Makin’ Moonshine

Makin’ Moonshine

The Sylent Majority
A post-modern, socio-politico-economico, philosophical stab at critical film theory by Nathan Lower and Lee Hampton

Subject one: Weekend At Bernie’s (1989)

“Bernie Lomax would be the perfect host, except for one small problem: He’s dead.” Such is the tagline to the 1989 masterpiece, Weekend at Bernie’s, and it’s ironic considering he manages to maintain his status as a perfect host despite his loss of living capabilities. In fact, he throws parties, gropes a woman, makes love to his girlfriend, sells a Porsche and even evades a murderer. Bernie (played brilliantly by Terry Kiser, who must have spent months studying the great silent film actors to get the facial expressions and poses for each of his postmortem scenes just right), the boss of a major life insurance company, invites two of his employees out to his beach house for Labor Day weekend to discuss an inconsistency they discovered in accounting. Richard, an uptight, earnest employee attempting to climb the corporate ladder, and his friend, Larry, a laid back hedonist exit the overwhelming bustle of the city for Bernie’s leisurely escape. They enter only to find Bernie dead, triggering a series of events that reveals an undercurrent of dehumanization and synthesis in capitalism and calls these effects into question.

For years this film has been viewed as a comical farce with little to no thought given to its complex, intellectually provocative themes. This is largely due to the bourgeois media’s Debordian recuperation of this subversive film using a misleading and oversimplified marketing scheme, as well as the critics who were all too happy never to look beyond its manipulated surface. As a post-French Marxist filmmaking masterpiece, Weekend at Bernie’s employs techniques similar to those used by Godard, including its choice of radical subject matter, subversive parody, and the general promotion of class-conscious ideas. However, the film departs from Godardian techniques in several ways, most notably bypassing radical editing for a more fluid and narrative style. The previews for the film dictated a framework which deliberately ignored its strongly Marxist themes and portrayed it as a nonsensical slap-stick effort. When one looks beyond the film’s artificially formulated exterior to its core you find an attack on the capitalist structure that is at once disturbing and thoughtful.

Robert Klane wrote the bulk of the script over a summer but continued to tinker with it for the next 18 years, making sure everything was just as it should be. Klane no doubt used the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem, “The Hollow Men,” to assist his conception of Bernie. Its parallels are at once subtle yet obvious. Bernie is both physically and symbolically a “Shape without form, shade without color/Paralyzed force, gesture without motion.” Furthermore, Bernie echoes the speaker of Eliot’s poem in his Heideggerian anxiety in the face of death and his desire to cover it up with materialistic existence. “Let me be no nearer/In death’s dream kingdom/Let me also wear/Such deliberate disguises/Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves/In a field/Behaving as the wind behaves/No nearer,” seems to summarize Bernie. He disguises himself in expensive business suits, a house on the beach, sunglasses and a toupee in a fabricated world of materialism behaving as the capitalist mechanizations, no nearer. Between Bernie’s life and his existence falls the shadow of a world so unconscious of its own decay that it is not capable of deciphering the difference between life and death.