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The ‘Rust’ scene that Alec Baldwin was rehearsing strikes a familiar and played-out chord

Justus D. Barnes in “The Great Train Robbery,” 1903. (Everett Collection)
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Facts are still emerging about the death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie “Rust” on Oct. 21, but one detail has proved especially haunting. It has to do with the scene that actor Alec Baldwin was rehearsing when the gun discharged, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

Baldwin was reportedly aiming the gun directly at the camera — a gesture that was immediately recognizable to cinephiles and experts in early-20th-century film history. In 1903, Edwin S. Porter made “The Great Train Robbery,” a stick-’em-up adventure about a gang of outlaws and the hastily assembled posse that brings them to justice. “The Great Train Robbery” is often used as an example of screen narrative and editing techniques that would become increasingly sophisticated. But it is most famous for a moment that exists outside the story of the 11-minute film: a close-up of actor Justus D. Barnes looking squarely at the camera — or, by proxy, the audience — and firing his gun straight at it.

That bravura piece of filmmaking, which broke the fourth wall and introduced a whole new layer of realism into a medium that was already wowing viewers with its uncanny verisimilitude, has been referenced frequently throughout the decades. Martin Scorsese famously quoted it in 1990’s “Goodfellas,” in which Joe Pesci recapitulated Barnes’s brazen act of impunity, this time as a New York gangster. “Breaking Bad” made a more oblique nod in the 2012 “Dead Freight” episode, about a train heist. The “gun barrel” sequence in the opening credits of classic James Bond movies bears its unmistakable stamp. The “Great Train Robbery” shot is so iconic that it is included in the introductory exhibit of canonical film clips and stills greeting visitors at the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.

As a foundational element of cinematic grammar, that stand-alone shot of “The Great Train Robbery” — which was designed to be shown at the beginning or the end of the film, per individual exhibitors’ wishes — encapsulated what movies would strive for over the ensuing century: novelty, spectacle and ever-more-immersive realism. Fascination with criminals and vigilantes. And an escalating arms race — literal and figurative — in shocking audiences with startlingly graphic and intensely subjective violence.

Violence has always been the purview of art, to which any Greek tragedy or Bessie Smith murder ballad readily attests. But cinema possesses an unusual ability to burrow into public and private consciousness, making the membrane between imagination and behavior even more porous by way of identification and, sometimes, imitation. Hollywood’s abiding romance with gunplay — ritualized or casual; cynically opportunistic or morally freighted — has always coexisted uneasily with the real world, where, at least in the United States, the guns that Hollywood has routinely glamorized are the objects of attraction bordering on obsession.

It’s just that slippage — from tool to totemic object or, worse, toy — that made recent reports about the set of “Rust” so troubling. The day that Hutchins was killed, six crew members reportedly walked off the production in protest over payment, housing and other workplace issues. They were hastily replaced with nonunion labor. Assistant director Dave Halls, who handed Baldwin the prop gun, incorrectly telling him that it was “cold” (industry-speak for safe to use), had been dismissed from another movie in 2019 over an unplanned discharge of a firearm.

The fact that Halls was the one who gave Baldwin the gun invited criticism from Hollywood armorer Jeremy Goldstein, who told my colleague Sonia Rao on Tuesday, “No crew member should be handling a weapon of any kind other than the armorer, designated prop person or actor. Full stop.” Observers have also questioned why live ammunition would be anywhere near a movie set. (At a news conference Wednesday, Santa Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza said that about 500 rounds of ammunition were recovered from the “Rust” set, including blanks, dummy rounds and suspected live rounds.)

Assistant director who handed Alec Baldwin prop firearm was fired over gun discharge on 2019 movie set

The portrait of lax safety practices and unprofessionalism that emerged in the days after Hutchins’s death feels familiar to anyone who has heard raucous tales of anarchic location shoots or has compared working on films to “joining the circus.” Cinematic legend and lore are replete with can-you-top-this stories of the lengths to which directors have gone to get that perfect camera angle or manipulate an actor into delivering a once-in-a-lifetime performance. It’s all part of the heroic-auteur persona that (mostly male) filmmakers have cultivated since the eras of Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford.

In a time of new post-#MeToo behavioral standards and covid-era health protocols, that persona is looking increasingly outdated. As is the use of a prop gun loaded with actual bullets or even blanks — which can still be dangerous and even lethal, according to experts who have weighed in over the past week — when advances in virtual visual effects have made them almost obsolete. “There’s no reason to have guns loaded with blanks or anything on set anymore,” tweeted “The Hunt” and “Mare of Easttown” director Craig Zobel. “Should just be fully outlawed. There’s computers now.”

The movies have always been susceptible to myths — the ones they create, and the ones created around their making. One is reflexively equating excitement or artistic courage with violence, an assumption that, with every new iteration, is becoming more and more played out. Another is a fetishistic attachment to realism that too often takes the form of style for its own sake, or directorial ego. If the only way a filmmaker can convincingly portray a shooting is to stage an actual shooting, that’s a failure of imagination, not a badge of uncompromising integrity.

With production on “Rust” halted, we may never know whether its homage to “The Great Train Robbery” would turn out to be ingenious or merely derivative: the difference between a trope and a cliche lies entirely in the execution.

What we do know is that while reaching into cinema’s past for inspiration, the production team wasn’t nearly interested enough in embracing its future — whether in terms of aesthetics, technology or work culture. Making great art entails knowing what parts of our history are no longer serving us, leaving them behind and creating something new — and sometimes that decision can be life-or-death.

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