Saturday, 7 June 2014

'The Eyes of Laura Mars' - 7 Wonderful Overblown Films of the 70s, Part 2

This is the follow up post to my post on Lipstick, a fair while ago.  Got distracted in the writing up of this series.  There’s sposed to be 7 films in total I’m looking at (not reviewing, as I have no intention of being even handed, this is personal, I’m just telling you what works for me and why).  There’s a thing with films made in the 70s – risks were taken that aren’t now. Colours used.  And of course, attitudes vary enormously – the 70s is over 40 years ago now, it’s almost a world away already.  The films made then simply wouldn’t get made now, for many reasons.  And when they are remade…you can see the enormous differences between cultural attitudes then and now, whats permissible, what isn’t.

The idea of The Eyes of Laura Mars (a cult film of 1978 that you will love or hate) is that there’s a series of brutal murders going on. Laura Mars, a high end fashion photographer, has visions through the eyes of the killer – she can see what is happening in real time, but can’t stop it.  The detective in charge of the case, John Neville, first suspects her, but then realises she can’t be doing it, she’s clearly elsewhere.  Who is doing it?  Can they get to the killer before more murders?  Yes, you’ve heard of this plot before, it’s a nice oldie, with elements borrowed from around and about. 

One of the things that made the film talkworthy at the time (and now) is the issue of the glorification of violence, the glamourisation of it.  Not just toward women, but necessarily, moreso than men (as that is the cultural way of it – then AND now).  Laura Mars has an exhibition, at the start of the film, of her glamourised, almost Bond-ean images of murders – victims in fur coats and jewels; men smiling urbanely with smoking guns.  But these images are next to others less plastic and shiny, other murder scenes that the detective has noticed mirror almost exactly, real murder scenes.  He wants to question Laura Mars.  Meanwhile, she is being interviewed by the TV, desperate for a quote on her gory images.  Where do they come from in her?  (Her visions, but she can’t say that.)  She comes out with the classic response of film makers as to why she uses violence in a glamourised way –
LAURA: [I show] an account of the times in which I live.  I’ve seen murder…moral murder.  I can’t stop it, but I can show it, I can make people look at it.

REPORTER: Aren’t you desensitizing people to violence?

LAURA: I think I’m doing the exact opposite.

Whether you agree with the logic there or not, its one of the pegs the film is hung on.  Whether to show violence in art has any purpose or not. (I think it does – it can powerfully horrify and repulse you, leaving you with a sadness that it ever happens; but you have to be oh so careful, don’t you…or you end up showing lovely lovely violence, Argento’s ‘beauty of death’[1], specifically in females; with such a joy…that the message of the nastiness and finality of killing – gets lost, doesn’t it?  Or does it…?)

The film starts for me with a model shoot soundtracked by a song I could never get out of my head, ‘Lets All Chant’ by the Michael Zager Band.  When I first saw this film, not that long after it hit video, its sparkliness and glamour was much tied up in this song – shallow, catchy, loud and a bit confusing, meaningless.  The film has that feel: like its trying to say something very important (the violence message), but its confusing its own thinking (by loving the violence!), and its own genre feel (by the thriller becoming a horror becoming a bit of a doomed romance).  The more I watched it – as it fascinated my adolescent self enough to watch multiple times – the more I felt it did make sense, but emotionally, rather than narratively.  I’ll explain.

The film is sposed to be about Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) – what she sees, feels and experiences.  The increasing wreck of her life.  (But it isn’t, for me.)  In the early scenes, she’s wearing a white nightdress and mad bed hair – looking for the killer only she can see in her head, its our introduction to her visions: vulnerable at home, trying to work late at night, increasingly wearing a worried I-Could-Go-Insane-Any-Second face (bit distracting the way she looks just like Piper Laurie in Carrie, in these scenes).

At the exhibition, the detective, John Neville (the ever underrated Tommy Lee Jones) looks sadly and disgustedly at the pictures.  A naked dead oiled body, stood on by a dog.  He meets Laura without being aware it’s her.  He says: “It’s tragic.  This hype, this junk, passes for art these days.” 

