Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bernie and The Dictator

          Partly Truth and Partly Fiction
                                  Review by Ken Burke             Bernie

A disturbingly funny tale of almost-justifiable murder, softened by folksy forgiveness with a cast based on real-life "characters" from the piney woods of East Texas, y’all.

                                                                                                                The Dictator
Sasha Baron Cohen ups the ante on political incorrectness regarding anti-American attitudes from a cruel but clueless Arab meanie; hilarious if you’re not grossly offended.    
            Now, y’all lissen up!  I’m fixin’ to tell ya ‘bout this new movie ‘bout that undertaker boy from Carthage … ya know, tha one that got in trouble awhil’ back fer killin’ that ol’ bitch that had more money’n God ‘n then stuck her in tha freezer?  Yeah, you ‘member him?  Well, now there’s this movie all ‘bout it that’ll keep ya busy ‘til them Tuna, Texas boys git ‘nother one of their stories tagether that we’n go on over ta Fo't Worth ta see.

            If I hadn’t been born in Texas and spent a bit over half my life there before moving to California (Reminds of a joke from those days: “Hey, old man.  You lived here all your life?”  “Not yet.”) I might not be inclined to believe that Richard Linklater’s newest film Bernie could be based on the true story of a gay undertaker—excuse me, Assistant Funeral Director—who becomes the constant caretaker and traveling companion of a wealthy, despicable widow, then kills her and has the whole town rooting for his innocence when he goes to trial.  However, having been there (Texas) and done that (don’t ask), along with recognizing that Linklater is a Houston native who knows of what he speaks (with very insightful central Texas movies Slacker [1991] and Dazed and Confused [1993, also with Matthew McConaughey] that first brought him to public attention before he diversified into completely different tales such as Before Sunrise [1995], SubUrbia [1996], Waking Life [2001], The School of Rock [2003, also with Jack Black], Before Sunset [2004], and A Scanner Darkly [2006]—although I still content that I should have had his career because I was in Austin from 1966-72, then again 1974-1977 and frequently noted the idea used in Slacker about a film that just randomly follows a succession of characters around without a central plot, so he obviously pulled it from the ozone still wafting through town without even so much as an acknowledgement to me in the credits [just as I never got credit nor royalties for inventing the international best-seller, the Cherry 7-Up, at the Surf Drive-In in Galveston in 1966, much to the waitress’ surprise and disgust]; of course beyond that original Slacker idea I would have to had Linklater’s immense talent to actually have generated such a career, but let’s not quibble over small details), I can really appreciate how he’s captured small-town Texas life, so familiar to me from decades of visiting my grandmother and then my retired parents in Clyde, a roughly 2,000-population berg 15 miles east of Abilene (OK, Abilene’s 180 miles west of Dallas; are we oriented yet?).  The specifics of prairie-town Clyde may be a bit different than in more piney-woods Carthage, but many of the folks that Linklater has incorporated into his fictional biography of Bernie Tiede are the real thing, obviously speaking about the actual Bernie not Jack Black’s scripted version of the endearing but totally guilty homocidalist who seemed to be generating business for his funeral parlor.

            Black is to be praised, as always, for giving us a character that’s hard to dislike, even if we don’t agree with his decisions or their motivations, just as Shirley MacLaine perfectly portrays Marjorie Nugent as a sour apple appropriate to be plucked and put in cold storage (with her personality indicated by leather-skin arms that finally soften a bit after Bernie starts coaxing her off to massages and away-from-Texas vacations so that she’s not always surrounded in her huge house with the stuffed bodies of the animals once shot by her husband, now as dead as they are; but she remains at heart the woman who can “rip you a 3-bedroom, 2-bath, double-wide new asshole” when crossed) and Matthew McConaughey (who grew up in Longview, a hub—of sorts—of east Texas, very close to Bernie’s neighborhood) is convincing as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson, determined to enforce the law regarding murder (and body-stashing) despite Bernie’s vast popularity in close-knit Carthage.  What makes the film so appealing to me is how well Linklater has constructed the flow, alternating between the ongoing story of Bernie’s increasing relationship bondage with Marjorie (not the 50 Shades of Grey type, just his subservience to her constant demands on him as a sort of social secretary) and the scripted or otherwise testimony from actual locals and plausible actors on these two primary characters—although for those not from Texas or other parts of the South these depictions will just reinforce the usual negative stereotypes of what Carol Burnett and Vicki Lawrence used to parody in their “Mama’s Family” skits, but having known people in Clyde (who shall remain nameless, lest I get sued as Linklater did for using names of former friends in Dazed and Confused) who were just like “Mama” or some of the Carthage chorus I have to admit that stereotypes are grounded in some truth, even if it gets viciously exaggerated in fictional applications.  Judging from the raucous, but not mean-spirited, laughter in the Pleasant Hill, CA theatre where I saw Bernie with an audience I’d judge to be in my age bracket (where the first thought of “Elvis” isn’t about Costello, and even the first thought of Costello is for Lou, not English Elvis, and “Who’s on first?” [If you’re still drawing a blank, see, although if you don’t care for either baseball or absurdist comedy it probably won’t matter much]), I think there are plenty of people who can appreciate the frustrated belittlement behind Bernie’s misguided choice of an exit strategy with Marjorie, understand why such a unique public figure was so well loved in his own community (although his sexual orientation probably wouldn’t have gotten him many votes if he’d been running for mayor, he was an active and respected neighbor with his church and little theatre activities), and at least see the common humanity in the Carthage opinion-sharers even if they don’t express themselves in a manner all that familiar to us high-falutin’ city folks.

