Monday, March 31, 2008

Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up"

I’ll never forget the first time I heard Curtis Mayfield’s healing epic "Move On Up". It was just before Christmas of 2000 and I was coming out of what had been easily the hardest and worst period of my life. It was the period when I really needed an artist like Curtis Mayfield to come into my life and it almost didn’t happen.
I was doing some last minute Christmas shopping and came across a copy of Mayfield’s first solo album in a sale bin. I still remember nearly passing it up, as I know it’s bad to buy yourself something before Christmas, but thankfully the price allowed my indulgence and I have been thankful ever since.
Mayfield’s first album, Curtis, is a wondrous affair and for those who haven’t heard it or don’t have it on CD, Rhino’s 2000 reissue of it is a must buy. I am always amazed to see any best of lists without it on there, but considering those lists often ignore soul and funks finest albums I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise.
I was immediately captured by the album and recall listening to it that first time as I was driving over to my mom’s for the holidays. It had snowed maybe an inch but the sun had come out and it was disappearing as my commute from Lexington to Louisville went by as the album progressed. I still remember feeling profoundly sad and defeated as I was driving over due to the events that had struck me in the couple of years leading up to that day, events I won’t go into here, but it was a sober kind of depression that had been threatening to lift. I needed something to help it pass though.

The moment "Move On Up" first began for me was an incredible experience. I literally got goose bumps as Mayfield’s near ten-minute ode a brighter day began to take effect. I believe that the old adage that some music can have a deep healing power is true and that was (and is) the case with much of Mayfield’s music, with Move On Up being near the most curative.
I really needed something that morning to make me believe that everything was going to be okay and Curtis Mayfield’s marvelous track gave me that, and it still does to this day no matter how many thousands of times I have heard it. If I am feeling down, or if everything is just feeling hopeless, I play "Move On Up" to remind myself that not all is lost…the song is the sun suddenly breaking through a string of cloudy days.
I’m really grateful to Curtis for a lot of his music, especially "Move On Up". Apparently I am not the only one as I hear it all the time now, check the endings to both Bend It Like Beckham and the more recent Semi-Pro. The Jam of course did a pretty swell version of it as well and I always appreciated how fond Paul Weller was of the great Mayfield.

I was disturbed and disheartened recently to see ‘artist’ Kanya West pillaging Mayfield’s classic for his "Touch The Sky". It breaks my heart that many young people’s introduction to Mayfield’s rousing track is through this raping of it. Also add on that most of them probably don’t even know its Curtis Mayfield makes it even worst. I only hope Mayfield’s surviving family is seeing some major royalties as I am sure West has made more from his track than Curtis made in his entire career.
The original is still the best and if you have only heard the song courtesy of some soundtracks, pick up Curtis. The album, which was recorded in Chicago in 1970, remains one of the great works of the seventies and it can be found fairly cheaply in stores and online.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders at Nashville's Belcourt

Wow, how’s this for a pleasure. Kelley and I got to attend an ultra rare big screen showing today of Jaromil Jires’ amazing 1970 masterpiece Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders at Nashville’s Belcout Theater. The screening of the 16-millimeter print wraps up an exciting run for us that started with Diva a few weeks ago and continued with Diary Of The Dead before concluding with Valerie this afternoon. I’m not much on road trips anymore but these jaunts were all well worth it.
I had seen Jires miraculously strange film on DVD before but I must say being in the presence of one of the only remaining theatrical prints of it in the world was something special.
Following an introduction of it by the Belcourt employee who had selected it where he detailed just difficult it is to get a theatrical print of this. This particular one came from a private Nashville collector and is among the best of the handful of 16-millimeter prints, (only one 35 millimeter print is said to still be in circulation) and the presenter’s excitement at introducing the film was infectious. After promising a gloriously faded and scratched but complete subtitled print, the about half to capacity audience was treated to something really special.
The very odd and moving Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders is a film pretty much impossible to describe so I won’t attempt to here. So, if you haven’t experienced the film, please put it in your Netflix queue immediately…and go ahead and order the soundtrack from Dusty Groove as I promise you will want a copy after watching the film.
I was mostly struck this time by just how incredibly beautiful the film is to watch. Even in this faded and deteriorated state, Jires film is a majestic creation that is among the most visually entrancing works of art I have ever seen.
I was also really taken this time with actress Helena Anyzova, who plays three separate roles with the kind of beautiful erotic intensity that Joelle Couer would lend to some later Jean Rollin works. Amazingly enough this was one of just a couple of screen appearance from the striking Anyzova which makes her work in it all the more enigmatic and iconic.
I would love to see Criterion tackle this very important Czech film sometime in the future but for now it remains a faded and scratched treasure just asking for more people to discover it. Thanks to the folks at Belcourt for screening this…it was bliss.

