Disco Giallo: Fear City through Kershner’s ‘Eyes’

In 2017 I was commissioned by Indicator to write about Irvin Kershner and Jon Peters’ production of Eyes of Laura Mars, based on an original concept and screenplay by John Carpenter. Their world premiere Limited Edition is now out of print, but you can read the essay here in full.

WARNING: Contains spoilers.

Eyes of Laura Mars was, for a long time, best remembered as a minor entry in the canon of John Carpenter. Yet it is a film of multiple, confusing, sometimes conflicting visions. The screenwriter had developed another trademark genre piece with a deftly original conceit. Producer Jon Peters imagined a romantic vehicle for his lover Barbra Streisand, a $7 million marketing campaign and a hit soundtrack album.1 Director Irvin Kershner believed that the contemporary trend for sexualised violence in advertising was damaging to both genders and considered his film a metaphor for “what fashion does to women”2.

In the ‘80s the VHS collection of any Carpenter completist extended as far as the titles for which he only receives a story or screenplay credit. The Philadelphia Experiment and Black Moon Rising still have their own cult followings. Revisiting Eyes of Laura Mars in 2017 it is the contradictory influences of producer and director that led to a film long studied for its fashion, its violent images of women and as a unique record of a city in crisis. Analysis has revealed layers of complexity that arise from the tension between the drastically altered script, the aggressive marketing campaign and the director’s social concerns. The film is best viewed as a kaleidoscope of all three.

1978 was as big a year for John Carpenter as it was for disco. While the world’s hottest night spots pulsated to exciting dance blockbusters by Donna Summer, K.C. and the Sunshine Band and Linda Clifford the 30-year old’s breakout feature Halloween set all kinds of records for independent filmmakers, taking $70 million. On November 29th Warner Bros. broadcast the Edgar award-nominated TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! Originally written for the cinema, its evocation of Hitchcock gave contemporary commentators high expectations. As an unintentional trilogy, the films have immediate similarities. All three centre on a “woman in peril” and establish their themes with Peeping Tom POV shots. Carpenter’s score for Halloween was influenced by Goblin’s work for Dario Argento, and his spec script “Eyes” may have taken inspiration from another giallo master. Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace and Eyes of Laura Mars are both set within the world of fashion and ask us to guess who the systematic killer of models may be.

While Bava and Irvin Kershner spend a lot of time throwing suspicion onto every character they can Carpenter’s original treatment was more in line with his slasher prototype. In Gilles Boulenger’s “John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness” he spoke about the major change to his ending: “What’s scary is something that’s random, that’s unknown. The unknown killer that walks up and kills you for no reason is utterly terrifying because you are defenseless against it. In my original version of ‘Eyes’, a normal person was suddenly seeing through the eyes of a psychopath. To me it was a really very chilling idea, but to make him somebody that the lead character and the audience knew, all of a sudden the problem opens up like a yawning pit!”3

Jack H. Harris, producer of Dark Star, had retained an interest in Carpenter and intended to make “Eyes” as an independent feature until he introduced the writer to Jon Peters.4 1978 was a big year for Peters too having finally landed in the movie business, a cherished goal since his childhood appearance as an extra in The Ten Commandments.5 After a troubled youth and many years building his empire in the family trade of hairdressing the Tinseltown gossip entrusted to him by his celebrity clientele had expedited his expansion. Peters was now Barbra Streisand’s manager as well as her lover and he had a deal at Columbia records to compliment his interests. “Show business is two words, and I like both” he told Photoplay that September6.

His first production had been 1976’s remake of A Star is Born, an old showbiz romance relocated to L.A.’s drug fueled world of stadium rock. The film made $80 million from a $6 million budget generating a 4 x platinum album, a number one single and an Oscar for Best Song. Peters’ marketing was shrewd and he was proud of his accomplishment: “It was a lot of work. So was the entire promotion campaign that operated on a domino principle: first the book, then the LP, then the single and finally the movie”.7 Five years on from Laura Mars Peters along with partner and fellow music executive Peter Guber would team up with the other “high octaneduo of the ‘80s, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, for Flashdance. By the end of that decade every movie that could do so had a companion album of pop hits. Top Gun alone sold 7 million copies.

