On Nov. 12, 1910, a hundred years ago today, a man jumped out of a burning-hot air balloon into the Hudson River while a movie camera rolled. The vast majority of silent films are lost to history — vanished, destroyed or somehow rendered invisible — and this, it would seem, is one of them; I’ve seen the burning balloon gag cited as the first movie stunt on a number of sites, some quite thorough and authoritative, yet none list the film’s title or the name of the stuntman. Photographic evidence of the balloon man’s deed lives on in the Topps bubblegum card pictured here, and his legacy can be seen on any screen that shows moving images.
But what happens when movies change, and stunts become devalued?
I ask because in looking at that image of the stuntman diving into the Hudson, and running through a mental checklist of my favorite movie stunts, I realized that almost none of them occurred in films released during the last 10 years.
What’s the significance of that time frame? Well, for one thing, it’s the approximate start of the Digital Era of cinema — the point where video started to replace film and practical effects (meaning effects that were created in order to be photographed just like any other physical object) started being subsumed by computer-generated effects. And for another (and this is surely related) the late ’90s/early aughts marks the point when classical or “old-fashioned” editing — which dictated that every cut should be dramatically and aesthetically justified — was supplanted by what the film theorist David Bordwell calls the “intensified continuity” or “run and gun” style. The latter seeks to excite viewers by keeping them perpetually unsettled with computer-enhanced images, fast cutting and a camera that never stands still.
Intensified continuity is about denying the viewer a fixed vantage point on what’s happening to the characters — especially in action scenes. It’s about “using brief shots to maintain the audience’s interest but also making each shot yield a single point, a bit of information,” Bordwell writes. “Got it? On to the next shot.”
One side effect of intensified continuity is that it doesn’t let audiences see action in context — and is, in fact, the enemy of context. If the 1910 balloon stunt appeared in a film made today, we probably wouldn’t see it in a sustained wide shot that showed the diver in relation to the balloon and the Hudson River as he jumped from the basket and dropped into the water (the preferred framing of truly spectacular film stunts from the silent era through the end of the 20th century). We’d more likely see a flurry of shots, only one of which showed us the big picture. Most of those would very likely be anxious hand-held close-ups — say, a hand grasping the lip of the basket, the man’s feet leaving the floor of the basket, a brief point-of-view shot revealing what the man saw as he jumped from the basket and so forth. Intensified continuity, Bordwell writes, “doesn’t demand that you develop an ongoing sense of the figures within a spatial whole. The bodies, fragmented and smeared across the frame, don’t dwell within these locales. They exist in an architectural vacuum.”
That might seem like a minor difference, but for stunt performers, it’s major. An “architectural vacuum” can sustain excitement on-screen — I enjoyed the Bourne trilogy, for example, and defend its often derided rat-a-tat visual style as a subjective expression of its hero’s warrior intuition, an approach that gives viewers a sense of what it might be like to live in the head of a beleaguered assassin who knows he could be killed at any second and has to keep scanning his surroundings for information and signs of danger. At the same time, though, I can’t deny that the run-and-gun style has dampened the impact of stunts. As astounding as that car chase in the second “Bourne” film was, I might have appreciated it more — perhaps savored it as a display of choreography and cutting and physical daring in the way that I did the truck chase at the end of “The Road Warrior” and other ambitious chase scenes — if the camera had pulled back more and if the director, Paul Greengrass, had been willing to hold shots for longer than a second or two.
The decline of classical filmmaking, coupled with cinema’s increased reliance on computer-generated or computer-burnished imagery, has pretty much destroyed the specialness — the magic — of movie stunts. You can’t appreciate what you can’t see. And it’s harder to appreciate the unusual nature of a physical achievement when the entire movie strives to make every moment seem thrilling, astonishing and intense — a phenomenon I wrote about in a 2009 Salon piece about the director Michael Bay, who seems to believe there is no such thing as a small moment, and whose hyperactive action pictures suggest what Nike ads would look like if they were directed by killer cyborgs on cocaine.