Juliana Hatfield: Choose Drugs

Allow me a bit of melancholic nostalgia...I have been thinking a lot about Juliana Hatfield lately (people in their mid thirties apparently become prone to thinking about artists they loved in their early twenties) and finding this clip on YouTube of her doing one of her most devestating songs reminded me of how inspiring she was each time I saw her back in the early nineties.
I met her a few times and still admire everything she brings out...anyway, it's late and I am feeling very overly sentimental...this song is incredible with the line "I say it's me or drugs and you choose drugs" really hitting a nerve.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Volume 1

I was thrilled the other day to receive my copy of the just released DVD Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered Volume 1. This limited to 2500 copies release from director Mike Baronas is a really wonderful tribute to the maestro as well as being an absolutely no-brainer buy for anyone who loves Italian film.
Containing nearly ninety interviews (typically ranging from one to seven minutes) with Fulci's actors, peers and collaborators, Paura works as a splendid and honest tribute to someone who was obviously a very complicated but fascinating man.

The main thing that impressed me in the majority of the interviews is how obviously happy many of the participants are to talk on Fulci, as it is pointed out over and over again how overlooked he is in Italy. One of the best interviews on the set is with Gino De Rossi who appears absolutely grateful and moved to be given the opportunity to discuss a collaborator he obviously very much admired. Other highlights from the disc include Riz Ortolani recalling Fulci as a songwriter and mentioning how they shared a major love of music together, and George Hilton who honestly admits that he had more respect for Lucio as an artist rather than a human being. Hilton is an exception though as most of the folks on here have only positive things to say about Fulci.

My favorite section of Paura are the interviews with Fulci's peers, featuring moments with many famed Italian directors (some who were friends with Fulci and some who barely knew him). These are particularly interesting pieces and help us get a glance at Fulci's many varied roles in Italian cinema and its history. Some highlights inn this section include Luigi Cozzi recalling a moving and funny moment with Fulci and Argento on the eve of the Wax Mask project and Ruggero Deodato speaking of the last time he saw an obviously ill Fulci and giving him a hug. The disc is filled with many moving and intimate moments and as such it stands as a nice personal and visual companion to Stephen Thrower's massive and important look at Fulci's career in printed form, Beyond Terror.

Probably the most entertaining interview on the disc comes with the always engaging and delightfully confident Umberto Lenzi, who has some great stories to tell and who signs off his interview by calling Fulci and himself a genius!
Anyone who has any number of Shriek Show DVDS will recognize where many of these interviews originated from (although don't be concerned that you are buying something you already have as this disc features unseen moments that weren't on those older DVD supplements) and it is still a pleasure to visit with so many legendary figures.

The screen shots I am including are of the lovely Cinzia Monreale, who I have written on here before. I was really excited to see more from the interview she gave from the Buio Omega disc and her thoughts continue to show her as a warmly engaging and charismatic woman who deserves more attention than she gets.
Follow this link to order Paura. It is an absolutely essential purchase to anyone with even a passing interest in Italian Horror and one of the best DVD's of 2008.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

A Claudia Jennings Double Feature: Unholy Rollers (1972) and Gator Bait (1974)

If I ever had the chance to go back in time and work as a director in 1970’s American cinema there would be a certain number of specific actresses I would relish working with. They wouldn’t be the ‘great actors’ of the day like Fonda, Redgrave, Dunaway etc (although I love all of them) but instead would be any number of the remarkable women who were best known for their work in the A.I.P. type exploitation flicks I have come to love so much. You can bet that the likes of Roberta Collins, Rainbeaux Smith, and Candice Rialson would have been badgered constantly to appear in every film I would have made. I would perhaps not badger any as much as I would have the late Claudia Jennings though, a force on the seventies independent scene whose personality, beauty and spark still resonate to this day almost thirty years after her tragic death.

Mary Eileen Chesterson was born in Evanston, Illinois in 1949 but was raised mostly around Milwaukee. Just before her twentieth birthday she moved to Chicago and got a job at the Playboy Offices as a receptionist. It wasn’t long after that the extraordinarily beautiful red-head was noticed, and her first appearance in the magazine came in November of 1969 under the name of Claudia Jennings.