Peters reportedly assigned Carpenter to direct but then requested four rewrites to tailor “Eyes” for Streisand who declined the role citing the nature of the material.8 Her shadow loomed over the picture as Peters told Photoplay how Laura Mars “will show what I can do without Barbra”9 despite having persuaded her to record “Prisoner”, the love theme he would later release as a single. Consideration was given to Jane Fonda, Catherine Deneuve, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and a long list of others until recent Oscar winner Faye Dunaway stepped into the role of the prominent and controversial fashion photographer.10 After as many as nine further writers took a stab at the script, Logan’s Run screenwriter David Zelag Goodman’s was the “final” draft.11 Peters claimed have put a lot of “himself” into the script which he had written “with” Carpenter12 who, like the original writers on A Star Is Born13, had eventually taken the money and walked away. With his A-list star now on board, Peters took his script of Eyes of Laura Mars back to Irvin Kershner.

Kershner had initially turned the movie down. In fact, many directors turned it down. Lindsay Anderson’s reasons are clearly stated in his diary: “It’s an absolute load of balls and can only make a ridiculous and pretentious movie.”14 Kersh, as he was affectionately known, passed away in 2010. His status in the film industry is indisputable, almost mythic. He was cultured, a student of music and art and photography. As tutor at USC he had been on the panel that awarded George Lucas his prize for Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138. After seeing a rough cut of Laura Mars, Lucas pursued his mentor to direct The Empire Strikes Back. The obituaries and tributes spoke of a kindly man; philosophical yet practical, demanding but generous. He was “at his core, a teacher”. Even his son David compared him to Yoda: by studying Zen Buddhism, my father learned to live in the present and not to dwell on what went wrong yesterday or fear what might go wrong tomorrow. He learned the power of concentration. He learned to ‘do’ rather than ‘try.’”15

Kersh was attracted by the opportunity to make a New York movie with Faye Dunaway whom he considered a “New York pro” elevated by her Lincoln Center repertory training.16 A skilled documentarian who shot and directed films for the United States Information Service after World War II, Kershner had turned his eye to the Big Apple in the late ‘50s for the semi-documentary TV show Naked City. The fashion scene resonated with him, but he still felt Eyes of Laura Mars “really wasn’t relevant to New York life or the culture at the time”.17 In 1975 the murder rate had had risen to its highest ever level, the city was nearly bankrupt and the proposed layoffs of 50,000 city workers were met with strikes and protests. The Policeman’s Benevolent Association handed out a million leaflets to tourists branding their vacation destination “Fear City”, advising them to “stay off the streets after 6pm” and not to use public transportation due to the high crime and diminished emergency services.

Two years later New York saw the blackout, with power outages to all but two neighbourhoods. Rioting, looting and arson ensued, leading to the largest mass arrest in city history. Serial killer David Berkowitz brutally murdered 6 people and wounded another 7 creating widespread panic. A sensitive issue for many years, protests met Summer of Sam’s pungent attempt to explore the contrasts and tensions between minority communities and the glitz of Manhattan’s Studio 54 scene during this “paranoid and precarious” time.

Irvin Kershner had signed up but still had reservations about the realism of his characters. In a commentary recorded in 1999 he reflected “the original script was a trick, and I didn’t want that trick. I wanted to be a result of psychological truth or, let’s say, psychiatric truth so the little bits are in the picture that add up to his schizophrenic personality. This made it one of the most difficult stories to tell that I’ve ever had to do on film. I don’t think that the people I was working with understood that but I didn’t think they had to. I just feel that we had to create a façade of reality, a texture of reality. And that’s about all I wanted from the technicians.”18

What had started out set, like Someone’s Watching Me!, in L.A, with an every-woman protagonist and a faceless Skid Row killer had somehow moved to New York, picked up a glamourous lead, the city’s top models and a romantic subplot. At the producer’s insistence, the killer now had to be someone his star’s character could love. Peters’ temperamental relationship with Dunaway was widely reported19 and the script and shoot were shrouded with mystery. Julian Barry had impressed Kersh with his screenplay for Lenny and was hired for further rewrites intended to give “Eyes” a “heart”.20 It was rumoured that no-one knew who the killer would be until the very end of shooting and Peters threatened to fire anyone who leaked details.

Choosing not to storyboard Kersh placed an emphasis on location shoots using the vastness of the city to reflect Laura’s emotional isolation. Key scenes were improvised including the crucial romantic interlude in Central Park. Tommy Lee Jones is said to have written the film’s ultimate reveal.21 Contemporary critics like Janet Maslin who appreciated and admired Kershner’s intentions still had to note that the final twist was “dumb”.22 The director had tried to bring a “psychiatric reality” to his killer but the device remained a trick.