I thought this summer’s Angelina Jolie action thriller “Salt” split the difference between classical and contemporary filmmaking quite well, giving viewers the now industry-standard editing razzle-dazzle while also holding shots somewhat longer than the norm and putting the heroine’s feats of strength and endurance in physical context. My favorite stunt in the film is photographed with what is, by contemporary filmmaking standards, unusual patience and calm: Salt ducking out of an apartment window to elude pursuers and clambering from window ledge to window ledge like a cat, carefully and with concentration. Jolie did this stunt herself with the insurance of a wire harness that was later erased digitally. It’s a meat-and-potatoes stunt, not too fancy, yet it’s very effective. Why? Because it sustains the illusion that we’re watching an actual person do something dangerous in circumstances we recognize from life. I get mild vertigo just thinking about that scene — much more so than I do recalling a far more visually spectacular stunt in the same film in which Jolie’s character escapes CIA agents and cops by jumping off an overpass bridge and landing on the roof of a moving truck. The latter is far less exciting than the window ledge stunt partly because of how it’s edited (cut-cut-cut) and partly because a key shot in the sequence, which follows Salt as she tumbles down off the bridge, is obviously (and rather awkwardly) computer-assisted — and thus no more real-seeming than the airborne house in “Up.”
Yes, of course, stunts are still being performed. And stunt performers are no less daring and inventive than they were in the ’80s, the ’60s or the ’20s, when Harold Lloyd hung from a clock face in “Safety Last” and Buster Keaton risked getting crushed by the falling facade of a house in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” But stunts don’t register (for this viewer at least) the way they once did, because the current language of movies devalues and diminishes them. Real stunt performers clambered across the tops of the train in the current “Unstoppable,” but director Tony Scott cuts so often that it’s harder to appreciate the bravery of the characters and the athleticism of the stuntpeople; the stunt becomes another piece of data in the cinema of information overload.
Great stunts are arresting in large part because they occur in reality, or “reality” — the reality established by the movie; i.e., the wider (visual) context that Bordwell writes about. In retrospect, I think the last great flowering of movie stunt work happened in the early ’80s and ’90s, when Hollywood was churning out an unusually high number of well-constructed crash-and-burn action thrillers such as “Aliens,” “Die Hard,” “Terminator 2,” “Under Siege,” “The Fugitive” and “Speed,” and Hong Kong action cinema was showcasing work by actors who also happened to be astonishingly gifted stunt performers, and situating their work in films that made sure you knew where you were spatially and what the dramatic and physical stakes were. Think of Jackie Chan leaping from escalator to escalator and getting his face smashed into window glass in the shopping mall finale of “Police Story,” or the incomparable Michelle Yeoh, aka Claudette Colbert plus Buster Keaton, riding a motorcycle onto the roof of a moving freight train at the end of “Police Story III: Supercop.”
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on those occasions when a recent stunt makes a strong impression, it’s because the filmmaker has made a point of setting it up in a plainspoken manner, often showing the stunt performer’s entire feat in a comparatively long (for the action genre) take that views the performer from far back. Think of Roger Moore’s double Rick Sylvester diving off a cliff at the end of the ski chase in “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Or Harrison Ford’s regular stunt double Vic Armstrong sliding underneath a moving truck in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — or the legendary Hollywood stuntman Yakima Canutt performing a gag in “Zorro’s Fighting Legion” that directly inspired the one in “Raiders.” Or Thai kickboxer Tony Jaa showing off his superhuman agility in the low-fi martial arts thriller “Ong Bak.” Or stuntwoman Zoe Bell hanging on the hood of a Dodge Charger in the climactic chase sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.”
It’s probably also no coincidence that Bell and Jaa’s achievements were described in pre-release publicity for the movies — an extra-cinematic means of letting the audience know that what they’re seeing is both a great movie moment and a documentary record of an extraordinary athlete doing his or her thing. We’ve gotten to the point where audiences assume everything on-screen is conjured with pixels unless filmmakers strenuously insist otherwise. The low-fi aesthetic showcased in “Ong Bak” and “Death Proof” is the best antidote to audience skepticism, because when a movie is clearly made by people who didn’t have two nickels to rub together, that means the stunt work isn’t just an ingredient in the meal, it’s the main course.
I wonder if we’ll see a resurgence of low-tech, stunt-driven action as an antidote to high-tech sorcery. I hope so; with the right context and the right attitude, a wide shot of a man jumping out of a burning balloon could be more exciting than 300 computer-generated avatars charging across a battlefield made of ones and zeros while the director runs and guns and cuts, cuts, cuts.