            I can understand how those of you who’ve never met someone like Bernie Tiede (photo on your right) or others of the good people of deep east Texas (a bit of a separate country of its own, within a state that prides itself on having once been an independent country before joining the U.S., as explained early on in the film for outsiders who can’t appreciate the intra-state tensions that arise among the 5 primary regions [excluding the Lubbock-Amarillo panhandle area which is sort of a lost cause, even for other Texans, despite giving us Buddy Holly and Waylon Jennings], and I admit I’m more familiar with the west, central, and southeast areas myself, having mostly just driven through the east and south zones on my way to other destinations) may find Bernie to be as exaggerated as The Dictator’s depiction of a crazy tyrant from North Africa, but if you think that I’d recommend that you take a look at an information source such as (unfortunately with a rather jerky video download, at least on my computer) to get a sense of the real Bernie Tiede who sees the unity of comedy and tragedy in every aspect of life, even if some residents of Carthage, including D.A. Davidson, don’t see anything funny about the killing of Nugent.  Murder isn’t a joke, but sometimes life is so strange and tragic that we need to see and accept the craziness that weaves through it for all of us in order to keep what sanity that we can.  Bernie helped me accomplish that; I recommend that you seriously consider seeing it because I think it’s well worth the encounter even if you ultimately find yourself agreeing with Danny Buck about its impropriety.

            Impropriety may drive you out of the theatre, though, if you attempt The Dictator, as this latest assault on political correctness from Sacha Baron Cohen, directed by Larry Charles, is so intentionally offensive that unless you can see it for the satire it’s intended to be, not only on megalomaniacal despots but also on the evolving concepts of freedom and tyranny in our increasingly complicated world, then you’re bound to be put off by it, whether you’re Arabic (Cohen’s Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen says he isn’t, nor is Islam made a target of ridicule, but the Maummar Khadafy-Saddam Hussein-Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implications are so clearly constructed as to leave no doubt about the inspirations for his character and the xenophobic disgust we’re supposed to feel toward him), patriotic American (our politics, including kneejerk racism, come in for as much of a critique as does the ideology of totalitarian Middle Eastern nations), eco-feminist (if the produce sold in Zoey’s [Anna Faris] Free Earth Collective got any more environmentally friendly you’d have to come there and grow it yourself, then eat it on the spot so that you wouldn’t leave any carbon [-based life form] footprints travelling to and from the store), or even just a member of a Harlem drug gang (for this reference you just have to see The Dictator, which goes beyond even the seemingly-unbelievable levels of plot contrivance in Bernie).  You should know going in that any film that begins with a dedication to departed North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il and features a protagonist such as the one in the above-left photo isn’t intended to be taken seriously, even when dealing with a subject as serious as U.S. paranoia about radical Islamic terrorists and harsh rulers of countries with cultures that are largely incomprehensible to us.  Further, after the savage attacks on narrative and cultural propriety in Cohen’s previous Borat (Charles, 2006—I’ll spare you the full title) and Brüno (Charles, 2009) you would be further ill-advised to expect anything remotely balanced or tactful here.  With all of those warnings in place, all I can say about The Dictator is that I find it hilarious in its intentionally distasteful attacks on the stereotypes perpetuated in our popular media on virtually everyone from Morocco to India (while admitting, as with Bernie, that stereotypes do evolve from aspects of truth, including the truths of despotic madmen past and present running many of the countries in the geographic swath noted above and crazed terrorists who probably would like to destroy the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty rather than joke about such—although based on past depictions we might well see those landmarks threatened by fictional villains of another variety as variations on Spider-Man and Avengers stories continue to target oft-abused Manhattan in future fantasy extravaganzas of these high-profile franchises).

