Crash Course: The Art of Film Stuntwork by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee

Posted by on Jan 27 2014 | Guest Blog, Motion Pictures

Guest blog by Turner Classic Movie’s Scott McGee. McGee will be in person at the Dryden Theatre on Saturday, February 1 to introduce the film BULLITT (1968) and the importance of this film to the history of stuntmen, and particularly stunt driving.

Stunt work in film is a fascinating story of former cowboys, rodeo stars, circus performers, acrobats, daredevils, World War I pilots, wrestlers, athletes and racecar drivers becoming an integral part of film history. Stunting has been a part of cinema since cinema began. The thrill audiences got from seeing someone hang precariously off a window ledge, or gallop on a horse at reckless speeds through the woods on the way to a last-second rescue, fed the same basic need that we have today: to see human beings do something seemingly impossible, or at the very least, the human body in extraordinary motion. As moviegoers, our appreciation of stuntwork taps the same part of our cerebral cortex, that part of our brain that gives us pleasure by simply watching human beings move through defined space. We get a similar rush from choreographed song and dance. But as a filmmaking tool, skill set or profession, the artistry of stunting has been minimized. It could be assumed that there’s really only a finite number of ways a stuntman could fall from an established height into an airbag. But a fall is not just a fall, not when a director, cameraman, producer, the star and the entire crew is expecting that stunt performer to interpret the screenplay to the best of his or her ability, to stay in character, to do the gag quickly and efficiently—and to try not get killed.

 

In the winter of 2002, I had a chance to travel to Los Angeles for a three-day interview shoot with several veteran stuntmen. This was for an on-air tribute to stuntmen in the movies that aired in the summer of that same year on Turner Classic Movies. While there, I had a chance to talk to some gentlemen who represented some of the great movie stunt work of any generation: Terry Leonard, the guy who was dragged underneath the truck in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Bob Herron, doubling Ernest Borgnine, jumped a car through a billboard, then through the roof of a barn and landed some 150 feet away for Sam Peckinpah’s otherwise forgettable Convoy (1978); Loren Janes, Steve McQueen’s long-time stunt double in The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Getaway (1972), The Hunter (1980), etc.; and others, including Rick Seaman, Jack Williams, Bobby Hoy, Tony Brubaker, and Chuck Bail. Then in 2013, I invited Mr. Janes, Jeannie Epper, and Conrad Palmisano for an hour-long conversation at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Los Angeles. What occurred to me during the ‘02 production and my ’13 interview was that these stuntmen and stuntwomen, in terms of the way they related to each other and spoke of the job, were not unlike firefighters, cops or any other vocation that entails a great deal of risk at pretty much every turn. What was lacking though was an awareness that they were more than just skilled professionals doing a job of work. They didn’t think or speak like artists, but skilled workers, old pros. That is an admirable quality, entirely in keeping with the humble ethic passed down from the first generation of stuntmen who came to Hollywood as out-of-work cowboys.

 

But stuntwork is an art, as meaningful, varied and integral to filmmaking as cinematography, acting, art direction, or scoring. Great stuntwork, like other great filmmaking disciplines, can be appreciated on multiple levels, from varying points of view. There’s bad stuntwork, to be sure, so not every fist thrown, stirrup drag, crashed car, and belly-flopped biplane should automatically be considered to have some artistic merit. The impressive 40 minute car chase that concludes the 1974 cult favorite Gone in 60 Seconds has plenty of stuntwork, but the lackluster direction and editing can not bring the film or its stunts far enough from its low-budget, drive-in parameters. However, the two car chases that director John Frankenheimer and stunt coordinator Jean-Claude Lagniez staged in Nice and the streets of Paris for Ronin (1998)? Exceptional. These sequences served the story, built characters, and created tension and suspense that help to make the entire film a modern classic. It’s not enough to just do the gag. It has to mesh with the film, with the narrative, or build the star.

 

There’s nothing inherently wrong about enjoying a stunt for its spectacle, no more than it’s wrong to enjoy Royal Wedding (1951) only for Fred Astaire’s famed dance around a revolving room. Seeing great stuntwork in film elicits a considerable “wow” factor. If it doesn’t, then the filmmakers have failed in creating the most basic response from an audience: a gasp at something they haven’t seen before. As spectacle, we acknowledge the power and the sheer enjoyment of seeing great movie stunts performed, recognizing how our emotional interpretation and enjoyment of a film is shaped by the stunts. That’s what made Bullitt (1968) such an important turning point in stunt work. Director Peter Yates and his stuntmen—Carey Loftin as stunt coordinator, Bill Hickman, Bud Ekins and Steve McQueen himself as stunt drivers (with an assist from McQueen’s frequent double, Loren Janes)—created a chase scene that was so wholly original, it stood apart from the rest of the film, and yet, is also elevated the reception of the film story itself. Critics at the time praised the film, and made a conscious call-out to the nearly 12-minute chase spectacle, while also noting Steve McQueen’s cool cop character, an assessment that was always within the context of how he and his double, Bud Ekins, performed the chase.

