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The Stunt Man

1980. Written and directed by Richard Rush. With Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Allen Goorwitz.

A young fugitive with an already-fluid identity hooks up with a movie company shooting an anti-war epic and gets sucked into a weird truth-or- illusion game. He thinks he has inadvertently caused the death of the leading man's stunt double, and he agrees to the director's proposal that he not only replace the dead man but impersonate him. This lets the production avoid a costly interruption, and provides a great way for the kid to evade the law. "You've heard of movie magic," coos the direction. "You shall be a stunt man, who is an actor, who is a character in a movie, who is an enemy soldier. Who'll look for you amongst all those?"

Immediately the kid is renamed ("Lucky"), dressed up, and thrust into dangerous situations that might or might not be staged. Are those blanks or real bullets flying around? Is the director setting him up to be murdered? Does the leading lady really love him, or is she playing? Is the original stunt man really dead? Is Lucky pretending to fight World War I or is he back in Vietnam? Is the flamboyant director (named "Ira Cross" and continually flying aloft on a dolly) actually a dark angel, the kid's "fate" or some other symbolic creature?

The Stunt Man glories in ambiguity (it won critical praise for doing so), but it works in a strange and ultimately annoying way. Time and again we're thrust into the middle of scenes of mayhem without knowing if they are part of Cross's WWI script or if events have spun terribly out of control. It's seldom clear to which camera--Cross's or Richard Rush's--the performers are addressing themselves.

For example, during one of the early war scenes in which Lucky participates, another soldier slams a rifle butt in his face and opens up a deep gash in his cheek. Stunned, frightened and angry, Lucky looks around wildly and begins to truly fight for his life. Has this "movie" turned into a free-for-all, we ask ourselves? Is it a cover for some sort of murder plot? Then suddenly the other soldiers are grinning and patting Lucky on the back. The shot has been a success. His stunt mentor comes up and peels the wound off his face. Now, the joke here is obviously on the audience alone, since Lucky had to know that he'd spent time getting made up, that his face didn't really hurt, and that everything was proceeding as planned. Why then that reaction of confusion and fear? (Great acting? I don't think so...) And why were we shown the attack on Lucky as a continuous sequence, when in actual fact the cameras would have stopped, the makeup person would have rushed in and applied the "wound," and a new shot would have begun?

Another time, a bunch of tourists are gathered out of camera range to watch Cross shoot a scene of soldiers storming a beach. Cameras rolling... Cue the soldiers... Explosions, gunfire, smoke. Abruptly the spectators' grins turn to looks of horror. They begin to scream and point. Men are lying on the beach horribly maimed. Blood and severed limbs are everywhere. Oh God, there's a real attack going on! The bystanders turn to flee. No...wait. Those mangled men stand up and brush themselves off. The one whose legs have been shot off pushes that prosthetic mass of flesh off his lap and pulls his (intact) lower body out of the sand. The crowd shakes their heads in relief, impressed once again with the magic of movies.

Trompe-l'oeil, as the video box says. But look: it's impossible. Sequences like that aren't filmed in real time. Are we supposed to believe that the actors managed to half-bury themselves in the sand, rip their uniforms, drench themselves in stage blood, and arrange prop body parts all around under cover of a couple of brief puffs of smoke? The Stunt Man keeps us confused about what's real and what's cinema by misrepresenting the logistics of filmmaking. Other movies about movies do the same thing--it's not unusual to see a sequence composed of dozens of different shots unroll between "Action!" and "Cut!"--and usually it's an excusable expedient. But The Stunt Man's entire MO is to make us wonder which fictions belong to the inner movie and which belong to the outer movie, which means that it achieves its central effects by cheating.

I think that this was not noticed when the film came out because The Stunt Man is shot and edited in that non-sequential style that looked so hip and European in the late 70s. There are many short, fragmentary scenes that seem to have no logical or temporal connection to each other. Like Lucky, we feel stoned, stupid and paranoid. Talk about the pathetic fallacy!

Some failures of continuity may be a case of turning necessity into a virtue, since The Stunt Man had a long and tangled production history and was probably significantly reconstructed in the editing room. But here what makes me suspicious: There's a sequence early on where the stunt director is showing Lucky how to take a fall. The guy does a simple shoulder roll on a mat, and then Lucky tries one. In each case, there are a couple of cuts in the middle of the roll! A straightforward, 3-second piece of action turned into hash! What, couldn't the actors manage their own somersaults? Did they have to resort to stunt work within stunt work? I guess if I respected the filmmaker more, I would call this self-referentiality, but it only seems sloppy. The movie badly needs some foundation of honest actions and real spatial relationships against which to set its many ambiguities and conundrums.

Hmmm, I can hear myself sounding like scold here. The Stunt Man was highly praised when it came out as a challenging, elliptical piece of filmmaking. It certainly plays with many of the intriguing paradoxes of movies as recorders of both true and false events. Maybe somebody out there who liked it better than I did can put it in a more positive light for us.



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copyright ©2004 Barbara Bernstein