            Suffice it to say that with The Dictator we are quickly given a bogus sociopolitical history lesson on the fictional country of the Republic of Wadiya (far too close to Libya to be understood as anything else) and why the current occupant of their flamboyant palace is so self-absorbed and evil as to need “Atrocious” added to his other titles (even to the point of playing a big-screen video game where he kills Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics).  Yet, also in the brief but effective opening scenes we learn that he’s a very lonely man (his mother “died” in childbirth as the result of some unintended offense, but not the worst crime of motherhood, that of bearing a daughter for his equally-evil father) who fills his cuddling needs with an endless string of prostitutes memorialized in a huge photo “album” on his wall, a collection that includes among others Oprah Winfrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Just as quickly as in the opening scenes, things change for Aladeen as he visits NYC to speak to the U.N. but is replaced with a simple-minded goat-herder double by the conspiratorial second-in-command Tamir (Ben Kingsley), who has his own plot of getting the double to sign a new constitution that would allow Wadiya’s vast oil reserves to be exploited by the usual gang of global corporations and the Chinese.  After escaping an assassination attempt, Aladeen is taken in (under misunderstood premises) by Zoey, reclaims his authority, and seemingly has been transformed by Zoey’s example (and her teaching him how to masturbate, with results that are illustrated by images of soaring eagles, splashing dolphins, a basketball dunk, and a clip from Forrest Gump [Robert Zemeckis, 1994] where the tormented kid literally runs out of his leg brace) to declare that real change will come to his country.  However, in the equally-quick closing scenes (the film has a great energetic pace, finishing its goofiness in a mere 83 minutes) we must question his “conversion” as we see tanks forcing Aladeen’s subjects to move to the voting line for “democratically” electing him as President (I guess Russia’s seemingly eternal ruler, Vladimir Putin, gave him advice on that one) and when his now-wife Zoey tells him she’s expecting he ends the story with the pertinent question of “Are you having a boy or an abortion?”  As noted above, none of this will go over easily if you take any of it at face value (a constant danger with the fierce humor of satire, which completely loses its intention and impact if understood literally, as it invariably is by certain audience members), but if you can appreciate the mockery that Cohen is making of the blind acceptance of the things he’s criticizing throughout the film—including his scathing condemnation of hypocritical American “democracy” where Aladeen says we don’t have the luxury of living under a dictatorship where we could be ruled by a self-serving government and manipulated by the powerful 1% who really run our society—I think you’ll find The Dictator to be an hilariously useful antidote to the cringe-worthy political ads, political maneuverings, and sociopolitical corruption that has invaded our country more successfully than Osama bin Laden’s terrorists ever hoped to accomplish.

            Of course, in declaring my own ideological perspective with such a charged statement I realize that I’m chasing away any potential audience for The Dictator that doesn’t want to be offended by such “humor” and I confirm my self-resolution to not try to arrange a double feature of Bernie and The Dictator at a Carthage, TX movie theatre, but for those Northern California-type “granolas” like me (you know, fruits and nuts), no matter where you live, I think this film is about as constantly laugh-out-loud funny as you can get.  (About the only thing Cohen didn’t include was an updated Abbott and Costello routine of an al-Qaeda strategy meeting that opens with “Who’s bombed first?” … OK, with that I’d better say “Goodnight, Gracie”—and if that reference doesn’t make any more sense than “Who’s on first?” then I suggest a little research on another great vaudeville team, Burns and Allen, at a site such as or other sources including YouTube where you can find many clips and episodes of their TV series.  But knowing what you now do about my tastes in humor, maybe you’d be better off with reruns of The Big Bang Theory; as with the option of interplanetary peace or immanent destruction at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still [Robert Wise, 1951], the choice is yours—how’s that for real democracy?)

            If you’re interested in learning more about Bernie here are some suggested links: (a cluster of trailer and clips; or, if you’re interested just put “Bernie” into YouTube search and you can also get Bernie Mac, Weekend at Bernie’s clip, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Madoff, all on just the first page)

            If you’re interested in learning more about The Dictator here are some suggested links: (this is YouTube’s “official site” for the “Republic of Wadiya” with movie trailer, clips, etc.)

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