There is something touching and sweet about the photos of Claudia in this period and it’s not surprising she quickly became one of the most popular playmates in history, earning the title Playmate of the Year in 1970. She would appear in the magazine throughout the seventies but it was her role as an actress in Hollywood that really set her apart from most of the models that had appeared in Hefner’s publication.
From her earliest work in Jud (1971) to her memorable Brady Bunch appearance up until her final role in David Cronenberg’s Fast Company (1979) there was something special about Jennings. Exuding charm, charisma and most importantly intelligence, Jennings came across incredibly natural on the screen in whatever role she was playing. This was never more true than it was in a series of popular drive in pictures she made from 1972 to 1978, often under the banner of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures.

I recently re-watched two of Claudia’s key films, 1972’s Unholy Rollers and 1974’s Gator Bait and was struck by just how enduring a screen presence she remains and just how good an actress she was. Of the two, I definitely prefer the delicious and delirious Unholy Rollers (surely one of the most entertaining movies of its kind from the seventies) although the very odd and rather dark Gator Bait certainly has its charms as well.

Unholy Rollers, directed with zing by Vernon Zimmerman with editing by Martin Scorsese, premiered in November 0f 1972 about three months after Raquel Welch’s smashing Kansas City Bomber had wowed audiences. Think of Unholy Rollers as a down and dirty version of Kansas City Bomber and you kind of have the picture in a nutshell.

Claudia stars as a feisty and angry former factory worker named Karen who gets to realize her violent roller-derby dreams when she joins a local team. She quickly becomes the star of the league while managing to alienate and anger everyone around her with her piss and vinegar attitude. Defiant, independent and in total control, Jenning’s Karen is a notable addition to the great ‘new woman’ roles that were coming out in the early seventies…she is a major badass and she relishes in it.
Zimmerman didn’t have that prolific of a career as he has just a handful of titles to his name with the most famous being 1980’s terrific Fade To Black. I love his work on Unholy Rollers though and the film zips along at lightning speed thanks to his no budget no problem style and Scorsese’s clever cutting which is especially potent during the exciting Roller Derby scenes.

Working from a script by New World writer Howard R. Cohen with a solid and at times surprisingly subtle score by Kendall Schmidt, Zimmerman’s Unholy Rollers is an absolute blast that perhaps sacrifice’s the heart of Kansas City Bomber for an infectious jolt of 90 minutes worth of pure adrenaline.

While the film belongs to Claudia, who appears in almost every scene and is at her absolute physical peak, some of the supporting cast is also very notable. First and foremost is the inclusion of the great Roberta Collins and her scenes with Claudia are absolutely electric.

The always undervalued and always excellent Collins provides a perfect chilly blond counterpoint to Jenning’s sizzling red-headed persona. Seeing the two together on screen all these years later is still incredible and might even bring a tear to the eyes of people like myself obsessed with these films from a period very much gone.

Lots of other familiar faces pop up from Sugar Hill’s Betty Anne Rees to a young Victor Argo as the team’s irritable trainer. Unholy Rollers is a potpourri of remembered faces but often forgotten names from this great period in American filmmaking and it’s a fun experience just going through and attempting to pick them out.

Claudia is just amazing in this film and it might very well be her greatest role. It is at the very least one of her strongest and its hard to imagine any man or woman controller her as her Karen is absolutely and unapologetically ferocious. She has a chip on both shoulders and her final moment in the film where she defiantly flashes her team tattoo to a street filled with astonished onlookers and cops is one of the most iconic moments from American exploitation cinema in the seventies. She’s a knockout in every possible meaning of the word…

Unholy Rollers is strangely enough not available on DVD which is a real and unfortunate oversight. Copies of the old VHS, from which these screenshots were taken, can be found but they are not cheap. A full blown special edition of the film would be most welcome and would be a great tribute to Jennings who really worked her ass off in this role. As someone stated in a review on Amazon, Unholy Rollers is “a cult movie in need of a cult” and I wholeheartedly agree.

Even more popular, although nowhere near as strong, than Unholy Rollers is a film that Claudia shot two years later set in the sticky swamps of Thibodaux, Louisiana by husband and wife directing team Beverly and Ferd Sebastian.
Gator Bait is a surprisingly unpleasant and mean little film that has all of the necessary ingredients for this type of redneck exploitation that was so popular for a short while in the mid seventies…namely incest, backwoods humor, murder, rape and revenge.

