Film

Short Cuts - Forgotten Gems: Ordinary People (1980)

You may be asking, how does the winner of the 1981 Oscar for Best Picture warrant classification as a Forgotten Gem? The answer is quite simple. When you've beaten both Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull and David Lynch's Elephant Man for the accolade, you are destined to be diminished in the eyes of many angry film fans. Indeed, along with Dances with Wolves, American Beauty and Shakespeare in Love, Ordinary People regularly gets ridiculed as being one of the worst Academy Award winners of all time. It's a title not borne out of reality – this fragile family drama is certainly a motion picture masterpiece – it's just that, when placed up against an American maestro and a mainstream curio from one of our most gifted, idiosyncratic directors, being great is just not enough.

There was minor controversy surrounding the film when it first opened, almost all of it centering on America's sitcom sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore, being cast as the cold hearted, manipulative matriarch of the Jarrett household, Beth. Not known for playing characters that were distant, angry, bitter and inaccessible, audiences weren't expecting much from her performance. And indeed, initial reviews were less than supportive of Moore's attempt to break out of her goody two shoes stereotype. But thanks to the brilliant work of Donald Sutherland (who deserved an Oscar, though his competition – Robert DeNiro and his career defining turn as Jake LaMotta in Bull – made that all but impossible) and impressive debut of Jim Hutton's son Timothy, Moore easily melded into the ensemble, eventually shining as a parent whose put all her emotion and love into her personal pride and joy – a now dead son named Buck.

For anyone living in the Midwest, especially in the Chicago suburbs where People is set, first time director Robert Redford gets all the white picket fence and wholesome details just right. The characters all live in dollhouse like mansions, rooms furnished in tactful, traditional styles. Dressed in plain sweaters and simple accessories, the dynamic is lifted almost directly from an episode of Leave it to Beaver – albeit, a very special installment of same. Within this backward bastion of wealth and security, Redford explores the chaotic underpinnings of Judith Guest's amazing novel, showing how even the most seemingly functional clan can come apart over something as simple as death, guilt and forgiveness. Two decades ago, relatives didn't discuss or disclose their interpersonal problems. People was one of the first films to explore the notion of familial disintegration within the closed context of an isolated, insular tragedy.

In the storyline, which deals with youngest son Conrad's suicide attempt, hospitalization, and after care therapy, the Jarret's attempt to reconfigure their life. But the two way street of devotion between Beth and Buck was such a major force in the household that its absence leaves an unavoidable deficiency. Sadly, it’s a chasm that no one can replenish. But instead of trying to make a new approach work, Mother turns on her troubled son, husband feels resentment toward the angry spouse, and all the boy can see is blame. One of the most moving moments in the entire film comes when Conrad, under the care of Judd Hirsch's genial Dr. Tyrone Berger, confronts his lingering remorse. Burdened with taking both the death of his brother and the fragmenting of his family to heart, it's a moment of catharsis that few films even attempt to achieve, let alone realize. Hutton's performance at this point is so powerful, so overloaded with passion and purity that we can't help but exhale and exalt right along with him.

Yet this revelation does not suture the scar in the Jarret household. Perhaps no other actress could convey the sense of normalcy knocked asunder as Moore does. Her Beth is not a bitch - she's a cheerleader that's lost her champion, a doting, devoted parent who didn't plan on being stripped of the sole focus of her adult joy. Buck, seen in a couple of telling flashbacks, is a shining star, an obvious athletic BMOC who entertains his mother with extracurricular exploits that no normal kid would be allowed to discuss. But since he is the first born, the golden boy, he's pardoned. Even when the truth of the sailing accident is revealed, and her hero is shown as mortal, more bluster than bravery, Beth cannot except it. During her final scene, Moore manages one of those rare acting moments that rocket right to the heart of her character's problem. Allowing herself to slip, just momentarily, Beth unleashes a strangled sob so devastating, we're glad she manages to pull it back in. Otherwise, the fallout could be lethal.

Told in a fashion that keeps all its divergent elements alive and important, Redford routinely discovers facts of the narrative that keep his insights up front and fresh. Conrad's attempts to connect with friends – from the hospital (a mentally melting Dinah Manoff) and from school (an endearing Elizabeth McGovern) come back to play important parts in his journey, and a holiday visit with family finds Beth and her husband slowly breaking apart. This is not a splashy, stylistic turn behind the camera. Redford even keeps the film's fatal flashback in a tight, telling two shot. One could easily envision Buck's death as a major action sequence, especially in our CGI oriented idea of how such a spectacle is realized. But Redford realizes that it’s the individuals, not the event, that's the most important. He devises a way of capturing the horror, and the humanity, concurrently.

In one of those unlucky happenstances that seem to befall certain films, Raging Bull didn't get the accolade acknowledgement it deserved, and film fans pretend that People should be passed over for better early '80s efforts. Sadly, such thinking is incredibly narrow-minded. Scorcese's ethical biopic may be the better artistic statement, but there is just as much beauty and grace in Ordinary People. Even a quarter century later, it's power remains right on the surface, easily tapped into by even the most jaded cinephile. Usually, a domestic drama about dysfunctional relatives looses its edge after years, what with other efforts commenting on and challenging it. But this staggering statement of a nuclear family's final freefall still holds up in all its painful, irreproachable sadness. Maybe it didn't deserve the Oscar, but no one should forget what a fine, formidable film this really is.

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.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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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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