A Flea in the Fur of the Beast

“Death, fire, and burglary make all men equals.” —Dickens

Category: Texas

Linklater’s Bernie Turns A Fascinating Murder Story Into A Shallow Romp

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

Bernie, Richard Linklater’s newest film, is an odd, disjointed, always fascinating but ultimately shallow movie about Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a mortician and town vivant in Carthage, Texas, who inexplicably takes up with a nasty widow twice his age and then just as inexplicably murders her. The film is based off a Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth (who shares screenwriting credit here), and has all the elements of drama except the drama itself.

Two enigmas swirl about the film, the first Black’s Tiede, an eccentric, gregarious, Christian and possibly gay assistant funeral director for whom the entire town of Carthage swoons. He sings like an angel at church, dispenses tax advice to his blue collar buddies, and goes above and beyond for the widows whose husbands he prepares for the afterlife.

Bernie meets his biggest challenge in Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a modern-day Faulkner figure who terrorizes Carthage as the tight-fisted owner of the town’s central bank. Bernie refuses to be rebuffed by the widow, and before long he draws her out of her house, and then is taking trips and cruises on her dime. But as Bernie is accepted into her home and purse, he finds her complex of dominance intractable: no sooner is he in her will than he’s also in her command. Being Marjorie’s servant is too much even for the cherubic Bernie: he puts four bullets in her back and hides her in her freezer, preserving her body until he can give it the burial he, as a professional mortician, knows it deserves.

Bernie is as fascinating a protagonist as one could hope for, but we never get any insight into why he so doggedly pursues the widow, especially once his Christian generosity succeeds in overcoming her crusty facade. Black is a poor choice for the lead; everything that makes him a gifted comic actor—that incessantly mugging face, his ironic knowingness—destroys him as a dramatic one, something that’s been on display ever since he spun like a top through the film adaptation of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Here he plays Bernie like John Waters’ vintage store owner in theSimpsons, as if he just can’t get over how dang quirky his own self is, and it layers a patina of self-awareness onto Bernie the man couldn’t possibly have possessed. Even when Black, a talented vocalist, takes the mic at church, there’s an element of Tenacious D-level ham that makes us doubt the sincerity of the character whose sincerity is the very point of the film.

Shirley MacLaine does a much better job as Marjorie, but is restrained by her underwritten character. Marjorie Nugent is the second enigma of the film, as much a screen for the projection of the town’s suspicions and prejudices as the shut-in of Faulkner’s “A Rose For Emily.” But the film refuses to plumb her depths as well. We don’t know why she’s mean; why don’t know why she’s estranged from her family; we don’t know what leads her to treat Bernie the way she does, either when she makes him the first person she allows into her life in years, or when she makes him pay dearly for that allowance. There’s a wonderful scene in which Bernie pleads for Marjorie to stop chewing her food so much, the one pet peeve of a soul who, as a bit character puts it, just doesn’t know how to tell someone to “piss off.” The mischievous joy in MacLaine’s face as she continues to chew the bite and pointlessly torture Bernie is the best moment in the whole film, its one true investigation into the nature of power and cruelty that the rest of the movie merely references.

As for the rest of the movie, it strikes an hokey tone more in key with Black’s mobile eyebrows than MacLaine’s wily intelligence. Wacky banjo music plays under the townspeople’s more-Texas-than-Texas aphorisms, and as much fun as the film truly has in exploring small town idiosyncrasies (one man says Texas is really five states, then goes on to list seven examples), this rompish feel makes for a disjointed tone most reminiscent of Steven Soderberg’s uber-strange The Informant!. That film was more interested in participating in its hero’s solipsism than exploring it, and the result was an uneven match of tone and subject, a lighthearted jape that undercut the tragedy of its delusional protagonist. “Isn’t this so much fun?” the movie seemed to be saying, even as lives quietly dissipated.

The same problem haunts Bernie. The entire drama is taken as a quirky escapade; the movie ends on such a note of whimsy that you leave the theater without completely understanding that a sincere and generous person has been put in prison for the rest of his life after betraying his faith and morality by shooting another human being.