 


 

No film craft works independently of others. The very nature of the medium is a collaborative form. The study of film acting must take into account the power of editing, for example. Similarly, for a stunt to work fully, in order for it to have the greatest effect on the photoplay, it must reconcile itself with other disciplines, including editing, but also the way the stunt is shot by the 2nd unit director, how it is framed by the cinematographer, and the like. But within this collaborative medium, the work of the stunt performer is worthy of genuine critical appreciation.

 

But this praise does not come easy. While the romantic idea of the life of the stuntman has been the subject of films (The Lost Squadron, Lucky Devils, Hooper, The Stunt Man) and television series (The Fall Guy), the assessment of what he or she does for filmmaking has been mired in a prejudice against certain genres, namely Westerns and action films. Stuntwork is an essential ingredient of both of those genres, and because of that, stuntwork is often dismissed as the domain of brainless action. Anyone can fall off a horse or crash a car, right? But there’s so much more to stunting than simple allowing gravity to do its work. There is a vast difference between Carey Loftin driving a 1970 Dodge Challenger R/T through the American Southwest in Vanishing Point (1971) and the cartoonish shenanigans that take place in The Cannonball Run (1980). But in general terms, films that have a lot of stunts in them, such as Westerns and action pictures, are not often considered serious films. And as such, they don’t often receive high praise from the industry, like the Oscar. Veterans of the stunt business have lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for years to have a stunt category created for Oscar consideration. So far, the Academy has refused. To be fair, they have good reasons for not creating a new category and they are at least being consistent; the category for Best Makeup wasn’t created until 1981. Regardless of whether or not stunt performers will ever get an Oscar category, two of their own have been given honorary statuettes: Yakima Canutt in 1967 and Hal Needham in 2012. But the need to look again at the work of the unknown stuntman remains. To be dragged underneath a team of horses (Yakima Canutt, Stagecoach)…crashing a plane on cue (Dick Grace, Lilac Time)…hurtling a car through New York City (Bill Hickman, The French Connection)…jumping a motorcycle onto a moving freight train (Michelle Yeoh, Supercop)…or coordinating an action sequence in such a way that allows an international film star to actually ride atop a speeding train (Sean Connery in The Great Train Robbery) or leap out of the world’s tallest building (Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol)…surely there’s an art to that.

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Évocateur Film Premiere // Dryden Trivia

Posted by on Jan 16 2014 | contest, Motion Pictures, Other

Win this poster!

Screen shot 2014-01-15 at 5.59.13 PM

Before shock jocks, Jerry Springer, and Fox News, one man ravaged the talk show format and delivered his own brand of confrontation and in-your-face antics. His name was Morton Downey Jr., and he turned political debate into shouting matches, occasional fistfights, and downright mayhem.

Featuring interviews with Herman Cain, Pat Buchanan, Chris Elliot, and Gloria Allred, the new documentary Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie probes the methods and motivations of not only Downey’s controversial television persona, but the man he was when the cameras were turned off.



The Dryden Theatre will be host to the Rochester Premiere of Évocateur: The Morton Downey Jr. Movie on Saturday, January 18 at 8 p.m., and we’re thrilled to welcome the Director of the film, Seth Kramer, as our special guest for the evening.

How well do you know your Morton Downey Jr. trivia? For each correct answer your name will be entered to win a pair of tickets to the screening and one lucky person will win a signed poster! Winners announced Friday, January 17 at 4 p.m. ET.

1. Which of these guests did not appear on the Morton Downey Jr. Show? A. Timothy Leary B. Abbey Hoffman C. Meir Kahane D. Yasser Arafat.

2. What famous surf tune is Morton Downey Jr. incorrectly credited with writing?

3. What talk show guest guest was at the center violent outbreaks on both the Morton Downey Jr. Show and the Geraldo Rivera Show?

Leave your answers in the comment section.

 
 

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Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Q&A with Lisa Hostetler – Part II

Posted by on Dec 27 2013 | Behind The Scenes, Photography

This month, Lisa Hostetler, PhD, joined the Eastman House staff as Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Photography. This is Part II of a recent conversation with Hostetler about the current state of photography, her interests in the medium, and her plans for working with the Eastman House collection. Click here to read Part 1!

LisaH

GEH: Which artists’ or era’s photography have been most formative in the way you approach (or consider) the medium?
LH: I’ve always been particularly intrigued by street photography of the 1940s and ’50s. I wrote my dissertation on Louis Faurer, and the exhibition and book Street Seen: The Psychological Gesture in American Photography, 1940–1959 grew out of my research on that project.

Street Seen focused on the work of six artists—Faurer, Lisette Model, Saul Leiter, Ted Croner, William Klein, and Robert Frank—whose work conveyed the subjective edge that sliced through American art during the war and immediate postwar years. The raw power of their images is unforgettable, and the unique combination of brashness and vulnerability that characterized the best postwar street photography spoke volumes about the anxieties and aspirations that pervaded society during that period. The way that those photographers’ work conveyed a personal vision of the world while collectively suggesting something fundamental about the nature of everyday life in the 1940s and ’50s taught me a lot. It showed me that photography can be a private aesthetic journey and a socially significant activity at the same time, and that paying attention to both aspects of a photographer’s work is a profoundly rewarding way to consider his or her accomplishments.