He meets her again after the second murder she is connected to, one of her colleagues.  She claims to have seen it in her head.  He’s trying to understand that her ‘art’ is her trying to process the real horrors she sees in her mind. Meanwhile, there’s a funny scene going on outside, where some of the models are sitting in a row outside his office with other people, waiting to be seen.  “I feel like a hooker”, one of them says (fur coat, hugely lurid 70s makeup, massive lipgloss, huge hair, lingerie under coat – she looks like a cartoon hooker from a 70s copshow.  This film did amuse me with its playing with stereotypes and looks of things, what we read from what we see.  And that perennial argument of whether a model is a sort of hooker, how much muse and how much puppet…).

There’s some noteable supporting performances here: Brad Dourif plays  Laura Mars’s driver, the ex convict Tommy, and does a very credible 70s stereotype of a wild eyed, wild haired slight nutter, who carries a flick knife and has a crush on Laura.  He becomes one of the obvious suspects in the film.  As does her ex-husband, played by Raul Julia, looking wonderfully parasitic and cruel as a would-be novelist.  Rene Auberjonois does a masterfully funny right hand man performance: he suspects anyone, everyone, bitching about Tommy the driver, Neville, the detective – till he is killed off too.  Lisa Taylor and Darlanne Fleugel play two models who are the main other female characters - and they are wonderfully done, layered and interesting.  And killed.

But the performance to watch in this film, and the character the film is REALLY all about in my opinion, is Tommy Lee Jones, as Detective Neville.  He has a face of calm, relaxed blankness.  That blankness is vital.  He looks very gentle.  Sad luminous doggy eyes.  Moves confidently, but without macho swagger.  Everyone likes him.  Seems considerate.  There’s a softness to him despite his hard and no doubt disillusioning job as a murder detective.  When he first meets Laura in his office (as opposed to the botched meeting at the exhibition), she has a sadness to her; he has an alert penetrating edge.  He doesn’t laugh at her for saying she sees the murders in her head.  He seems concerned.  It causes her to show vulnerability; he is warm to her, he wants to help her. They have an instant and very well played chemistry, that’s told almost exclusively through their body language and eyes. 

She asks him why it all seems to be about her, about the people she knows, why her friends are being killed.  He suggests the killer could feel she’s “promoting porno and decadence and he’s on a mission to clean up the world”.  When he visits a shoot, you can see from the blankness on his face and behind his eyes that he’s drawing conclusions, judging, linking it to the violence he sees in his work.  His character is consistently the main instrument of the anti-violence argument the film plays with.  (Just to muddy the issue, this isn’t actually a horror film, more of a psychological thriller that’s scored and soundtracked like a horror.  Has all the 70s sawing horror violins, shock crescendos and palpitating chases.  Bit like the soundtrack to the first Friday the Thirteenth, later.) 

The scene where they confess vulnerability and romantic feeling to each other is on the one hand laughable, because it’s played so sentimentally; but its real honesty saves it from slushiness.  When Tommy Lee Jones’s face cracks into a smile, finally, as he trusts her, he looks so boyish and young, innocent.  Before he leaves her, he gives her a gun, and kissing her, reassures her, as she doesn’t want it – “If you have to use it, you’ll be doing the son of a bitch a favour”.

Can you see where all this is going?  In the midst of murder and terrible sadness, violence in the mind becoming art, becoming violence outwardly again, two lonely people find a connection for a short time.  Before the film cruelly takes it away (of course).  And confusingly, as you’ll see.

Just as they plan to go away together, the murders having been falsely pinned on Tommy, Laura is packing and sees another vision, very close by, her ex husband being killed.  She sees the killer coming for her door and runs to it, bolting it, just as someone starts banging.  She panics and screams, at which Detective Neville bursts in through the window behind her, showering glass everywhere.  Best scene in the film follows.  He comforts her, tries to convince  her there’s no one there, that Tommy did it all.  He starts to tell Tommy’s story to her.

He hated you.  He felt you were glorifying violence…that death shouldn’t be used to sell things.  Death is…a sacred thing.  His mother.  Tommy’s mother.  Hysterical woman, hooker.  She used to leave him, three or four days at a time, in a little one…in the same diaper…while she sold her ass up and down the streets of the nation’s capital.  It wasn’t very pretty.