Texas Monthly is supremely adept at striking the right balance between their state’s big-haired baroqueness and the gruesome crimes that unfold there. But film adaptations have had trouble capturing the combination. Jennifer Love Hewitt’s The Client List began life as a Texas Monthly article; Jim Carrey’s character in the excruciating I Love You, Phillip Morris was a regular feature in the magazine’s Bum Steers list. Both of those films failed in greater degree than Bernie, but for much the same reason. Everybody is having a zany good time—and Skip Hollandsworth, whom I’ve seen describe stories in editorial meetings, always has a zany good time telling them—but they seem to be taking the drama for granted. Bernie turns Bernie Tiede’s tragedy into a sort of adventure, and in doing so deprives him of the dignity he so righteously showed his corpses. The last time someone treated him that way, he shot her dead. Shouldn’t we take that seriously?

The Revisionaries: How the Culture Wars Converged on Textbooks

by evanmcmurry

[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]

The Revisionaries, Scott Thurman’s debut documentary, focuses its lens on the fierce political and cultural battle waged by the Texas Board of Education over textbook content. Texas’ size makes it a huge textbook market, and the standards set by the Board about everything from evolution to Thomas Jefferson’s role in revolutionary thinking influence textbook publishing nationwide, a fact Christian conservatives have exploited by taking advantage of off-season, low-turnout elections to stack the fifteen-member board with right-wing candidates. Thurman, an agile and empathic director, follows both the most risible members of the Board and their most committed opponents through the two-year revision of textbook standards, and manages to turn this prolonged policy battle into an suspenseful, engaging and infuriating eighty-three minutes.

In the middle of this drama is Chairman Don McLeroy, he of the infamous statement, “Education is too important not to be politicized,” a line he clearly wants back more and more each time it’s repeated to him. McElroy, a dentist near College Station and a “young earth creationist” (read: humans and dinosaurs walked the earth together starting 6,000 years ago and no earlier) provided Thurman with a stunning amount of access, from which both he and the film benefited: far from the villain of these proceedings, McLeroy becomes their site of their moral investigation.

Loquacious, eager and effusive, McLeroy comes off as less a machinating conservative than a genuine social experiment: is it possible for a Christian conservative to effect a seemingly sincere desire to help the children of his state without completely polluting the education process with his beliefs? The answer’s no, but McLeroy is so open and intriguing that he gets you root for him to somehow overcome his ideology, and Thurman is smart enough to follow the dentist rather than demonize him, lifting The Revisionaries above voyeuristic predecessors like Jesus Camp, which have tended to gawk at their fundamentalist subjects rather than understand them.

That having been said: the answer is NO. The film’s first half follows the debate over teaching evolution. Creationism and intelligent design have both been roundly dismissed from science education, leaving creationists to sneak doubts about evolution into the curriculum rather than argue for outright inclusion of their substitute narrative. This portion of the film is more a fascinating exercise in political rhetoric than anything, as the initial language of “strengths and weaknesses” that sought to undermine evolution is thrown out—to the delight of Texas Freedom Network’s Kathy Miller and the sputtering dismay of McLeroy—only to be replaced with even vaguer and more porous terms.

The switcheroo happens courtesy the film’s real villain, Cynthia Dunbar, a sharp law professor at fundamentalist bootcamp Liberty University, who shrewdly picks the new language from the testimony of an anthropology professor, thus making it appear as if “the experts” had suggested it. Dunbar attended Pat Robertson’s university before teaching at Liberty, and Miller fingers her, not McLeroy, as the true crafter of the right’s long-term strategy. Endlessly dissembling, constantly conniving, Dunbar happily lives up to Miller’s description; whereas McLeroy’s amendments come off as conservative buffoonery, Dunbar cloaks her fundamentalism in the discourses of civics and history, until the moderates on the Board can’t critique her proposals even as they clearly suspect they’re being had. As the vote is still being taken, Dunbar, behind her smiling façade, is already drawing up plans for the next battle.

