Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Carpenter, part 0: Stab your eyes—I'm a man! I'm my OWN man!


A banner year for Carpenter, 1978 saw his name on four different motion pictures—and fully half of them were any good!  But Eyes of Laura Mars, in case you didn't get the hint, was in the other half.

Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by David Zelag Goodman and John Carpenter
With Faye Dunaway (Laura Mars), Tommy Lee Jones (Lt. John Neville), Rene Auberjonois (Donald Phelps), Brad Dourif (Tommy Ludlow), and Raul Julia (Michael Reisler)

Spoiler alert: severe
Content warning: mild ART

Before we close the book on John Carpenter's career, I thought it'd be worthwhile to take one last look back at his beginnings, before Halloween made him big.  This brings us to Eyes of Laura Mars—and, if you're like me, you'll be annoyed beyond any possible consolation by the definite article that is so clearly missing from its title.

Eyes was written by Carpenter during the reshoots which (for better or worse) gave us the feature-length version of Dark Star.  Carpenter showed it to Dark Star producer Jack Harris, who then put the young turk in touch with Jon Peters at Columbia, who loved it—and, naturally, demanded about eight billion changes, first to bring it in line with the project's original star, Barbara Streisand, who (in turn) wound up contributing nothing to the final film but its "love theme" (which, in fairness, is also probably the single best thing to come out of it).  Next, Peters demanded a mystery structure.  Finally, he asked that Carpenter inflict upon it the exact kind of punchy, awful twist ending that his movie never deserved.

According to Carpenter, the difference between the finished product and his original script is so huge that, other than the very basic framework, practically nothing remains of the story he wrote.  Describing the wrenching transformation wrought by Eyes' other screenwriter, David Goodman, Carpenter called the ending "a problem [that] opens up like yawning pit," and I think it's worth noting that when you have John Carpenter getting worked up about the coherence of your movie's narrative, that's a bad sign.

But the premise and the greater part of the first two acts, we can reasonably say, belong mostly to JC; and that premise, at least, is pure gold.  Eyes, of course, tells the story of Laura Mars, a commercial fashion photographer whose challenging work has broken through into the art world proper.  It's drawn the condemnation of cultural guardians, too—and not without reason, since Laura's photos literalize the metaphorical connection between sex and death, with gorgeous models splayed out like corpses in their haute couture, and Laura's clients use the resulting intersection of the macabre and the erotic to sell their shit to aroused idiots.  Naturally, Laura's attracted an entourage of slightly-scummy Before Times hipsters, and thus it should come as no surprise that Eyes finds something worth satirizing in Laura's hermetic little scene, although it always remains incredibly vague satire, mainly confined to the compromised insipidity of Laura's compositions.  By the end, Eyes' satire gets pushed out of the frame entirely, in favor of one more riff on Psycho—though, on this count, we're really getting ahead of ourselves.

Laura, you see, soon finds herself stricken with a curse—from whence it came, no one knows, certainly not the screenwriters, and this is probably for the best.  But starting in the opening scene of the film, Laura begins experiencing terrifying visions of murder.  At first, she thinks it but a dream (or an outgrowth of her art).  It doesn't hit her that something supernatural is afoot until she's brought low by a daylight hallucination, and when she goes to check out the facts of the matter, she discovers that her power—to see death through the eyes of a killer—is real.

Enter Lieutenant David Neville of the NYPD—whom we've actually already met, at a gala show where he pisses all over Laura's artistic pretensions, and who presently turns out to be the officer in charge of investigating these murders.  And did we mention that both of the dead women were friends of Laura?  Well, it's enough to pique even the laziest cop's interest, and David is piqued indeed, especially given that Laura (clearly overwrought) has blurted out that she's witnessed the murders with her mind.  The mystery only gets deeper when David pulls out her book, Eyes of Mars (which makes the film's title even more obnoxious, something I wouldn't have believed remotely possible), and reveals why this art-hating cop would ever bother coming to Laura's show in the first place: it's because her grotty, violent photographs recreate, in detail far too exact to be coincidental, the scenes of two other unsolved murders.  And David, of course, really wants to know why.

Because ART, you philistine.

Now that's a springboard for a cracking supernatural mystery-thriller if I've ever seen one (or maybe even an hour-long CBS drama!), and that's why it's such a pity that Eyes is not more interesting than it actually is, even before it gets ridiculous.  The biggest structural issue is probably David's immediate acceptance of Laura's inexplicable powers, something that still doesn't make that much sense even when their mutual interest in pursuing the murderer turns into a perfunctory, undersold romantic entanglement.  This lets a lot of air out of what ought to be a pressure-cooker of a scenario; the murderer's still at large, and he'll claim a lot more of Laura's friends before we're through, but the threat he presents somehow seems distant, even when he starts stalking Laura directly.  Yes, there's a lot of the proto-slasher in Eyes, and one of its most intriguing aspects is what it says about where John Carpenter's head was at in the mid-70s.  Eyes, you might imagine, has been often (and profitably) compared to the gialli; in many respects it's as much a missing link between Italy's violent murder mysteries and the pure slashers to come as 1974's seminal Black Christmas.  Yet even though Eyes has the structure of a slasher, and some comparatively gory deaths—indeed, it's actually significantly bloodier than Halloween—it lacks the intensity of a good slasher, let alone the very best of Michael Myers' breed.

