Friday, June 24, 2011

EYES OF LAURA MARS 1978

There are some movies you fall in love with that seriously call your judgment, aesthetics, and sanity into question. These are films that fall outside of the easy-to-rationalize pleasures of camp, the beyond-criticism snobbery of cult, and the so-subjective-it doesn't-bear-discussion reverence of geek-culture franchises. These are the movies that appeal to you for reasons (in the words of Barbarella's Durand-Durand), "That are beyond all known philosophies."

"Eyes of Laura Mars" is such a film. A well-crafted, imaginative, suspense thriller whose flaws frequently loom so large that, over time, they start to take on the character of virtues.
Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars
Tommy Lee Jones as Det. John Neville
Rene Auberjonois as Donald Phelps: Laura's Manager
Brad Dourif as Tommy Ludlow: Laura's skeevy driver
Darlanne Fluegel as Lulu - a model
Real-life 70s supermodel Lisa Taylor as Michele - a 70s supermodel
Raul Julia as Michael Reisler: Laura's suspicious-acting ex-husband
"Eyes of Laura Mars" —you can tell the film is hip because, like a rock band that wants to be taken seriously, it dispenses with the article, "The" at the start — is a romantic thriller about a hotshot New York fashion photographer (Dunaway) whose titular eyes she shares with a serial killer. Not literally, like a Manhattan co-op, but psychically: at grievously inconvenient moments throughout her day, Laura Mars literally sees through the eyes of the killer. Targeting her friends and colleagues, the killer implicates the controversially provocative photographer by committing murders in ways that duplicate (inspire? Hmmm...) Laura's own death-fixated, violently erotic fashion layouts.

At its core, "Eyes of Laura Mars" may be just a another stylishly dressed-up pulp thriller, but BOY is it a pulp thriller that works!
The Eyes of Dunaway & Auberjonois
Movies built around a gimmick, even a clever one, can be problematic. Everything hinges on working the gimmick into the film as quickly and as frequently as possible, often at the expense of a coherent plot. "Eyes of Laura Mars" teeters on occasion with a screenplay committed to delivering the genre goods as honestly as possible (lots of red herrings, dark rooms, shock cuts, and people popping into frame out of nowhere), but with its tin ear for dialog, luckily it has the good sense not to take itself too seriously.
Faye Dunaway, in the first of many suitable-for-a-drag-queen roles that would soon derail her once-impressive film career, is actually rather good here and is given solid support by a compelling cast of New York actors.
Hunky Detective Tommy Lee Jones shows Dunaway the finer points of firearms while showing the audience a little beefcake.
However, the film's greatest asset is its setting. Not since "Blow Up" has the world of fashion photography been used to such irresistible effect. Inspired by a real-life hot-button social issue of the late 70s: the emergence of violent, sadomasochistic imagery in fashion and advertising (specifically the works of Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, & Rebecca Blake), "Eyes of Laura Mars" makes colorfully dramatic use of the mystique surrounding the fashion industry, creating a credible backdrop for its implausible, "I have an ocular/psychic bond with a serial killer!" gimmick.
  
Released three years before the debut of MTV, "Eyes of Laura Mars" can be credited or blamed with paving the way for the glut of  80s thrillers that endeavored to hide  narrative shortcomings behind an overabundance of visual panache. Many have tried, but few have been able to hit all the high notes that "Eyes of Laura Mars" does so effortlessly. At times loopy, obvious, and heavy-handed, there are still enough surprises to go around and it is never for one second, boring. In fact, it's really a lot of lurid fun.

"OK America, OK world... you are violent. You are pushing all this murder on us, so here it comes right back at you! And we'll use murder to sell deodorant...so that you'll just get bored with murder. Right?"
  