Inspired by Burt Reynold’s name in 1973’s fantastic White Lightning, Gator Bait is a simple revenge story set around a mysterious red head Gator hunter named Desiree who haunts the swamps setting traps and breaking hearts.
The film, directed rather flatly by the Sebastians, is probably mostly remembered for its very striking one sheet and VHS artwork and for the images of a wild looking Claudia in cut off shorts running around in the woods. I am always taken aback when I revisit it by just how nasty a little number it is and how it lacks the energy and fun that so many of these types of films possessed in this period.

Gator Bait, despite all its flaws, is an interesting film though that is worth another look. While the Sebastians aren’t great filmmakers one has to respect how much they did (direction, script, editing and music) on what must have been a difficult production to mount, stage and complete. Anyone who has ever felt the sticky humidity of the south will know how oppressive and exhausting it could be and the fact that Gator Bait exists as a completed film at all is probably worth celebrating.

The small cast surrounding Claudia is fine, especially Janit Baldwin who really has to endure some rough and violent scenes. Claudia herself is great in what is almost a silent role but truth be told she is almost a supporting player who just pops up occasionally almost like a ghost creeping through the swamps.

The ending still surprises me as it trades in the trademark coda of the revenge genre for a more existential final that is actually one of the more effective parts of the film. Gator Bait is a sweaty little stinger of a film that I suspect would lose a lot of its menace on a polished widescreen DVD as its ugly quality seems almost tailor maid for an ancient full frame VHS…which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t welcome a disc of it…

Some of Claudia’s best work would follow in the five years after Gator Bait before her tragic death in a Malibu car accident. Watching her small body of work today is still exhilarating and I plan on posting a few more of these double feature looks at some more of her key works. There’s no telling what the eighties and beyond might have held for Claudia Jennings, but as it is she is frozen in time as one of the loveliest and most powerful actresses of the seventies even though she rarely gets her due for it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Asia Argento In Olivier Assayas' Boarding Gate

I haven't seen the new film from Olivier Assayas, Boarding Gate, starring Asia Argento yet but I am greatly anticipating it. I like Assayas' films quite a bit for the most part and this one sounds pretty incredible. It gone some notoriously bad notices at Cannes last year so I was glad to stumble across this recent great review in the New York Times by Manohla Dargis. I especially like the sections in the review where Dargis correctly notes that "Argento" is "one of contemporary cinema's most fascinating creatures" and the final paragraph where Assayas' films are compared to the music of Brian Eno is particularly inspired.
Boarding Gate is apparently in limited release right now. I am really looking forward to seeing it although I suspect I will have to wait for the DVD.

A Slight Rant On One Of The Biggest Snubs In Academy Award History

I've been thinking a lot about Michael Mann's The Insider lately. Part of it has to do with this excellent new blog I have discovered called Radiator Heaven, which is run by a really intelligent writer that everyone should check out. Another reason it keeps crossing my mind is that I have been thinking a lot about the state of modern American films and why my tastes seem to be falling further and further away from what other people value.
Truth be told, I don't think there are too many American films from the past decade that can hold a candle to The Insider. Whereas any number of directors (and I won't name any names here but you know who they are) might set out to make an 'important' film, I feel Mann actually achieved that with this film. I also don't think there has been a better acted film in the past ten years with Russell Crowe's performance as Jeffrey Wigand being among the best I have ever seen.