McLeroy, for all his repugnant ideology, is absent this longitudinal shrewdness, and it humanizes him. When he loses the “strengths and weaknesses” argument, the talkative man is rendered literally speechless, less out of anger than sorrow: he really thinks he’s let his constituents down. With no Dunbar-like mask to hide behind, his personal investment in the policy he’s impacting is laid bare.

It’s a telling moment that’s repeated when McLeroy checks the results of his next school board election and sees himself behind in the vote in every county, including his own. McLeroy shuts his eyes in what is clearly a brief prayer, and an unanswered one: McLeroy loses to a moderate conservative who ran against McLeroy on a campaign of “Can you believe this guy?” After a red-meat montage of McLeroy proposing amendments to eliminate references of hip-hop in favor of country music (the “can’t we teach both?” compromise goes nowhere fast), inserting language about the communist conspiracy of the 1950s, deleting sections on discrimination of women and minorities, shoehorning Phyllis Schafly and Newt Gingrich into a 1990s section, and enshrining Ronald Reagan as “restoring American optimism,” it’s hard to feel bad for McLeroy.

The Revisionaries does, though, and appropriately, in this viewer’s opinion. McLeroy clearly dislikes Kathy Miller, but Miller passionately believes in her version of education just as much as McLeroy does his. The jolly dentist’s real opposite is Dunbar, who is treating Texan children like pawns in a culture war, something to which McLeroy, whose profession of caring for children is impossible to doubt, would strenuously object if he ever even considered it.

Alas, after losing the election, McLeroy becomes something of a minor star on the tea party circuit, with each appearance sounding more politicized and melodramatic as the soft-spokenness that first made him appealing erodes. It’s tempting to view this acidic change as his true self finally burning through its affable exterior, but the film implicitly argues that this is instead McLeroy’s reaction to his own powerlessness, which he equates with being unable to help those around him. In the end, he still teaches Sunday School, and he still weighs with each sentence what he’s saying to the children in his classroom. Meanwhile, Cynthia Dunbar is long gone from the Board; having accomplished what she needed, she’s off to fight other fights. It’s too bad no camera will be on McLeroy to catch his quick prayer when he realizes that he and his students have been played.

*

Now a note to current and future scorers of documentaries in the Lone Star state: not every Texas film needs to be backed by anodyne acoustic guitar, and not every documentary needs to sound like a poor man’s NPR segment. While the music composition received some nice marks from the audience, it seemed to this viewer to undermine the consequential events of the film, especially in the treacly melodies at the end: The Revisionaries closes on a note of “Bob McElroy Goes To Austin in A Major” that makes all the preceding politicking feel like a wondrous adventure rather than the ideological corruption of the Texas educational system. By the by, the joke’s on all of you: under Rick Perry’s budget, Texas public schools are being defunded out of existence, which will soon render all of these debates irrelevant.

Is Wendy Davis Screwing With Right-Wing Media?

by evanmcmurry

Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay down at the bottom of this profile on Wendy Davis, past where most stop reading, you’ll find this:

“I am pro-life,” she said, borrowing from the label anti-abortion activists assign themselves. “I care about the life of every child: every child that goes to bed hungry, every child that goes to bed without a proper education, every child that goes to bed without being able to be a part of the Texas dream, every woman and man who worry about their children’s future and their ability to provide for that future. I care about life and I have a record of fighting for people above all else.”

Wait for it…wait for it…here it is:

examiner

Davis clearly knew this was going to happen before she said the phrase. In fact, it most likely was her reason for intentionally slipping a click-bait statement into the middle of an exchange, knowing right-leaning news sites like the Examiner would scoop it up (wait until Breitbart, Red State, etc. get ahold of it), and now she’s out there screwing with definitions of “pro-life” without running a single ad or giving  Abbott ad-makers some malleable soundbite.

It’s an efficient way to complicate her image as a one-issue abortion filibusterer among centrist voters—as we learned yesterday, Texans are still learning who she is, and there’s a modest middle ground where she could gain—all while reaffirming her role as a crusader for women’s health rights. The right-wing blogs will have a field day, but they’ll be doing at least some of her work for her.