(And yet it's so interesting to watch a Carpenter screenplay, clearly a precursor to his genre-defining superhit, that was directed by someone who did not have his vision.  Eyes is chock full of the roving, predatory POV shots that have become synonymous with the Carpenterian style, but they're so much lamer here.  Irvin Kershner, whom you will no doubt remember from a little film two years later called The Freaking Empire Strikes Back, is clearly no artless hack, but you wouldn't necessarily guess that after a side-by-side comparison between Halloween and Eyes of Laura Mars: the aforementioned handheld POV, only without the Steadicam that makes Halloween's sweeping long takes so unnerving; an ugly-ass filter to let you know it's POV, in case you were a moron; a use of darkness that's only occasionally compelling, and only by accident; and, finally, some hilariously pretentious production design, like in Laura's bitchin' bachelorette pad, which is dominated by mirrors solely so Kershner can use a crushingly obvious metaphor later.)

It won a Saturn Award for Best Costumes, though, so there's that.

But it's plausible that the biggest problem—with Eyes' first two acts, anyway—is just Laura Mars herself, which is to say Faye Dunaway, fresh off her Oscar win (and a fully justified win, at that!) for Network.  In defense of Peters and Kershner, it probably wasn't quite so totally apparent to them how badly they miscast their lead.  It's a truism that Dunaway's one of our all-time great performers.  Like most truisms, this is largely accurate, without really aiding anyone's understanding of why she was great.  Dunaway is fantastic at two things: being weirdly stiff—which is how she got her statue for Network—and at going completely bugnuts crazy on camera—which is why we remember Mommie Dearest so fondly, and to this day I'm not entirely sure whether my love for Dunaway's Joan Crawford is ironic or not.  Anyway, she does these two things incredibly well (why, she even does both in Chinatown).  But she plays conventionally charming—or conventional anything—not terribly well at all.  (Take Three Days of the Condor, where Dunaway winds up, at best, merely proficient.)  And since Eyes only ever gives her a scant few opportunities to go crazy, she retrenches right into weird and stiff, turning our heroine into a cypher and (not to put too fine a point on it) a real stick in the mud, who only ever refrains from underacting when Dunaway reaches into her bag of tricks and finds either shrieky fear or a spaced-out look that suggests gas more than it does any psychic phenomena.  Not a bit of it suits Laura's character, and it's clear enough that whatever rewrites they made for Streisand before she dropped out weren't followed up with rewrites for Dunaway—at least not competent ones—since it would've only taken the slightest tweaking to align Dunaway's typical slightly-deranged aloofness with the character, who's only a stone's throw away from an Andy Warholesque artistic shitheel in the first place.  As a bonus, this would've had the benefit of putting a little more bite into Eyes' harmless satirical bark.

Meanwhile, the contrast between Dunaway and her supporting cast could not be greater.  One of Eyes' purest (and most unintended) pleasures is the opportunity to take a gander at its cadre of great actors when they were just babies (or, anyway, in their thirties).  And we can take this thread a lot further than just Tommy Lee Jones—though it's certainly worth mentioning that TLJ gives a much more natural, lived-in performance as David than Dunaway does as Laura (if, sadly, the Jones we really know and love, the crabby old man, is still coming into his own).  No, the real surprise is the depth of Eyes' bench, from Rene Auberjonois as Laura's prickly manager, to Brad Dourif as her sketchy, switchblade-wielding, ex-convict driver, down to Raul Julia as Laura's drunken grotesque of an ex-husband.

Now, what you're no doubt getting from this rundown of the dramatis personae is that Eyes is a mystery chock full of red herrings, and you're right, and this leads us into the most severe change Peters and Goodman made to Carpenter's screenplay, as well as the problem that kills Eyes absolutely dead: its dumbassed twist ending that doesn't realize that the least likely suspect is the least likely because for him to have done it would be stupid.

Hey, I said it anticipated the slasher, didn't I?

Carpenter wanted the killer to be a stranger.  I'm not actually sure this is better—it's perhaps one of the reasons Halloween feels a little empty, and only partway filled-up by Dr. Loomis' oversized personality—but the man that Eyes makes the killer is one of cinema's most perfect examples of a twist wrought purely for a twist's sake.  This one's not Kershner's fault, mind you, for he stages the ending (whether his metaphors are obvious or not) with a truly commendable gusto.  But it breaks the film completely when we discover—I said there'd be spoilers—that the man behind the murders is none other than David, our hero.

Thrown in purely to shock the audience—I concede that none of the more likely suspects is very satisfying—the terrible part is not just that there's never the slightest hint that David is a sex murderer, and thus his climactic turn toward cartoonish villainy never seems plausible (even if Jones acts his face off to sell it).  Hell, it's not even that it doesn't really work on a purely mechanical level.  It's that the infinite opportunities of the scenario wind up wasted—David, after all, believes in Laura's psychic powers, which offers so many chances for cat-and-mouse thrills, that the fact that Eyes doesn't actually have any makes me want to punch it in the throat.  Worst of all, it underlines how completely useless our protagonist is—we realize, in these moments, that Laura Mars, with her gift, has done approximately nothing the entire film except watch.

And we wonder how it came to pass that Brian De Palma was not involved.

To put a button on it, Laura is no Laurie.  We can't blame a movie for not being Halloween, I suppose, but for a proto-slasher of such vast potential to deliver instead a heroine of such low caliber can only have value as a cautionary tale about what not to do with your murder mystery, whether it's technically a slasher film or not.  Taken together with its horrifically arbitrary twist ending, the latterday obscurity of Eyes of Laura Mars—despite all the immense talent and concentrated fame involved in its production—isn't any mistake.  It's justice.

Score:  5/10

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