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
Not everything one loves about a film is actually up on the screen. Sometimes it's what we associate it with and what memories it evokes. Every time I watch this movie I think of the summer of 1978: the year I turned 21 and moved to Los Angeles on my own. One of my strongest first impressions of the city was the enormous "Eyes of Laura Mars"  billboard on the Sunset Strip. It was the same iconic Scavullo portrait of Dunaway used in the poster, but the staring eyes were illuminated and flashed on and off 24/7. It could be seen from blocks away and I was just thunderstruck by it. Seriously, it was like some 70's reimagining of "The Great Gatsby" with me as a bell-bottomed George Wilson mesmerized by the eyes of a female Dr. T.J. Eckleburg staring down from an advertisement.

  
PERFORMANCES:
It's not easy being a Faye Dunaway fan. When she's good she's peerless, but unless handled by a particularly watchful director, she's prone to giving overly mannered performances (one recalls Jan Hook's hilariously spot-on Dunaway impersonation on "SCTV"). Hot off of her Oscar win for "Network" and in the first role requiring her to truly carry a film, Dunaway falls somewhere in between here.
Laura Mars on falling in love: "I'm completely out of control!"
Words that would come back to haunt Ms. Dunaway three years later on the release of "Mommie Dearest."
My absolute favorite performance in the film is given by Darlanne Fluegel, portraying a sweetly ditzy model of the sort I once thought exclusively indigenous to Los Angeles. Hers is a disarmingly smart and funny performance keyed perfectly to the semi-satiric tone the film adopts for the modeling sequences. She is terrific.
Darlanne Fluegel - Pretty in Pink


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Were this thriller comprised solely of fashion shoot sequences and behind-the-scenes footage of Laura Mars at work (in some of the most flamboyantly impractical outfits ever), it would be enough.
Casual Fridays for Laura Mars
Each scene plays out like a little mini-film: kinetic, witty, and bubbling over with an unerringly precise sense of time and place. Unlike laughable sequences in movies like Valley of the Dolls that try to make modeling look glamorous and desirable, "Eyes of Laura Mars" is not afraid to mine the absurdity.
The elaborate/outrageous photo shoot sequences that are the film's centerpieces pose provocative questions about violent sexual imagery in advertising that "Eyes of Laura Mars" never satisfactorily address.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
As a time capsule vision of late 70s chic, "Eyes of Laura Mars" is perfection (although the once-daring photos at the center of the plot look almost quaint by today's standards), which only adds to my overall enjoyment of a film that, for all its faults, continues to fascinate and entertain me through repeated viewings. Still, given the relative kinky cleverness of the premise, I might wish that the film's potential was better realized in the script. I don't usually need everything spelled out for me, but it does nag at one to have interesting ideas introduced and never expanded upon. For example, I'm not sure it's ever explained why/how Laura came to share the killer's "eyes" and what, if anything, it all signified in relation to her photographs. Also, as the film progresses, Laura's attitude towards violence seems to undergo a change and she becomes more squeamish about the glamorized bloodletting she had once defended. Does this mean that her earlier "moral" defense of her work has altered as well?

In the end, perhaps these kind of questions don't ultimately matter in a film so preoccupied with visual style.
What I do know is that "Eyes of Laura Mars" has been one of my favorite films for the last 33 years.
A statement I proudly make without benefit of excuses, apologies, or rose-colored glasses...just with my eyes wide open.

8 comments:

  1. ah, you keep picking movies that found me last year!! live action helmut newton was why i picked it up - but along the way i fell in love with the sumptuous sets (my favorite being her bedroom with those lamps on either side of the bed), the fashion, and the music (when she's shooting out on the street). it is indeed a movie for the senses, less for existential reflection (like the last two movies you reviewed). (gosh, i'm using a lot of parentheses today). the casting was fantastic - i especially loved brad douriff in a rare, non-tragic or terribly disturbing role (sometimes i think he is our american malcolm mcdowell).

    i love your description of the blinking eyes of the advertisement! i wish i could've seen that!!!!!