This all got me to thinking about the film's performance at the 1999 Academy Awards when it was shut out after being nominated for seven awards. I couldn't remember what was big that year so I looked it up and discovered with distaste that it was none other than American Beauty, a popular film I don't like that kind of sums up the division I feel with a lot of other modern film fans.
I didn't think American Beauty was a terrible film but I didn't think it was a good one either and even mentioning it in the same breath with something like The Insider baffles me. Nearly ten years later I don't understand why the public or critics responded to Mendes' film so strongly.
The best actor award that year went to Kevin Spacey, an actor I typically like but not in American Beauty and frankly comparing Spacey's rather limp turn to Crowe's monumental performance is unbelievably jarring to me. I think it was to a lot of folks as well as it was just a year later that Crowe did indeed win the award he should have taken home in 99 for Gladiator, a great film and performance but to my eyes not at the level of The Insider.
Michael Mann lost the directing prize to Sam Mendes, again for American Beauty and he also lost the best adapted screenplay award to John Irving for The Cider House Rules (you couldn't make this stuff up if you tried, it's like the academy voters all smoked cracked before submitting their ballots). Also on the losing end that night was the film's cinematographer Dante Spinotti and the editing and sound teams.
Pacino, who gives one of the best performances of his life here, wasn't even granted a nomination nor was Lisa Gerrard, whose breathtaking score is one of the most effective I have ever heard.
Add on insult to injury, the film's current DVD is one of the most botched I have ever seen with an non-existent audio commentary by Crowe and Pacino listed on the back and only a short featurette granted as an extra. In a world where we have special editions of Police Academy and Mallrats, can't we get a decent dvd release of The Insider?
There have been lots of other wince inducing years at the Oscars (don't even get me started on 1952, 1968, or pretty much the entire decade of the eighties) but the 1999 awards really bug me. Which all goes towards saying if you have never seen The Insider, or if it has been awhile, give it a look. I hope that a decent DVD hits stores eventually, as it is the current one can be found typically for under ten dollars at stores and online.

Lou Reed's Berlin: French Poster Design

Just came across this awesome French Poster for Schnabel's Berlin and had to post it here. I love how they are using the Ecstasy era photo with it as I have always found those some of the most striking images of Lou. Can't wait to to see this thing...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Blaxploitation Operation: Johnny Tough

It is a real shame that the directorial debut from Horace Jackson, 1974’s Johnny Tough, isn’t a better film. A shame because the idea behind it, to remake Francois Truffaut’s monumental masterpiece The 400 Blows as an inner city African American drama, is a fascinating and compelling one. Even though the film is a disappointment and a heavily flawed feature it is still an interesting one and is deserving of a look if you can track the film down.

Jackson only directed two features in his career, with the other being 1977’s Joey (a.k.a. Deliver Us From Evil), and he is probably best know as the screenwriter of the fascinating The Bus Is Coming (1971)…a film I will be focusing on soon.
Jackson’s film career started in the mid sixties with Living Between Two Worlds (1963), a film he wrote, produced and even acted in. Johnny Tough shows him as an ambitious talent but unfortunately an experienced cast and budgetary problems damage the film nearly beyond repair and today it is mostly just a valuable curiosity more than anything else.
Johnny Tough is indeed an almost straight remake of Truffaut’s legendary first Antoine Doinel film with young Dion Gossett (seen here in his only big screen appearance) as the troubled title character. Gossett is actually quite good in the film and, truth be told, he is more convincing than most of the adult actors that surround him.

The rest of the cast is almost entirely made up of actors with no film experience and it shows as almost everyone struggles with Jackson’s ambitious screenplay. Character actor Renny Roker is the only one featured of the major players who has more than a handful of credits on his resume and it is no surprise that he gives one of the better performances in the film. The rest of the cast, put simply, fail to sell the material at nearly every turn and the film has a hard time making up for this.
The film is also visually flat and resembles a TV movie more than a big screen feature, although admittedly the faded full frame print I saw makes it hard to definitively judge the photography of Pets cinematographer Mark Rasmussen. Even in this print though it is clear that Johnny Tough lacks the urban finesse that typified the best of this period. It is a bland looking picture about an exciting subject and it simply never visually pops.

The score, by acclaimed Detroit musician Dennis Coffey, is also a bit of a let down as it suffers from a lot of needless repetition, which is more than likely due to the limited budget and short shooting schedule.
Despite all of the major problems the film has, it is still hard not to admire what Jackson was attempting here. The film has balls and I must admit by the closing scene (which does a fascinating turn on Truffaut’s famed closing still of Jean-Pierre Leaud’s Doinel) I was more than a little moved…even though my emotion was due more to the fact of what was behind the film rather than what was actually on the screen.

Johnny Tough was released in theaters in 1974 and failed to connect with audiences or critics. It floated around for awhile (sometimes under the title of just Tough) and reappeared in 1977 on a Drive In Bill as a companion piece to Jackson’s Joey. It can be found on a public domain, transferred from VHS, DVD usually for around a dollar around the country.

Johnny Tough is a well meaning little film that has too many flaws to give a real recommendation to. Still, warts and all, fans of African American cinema in the seventies and admirers of Truffaut’s film in general shouldn’t miss it.

