Thursday, December 9, 2010

The R.I.P. Train (#2) Irvin Kershner's EYES OF LAURA MARS

(It should be of slight interest that, somewhat unintentionally, I've managed not only this week to see two Faye Dunaway movies by way of Puzzle of a Downfall Child earlier this week and this one by way of the R.I.P. train, in each she plays a fashion model and fashion photographer respectively, almost maturing into one role from the other- though the former performance is far greater in a scope of artistic integrity the latter- and with the 1970's mood and style changing around her as well.  But I digress, on to the movie itself).

Looks closer...
The plot of Eyes of Laura Mars could have made a cracking good thriller- nay perhaps a masterpiece- for a director like Dario Argento, or especially Brian De Palma, who at this same period had two other whacked-out-entertaining psychic thrillers with Carrie and The Fury.   However the credit (or for some might be blame) for this project comes from John Carpenter, who sold his spec script most likely as a way to get funding for Halloween.  And indeed one could note that when it comes time for the killing scenes they're staged (or if nothing else probably written) the same as the opening killing scene in Halloween.  This isn't to really note if the killing scenes are particularly great, or if they're bad.  They're shot with a high level of competency, maybe close to tastefulness compared to a blood-hound like Argento, all from a first-person POV.  They are some of the highlights of the movie though, if that's squarely your thing.

But I've gotten ahead of myself, what about the plot?  A fashion photographer (Dunaway) of the film's title is one of those oppressively "hyped" photo-Goddesses who make photos staged like ridiculous horror stills unto themselves where models are being killed off and sometimes men as well.  They're a big hit (Andy Warhol, sadly, wasn't available for comment on screen), though they don't quite impress some of the press, nor a police detective played by Tommy Lee Jones who uses terms like "hype" and "rip-off" for the style of the photos.  And yet we learn quickly that this style is more than personal for Laura; it's as if the vision of the shot comes totally into focus in a flash.  And, suddenly one night, it's more than a flash: she sees with an unknown and untapped psychic energy the killings happen with her own eyes as the killer him/herself sees them in real-time!  Spooky.  And hard to write out in a statement for the police.

Soon she's given bodyguard detail, in some large part from Jones himself, and there are a couple of suspects in the midst: Raul Julia as Laura's drunk louse of an ex-husband who sneaks up like a coiled snake in the night in her apartment and begs her to take him back, or the driver/sorta-bodyguard played by Brad Douriff, who has a thick beard, thick NYC accent and a kinda thick rap-sheet, but he swears, Miss Mars, he's clean now, he's all good (OR IS HE?!)  The guessing game of a whodunit is not quite as fascinating for Carpenter and his co-writer as it is about the nature of this unwanted talent of Laura's.  They take it on, or Kershner by proxy of being the director of the thing, the aspect of the photograph and the vision of things as a heavy-duty aspect.

A gaze can be a very powerful thing.  Hitchcock was notorious for it (no pun intended), and many horror films take on a first-person point of view during a killing scene to heighten that tension (mentioning De Palma again, think back to the opening scene/shots of Blow Out for a spot-on satire of such a slasher-style POV).  But it's significant that a fashion photographer gets these visions, and then can't get them out of her head as she tries to go back to work.  How does she have this psychic connection?  Who is it with?  It has to be someone she knows, right, or is it a total stranger?  The hows only come to play later, which I'll get to in a moment, but what I was absorbed by was the suspense ratcheted up from this captivating, truly cinematic premise.  At one point Laura has to try and explain what this 'seeing' is like, and has a camcorder (late 70's style, oh yeah), and points it in a room for Tommy Lee Jones to see, and he realizes it: hey, that's me, and that's the following technique.  Not entirely too all-self-knowing meta, but not disregarding the aspect of watching, taking it in, being voyeurs.  That the killings are all eye-shots is an irony not lost on any of us.

For Laura, this is a double-edged sword; I wonder what will happen to her after the story of the film ends and the visions possibly stop with (spoiler) the end of the killer (I make such a minute detail of the 'spoiler' here as, really, I'm not revealing who the killer is, but you can bet your panties that in these movies, a killer always gets his killing right back at him/her).  That's a question that the filmmakers don't quite bother to answer.  Sadly in Kershner's quotes on IMDb he stated that he felt the film didn't have the same meaning as others he made since the producers were the ones mostly calling the shots (sad, though it's what you get with Jon "Spiders in Superman" Peters).  This might be fair on his end as it is, even compared to the rest of his body of work save for his glaring masterpiece of an exception, pretty conventional studio fare, at least relatively to stuff going on at the time.

But there should be credit where it's due, either on the director's end of the screenwriter's, or maybe some of the actors like Jones and Douriff, conventions are given a little extra 'umph' by attention to the realism, in the face of the dark fantasy of psychic-visions-of-killings-of-eyes, and there's sometimes a good urgency and dramatic take on scenes, with Kershner's love of close-ups that fill up the frame, and Michael Kahn's cleverly instinctual editing.  It lacked the feverish style that De Palma or Argento would have heaped on the material, yet its charming (yes charming) in smaller scenes that bring out the humanity, both the bright (a birthday party for one of Laura's best colleagues and confidants) and the low (limo scenes with Douriff that get contentious). And when action and chases and suspense occur, save perhaps for part of the ending, it's always with an enjoyable professional attitude to staging, composition, timing in the cuts and the actors reactions to things.  It's a solid thriller that is mostly unpretentious, if as with many of these urban thrillers, a little unbelievable with the quick pairing of the leads romantically.

And that brings me to the ending.  I can't spoil it, mostly as I'd prefer not to, but I can note this much: half of the ending, in retrospect, is pretty fucking stupid.  To call it a twist might not be entirely correct, more like a reveal that shouldn't be of any surprise to Hitchcock-knock-offs out there.  It's mostly in the delivery of the actor and how rapidly something has changed in the actor that makes it kind of weird... and yet the very last minutes of the film, where the killer asks the poor victim Laura to do a favor with a gun, it reaches a tragic proportion, perhaps not unlike the very end of The Fly in an odd way.  Mercy killings aren't usually found in these thrillers- let's call it an American Giallo perhaps? - and it's refreshing to have a moment where there is humanity in the situation, an understanding of the grim nature of what life and death has been brought to.

For the late and much beloved Kershner, it's a, not least of which by himself, underrated little treat, and also a cool little thriller from Carpenter just as he was getting into the peak of his powers as a writer.  Nothing too spectacular, but I'm sure better than some bullshit like The Eye with Jessica Alba.  Oh, and one last thing, Dunaway is very good, though mostly manageable for what's required in the plot.  When it comes to the fashion world, her status as a model (Puzzle) as opposed to photographer (here) is preferred.  Except for this pose:

Strike a pose!

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