William Klein (American, b. 1928). Gun 2, near the Bowery, New York, 1955, printed 1985. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Museum purchase: Lila Acheson Wallace Fund.

William Klein (American, b. 1928). Gun 2, near the Bowery, New York, 1955, printed 1985. Gelatin silver print. George Eastman House. Museum purchase: Lila Acheson Wallace Fund.

GEH: What photograph or body of work have you experienced recently that surprised you, and in what way?
LH: Lately, I’ve been noticing that traditional photographic processes seem to be attracting a number of young photographers, who experiment with materials as they explore what is gained and what might be lost in the transition from analog to digital photography. I’m very excited about this work and look forward to seeing how this trend continues to develop.

GEH: To what extent do you see cinema and photography as reciprocal media? How do they influence each other?
LH: I see photography and cinema as related media in that they both have complex relationships to realism and to narrative. My favorite photographers and filmmakers often confound popular assumptions about their medium, especially when those assumptions involve the expectation of documentary truth or linear storytelling. That said, I think the urge to believe what we see in a photograph is practically a part of human nature by now, and the desire for a film to tell a story is equally strong. There is value in satisfying those instincts as well as in questioning them.

Photographers and filmmakers have been influenced by each other throughout history. I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues in the motion picture department to explore those connections and tease out their broader significance.

GEH: What aspects of the George Eastman House collections are you most looking forward to bringing to the public?
LH: At this point, I’m still looking forward to learning what all is in the collection! With over 400,000 objects, I have a lot of looking to do and many plans to make. I can’t wait to share what I find with the public. Also, I will be working with museum staff to make our entire photography collection searchable online, so that people can make their own discoveries as well.

 

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Q&A with Lisa Hostetler – Part I

Posted by on Dec 26 2013 | Behind The Scenes, Photography

This month, Lisa Hostetler, PhD, joined the Eastman House staff as Curator-in-Charge of the Department of Photography. We recently spoke with Hostetler about the current state of photography, her interests in the medium, and her plans for working with the Eastman House collection.

LisaH

GEH: What made you decide that joining us at George Eastman House was the right decision for you?
Lisa Hostetler: The opportunity to shape the future development of one of the world’s best photography collections was a key factor. The depth and variety of Eastman House’s holdings is impressive, and its legacy of important exhibitions— such as New Topographics—has made the institution an important player in the history of photography.

I want to build on this excellent foundation while working to raise the institution’s profile both nationally and internationally. In order to do this, I will focus on building a dynamic program that activates the collection, brings it up-to-date, and presents it in compelling ways. At the same time, I plan to support the development of new ideas and new voices in the field through temporary exhibitions and publications.

For me, the prospect of doing both historical and contemporary projects was especially appealing, as I’ve always been fascinated with all eras of photography’s history.

GEH: What do you think the role of photography collections and museums is today, given the medium’s ubiquity in our culture?
LH: Photography museums have an important role to play as our culture becomes increasingly saturated with photographic images. In this environment, visual literacy is essential, and good photographs hone our ability to see clearly and understand the world’s complexity. Photographers spend their lives thinking about seeing and com- municating their ideas, and we have a lot to learn from them. By preserving and exhibiting their work, photography museums allow audiences to benefit from their experience. In addition, sometimes a photograph’s scale and physical presence are as telling as its imagery, and museum collections are vital for preserving access to the insights original objects offer.

GEH: How does that affect what we should collect and exhibit?
LH: These factors directly inform collection and exhibition activities. We need to maintain our connection to photography’s history—where it’s been both materially and conceptually— in order to truly understand and appreciate its current situation. I hope to pursue acquisitions and exhibitions that have meaning in the present, but that are informed by an understanding of the past and open to future possibilities.

Read Part II of this Q&A!

 

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Instagram Takeover

Posted by on Dec 11 2013 | Other

Last week, we decided to change things up a bit on Instagram. Taking a break from our own behind-the-scenes photos from around the museum, we handed over the keys to visiting artists Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman for our first Instagram Takeover.

A few days before their lecture as part of our Wish You Were Here series, the takeover week began with Larson and Shindelman posting photos and videos related to trending hashtags.

Eastman House Instagram

Eastman House Instagram

As the week went on, Larson and Shindelman used our Instagram account to document their travels to Eastman House for their lecture on December 5.

Eastman House Instagram

Eastman House Instagram

And when they arrived at the museum, they captured many scenes from deep inside the Department of Photography.

Eastman House Instagram

Eastman House Instagram

In the end, the takeover was a great success! It gave our followers an opportunity not only to engage with contemporary artists connected to the museum, but also to experience a unique view of Eastman House! To see all of their photos, follow us on Instagram at instagram.com/EastmanHouse

Thanks to Nate and Marni for testing out this new concept. Stay tuned in January for our next takeover by a photographer currently featured in our exhibition Astro-Visions.

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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