The Blaxploitation Operation: Youngblood

While mostly remembered today for its scorching soundtrack from legendary WAR, Noel Nosseck’s 1978 feature Youngblood is a film well worth tracking down as a sincere if minor look at the damaging effect of gang warfare in the late 1970’s.
Shot on location in Los Angeles in the early part of 1978, this American International Picture has mostly been under the radar since its brief theatrical release in the summer of 78. Starring young Bryan O’Dell, probably best known for his role as Marvin in What’s Happening!, and Freddie ‘Boom-Boom’ Washington himself, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Youngblood is an extremely well acted if ultimately not totally satisfying production that benefits greatly from the low key shooting style of Nosseck and its vivid on location setting.
Nosseck worked as an editor and writer on a variety of TV productions in the sixties before helming his first feature in 1975 with the exploitation picture, Best Friends. He followed that picture up with the sleazy but fun Stella Stevens film Las Vegas Lady (also 1975) but neither really helped propel his blossoming directorial career too far. Youngblood was a big switch from the exploitative tone of his first two films as it is at heart a very serious picture about a difficult subject.

The screenplay is credited to the playwright Paul Carter Harrison and I haven’t been able to locate too much on his film background. With only one other feature to his credit, 1975’s Lord Shango, he wasn’t exactly prolific in the film world but his script for Youngblood is pretty rich and it feels mostly authentic. The story, focusing on a talented young teenage athlete who joins a local gang, is an ambitious one that tackles not only gang problems but also drug issues, family situations and societal attitudes in general. Harrison’s dialogue is very crisp and if Youngblood finally does fall a little short, it isn’t for lack of conviction. There is a lot of heart in Harrison’s script and Nosseck’s direction.

Youngblood works its best in the scenes involving family as nearly all of the main characters in the film are driven to their destinies by problems at home. Jacobs is especially extraordinary in the scenes with his wife where he desperately attempts to explain his inability to separate from the gang mentality that has haunted him his whole life. It is in these moments where the film is at its most emotional and it is clear John Travolta shouldn’t have been the only Welcome Back Kotter veteran to find stardom and respect.
Young O’Dell is also extremely good in what is a very demanding roll. In the film in nearly every scene, O’Dell portrayal of youth just as it is getting lost is right on the money and like Jacobs it is a shame he didn’t come to more prominence in his career.

Filling out the cast are a variety of faces that fans of seventies cinema will find familiar, including Car Wash’s Len Woods and character actors Art Evans, Earl Billings and the late Lionel Mark Smith. The cast is quite a unit and everyone delivers consistently good work here.
The film was shot by Emmy winner Robbie Greenberg but it is a bit hard for me to comment on the photography as my copy came from a full frame and faded print. The film’s fast pace can be contributed partially to the expert cutting of future Oscar nominated editor Frank Morris who had just come off the extraordinary I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) for Robert Zemeckis.

Nosseck has a good eye for on location storytelling and it is the backstreets and alleys of Los Angeles itself that becomes perhaps the films most resounding character. An expertly handled riot sequence in the middle stands out especially as does the lonely rock mine closing of the film that almost makes it feel like it is taking place on another distant and deserted planet.
The film isn’t perfect by a longshot though. It feels a bit episodic and certain characters and storylines are brought up but are never fully realized, but still Youngblood is a good and well meaning film that deserves a larger audience.
The soundtrack by WAR is the most famous aspect of the production and it is, as previously mentioned, what most people remember. It is a great score, although truth be told, not one of WAR’S essential albums. Still, I promise that once the theme song gets in your head, it won’t leave anytime soon.

Nosseck has worked mostly in TV since with the odd theatrical feature thrown in. Youngblood is probably his most distinguished and fully realized production. The talented Jacobs continues to work steadily to this day but I must admit that it angers me that such a charismatic and good actor has never fully attained the status he deserves. O’Dell surprisingly never went on to do a lot more as he just has a dozen or so minor film and TV work to his credit after his strong performance here.
Youngblood didn’t make much of a splash in 1978 and it has virtually vanished since as it has never had a proper home video release. I would love to see a quality DVD of it in the future as it is a good if not great film well worth the time anyone might be willing to give it.

