Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

Back at The Space again this evening for a screening of Eyes of Laura Mars, a 1978 thriller directed by Irvin Kirschner from a treatment by John Carpenter, and starring Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars, a successful New York photographer who finds herself mysteriously connected to a serial killer, whose murders she witneses psychically, as though viewing the slaughter through the killer’s own eyes. As her associates in the world of high-fashion begin to be picked off she enlists the help of Tommy Lee Jones’s sceptical police officer in a bid to identify the killer before the trail of bodies reaches its logical destination: Laura herself.

There’s no need to give any major plot points away, so spoilers won’t be involved in what follows, but it’s certainly an interesting Hollywood effort, despite the reputed mangling of Carpenter’s initial storyline that took place on the way from script to screen: without giving too much away, let’s just say that Carpenter’s version rested on a question of motive-free, terrifying randomness in the killer’s identity. The opening sequences and early sections are very stylised, and often feel like a kind of illustration of 1970s  theories of  the gaze in film and photography as formulated by writers as different as John Berger and Laura Mulvey.

Perhaps that’s not too surprising, though: artists of the so-called Pictures Generation (including Jack Goldstein, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince) worked frequently with these ideas, and much of the theory of the time drew heavily on examples of voyeurism, fetishisation and objectification in the films of Alfred Hitchcock for its most striking illustrative material. In Eyes of Laura Mars, it’s not only that the film refers often to similar material to that appropriated by Pictures Generation artists, but that the whole concept is very much a product of that 70s wave of Hitchcock hommages created by writers and directors steeped in Cahiers du Cinema and Hollywood history – Brian de Palma, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, William Friedkin and others.

Given a high-disco gloss, it’s also (at least early on) rich in symbolism, with mirrors, lenses, viewpoints and such relevant details as the fact that the killer stabs all his victims in the eye, or that Laura’s photography – for all the emphasis on the woman behind the camera – turns out to be influenced, if not entirely controlled, by her psychic connection to the male gaze of a serial killer: her compositions are shaped by her ability to directly enter into the perspective of this dangerous other. Much of the imagery in Laura’s fictional photography is inspired by the fetishistic fashion shots of Helmut Newton, and much else resembles the glossy ‘girls with guns’ and ‘naked women on motorcycles’ imagery that was already being appropriated by Richard Prince at this time.

It’s interesting as background to the world from which Anne Collier comes, then, but also very much a film that has furnished her with many of the images that recur in the Nottingham Contemporary exhibition, ranging from the double portrait of Faye Dunaway in character as the film’s ‘Woman With A Camera’ heroine to the key images of eyes (often Collier’s own) framed in photographs placed in developing trays, or, in one case, that looks out at us after being sliced in half on an office guillotine. As quickly becomes evident, Eyes of Laura Mars has been so important to Collier that whole sections of the 1978 film play out like oblique commentaries on her own images.

That’s partly about appropriation, but also a case of the film borrowing much from the traditions of art photography: the movie, like many of Collier’s works, has a tendency to refer to surrealist tropes, as works (or images in the film) seem to be looking back at us while we look at them, or as the image of the eye proves central to both the film and Collier. That neatly sliced photograph in Anne Collier’s ‘Guillotine’ – like the symbolism of the stabbed eyes of the killer’s victims in Eyes of Laura Mars – ultimately pays homage to the opening sequence of Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1926), a short film whose shockingly literal ‘opening’ of an eye was deployed to symbolise the destruction of habitual ways of seeing and jolt the film’s audience into a new kind of receptiveness to visual experience.

For Collier, it seems to be the play on these questions of looking and authorship that intrigues her, and keeps her coming back to this film – one that, it has to be said, loses its way towards the end, as the interesting opening premise gives way to more standard kinds of romance and melodrama. For all that, during much of the film – especially those parts showing Laura at work as a photographer, channeling a killer’s perspectives in her own photographs, or during sequences of psychic viewing in which Laura becomes a camera, able to record but not act within the violent actions she remotely sees – Eyes of Laura Mars offers a stylish primer on a whole range of still-current 1970s ideas about how photography and film are made, viewed and perceived.

There’s a clarity to all this symbolism, especially in the film’s more stylised and less constrained first half, that pulls against the grain of its more formulaic narrative, and when we do finally reach a slightly nonsensical conclusion (worthwhile, even so, for its striking moments of visual doubling, mirror symbolism and identity confusion) there are a whole range of plot-holes and inconsistencies to be overlooked (why does Laura only see through the killer’s eyes at select moments when his identification is impossible, for example?). But all this may well be a result of that early complexity, making the film’s bigger ideas impossible to wrap up neatly within the standard Hollywood blueprint demanded by the studio: judging by reports of Carpenter’s original script, at least some of this might have been avoided.

Then again, perhaps the confusions in the storyline work finally to the film’s advantage, reinforcing (as in Dario Argento’s baffling but indelibly memorable Suspiria) the sense of irrationality and strangeness that gives Laura Mars its peculiar and unique atmosphere. It also offers a soundtrack that switches between disco and blatant impersonations of  Psycho’s strings, an early scene in a gallery that looks more like a warehouse-scale Studio 54 than an art space and a decidedly un-regenerated New York backdrop as fascinating in itself as Hitchcock’s own lovingly grimy portrait of the old Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market in his deeply disturbing Frenzy (1972). It’s odd and entertaining, and holds the key to unlocking a few concealed layers in Collier’s own work, so for all those reasons the film made for for flawed but enlightening viewing.

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