She interrupts him, says this isn’t Tommy’s story, she knew Tommy well.

He carries on, ignoring her.

One day the father came home, I think it was the father…no, it was the father, and outraged about the condition of the child, he slashes her pretty throat for her.  I sat there and watched the blood dry on her face till it was just about the colour of your hair.

She sees what he’s said.  He abruptly changes facial expression.  That soft blankness solidifies, becomes harder.  He says:

I don’t know what you see in that son of a bitch.  He can’t even pay his light bill.  He can’t finish his dissertation, he’s been working on it three years.  See this body?  That’s my work.  If it was up to him we’d weigh ninety-eight pounds.  I’m the one who feeds him.  I’m the one who takes care of him.  I’m the one who pays the bills…I’m the one you want.

As he says that last, his eyes swivel to face her, his hand held up to the side of his face, a very feminine gesture.  It occurs to you watching, then, that the side of him you’ve been enjoying throughout the film is very soft and feminine, gentle and kind, despite the horrifying job – he manages to be a sort of manly that doesn’t preclude kindness, consideration and concern.  Despite the model of mothering he’s had.  The killer side of him is nothing but hardness and judgement, vengeance: a very whittled down idea of what a man is.  Yet the gesture the killer side of him makes, that so feminine face cupping gesture ‘I’m the one who looks after him’ – the killer side is his mother, his nurturing side?  It’s a wonderfully ambiguous thing Tommy Lee Jones does here.

He comes at her with a screwdriver, to get rid of this woman peddling the joys of violence, but he pauses, and she throws herself at him, hysterically, telling him she loves him.  He pushes her away.  They have been before one of those floor to ceiling bedroom mirrors, fitted to the walls.  He sees himself where she had been.  The look on his face then is so perfectly acted: such depths of sad, resigned self loathing (it’s actually a perfect pictorial representation of how I feel on a real downer). The kind side of himself and the killer side see each other and watch themselves. He looks ready to cry, mouth broken.  He stabs the mirror, his eyes look deadened.  His body stays motionless.  There’s a lovely shot of him before the mirror: one image of him whole and steady, but horrified; another with no head, just the fractured glass radiating out.  It’s a heavy handed psychological image, but it’s perfectly apt. 

He slowly turns to her and says: “If you love me, kill him.  Now.  Please.  Please.” He mouths ‘I love you’ several times, all the time taking the gun and putting it into her hands and holding her hands to his stomach.  She shoots.  He dies.  She calls the police.  She says: “He came here to kill me.  But he couldn’t do it.  Because he really did love me.”  Film ends.

Now. That is one of the most messed up scenes emotionally, in the messed up films I spent much time watching in the formative years of my teenage time.  And yet it truly spoke to me, its weird contradictions really made me think.  This is what it said to me, this film:

She started seeing visions of his murders.  The murders she was illustrating in the exhibition which the film opened with were his.  He has started – for whatever reason – reacting to his work as a murder detective, with judgement.  He had started to kill those he felt were in the wrong: bad hookers.  Violent fathers.  People profiting from the fragility of others.  The list was long, it could have been endless, once you stand in judgement where can it end? 

But the thing is, the visions she started to get weren’t of any murders; they were of the murders he started to commit – so she had a link to him, right from before he met her.  She made the violence he was re-enacting from his past and channelling through to her unknowingly, into art.  It was the only way she could process it.  He hated that.  Started killing people she knew as punishment, a clean up, for her glamourisation of death, the belittling of it.  But his softer side, finds love and trust with her, a way of healing his awful past.  (How much does his killer side know of her, of how much she sees of his killings?  The framing of Tommy for his own murders – did the killer side do that, or did the softer side do that, unknowing?)  When his bad side comes to kill her, the softer side won’t let him.

But then she kills him; so both his sides are gone.  And now she has had to kill, whereas before she has only witnessed violence.  And so the cycle of violence perpetuates despite love.  Or was that, that love ended the violence…albeit with more violence?  And: it didn’t affect the outside world at all.  That will carry on, all the violence there.  Hmmmmmmm.