The legacy of Eyes of Laura Mars evokes a line from an unrelated film by the king of the American Giallo, Brian DePalma. “I have forsworn myself” says The Untouchables’ Eliot Ness. “I have become what I beheld and I am content that I have done right”. Getting Laura Mars’ most celebrated sequence on camera closed Columbus Circle for four days. “Movies have a longer life if they’re about something,” said Kershner23 whose social concerns were prescient and informed the film’s most enduring moments, the photo shoots that trigger Laura’s visions. In 2011, as part of the Fashion in Film season at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, Laura Mars was screened right where some of its most famous imagery was made.

Rebecca Blake considered her stills for the film to represent a “new and controversial happening in fashion photography”.24 Helmut Newton’s work added an undercurrent of S&M violence, a darker vein tapped even further in gay docu-porn New York City Inferno which in turn influenced Cruising. Dunaway had researched the fashion world for a previous role and recalled in interviews hearing a model on the set express her negative sense of worth “I’m just a model. I have no opinion”. Promoting the fashion of Laura Mars, Dunaway remarked that the industry “now tends towards models who are real women, who have feelings, another very good sign of the times”.25 Kershner’s commentary recognises the reality, identities and lives of models away from the cameras stating that the styling he critiques “does violence to both men and women. It teaches them that this is the ideal woman.”26

This appropriation conflicts with the conclusions of Lucy Fisher and Marcia Landy in their essay “Eyes of Laura Mars: A Binocular Critique”. In their reading Laura ends up a woman alone, imprisoned and punished by the male gaze for her complicity in a patriarchal view of female threat and subservience. Fisher and Landy’s students in 1982 had been “divided by whether the film was unmitigated pornography because of its unrelieved fusion of sex, aggression and spectacle, or a subtle exposure of sexual politics, surfacing connections between female subordination and the media’s exploitation of the ways of seeing women.”27

Once the film was completed the Jon Peters marketing machine went into full effect: “when a movie is ready to be seen he goes and sells the hell out of it” Kershner says in the press kit.28 Francesco Scavullo’s “Eyes” hoardings blinked with neon pupils across the Sunset Strip 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.29 Billboards in New York City were repainted periodically over several weeks, revealing the features Dunaway’s face in stages like a subliminal from The Exorcist.30 Department stores were encouraged to dress their windows with Laura Mars-themed displays and invite competition entries for amateur recreations of striking fashion tableaux usingdangerous or lethal looking props”.31

Eyes of Laura Mars was a financial disappointment making only $20 million dollars at the box office. Jon Peters’ marketing extravagance had doubled the $7 million production budget,32 but he maintained he could live with a flop: “If the critics and the public appreciate it, well that’s what I want. It’s different, it’s original. It’s a story I’ve put a lot of myself into. John Carpenter created an 8-page outline and I wrote the rest of the script with him.”34 The critics and public hadn’t responded quite that way and the newly crowned Master of Horror reportedly hated the final film34 which, if nothing else, had put his name on an $8 million studio summer release. He credited authorship of the film to Kersh. Kersh claimed he was unhappy with things that were imposed upon him in production, but promoted the film like a consummate professional.

The film was finished before the incongruous opening was added showcasing Streisand’s love theme over the principle motif; a freeze frame and zoom into Dunaway’s eyes.35 In Horror Movies of the 1970s John Kenneth Muir describes this as a “camp hoot”36 while the Washington Post foresaw that “the film could generate a kitschy popularity”.37 The song “Prisoner” launched to 150 radio stations and hit the Billboard Hot 100 on July 29, just ahead of the August 2 release. Backed up by a soundtrack album interspersing Artie Kane’s original score with established disco hits by The Michael Zager Band and Odyssey, “Prisoner” peaked at the number twenty-one spot six weeks after Eyes of Laura Mars opened.38 In 2016 Eyes of Laura Mars was screened in London with a newly composed live score as part of a celebration of camp classics. Streisand was cited as an influence on the season.39

