Reviews

Murder à la Mod / The Moving Finger (1986)

Brian Holcomb

While not perfect by any means, Murder A La Mod should be essential viewing for fans of Brian De Palma's work.


Murder à la Mod / The Moving Finger

Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Margo Norton, Andra Akers, Jared Martin, William Finley, Ken Burrows
Distributor: Aries Documentaries
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Brian De Palma
First date: 1986
US DVD Release Date: 2006-09-12

Timed perfectly to coincide with the publicity surrounding the release of The Black Dahlia, Something Weird video has released Brian De Palma's rarely screened 1968 New York underground film Murder A La Mod to DVD. While not among the director's greatest works, the movie is perhaps best viewed as a kind of primer to his complex and unique approach to filmmaking. An approach he would refine over the years into a more commercial style without sacrificing the avant garde concerns of his early work. Murder A La Mod is clearly compromised by the strains of it's low budget, but it is still filled with enough suspense, shock, offbeat humor and visual experimentation to fill several films.

Ostensibly the tale of a porn film director (Jared Martin) who is having an affair with someone named "Karen" and needs money in order to divorce his wife, the film doesn't unfold in an A-B-C fashion. Rather, it tells its story through the multi-media veils of screen tests, Photo-biographies, Radio Soap operas, and it utilizes an anthology of cinematic forms such as silent film-styled fast motion, a pair of Psycho-inspired murder sequences, and even a Roger Corman-like Edgar Allan Poe resurrection. The viewer is never asked to "believe" in anything past the surface reality of the image projected on the screen. Since time and space can be broken by the filmmaker at will, the narrative is designed as a kind of Mobius strip in which time continually doubles back onto itself in a manner similar to Stanley Kubrick's race track robbery in The Killing. Time doubles back to start again from a different character's point of view, each time revealing something that changes the context of what we have just witnessed.

In his first solo feature film, De Palma discovered a cinematic intersection where Jean-Luc Godard, Tex Avary, and Buster Keaton could meet. Keaton, in particular, often mined the humor within these "shock effects". In Sherlock, Jr., for example, the cinematic fourth wall is continually broken to reveal the gears turning within. He magically crosses the threshold of a movie screen and into the movie itself, discovering something actors have always known, that he is at the mercy of the director who can reconstruct his world at will.

Daffy Duck also realizes that he is not exactly the master of his own destiny in the very influential Chuck Jones short Duck Amuck, where Bugs Bunny is revealed to be the anarchic animator who can transform Daffy's world, his body, and situation to his cruel and mischievous delight. This is clearly the director-as-God concept laid bare as everything that appears onscreen is revealed to be nothing more than a trick.

De Palma updates these shock effects through the juxtaposition of intentionally unfunny slapstick with intentionally hilarious gory violence to also demonstrate the ease with which film can be manipulated and can manipulate. These techniques would be developed into the sly, mischievous wit that accompanies the classic scenes in his later, more infamous, films: Sissy Spacek's bloody arm emerging from the grave in Carrie, John Cassevetes exploding over and over again to the point of hysteria in The Fury, Nancy Allen's throat slashing at the end of Dressed to Kill, and of course, Tony Montana facing his enemies at the end of Scarface, challenging them to take him down as bullet after bullet penetrates his body . All are scenes that play on the very plastic reality of film and the ways in which it can be rearranged for effect.

While not perfect by any means, Murder A La Mod should be essential viewing for fans of the director. Besides the fun cinematics, there is a hilarious pop song over the opening credits written and most likely performed by cult actor William Finley, who also made his film debut here.

The extras included on the DVD are an excerpt from the never- before-released nudie pic, An Eye for the Girls and a second feature, The Moving Finger, written and directed by Larry Moyer. A low budget film set in Greenwich village involving a beatnik criminal who survives a heist gone awry, this was seemingly included because it acts as a time capsule of the same location and period as the De Palma film. Although Lionel Stander has some good moments in The Moving Finger, the movie just tries too hard to catch the vibe of the beat era. As such, it doesn't hold a candle to the Roger Corman/Charles B. Griffith classic, A Bucket of Blood which, with it's satirical approach to horror, it's crazy performances and black comedy script, would make the perfect companion feature to Murder a'La Mod.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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