Thursday, March 03, 2016
SUNSHINE SUPERMAN (Marah Strauch, 2014)
What compels someone to try to find an alternative to skydiving because it starts feeling ordinary? The documentary SUNSHINE SUPERMAN explores the answer in telling the story of Carl Boenish, who is known as the founder of BASE jumping. Boenish worked for an aviation company but was nudged toward his calling when asked to shoot skydiving scenes for the Hollywood film THE GYPSY MOTHS. He decided to focus his work on becoming a cinematographer who documented the aerial pursuit. When skydiving was no longer scratching his itch for excitement in the late 1970s, he and some friends turned to the next challenge: jumping off a cliff in Yosemite National Park.
The Yosemite jumps and the debate about the legality of them led Boenish and company, including his wife Jean, to find other high perches from which they could leap. TV antennas bridges, and high-rise buildings, especially those under construction, became other sites from which they could jump to get their adrenaline rushes. Boenish insisted that they film their jumps so that others could share in the experiences that were so important to them, and doing so meant jumping in daylight and thus heightening the possibility of being arrested. Jumping from high places may or may not have been legal, but trespassing certainly wasn’t.
SUNSHINE SUPERMAN features plenty of archival footage from helmet-mounted cameras and those on the ground. For those of us who would prefer to remain more earthbound than risk death, the film provides an exhilarating perspective of what it is like to freefall from thousands of feet up and then float to safety with the aid of a parachute. Boenish says that he doesn’t intend to inspire others to make these jumps but hopes his actions will give those who see them the courage to do whatever they desire. Boenish’s childlike enthusiasm and seemingly limitless ability to push himself testify to the wonders one can achieve when brave enough to chase a dream that others may think impossible or foolish. In this and its tale of adventure to get up in the air, SUNSHINE SUPERMAN bears a passing resemblance to MAN ON WIRE, the documentary of the high-wire walker who performed between the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.
The message of believing in oneself is all well and good, but SUNSHINE SUPERMAN introduces an ominous tone to Boenish’s story at the outset. The promise of potentially bad things to come fades as the rise of BASE jumping is traced through Boenish’s footage, reenactments, and interviews. The fateful sense returns in the film’s second half as Boenish and his wife prepare for a world record-setting televised jump in Norway. Director Marah Strauch presents an admiring view of her subject but isn’t so blinkered to ignore that what made Boenish who he was also cost him his life. As someone less impulsive, it’s hard to understand the fearlessness to take such risks and how his wife responds in the aftermath of Boenish’s last jump. Chalking it up to different viewpoints may not be a satisfactory answer, but it seems like a fair way of assessing Jean’s reaction.
Boenish’s own words are peppered throughout SUNSHINE SUPERMAN. It’s apparent what he gets out of jumping from high places but less clear why he does it. The film suggests that a childhood brush with polio may have driven him to appreciate what his body could do when healthy. His technical interests reveal a drive for understanding how things work and may have steered him to reach for the human mind and body’s limits. One anecdote raises the possibility of how his religious beliefs may have guided him, and another calls into question how they played into his final jump. For whatever reason Strauch includes Boenish’s beliefs as a Christian Scientist briefly, yet that would seem to be a key piece of comprehending him.
SUNSHINE SUPERMAN concludes with a spectacular jump that, in a way, fulfills Boenish’s last. Some of us, myself included, don’t have the courage to do what Boenish and other BASE jumpers do, but we can thrill at their remarkable feats.