As an initial cult following emerged through the VHS boom a younger audience took up the film including Tori Amos whose identification with Laura in the 2002 song “Gold Dust” ignited curiosity from her followers. “When the voice says ‘somewhere Alfie smiles/and says enjoy her every cry/You can see in the dark/Through the eyes of Laura Mars”, it’s a warning that there will be dark times. And you can look through it. He’s saying to her that you’ll look back. It will go so fast. Then you will realize that you had the opportunity to be a mother and have this experience,” Amos told The Quietus.40

In his modern critique The Shadow Cinema of the American ‘70s author Charles Taylor observes that Laura Mars came amidst a run of dystopian cinematic visions of New York.41 It was the era of Dog Day Afternoon, The Warriors and Taxi Driver. Over a decade would pass before “Fear City” truly moved forward from its reputation as one of the most dangerous places in the world. In 1990 residents still protested the image of the Bronx presented in The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Spike Lee after them, Brian DePalma and his crew met with disruptions to shooting and projected missiles.42

The images of sexualised violence and destruction in the heart of Manhattan are vivid in juxtaposition to Wolfen’s footage of the Bronx demolition projects or Manhattan’s black and white nostalgia. One can imagine Travis Bickle, or even Snake Plisskin, pulling up to watch top professional models Lisa Taylor and Darlanne Fluegel pull each other’s hair against a backdrop of flaming upturned cars for Laura Mars’ camera. Carpenter would create his own dystopian vision in 1981’s Escape from New York and now tours the world with concerts of his film scores. Peters’ career peaked with Batman, complete with soundtrack album by a major recording artist. In 2017 he declared himself the “Donald Trump of Hollywood”, and spoke to The Hollywood Reporter of being banned from the set of Man of Steel.42 It is the late Irving Kershner’s vision of a city in fear that earns Eyes of Laura Mars its unique place within the canon of significant New York chronicles.

eyes

References:

1 – Hit and Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony For a Ride in Hollywood – Nancy Griffin & Kim Master, 1996.

2 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

3 – “John Carpenter: The Prince of Darkness” – Gilles Boulanger, Silman-James Press, 2003

4 – Jack H Harris, FATHER OF THE BLOB: The Making of A Monster Smash & Other Hollywood Tales TVGuestpert Publishing, 2015

5 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

6 – Photoplay magazine, v29 n9 September 1978 – BFI Reuben

7 – Photoplay magazine, v29 n9 September 1978 – BFI Reuben

8 – Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony For a Ride in Hollywood – Nancy Griffin & Kim Master, 1996.

9 – Photoplay magazine, v29 n9 September 1978 – BFI Reuben

10 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

11 – The Films of John Carpenter, John Kenneth Muir, 2000

12 – Photoplay magazine, v29 n9 September 1978 – BFI Reuben

13 – “My Battles with Barbra and Jon” – Frank Pierson, New West Magazine November 22, 1976

14 – Lindsay Anderson Diaries (ed. Paul Sutton), A&C Black, 2013

15 – “A Son Remembers Irvin Kershner, Director of The Empire Strikes Back” – David Kershner, Entertainment Weekly December 17 2015

16 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

17 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

18 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

19 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

20 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

21 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

22 – “Eyes of Laura Mars: In The Netherworld”, Janet Maslin, New York Times, August 4th 1978

23 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

24 – “Fashion Goes Erotic in Eyes of Laura Mars” – Film Review v29 n3 March 1979 – BFI Reuben

25 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

26 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

27 – “Eyes of Laura Mars: A Binocular Critique” – Lucy Fisher & Marcia Landry 1982, reprinted in American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film (ed. Gregory A Waller, 1987)

28 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

29 – High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, Justin Wyatt 1994

30 – www.larryshultz.com – “Working with Jon Peters”

31 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

32 – Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony For a Ride in Hollywood – Nancy Griffin & Kim Master, 1996.

33 – Photoplay magazine, v29 n9 September 1978 – BFI Reuben

34 – The Films of John Carpenter, John Kenneth Muir, 2000

35 – Director’s Commentary, Recorded 1999

36 – Horror Films of the 1970s, John Kenneth Muir, 2002

37 – “Laura Mars: Not Even Good on The Eyes”, Gary Arnold, Washington Post, August 3rd 1978

38 – Press Book, Columbia Pictures 1978 – BFI Collections

39 – http://helennoir.tumblr.com/

40 – thequietus.com – October 3rd 2012

41 – Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-in Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s – Charles Taylor, 2017

42 – The Hollywood Reporter, Jan 12th 2017

© 2017 Rebecca Nicole Williams. All rights reserved.

 

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