Posted by woodjb on May 1, 2010
Filmmaker bathed in film within the film: Jared Martin in Murder a la Mod.
Usually when one dips into the earliest works of a well-known director, one can only hope to find mere traces of the filmmaker’s gestating style. In the case of Brian De Palma’s Murder a la Mod (1967), the opposite is true. The micro-budget 1967 film is nothing but style, an agglomeration of the images, themes, and techniques that would characterize his most influential work, compressed into an almost impenetrable mass. Think of it as a cinematic bouillon cube. Dissolved and blended into a narrative, it could provide body and flavor. But in its dense, undiluted form, it is almost unpalatable.
As you may have gathered, Murder a la Mod is not for everyone. What is frustrating to one viewer is sublime to another, and Murder a la Mod is best appreciated by the ultra-cineaste who is willing to forsake conventional entertainment and find sufficient satisfaction in a film’s construction (just as an atheist can admire the architecture of a church).
The skeletal story involves an actress/model, Karen (Margo Norton), who is in a relationship with cash-strapped photographer Chris (Jared Martin). To earn money he is forced to d.p. a nudie movie for a shady producer (Ken Burrows), working with a raving lunatic of a director: Otto (William Finley). While visiting the building in which the film is being shot, Karen is murdered with an ice pick.
Then, the plot splinters — Rashomon-style — into pieces. After witnessing the events from Karen’s perspective, we see it all again from the point-of-view of her friend Tracy (Andra Akers), then the crazed Otto, and finally the beleaguered Chris. As one might expect, each perspective contributes new information to the jigsaw plot and contradicts other assumptions the viewer has been led to make. This, in itself, would make for a dense 80-minute film, but the fragmented plot is only the tip of the stylistic iceberg.
Chris (Jared Martin) gives Karen (Margo Norton) a lesson in filmmaking — sans camera.
Throughout his career, De Palma often foregrounded the filmmaking process – in Greetings (1968), Hi, Mom! (1970), Home Movies (1980), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984), and Redacted (2007) — but never was it allowed to so entirely consume the film itself. Intrusive techniques (discontinuous editing, fast motion, slow motion, shifts in photographic quality, camera noise, freeze frames, wipes, titles, camera flash) are used to disengage the audience from the core narrative. Since it’s almost impossible to lose one’s self in the story, one can only observe Murder a la Mod with a clinical cinematic eye, trying to diagnose and dissect the film at the same time as it quickly unspools. After three viewings, I’m still finding pieces of puzzle on the carpet and fitting them into place.
To some, this is simply a shot of a drain. But De Palma fans know otherwise.
There are plenty of simple homages to influential films — Psycho, The Birds, Peeping Tom — but Murder a la Mod runs much deeper than the typical post-modern rehash. Its multiple layers encourage the viewer to question where they stand in the whole filmmaking/filmwatching equation.
Early in the film are a series of screen tests in which nervous actresses (including a young Jennifer Salt) are being coached to disrobe for the camera. It is worth noting that we see them through the viewfinder — that is, as they are being filmed, which makes us a participant, not a mere observer of the finished product. To the modern viewer (as it would have been to the grindhouse/arthouse viewer of 1967), the conflict is: “will she or won’t she?” Later in the film, Chris contemptuously describes the work of producer Wiley (get this: played by Murder a la Mod producer Ken Burrows), “Dirty movies, exploitation films, nudies, where a fella doesn’t take his girl but watches alone. He watches girls on the screen do everything in the world he always wanted to make them do but never dared. There he can be a pervert, a dirty old man, a sex maniac, and when the lights come back on, he sneaks out of the theatre. He’s just another fella taking in a movie. And in this film, Art Model, the audience is glued to the seat by one simple expectation: when is she gonna take it off?”
Jennifer Salt as one of the auditioning “birds” who may or may not “take it off.”
De Palma is at once commenting upon the exploitation genre, but clearly incriminating himself within it. During the above monologue, we see footage of Art Model being made, and the slate moves in, with the names Harrell, De Palma, and Burrows written upon it (Murder‘s cameraman, writer/director, and producer). An enigmatic fourth name appears, Swan. It seems to have no relevance here, but would later be given to the demonic figure in De Palma’s 1974 film Phantom of the Paradise.
Undeniably (but unapologetically?) exploitative: the ice pick murder.
With the intense self-reflexiveness, subtle and overt homages, and challenging narrative structure, it’s no surprise that Murder a la Mod didn’t win an audience. It was too arty for the exploitation crowd. With its graphic violence and fascination with pornography, it was too exploitive for the nouvelle vague fans. According to Tim Lucas in Sight and Sound, Murder a la Mod, “seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth after playing at a single New York City theatre.” It would have gone on being dismissed as an inconsequential early work until four years ago, when the film got a belated DVD release by Something Weird Video.
The stylistic predecessor of Carrie: the vengeful reanimated corpse of Karen at the climax of Murder a la Mod.
Eventually, De Palma diluted the density of his film obsessions — applied the homages and high style sparingly to more conventional narratives — and found a greater audience. Traces, sometimes slabs, of Murder a la Mod appear in his better films of the ’70s: Hi, Mom!, Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise and Carrie. One could argue that, for the past two decades, De Palma’s bouillon has been diluted a bit too much, so that only a soupcon of the idealistic, fearless young cineaste remains in his films.
For anyone wanting to witness the opposite extreme, Murder a la Mod is highly recommended.
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