The Stunt Man: Multiple Realities & Illusions

Following yesterday’s post recommending The Stunt Man, the Duchess and I watched it (on Amazon Prime). She claims it was her first time to see this fantastic flick, which means either she forgot seeing it (not likely) or I somehow skipped the “Must Get It Watching The Stunt Man” line on my “Criteria For Potential Spouses” checklist (it’s the line just after “Must Love Leonard Cohen”). In any case, the viewing not only reaffirmed her qualifications for Mrs DrHGuy (i.e., she could do a lot better than me, but she doesn’t know it.) but also reminded me why I am so taken with this movie.

“[The Stunt Man is] a virtuoso piece of kinetic filmmaking” Pauline Kael

Even a cursory survey of pertinent movie reviews demonstrates a distinct demarcation between those who deride what they view as the movie’s far-fetched plotting, unconvincing love story, continuity issues, and believability in general (let’s call these reviewers, grownup versions of that petulant 12 year old boy who always seems to sit behind us when a magician performs, sneering that “it’s a trick” and “it’s not really magic,” the Fearful, Convention-Clinging, Soulless Zombies) and those like Pauline Kael (“[The Stunt Man is] a virtuoso piece of kinetic filmmaking”) who are fascinated by the interdependence of and dazzling interplay between fantasy and reality (let’s call these folks the Ones Who Get It).

The key to earning a place in the select Ones Who It group is recognizing that Coleridge wrote about not the “suspension of disbelief,” but the “willing suspension of disbelief.” [bolding mine]

The cinematography of The Stunt Man is skillful enough and the script intelligent enough to seduce a nonresistant viewer who can tolerate confusion and ambiguity into its funhouse, but it is, after all, only a movie, not a virtual reality experience. Anyone determined to defend against the concomitant threats and charms of the film’s erasure of the distinction between reality and fantasy will be able to maintain a safe psychological distance from such uncertainty – and from recognizing what this film has to offer.

The Stunt Man uses an armamentarium of methods to intermingle reality and fantasy within an insistently artificial environment, including switches in point of view between the movie that is The Stunt Man and the movie being filmed within the frame of The Stunt Man, smoke and mirrors (literally as well as metaphorically), accidental misunderstandings, deliberately misleading dialog, jump cuts and deep transitions that disclose a changing reality, misinterpreted reactions (e.g., an expression of apparent terror is revealed to actually be sexual exaltation), disguises (see Barbara Hershey’s changing appearance below), trompe l’oeil, movie stunts, audio and visual puns, and much, much more.

The Stunt Man Plot Summary

Loosely based on Paul Brodeur’s novel of the same name, the story line deals with a Messianic director (Eli Cross, played by Peter O’Toole) making a movie in which a Vietnam vet (Cameron, played by Steve Railsback) becomes, by accident, the stunt man.

Escaping from police, Cameron stumbles onto a movie shoot and (maybe/maybe not) causes the death of the stunt man. The director, instead of turning Cameron in, hires him to be the replacement stunt man in return for sanctuary from the law.

The leading lady (Nina, played by Barbara Hershey) and Cameron, of course, fall in love.

And there’s the requisite big finish featuring Suspense! Love! Life & Death! (AKA thematic resolution with a flourish).

The plot is propelled almost solely through the director’s manipulations of his movie and his actors to produce the effects he wants, even if doing so puts the actors at risk psychologically and physically.

Eli directs the film with the fierceness and high-handedness typical of those endowed with divine right, (Iin his DVD commentary, Peter O’Toole describes basing his character on David Lean, who had directed O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.)) a connection he makes clear with proclamations such as this one in which he explains that the sponsoring studio will not interfere “‘because they know that if they touch my film I’ll kill them. I’ll kill them and I’ll eat them.” I’m not sure how to explain it but O’Toole’s recitation of these lines inspires awe, evokes laughter, and is altogether delightful.

In parallel with Eli’s orchestration of his file, The Stunt Man itself pulls the audience’s strings – and more. Some of the characters’ reactions, for example, seem forced or inappropriate, but always by being a few degrees off-center rather than being outlandish.

More To Come – StayTuned

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