Far Out Films Of The Seventies: The Eyes Of Laura Mars

Starting out life as an early story from legendary director John Carpenter entitled Eyes, Irvin Kershner’s Eyes Of Laura Mars remains one of the slickest and most effective American thrillers of the late seventies. Bolstered by an intense lead performance by Faye Dunaway and some very memorable photography by Helmut Newton, Eyes Of Laura Mars was a fairly big hit back in 1978 but is often overlooked as one of the more memorable films of the period.
Carpenter had come up with the idea for Eyes, about a controversial fashion photographer who can psychically see through the eyes of killer while he is murdering her friends and coworkers, when he was working on spec scripts in the early and mid seventies. After the mammoth success of Halloween, producer Jon Peters bought Carpenter’s story for Columbia Pictures and brought the famed director on board to work on his first major studio its screenwriter.
Carpenter did indeed delver a version of Eyes Of Laura Mars but Columbia wasn’t totally compelled by it so they brought in David Zelag Goodman in to touch it up. The Academy award nominated Goodman is best known for his work on Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971) and the Sci-fi classic Logan’s Run (1976) and his work on Eyes Of Laura Mars remains a point of contention among fans of the film.
Peter’s and Columbia had originally envisioned Eyes as a vehicle for mega-star Barbra Streisand who was fresh off fan favorite A Star Is Born (1976). That idea fell through, although Streisand would end up playing a rather pivotal role in Eyes Of Laura Mars, and Faye Dunaway was hired on instead.

Dunaway, at the time, was rightly considered one of the greatest actresses in Hollywood. She had just had the one-two knock out punch of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (175) and Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and had in fact just won the Academay award for the latter production. Dunaway, nearing forty when she made Eyes Of Laura Mars, was at her absolute height and as Mars she gives one of her great performances, even though it too has its critics.
Future Empire Strikes Back (1980) director Irvin Kershner is often undervalued and Eyes Of Laura Mars is definitely one of his more notable achievements. Kershner got his start in the fifties with such big screen productions like Stakeout On Dope Street (1958) and several popular television productions. This alternating between TV and film would continue throughout the sixties for Kershner where along the way he would garner a few Emmy nominations for his work on the small screen.
Kershner’s most popular film work leading up to Eyes Of Laura Mars were several off the wall dark comedies including A Fine Madness (1966), The Flim-Flam Man (1967) and Up The Sandbox (1972). Sandbox would star Streisand herself in one of her wackiest roles which makes the idea of her in Mars even more intriguing. After the terrific S*P*Y*S in 1974 and the Richard Harris vehicle The Return Of A Man Called Horse (1976), Columbia and Peters approached Kershner with the idea of doing Eyes, a film which would turn out to be his first near all out thriller, and he accepted fairly quickly.
Kershner’s work in Eyes Of Laura Mars is one of its biggest assets. Adapt at building a real sense of dread in the film’s more eerie moments, Kershner also lends his excellent comic hand in the film’s lighter and more human points. His work throughout the film lends it a most distinctive air, almost like a glossy big studio American Giallo. It has that same seductive blood soaked feel about it, something very few American thrillers have ever achieved.
Joining Kershner behind the scenes are Cinematographer Victor J. Kemper, who I just recently wrote about in my look at Arthur Hiller’s The Hospital (1972) and designers Gene Callahan (Art) and Robert Gundlach (Production). Gundlach had just come off a heavy duty job as art director on Robert Guillerman’s King Kong remake in 76 and fittingly Eyes Of Laura Mars resembles the second half of that ambitious and undervalued film perhaps more than any other.

Since Eyes Of Laura Mars is a film set in the fashion world a look at the costume design of the film is warrented and famed designer Theoni V. Aldredge definitely comes through big time with Kershner’s film. Everyone in the film is decked out in some of the most memorable outfits of the period with special mention going to the absolute gorgeous and sexy dresses Aldredge gave Dunaway. It’s stirring work from the multiple Tony and Oscar winning designer and it is a shame that the Academy didn’t at least honor her with a nomination for her work on Eyes Of Laura Mars. She did win a well deserved Saturn Award for the film though.
Legendary and controversial photographer Helmut Newton was hired on by Columbia to shoot the pictures of Laura Mars and his work in the film unforgettable, with his violent and sexy fetishistic photos connecting the film even more to the works by Italian maestros like Sergio Martino and especially Dario Argento. Some of the more striking photos do indeed look like they could be stills from some of the more provocative Italian productions from the early seventies. Eyes Of Laura Mars would mark the first, and unfortunately, final time Newton would lend his unmistakable eye to a film, a fact that alone makes Eyes Of Laura Mars and important work.

