Sunday, June 10, 2007

films about photographers - The Eyes of Laura Mars

Ostensibly a low-budget policier, a search for a serial killer in a sordid city, The Eyes of Laura Mars, also uses the supernatural in the plotting of the story: Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway), a famous fashion photographer, can envision the murders as they are happening, in fact it is the people with whom she works - her gallerist, a model, her agent - who are being murdered. The agent in fact is dressed as Laura, when he is killed, which indicates that the murders are all a path to the true object of the murderer's desires, Laura. Laura goes to the police and with the assistance of the detective John Neville (Tommy Lee Jones) an investigation is begun.

What interests me about the film has very little to do with the plotting, which is fairly intricate, and which has reversals in terms of the viewer's understanding of the characters. There are also inconsistencies in the plot. Does this diminish the quality of the film? I would suggest it adds to a fable-like atmosphere of the film, giving it a more magical aspect, outside of a linear narrative. Laura can see through the eyes of the killer but she does not realize the killer is the detective who seems almost randomly to be assigned to her case. Laura states that her visions began a few years back & that that is how she began to create the fashion tableaux which have made her notorious with their narrative morbidity - allusions to crime and death. This would indicate that the "psycho killer" & she are linked inexorably. Laura functions as a Medium: these are all visions which transpose over the everyday & to which she gives utterance. Laura further embodies a diabolism by being a photographer, an artist, a success. Laura's directorial bravura with a phallic camera, her tableaux of violence and sexuality, are what taint her and mark her to be "punished" by the killer, who, it turns out, loves her as well. If Laura were strictly channeling her visions, in a sense she would have no culpability; but as an artist, someone who interprets her second sight, and gives it form, she attains a level of power which becomes a threat.

The film opens with a gala opening in a gallery in Soho for Laura. The images used for the exhibit were by Helmut Newton. The images are barely discernible, but recognizable. The opening is more a fashion event than an actual art opening. While Soho galleries were distinguished by their large size, at the time, they did not have the boutique grandiosity that distinguishes Laura's opening with packed crowds & loud music, like a club. Poor Laura, a nervous diva, is dogged by a crass (female) reporter asking if Laura thinks the images are demeaning to women. I find Helmut Newton's photos slightly off as a choice in the selection: one could very easily say his work is demeaning to women, as per the simplistic & emphatic journalist, but his work seems very much out of a men's magazine, soft-core sensibility - staged decadence, but almost hygienic in its prurience. In the same period the film was made (1978) the work of Guy Bourdin, for example, might seem more directly appropriate as a stand-in for Laura's art. Although like Newton, there is almost a cheeriness to his scenes that suggest death & destruction. Also from that period, I think of one of the more disturbingly misogynistic fashion images is by Chris von Wangenheim of a model & a daring doberman. None of these 3 photographers seem entirely appropriate to what would be Laura's psychic disturbances: all of them, Newton, Bourdin, von Wangenheim, do not seem provocative enough to me - a little baroque perhaps in their fetishism, but it's still not that far from the suburban male fantasies of Playboy or Penthouse, zestily commercial & consumable. I'm guessing that that is exactly what the filmmakers had in mind, but could it be otherwise? Rebecca Blake worked on the film as well: her sort of frou-frou "decadence" (with the emphasis on the parentheses) is maybe a bit closer to the Laura I am trying to understand, but when is Rebecca Blake's work disturbing? How silly is that? The images that would perhaps validate Laura as a provocateur would perhaps be more along the lines of Deborah Turbeville, or outside of fashion, Francesca Woodman, images which indicate withdrawal and mortality, as opposed to quasi-pornographic scenarios. Wallflower as opposed to Sleepless Nights. Although Deborah Turbeville's work has a neurasthenic aspect, whereas the hypothetical Laura Mars is much more film noir.

Besides Laura's mediumship and the fashion photography of the time, the film also offers glimpses of a New York that is unrecognizable to the city I live in now. I could be overstating the case, but in the 1970s New York City represented, on a national scale, an urban environment gone wrong, & as the largest city in the USA it became a textbook example for all urban settings - it was dirty, dangerous, and offered an amazing panorama of vices. The Eyes of Laura Mars is contemporaneous with films such as Klute or Looking for Mr Goodbar - cautionary tales for the woman seeking independence and control of her body. In Looking for Mr Goodbar the tall, dark, handsome psycho is Richard Gere, as opposed to Tommy Lee Jones. It was a period when the city had declared bankruptcy, there were bombings in Manhattan by the FALN, the modern gay rights movement had begun with the Stonewall riots in 1969 - NYC was a heterogeneous chaos on display for a whitebread middle America. & what were the rents like? One could read the killings of the model & the agent in the film as punishments for their polymorphous sexualities, besides Laura's sexualized vision being the primary invitation to damnation. Although presented without fanfare & not lasting long at all, a scene at the agent's birthday party, an all-male party, with showtunes sung at a piano, would be a radical incision in the social mores of a white, heterosexual, bourgeois culture - even if the participants were just as white & bourgeois. The city was for Others. Also, on a more grassroots level, in this period there was the rise of disco culture, which signified overtly in its fashions and habits, an attempt at urbanity, an imaginary of sophistication, which had its own oppositional aspects in terms of navigating the quotidian: it's primary audience was gay & that was how it read, in general, with its emphasis on dandyism, its very recognizable fashions and music, and the boldness with which it made itself visible. The polymorphous worlds of fashion, seen in the back pages of Andy Warhol's Interview, along with the illustrations of Antonio Lopez, could act as codes, as passwords, for those entering or dreaming of the big bad city. Laura Mars' studio is in one of the now closed piers on the Hudson, then mostly abandoned, which were settings of anonymous sexual assignations as well an improvised studio for Gordon Matta-Clark, in which he made a large cutting in the end of an abandoned pier wall, which was done independently and resulted in a warrant being place for his arrest. Laura Mars' pier studio, makes me think of Gordon Matta-Clark's improvised pier studio: too bad the 2 never could meet. A NYC that is dark, in ruins, illegal, racy (& with affordable rents) - it is almost inconceivable to see it in the same city that exists now. Even a psychological nightmare and B movie such as The Eyes of Laura Mars attains a patina of nostalgia in contrast to our present expensive, franchised, monotonous city.


ded said...

Bernie, I hear you! What a great piece. Bring back "la vie Laura Mars..." What I embraced as a fashion photography-obsessed teen about the film was her apartment decor - all grey and sleek - her working methodology [which I carefully examined], consisting of immolating cars on Columbus Circle and snapping away with a 35mm SLR in a midi skirt with a deep, accomodating, slit. It was super influential to me in the year that followed the Avedon show at the Met. That was also the years when I would visit NYC with my mom, and, by 1978, with my [now deceased] best friend, who allowed me to "imbed" in a gritty NYC gay cinemaniac world, briefly. This film captures a moment that, for me too, is one of pure nostalgia and a New York I miss terribly.

MORE ON PHOTOGRAPHERS IN FILM! Funny Face, Peeping Tom, no need for Blow Up...what else?

Ken Anderson said...

I really enjoyed reading your piece on "Eyes of Laura Mars". I always enjoy it when someone takes a different perspective on something I love, allowing me to see it again through fresheyes (almost). A terrific, thoughtful piece. As I've said, I'm a fan of the film and write about it in my own blog: