Monday, August 4, 2014

Stunt Masters

The summer months may be a great time for working on one's tan, catching up on the latest novels, or hitting the road and visiting some of America's national parks.  But for millions of movie fans, July and August are devoted to shark movies.

Looking for some magnificent special effects? Sharks getting gutted with chainsaws? Doomed dumb blondes getting chewed to bits by gigantic, razor-sharp teeth? Rest assured that the Syfy Channel is ready and waiting for you.

Unfortunately, the problem with green screens and CGI animation technology is that absolutely anything is possible. That takes some of the fun out of the story and replaces it with ridiculous special effects and cheap cameo appearances by D-list celebrities (Perez Hilton, Downtown Julie Brown, Andy Dick, Kelly Osbourne, and Billy Ray Cyrus) as well as professional newscasters like Al Roker and Matt Lauer,

In an era when anything is possible if you've got enough money and technology at your disposal, it's interesting to harken back to an earlier era in cinema when new ideas were being developed and major stars performed their own stunts. One of the delights of the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival was a presentation by Craig Barron (the Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor) and Ben Burtt (an Academy Award-winning sound designer), who demonstrated some of the cinematic innovations (matte shots, process shots, miniatures, and rear projection  effects) that were used by Charlie Chaplin in films like 1931's City Lights and 1936's Modern Times.

Barron and Burtt are the kind of team who can easily finish each other's sentences in their excitement to show rare footage of Chaplin merging a painted drop (that can deliver a forced perspective to a movie set) with the partial set that has been constructed at full scale.

Also shown at this year's festival were two shorts (1922's The Blacksmith and 1924's The Navigator) starring Buster Keaton, whose deadpan performances deftly covered some meticulously planned stunts.

The clips of The Blacksmith that are available on YouTube do not have any musical accompaniment. At first, that might seem like a severe handicap but, after you've listened to the soundtracks from several shark movies, it may seem more and more like a blessing in disguise.

Thankfully, this clip of The Navigator boasts a lively musical accompaniment that underlines the human qualities (innocence, innovation, sentimentality, romance, and charm) which make so many stunts and bits of physical comedy succeed in silent film in a way that the crassness of a chainsaw could never accomplish in a shark movie. Enjoy!

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