Friday, June 09, 2006
The Stunt Man, USA, 1980, Richard Rush
I noticed that the film is based on a novel. I wonder if the novel is equally interested in the what's-reality? theme so at the centre of the film. I suspect that the book would address this more in terms of the psychological manipulation of the cast and crew conducted by the director. This is essential to the plot so the film does attend to it, but the film also has fun with cinematic perception itself, giving us wheels within wheels with respect to action that is a fake of a fake - or is it? - and so on. It was this quasi-epistemological thrust that so attracted me to the film when I saw it years ago (that and Barbara Hersey). This time, I found it contrived and quite jive. I won't give examples and analyse details. Enough to say that that the positing of them filming on location rather than on a set is violated repeatedly in order to have some what's-reality? fun; but then, resorting to obvious set pieces necessarily undermines the very grey area which is absolutely essential for this fun. In short, we know what's phoney and what's real so all the jokes based on not being sure about this fall flat.
What's left? Ironically, the remaining substance is precisely those elements of story-telling that are not specifically cinematic but are instead those of literature. This is why I wondered about the novel previously. That the plot is far-fetched is hardly a problem. This is comedy after all. Once the premise is accepted, the tale has genuine momentum and resolves itself accordingly. More delightful, given the dynamic of the plot, the psychological manipulation of the cast and crew by the director is throughly entertaining and O'Toole is marvelous. He was nominated for his performance and thinking of the film as a whole rather than his work in particular, I used to wonder why. But seeing him do his thing again, he just eats the part with a spoon, giving a wonderful mixture of clownish exaggeration and subtle sincerity. That the movie he is making is clearly a piece of shit - now that's funny! Connected to this lovely star turn, and unlike the stunts within stunts business, much is added by the high-technological throne in which O'Toole's character resides, be it the helicopter (good) or the boom-crane seat (great). This too is very funny but even more, it raises certain questions about - not the social power of a movie director, how boring - no, the quasi-epistemological stuff so botched by the stunts within the stunts. Because guess what? He really does appear from out of nowhere. We really do wonder which way is up. His is a sort of motorized magic and we are compelled to scratch our heads for a second to wonder, what's reality?
What every happened to the actor who played the leading role? I never saw him before and haven't seen him since?
I loved The Stunt Man back when it was released (what, 1979? Nope, looked it up: 1980. It was filmed in 1978, but Fox wouldn't release it unti '80) It was a hip, sardonic, flippant, fourth wall-busting blast. But what happened to it over the years? Is it that others have figured out how to do it so much better, or simply that it wasn't really all that great in the first place, and I was merely too inexperienced a filmgoer to pick up on it at the time?
Alas, despite a snazzy performance by Peter O'Toole, who apparently modeled his character on David Lean (one can only wonder what kinda torture it musta been to film Lawrence of Arabia with him if this is the case) the film has not aged terribly well. As you noted, one of the biggest problems are the set pieces, which need to be completely convincing in order to lure us into the magic of movie land, but which come off as cheesy out-takes from a bad tv movie. This undercuts the energy of nearly every scene on the movie set and proves debilitating to the plausibility of the character's (especially the lead character, Cameron, played by Steve Railsback) reactions. Shit, I'm starting to sound like the kids today who complain that "old" movies action sequences aren't cool the way they are today. I hope that's not how it comes off.
Anyways, I wasn't able to get past about the 45m mark of the film. The damn thing just fell apart on me. How depressing. I bet O'Toole salvaged some of the second half of the film, because I do remember him being an absolute hoot in the part, but alas and alack, I never far enough to find out.
Did you know that Francois Truffault was an early contender to film the novel's adaptation? While I didn't know Truffault from a truffle back then, I'd sure pay to see that film today.
And that Ryan O'Neal was supposed to play the lead, but he dropped out. Steve Railsback snagged the lead away from Martin Sheen when the director caught Railsback performance as Charlie Manson in the TV miniseries Helter Skelter (which is the only other work of Railsback that I've ever seen as well, though he continues to work in TV and film to this very day).