Sunshine Superman, documentary, Violet Crown, 2.5 chiles
These people are crazy.
That would be the reaction of most of us, certainly, watching them jump from skyscrapers, dive off cliffs, plummet in free-fall as their shadows race along the nearby wall at heart-stopping speeds, and then jerk as their chutes open and they dangle like puppets on a string, then float unharmed to the earth. The sport is called BASE jumping. It’s an acronym for the points of departure its adherents employ — buildings, antenna towers, spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs).
The ringleader of this culture of merry daredevils was an infectiously exuberant man-child named Carl Boenish, who started out as an engineer but found that the thrill of leaping off tall buildings in a single bound made him feel like Superman, and that engineering offered nothing to match it.
Happily for director Marah Strauch, the only other thing that competed in Boenish’s world was filming. He and his fellow jumping enthusiasts took to the skies with cameras mounted on their helmets, and amassed a trove of first-person footage of the free-fall experience. Strauch sifted through what must have been hundreds of hours of this stuff, and augmented it with news clips (a young Pat Sajak chats with Boenish for a local news show), interviews with his associates, and dramatic stagings of some of the incidents in his life. These last are the least effective technique Strauch uses. They inject an aura of inauthenticity, as the camera focuses on hands, legs, and backs of actors recreating the people and scenes described.
Much more involving are extensive interviews with Boenish’s widow and fellow jumper, Jean, who met him when she was a sophomore in college and was quickly won over to the thrills of the sport. Whether or not you remember anything about Boenish and his untimely death in 1984, the past tense references to him throughout leave no doubt as to where we’re headed.
What Boenish and his compadres do is intensely thrilling, but the repetition of the action — up and down, up and down — eventually dulls the effect and it gets a little boring.
“Nothing happens by chance,” Boenish reminds us more than once. “Everything that happens is according to the laws of the universe.” The former engineer made a science of his sport and was scrupulous about equipment checks and risk-reward assessments. But the courtship of danger and death is always part of the equation.
Last month, another legendary climber-jumper, Dean Potter, met his end at the foot of a Yosemite cliff. A few years earlier Potter had told ESPN, “I’m addicted to the heightened awareness I get when there’s a death consequence.”
They may not expect to die, but the presence of death close at hand is always part of the mix. — Jonathan Richards