This film confuses its own message.  Some critics said it didn’t really have one; it was playing with the idea of criticising filmic violence, using it as a glossy excuse to show more of the same.  You could certainly look at it that way.  You could say it was very clever and unsettling that the main anti-violence mouthpiece throughout the film turned out to be the killer; himself broken by early exposure to violence, warped.

You could also think that it makes more sense when you look at it as simply a love story within a very violent set of circumstances.  Where love did indeed triumph over violence in one personal story; but that that love had to make the hardest choice, and not get a happy ending.  A very damaged person was able to see their own damage, but were not strong enough to be healed without help; in fact they didn’t survive at all – but they did not do any more damage.

Did the narrative of this film choose a violent end because it was simply more dramatic?  Probably.  A happy ending would have felt like a cop out after the powerhouse performance of Tommy Lee Jones and both his personalities.  An anti-climax.  A ending that justified and held consistent the stance the film took on violence, would have been the dramatically unsatisfying one where he was taken away to a psychiatric hospital for some severe and longterm therapy, and Laura would have helped him, lovingly.  She too, would no longer have been seeing the visions that prompted her to turn violence into art; so no more glorification of violence that could be misread by unstable people.  Instead, we have the dramatically satisfying, definitely, but emotionally confusing end of him having to die by violence to end the violence he was perpetuating, because of the violence done to him emotionally, as a child.

You know…it sounds like it makes sense, but its like one of those time travel films where you’re ok when you’re watching, but after, you leave, and all the little paradoxes are nagging away at you.  Its perfectly ok for a film to be ambiguous and have as many paradoxes as it wants – but the highly polished and glamourised look of the whole film, when complaining about highly glamoursied violence in film and art makes it feel hypocritical; instead of the other interpretation where you can say – ‘well, what chance do any of us have, when these images come at us all the time?’

The reason I laid out that last scene for you in such nauseating detail was that whilst it probably reads trite as anything, or cliché – when I first saw it, it was the first film to do that kind of utterly confusing turnaround on a main characters self, that I had seen.  I was really shocked and saddened by it.  The bald way the killer side of himself narrates his childhood and mother’s murder by his father, you do believe him, you don’t imagine it’s some unreliable fantasy.  You feel a vulnerable child would have no choice but to compartmentalise in an extreme fashion in order to survive.  You can see how that boyish grin came out in the scene where he and Laura confessed love – you imagine it might be the first time he’s smiled that way.  You can see how the killer side would have been threatened by the hold Laura was starting to get over him through their love; its not she that should be protecting and nurturing the boy Neville, but him, the killer side, who has done it all along. 

The sadness that comes with this sort of love is well shown.  Obviously, over dramatised, utterly overdramatised, but the idea of loving someone with terrible baggage and not being able to save them except by leaving in some way, or making them leave…that was what made sense to me here, the giving up, the not getting what you want and need.  The film’s arguments about violence are going to remain provocatively ambiguous forever – watch it and see which side you come down on – but the love story bit does make perfect sad sense, in a weird kind of way.

I love this overblown film, for all its shallow moralising and its confusing flaws.  And for being one of the best mid period Tommy Lee Jones performances there is.  Low key, but gobsmackingly good, a study in minimal.

[1] The whole issue of Dario Argento – a director who’s horrors as you will know by now, I unapologetically LOVE, and do not see as misogynistic, despite violent and brutal scenes of female death.  There’s lots to be said on the subject of the way women are killed in horrors and thrillers, compared to the men.  Maybe I’ll post on it in future.  In the meantime – if that subject has you full of mixed feelings and you’re interested in it, try this short blog post as a starter for thinking:
And if that whetted your appetite, I would thoroughly recommend this woman’s thesis on Argento and his female violence – she’s a film student and analyses his most famous works from several angles, all interesting, whether you agree or not.  She’s a feminist too.  Many feminist identifying females like Argento’s work – and I don’t think this is just paradox, or a secret wish for …punishment or something – I think its because we see more in the films than just violence, beautifully oh so beautifully shot, lit and soundtracked.  It’s because there IS more there.  See what you think of Nia Edwards-Behi’s work:;jsessionid=BDBF6BB217A097629E815A448B1B260B?sequence=1

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