31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 12: “The Stunt” by Michael LaPointe

From After Realism: 24 Stories for the 21st Century

“Realism,” writes editor André Forget in the introduction to his anthology After Realism: 24 Stories for the 21st Century, “is notoriously difficult to pin down.” Forget does provide a brief sketch of what he understands realism to comprise, including some of its more “pedestrian” aspects: “an emphasis on character development over plot, a straightforward or understated style, a preference for ordinary people and recognizable settings, a tendency toward introspection rather than action, and a rejection of the supernatural.”

By this measure, Toronto writer Michael LaPointe’s chilly entry “The Stunt” constitutes one of the more realistic stories in Forget’s anthology. Its setting – a movie set – is recognizable, if rather exotic, and the character development is at least as important as the plot, though LaPointe doesn’t skimp on the latter. If the story flouts one of Forget’s stated features more than any other, it is the preference for introspection over action. In brief, “The Stunt” is, as its title would suggest, chock full of incident.

LaPointe’s story focuses on the death of Doretta “Dot” Howell, a fifteen-year-old actor who is killed on the set of a horror movie called The Chasm. This is not a spoiler: LaPointe tells us this in the first couple of paragraphs. He structures his story via a framing device, with the first-person narrator recalling what occurred on set retrospectively, through the prism of a pair of newspaper articles. The first of these, from the Hollywood Reporter, focuses on a party thrown by The Chasm’s director, Edgar Van Buren, for the twelve jurors who acquitted him of manslaughter at trial, along with a promise by Ryder Howell, the dead actor’s father and manager, to sue for wrongful death.

From there, LaPointe’s narrator, Pascal, flashes back to give us his version of what led to Doretta’s death. The story, from Pascal’s point of view, is basically that of a power struggle among three men – Pascal, Ryder, and Van Buren – for control of the young film star.

Of the three, only Pascal, in his telling, has Doretta’s best interests at heart. He is on set as part of the “non-creative personnel – below-the-line, as they say”: he is Doretta’s tutor. Or, as she tells her father, “Mon astre.” Pascal says there is no literal translation for the term; various dictionaries translate the word “astre” as “star” or “luminary.” This is something of an ironic role reversal, given that the teen actor is applying the term to a self-described “below-the-line” worker. But it is Pascal who, in his telling, pulls particles of sugared glass out of the young star’s hair after Doretta spends a morning “being thrown through a window.”

One of Van Buren’s edicts is that he wants his stars to do their own stunts rather than employing doubles. “The Academy despises doubles,” he tells Doretta at one point. “They want to see you act every frame.” The lure of award attention is one of the ways Van Buren, a notorious megalomaniac and control freak, manipulates Doretta into doing what he wants, regardless of her physical or emotional well being.

This includes shooting a scene of sexual violence in which she is molested by the character played by Xavier Braun, the adult male lead on the picture. Pascal objects to the scene, which he feels is exploitative and gratuitous, not to mention morally reprehensible. “Before, the relation between Dot and Xavier was all innuendo, arresting suggestions between cuts,” Pascal laments, “but Van Buren had made it explicit.” Pascal is adamant that Doretta will not do the scene, but on the day of shooting the only thing preventing her is Pascal’s presence on the set. And he encourages her to accede to Van Buren’s demands, including shooting the sex scene, during which he has Pascal thrown out of the set.

She has no problem, evidently, with her father witnessing his daughter’s filmed molestation. Indeed, the relationship between Ryder and Doretta, as Pascal presents it, is extraordinarily creepy. Arriving on set and declaring himself her manager, Ryder embarks on a campaign to wrest Doretta’s attention away from Pascal, in part by taking her out into the desert and shooting off guns. He insists on sitting in on Doretta’s classes with Pascal and questions the tutor as to why she has not taken the proficiency exam that would allow her to work longer hours and make more money.

Ryder’s motives, in Pascal’s eyes, are utterly venal: he arrives in a Ford F-Series truck that his daughter paid for and his willingness to go along with Van Buren’s increasingly unhinged ideas for the film are all predicated on his belief that the finished movie will shoot Doretta into the A-list stratosphere.

As for Van Buren, he is presented as an egotistical dictator whose films constantly go over budget and schedule, though the studio tolerates him because of his critical accolades and box-office success. He is a prototypical male genius auteur, with an enormously over-inflated conception of his own importance. LaPointe draws him as a mash-up of Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola, and Roman Polanski, the last being especially pronounced in the praise Van Buren receives for Black Water, a film that “subtly reworks the tragedy of child actor Doretta Howell.” Though clearly responsible for the actor’s death by forcing her to do the stunt that ends her life, he escapes jail time and makes bank by exploiting her story for his own ends.

“The Stunt” is many things at once: a coruscating critique of celebrity and the veneer of male genius, a darkly ironic psychodrama, and a depiction of masculine competition over a woman who remains little more than a pawn in their respective machinations. Pascal comes across best of the three central male figures in the story, in no small measure because he is narrating and is therefore able to present himself in the most positive light while simultaneously excoriating Ryder and Van Buren.

But attentive readers may recognize discordant notes in his narration, including his infantilization of Doretta by rewarding her with Skittles when she performs well on her school assignments and the admission that he dropped all his other charges to focus exclusively on her. “I didn’t care about Edgar Van Buren or his Chasm,” Pascal says. “I was there for Dot, Dot alone. I dreaded only the one calamity: that Ryder, her father, was coming to take over her career. And what would that mean for us?”

Such comments, so easily passed over in the heat of the moment, take on a much creepier undertone in the fullness of the story. Pascal’s devotion to Doretta, so apparently altruistic in his stated version of events, looks a lot darker – and more obsessive – in LaPointe’s ironic presentation. Not for nothing does LaPointe leave Pascal at the end living in his sister‘s French villa, where a drought has blighted the garden and “the fruit is full of worms.”

31 Days of Stories 2022, Day 12: “The Stunt” by Michael LaPointe