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  2. Hi Kathrynnova

    doesn't surprise me that you would appreciate this movie for its style. It has it in spades.
    I agree with you about Brad Dourif. Not sure when his career took a turn for the offbeat and disturbing (like Isabelle Huppert) but I like seeing him in a more or less "normal" role. Thanks for reading!

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  3. I hadn't seen "Eyes Of Laura Mars" for years, until just this afternoon. It came out when I was a Photographic Arts student in Toronto, and I was already trying to see what I could do with sort of a Helmut Newton/Rene Magritte style of portraiture. The best I could do with posing someone in a fiery car was one already burned out, but I did manage a flaming newspaper being read on a park bench.

    Several things came to mind while watching the film again. Okay, the biggest laugh in the theatre back in '78 was when Rene Auberjonois did his Lloyd Bridges. But as for all those killings, one after another, I wondered today how Laura (a Laura Mars in the real world) could keep going; how it was that she didn't just throw herself under a bus.

    A couple of things I'd forgotten. I'd completely forgotten that impressive chase scene with Tommy and the cops. Very nicely done.

    And I'd also forgotten how GREAT that final scene is with Neville coming clean before Laura, finally telling her "I'm the one you want." For me, that's another praiseworthy instance of a line being written and delivered and filmed...perfectly. It's soooo good I had to immediately watch it again. Best scene that Jones and Dunaway had, not to mention the best part of the whole movie.

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  4. That flaming newspaper photo sounds pretty cool. I too remember the huge laugh that Lloyd Bridges "silent" impersonation got. So on the money.
    The point you make wondering how Laura is able to function after the deaths of so many of her friends in rapid succession is very apt when it comes to the thriller genre. Probably one of my pet peeves with thrillers is that in order to keep the thrills coming, the body count has to be high.unfortunately, in order to keep the plot moving, they rarely have the characters react to the deaths of loved ones with the same overriding grief that happens in real life. Did you ever see the film "In the Bedroom"? I'd love to see a suspense thriller with THAT level of post-death suffering integrated into the plot.
    Thanks for bringing up the final scene. I think Tommy Lee Jones is great in that too. So chilling!

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    1. Yes indeed, I have seen "In The Bedroom." Liked it so much, I bought it for a dear friend as a present. Speaking of wanting to watch a certain scene again, as soon as the movie ended, I went right back to that clash between the slain boy's parents (their names escape me).

      Talk about a one-on-one confrontation...I had NEVER seen filmed emotions so raw. My brother and his wife had recently lost their older daughter to cancer, and my mum and I (we watched the movie together) wondered how closely they compared to the on-screen couple in their grieving. Helluva movie!

      Excellent point about when deaths mostly just keep the story going. I thought Michael in the elevator near the end was fairly gratuitous. But then, who else was there left? I was actually kind of annoyed when these dynamic photo shoots kept being interrupted by Laura's visions. 'Tsk! Not again?!'

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  5. You seem to share my fondness for searing, one-on-one verbal clashes between characters. You have to tell me if you've ever seen Mike Nichols' "Closer" or "Carnal Knowledge". I don't know what it is about two people just letting go with a kind of brutal honesty rare in real life, but if these scenes are written and played well, they are more thrilling than a car chase or gun battle.

    Had to laugh at your being annoyed at having Laura's dazzling photo shoots interrupted by her visions. The "Not again!" is priceless!

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  6. Nope, I haven't seen either of the Nichols films you mentioned. Just reading the title "Carnal Knowledge" instantly reminds me of Edith Bunker having taken Archie to see it in the mistaken belief it was a religious film titled "Cardinal Knowledge."

    But yeah, I do enjoy a good slanging match. Not so much in real life; they leave me very unsettled. What was so striking about that scene from "In The Bedroom" was the surgical precision each character used against the other. It wasn't a shouting match as such. It was the most intimate of character assassinations.

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  7. Enjoyable film...and captured the late 70s fashion zeitgeist perfectly. I remember Barbra Streisand sings the movie's love theme "Prisoner" -- I think it's on her Greatest Hits Vol 2 album.

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