an experiment he’s currently working on called Boyhood, where he has been filming the same actors over a twelve-year period to make a narrative film about a boy’s growing up in more or less the same amount of years. (I believe he is now in year ten.)  And then, so many of the characters themselves talk about time very directly, probably none more so than Celine and Jesse in the Before films.  So it is a preoccupation that he has returned to, again and again, and it seemed like a great entrance for me into the films as a whole.

Q:  What is your favorite film that Linklater has directed?

Johnson: Before Sunset.  It was voted one of the top films of the decade by Film Comment magazine in 2010, and it was a well-deserved honor.  Before Sunrise, a film made nine years earlier, is about a young man and woman, in their early twenties, who meet in Europe, fall in love (in 24 hours), and then depart, making plans to meet six months later.  Before Sunset is what happens nine years later when the young man, now in his early thirties, is on a book tour in Paris and runs into the woman.  What happened nine years ago?  What’s happened since?  All of these and other questions play out in a fascinating, real-time stroll around Paris in the late afternoon.  Since the same actors play the same characters (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)—and since the actors have aged as much as the characters—there’s almost a documentary effect within these two romantic films.  In fact, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke—all three of whom wrote Before Sunset (and who also wrote, with Kim Krizan, the first film)—are planning a third film right now that will pick up on the couple, once again, a few years later, to see what’s become of them.  Hawke said of the second film that he thought that eventually they might make several such films that would be a kind of “document on love and relationships,” and I think this film bodes very well for their next effort.  Plus, it has one of the most subtle but best endings in any of Linklater’s films.

Q:  How important is the use of music in Linklater’s films?

Johnson:  Music is probably one of the main ways that my own memory connects with these films, even if it is just one part of the entire experience.  I always think of Mitch at the end of Dazed and Confused putting on his giant headphones after an incredible night on the town, as “Slow Ride,” by Foghat, fills the soundtrack—one of the most blissful musical moments in any of the films—or, at the beginning of the same movie, Pickford’s car pulling into the parking lot as Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” kicks in.  School of Rock, also, celebrates the bliss of rock, whether when the kids perform the title song at the big contest or jam over the credit sequence to AC/DC. 

So music has certainly served as an important touchstone to my memories with these films, but in general, I’m not sure I would say that music plays quite the same role in every film—it’s used to different ends, depending on the subject, the genre, and other concerns, and certainly not always involving rock and roll. Two of the other great musical moments, after all, are when Celine and Jesse listen to “Come Here,” the Kath Bloom song, in the record booth scene from Before Sunrise, or when Celine imitates Nina Simone in her apartment, Jesse lying back on her futon, at the closing of Before Sunset (an ending that never fails to knock me out).  I also think of an instrumental “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” from the end of Me and Orson Welles, a poignant accompaniment to Richard’s going over the memorabilia of his one week in the theater.  And then, to go a little further, some films are notable for the ways they might underplay or withhold music.  Tape, for example, derives much of its power from its not using any musical scoring during its heated exchanges—the raw power of those scenes thus turn in part on not being prompted by any cues from the soundtrack.  So like the films themselves, the approach to music often varies widely, and that’s part of what makes them so interesting.

Q:  What do you hope readers take away from the book?

Johnson:  I hope what readers take away from the book is a desire to learn more—not just about Richard Linklater and the films he has directed—though certainly that!—but
the cinema more generally and, even further, subjects that would fall under the whole notion of a humanities education, such as cinema, art, literature, history, and so many other fields of study.  The humanities tend to get bad press these days—in a climate of economic constriction, why would anyone invest their time in them?  And yet that’s precisely the time when we need the humanities, both in and outside the classroom, and I think that’s an idea that these films, for me, very much encourage and take to heart.

Visit your local library for more resources on this topic.

Bernie will be released on DVD on June 12.

Richard Linklater DVDs

Richard Linklater
David T. Johnson, (2012).

The Cinema of Richard Linklater
by Thomas A Christie, (2008).

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