Moving along at a lightning pace, thanks to the quick cutting styles of Spielberg editor Michael Kahn, and scored expertly by Artie Kane, Eyes Of Laura Mars is at the very least one of the most entertaining American films of the late seventies. It is also one of the most interesting, perhaps even more so today as our culture has become so saturated by the type of violent and sexual images the film is dealing with. One can see the influence of Newton’s photography everywhere now, from advertisements to film to video, and the questions the film raises about why we are so attracted to such images remains a valuable one.
Joining the rather breathtaking Dunaway is future Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones, who was just on the brink of stardom here. As the police detective Mars falls for, Jones is very sharp, handsome and justifiably intense. One reason the film’s payoff is so good is due to the amount of humanity and natural charisma that Jones brings to the role. Watching it today, it is impossible to think of anyone else in it. Rounding out the supporting cast are several truly gifted character actors, including scene stealer Rene Auberjonois, Brad Dourif and Raul Julia. Auberjonois is particularly good here and gives the film several brief comic interludes that Kershner works into the proceedings seamlessly.
The models themselves are, of course, all quite striking, with special mention going to both Darlanne Fluegel’s Lulu and Lisa Taylor’s Michele. One of the film’s biggest triumphs is that it allows these models to feel like real people. So often films centering in the fashion world are hampered by weak characterizations but both Fluegel and Taylor are given some wonderful scenes to work with here which makes their murder sequence one of the most spellbinding and moving. They would both appear in a 1978 Playboy spread advertising the film which I have unfortunately not seen.
The thing that I like most about Eyes Of Laura Mars, and the thing that I think separates it from most thrillers from the period, is the way it deliberately dismantles itself just past the middle point. It is easy to look upon the rather forced relationship between Dunaway and Jones as just a stab to bring more people into the theater, but by shifting the tone of the film from hard edged thriller to near sappy romance, Kershner is able to brilliantly set up one of the best pay offs in late seventies American cinema. The rather awkward romantic scenes between Dunaway and Jones only make sense and have a resonance about them after the film has ended, which helps the film gain strength in its reviewings. Kershner is a smart filmmaker and, less a commercial ploy, the sudden switch in tone in the film is actually quite clever.
It is that switch that I believe John Carpenter and many critcs don’t like about the film. Carpenter would have made Eyes Of Laura Mars a much more straight ahead and go for the throat thriller but Kershner seems much more interested in manipulating the audience in different ways. I think Carpenter’s film would have been a real winner, but that shouldn’t take away from Kershner’s work.
Another aspect that has divided fans of the film is the themes song by Streisand that plays at the beginning, end, and at various points throughout the film. I happen to adore the song and think it is one of Streisand’s career defining performances. It also happens to fit the film and Laura Mars character perfectly and I frankly can’t imagine the film without it. Still, it remains a sore spot to some who see Eyes Of Laura Mars as nothing but a slick and pandering piece of commercial filmmaking.
Eyes Of Laura Mars opened in the late summer of 1978 and was a sizeable hit. Critical reaction was mixed but the fans ate it up and it grossed three times its budget throughout the late part of the year. It would also do well in Europe, especially in France where Carpenter’s inventive original story and Kershner’s stylish direction caught the eye of several prominent film critics.
Carpenter has all but disowned the film and has been very vocal about his dislike for the final product. Dunaway would have a couple of minor hits in the late seventies before her career was pretty much destroyed after the disastrous reception that greeted 1981’s ill fated Mommie Dearest. Although she still acts to this day, Eyes Of Laura Mars remains her absolute peak as one of the screen’s great performers and beauties.

Kirshner began work on The Empire Strikes Back right after production on Eyes Of Laura Mars wrapped and his work on that film would be just as spectacular and innovative. His career after is unfortunately scatter shot with only the unofficial James Bond picture Never Say Never Again really show flashes of his obvious brilliance again (although some could make a case for his Robocop 2 as well).
Eyes Of Laura Mars is a rare breed of commercial filmmaking. Like the memorable photographs that Mars takes in the film, there is a lot more to it than just an average middle of the road thriller. Drawing on a real palatable aesthetic, Kershner’s film feels as fresh, alive and as sinister as it did thirty years ago. The current DVD of it features a solid commentary from the director, a vintage behind the scenes feature called Visions and the participation of important DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau who rightly puts the film in its place as one of the most under looked classics of late seventies American cinema.