Saturday, January 12, 2013

An East Texas look at "Bernie"

Truth is stranger than fiction, and so says the movie Bernie’s tagline: “A story so unbelievable it must be true.” "Bernie" was released April 2012 and stars Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine. The story is true, though the movie is a fictionalized documentary-style account of it. In Carthage, Texas in 1996, assistant funeral home director, singer and lay minister Bernie Tiede killed Marjorie Nugent and hid her body in her deep freeze for nine months before the plot was uncovered.

The movie is styled a "dark comedy."

I didn't know Bernie Tiede, though I might have seen him at Hawthorn Funeral Home. It is in a town about 30 miles away, but is not a place where we make frequent trips to funerals. Everyone in the area knew something of the surreal murder mystery, even if they didn't personally know the participants. A brother-in-law of mine didn't know him well, but had sung at nursing home singings where Bernie was also singing. I was curious about the film. We watched it over the Christmas break.

Local people and local places
One thing that intrigued me about the movie was the locals. There were a couple of people we knew -- knew of, not close friends -- so we were aware that some of the people that were "interviewed" for the "documentary" were from the nearby area. Because of this I searched for information about the interviews. Did the movie just use impromptu material from the locals? "No, it’s scripted," said director Richard Linklater, "but they kind of put it in their own words, quite often. I looked at a lot of people and found people that could be themselves, doing material and throwing in." Comparison of the movie dialogue with Skip Hollandsworth's Midnight in the Garden of East Texas shows that often the scripted dialogue is based on real comments by real people. In an interview with  of National Public Radio, Hollandsworth said that a lot of it "came straight out of my notebook." At times interviewees are actors rather than locals -- and in a few cases actors who are or were locals (e.g. Matthew McConaughey and his mother Kay lived in nearby Longview, Texas). Hollandsworth said that 21 of the "gossips" were "genuine East Texans who've had little or absolutely no acting experience whatsoever." Real or imported, the folks on "Bernie" sound like East Texans.

Most of the movie was not filmed in Carthage. According to Wikipedia, blogs, and so forth, much of Bernie was filmed in Bastrop, Texas -- as well as Smithville, Austin and San Marcos. Daddy Sam's BBQ & Catfish and Jalapeno Tree are real Carthage restaurants where we have eaten. I don't think Jalapeno Tree was opened in Carthage until after Mrs. Nugent's murder, though.

Truth or fiction
"Bernie" is based on a true story, contains much truth and some fiction. Many of the names of locals are changed, some facts are left out, and the story is told mostly from the point of view of Bernie Tiede and locals who liked him. District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson said, “The movie is not really about the murder. It’s more about the life of Bernie.” The community outpouring toward Bernie was very real, but the movie skews the fact that there were others in the community who viewed this as a heinous crime, regardless of what they thought of Mrs. Nugent.

In How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze, Mrs. Nugent's nephew, a journalist who no longer lives in Carthage, wrote, "There are little things in 'Bernie' that aren’t exactly true, bits of dialogue, a changed name here and there. But the big things, the weirdest things, the things you’d assume would have to be made up, happened exactly as the movie says they did. The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes. Daddy Sam’s barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, 'You Kill It, I’ll Cook It!' And they really did find my Aunt Marge on top of the flounder and under the Marie Callender’s chicken potpies, wrapped in a Lands’ End sheet. They had to wait two days to do the autopsy. It took her that long to thaw."

Local reaction
Local reaction to the movie is varied, from those who love it to those who hate it and all points in between. "The movie does not tell her side of the story," objects D.A. Davidson. He is certainly correct. Others object to a comedy -- even a dark one -- being made about the tragic death of a local resident. Carthage resident Toni Clements said, "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." Hollandsworth recognized this concern is his NPR interview, saying, "I think there was always the concern that people would think we were making fun of a death or we were parodying the people of East Texas."

Some thought it made Panola County residents look bad, but others disagreed. The Hawthorn Funeral Home allowed the movie to show a front view of their building, but did not allow the name of the funeral home to be used. Nevertheless, Carlton Shamburger, current owner of the funeral home, felt that the movie didn't make Carthaginians look bad. "If you are worried about us looking stupid, we don’t." He felt the people were the same on screen as they are every day. But he further added, "I wouldn’t recommended the [Nugent] family to look at the movie."

Concluding thoughts
One of my first reactions to the movie was that this might make us East Texans look stupid (but then again, you've got to be able to laugh at yourself). On further reflection I think that the movie doesn't really say anything more (or worse) about East Texans than it does about anyone anywhere else. Director Richard Linklater is an East Texan himself -- well, Houston, but that's just East Texas gone to town. He says "East Texas is 'where the South begins'."

To a large degree, "Bernie" is a story about people believing what they want to believe. East Texans are no more or less this way than others. Just look in the mirror for your own reflection of truth. One person can believe the moon landing. Another sees a vast conspiracy. As recently as the coverage of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre some have seen conspiracy where others see tragedy. Evidence may demand a verdict, but more often we are satisfied to approach life as we see it. Not only do we create our own reality, but also our own morality. It should not be lost on the viewer that in this conservative town where most folks would view murder and homosexuality as sins, Bernie Tiede confessed to one and was suspected of the other and was still held in very high esteem.

"Bernie" drives home the point that in some ways we are not who we are, but who the community grapevine says we are. Gossip may not be true, but it often what is believed. It not only drove the perception, but drove a district attorney (rather than the usual defense attorney) to ask for a change of trial venue!

Murder in general is not funny. Neither is the tragic end of Mrs. Marjorie Nugent. But events that are just too bizarre to be made up will likely strike a dark comedic chord that resonates with most of us. Tragedy and comedy really are two sides of the same coin.

Things to read and watch
Bernie Tiede
Carthage residents react
Carthage residents react (YouTube)
How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze
Kay Epperson
Local reaction
Midnight in the Garden of East Texas


Will Fitzgerald said...

Thanks, Robert, for posting this! East Texas seems more like Northwest Michigan than I would have guessed.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Interesting, Will. Is this a rural and agricultural, or formerly agricultural, region? We don't have that much farming in our area anymore, but it is our heritage.