Big Bucket of Cold Water, Wendy Davis Edition

by evanmcmurry

A UT/Texas Tribune poll showing Wendy Davis only down by six points lit everybody’s fire yesterday, so here’s a bucket of cold water:

PPP’s newest poll of next year’s race for Governor of Texas finds Republican Greg Abbott expanding his lead over Democrat Wendy Davis. Abbott now has a 15 point advantage at 50/35. That’s up a good amount from our last poll, conducted the week of Davis’ famous filibuster, when Abbott led just 48/40. But it’s pretty comparable to what we found in January when he had a 46/34 lead.

Public Policy Polling—not exactly Rasmussen, mind you—goes on to show that as the public’s awareness of Davis went up, so did her unfavorability number. This makes sense: if you were inspired by the filibuster that launched Davis into the race, you already knew who she was, whereas much of the less attentive electorate, which leans right, still thinks of her as “that pink shoe lady,” if they think of her at all. Which is to say, don’t expect Davis’ numbers to improve much for the next few months.

Still, there’s this:

Voters narrowly oppose the abortion law that put her in the spotlight, 40/41, including 37/48 opposition among independent voters. Concern that she may have difficulty in the election because she’s seen as too liberal on that particular issue may not be warranted.

Democratic efforts to turn Texas blue that don’t rely on long-game demographic changes have some wiggle room there. If independents aren’t sold on the Texas GOP’s severity on non-economic issues, Democrats can drag the election a bit closer to center.

In the meantime, remember that Davis’ campaign was an uphill battle from the start, and barring some cataclysmic event she’s most likely not going to win. Don’t get your hopes up.

Now for your two minutes hate:

erickerickson

Sentence of the Day

by evanmcmurry

From a Mother Jones piece about Newt fronting a series of shady PACs:

And when Gingrich’s American Solutions nonprofit gave—and then rescinded—an Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2009 to a topless bar owner in Texas, it was an InfoCision executive who informed the bar owner she’d been mistakenly given the accolade.

As the kidz say, read the whole thing.

Welcome to Texas

by evanmcmurry

This may be the most Texan tweet ever. Apply this to policy, and you’ve got Texas regulations, education, workers’ rights, etc.

Screen Shot 2013-05-11 at 10.20.47 AM

John Cornyn Forgets How To Do Job, Maybe Never Knew

by evanmcmurry

Apparently it’s Texas Senators’ day to shine. John Cornyn, the elder statesmen (!!!) of Texas’ upper chamber representation, threw a tantrum Thursday over the judicial nominations he himself has been holding up:

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) ranted Thursday that President Barack Obama hasn’t put forward judicial nominees for vacancies in Texas, some open and without a nominee for more than 1,000 days. But he got schooled by his Democratic colleagues, who reminded him he’s responsible for recommending nominees to the White House in the first place — something he hasn’t done for years.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Cornyn was arguing for more immigration judge slots in Texas when he got called out by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for gumming up the district court nomination process. Immigration judges are different from district court judges, but Whitehouse questioned why the Senate should add more immigration judgeships in Texas if Cornyn isn’t trying to fill empty district court slots there.

[snip] That’s when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) stepped in to remind Cornyn what he already knows: that if he wants to see movement on district court nominees, he needs to make recommendations to the president.

“Based on 38 years experience here, every judgeship I’ve seen come through this committee during that time has followed recommendations by the senators from the state,” Leahy said.

Ted Cruz, the junior member from the Lone Star state, has been using his rookieness to excuse his impertinence to senior senators, but suddenly it was his first day:

Cruz tried to absolve himself of the matter altogether, saying he just got to the Senate in January.

“Although it might feel like it, at least for me, I haven’t been here anywhere nearly close to 1,000 days,” Cruz said.

In the end, lessons were learned:

Cornyn said Thursday that he’d met with White House officials on the matter and told them he is “happy to work with them” to review nominees and fill some of the vacancies. He didn’t have much response, though, when Leahy asked if the commission has made any recommendations yet.

“Well it’s uh, we’re working on that,” Cornyn said. “What is this, May? And we’re trying to, we’re trying — we’re working on that.”

“I would be happy to help you,” replied Leahy.