NYFF Review: Nostalgic Look at BASE Jumping in 'Sunshine Superman'
by Alex Billington
September 30, 2014
To live. To fly. To be free. Why is it that the people who live on the edge seem to be the most inspiring? Because they are thrill-seekers, they are the ones who know that the best life is one lived without worry, without fear, without the concerns that society forces upon us. They live with an open mind, a big heart, an appreciation for this planet. They know that genuine thrills make the heart beat faster; thrills remind us that we are still alive, we're still breathing, and that we should make the most of it. I love films that capture this feeling in ways that can't be easily described. Marah Strauch's Sunshine Superman is one of those films that is exciting, moving, heartfelt, but above all it's inspiring to watch. Because it's about inspiring people.
Every year there seems to be a documentary or two about extreme sports and the people that get involved in thrill-seeking. Last year it was McConkey, about inspirational freeskier Shane McConkey, who eventually made the leap into BASE jumping and was a trailblazer in the ski industry until his tragic death. Before him there was Carl Boenish, a fun-loving good-hearted guy who was one of the original inventors of "BASE jumping" - or parachuting from a fixed object. BASE stands for: building, antenna, span (e.g. bridges) and earth; this is explained in the documentary and Carl was one of the people who came up with the acronym. The organization was formed a way for them to organize those brave enough to jump off of those main four objects. This film, playing at the New York Film Festival, examines the history and the people behind it.
Specifically, Sunshine Superman is a profile of the lovable pioneer Carl Boenish, one of those "wacky" kind of guys that no one could forget. He was a pioneer in the art of being free - parachuting and jumping off of objects because it provides a momentary sense of freedom and a lack of control. When you're falling there's "nothing" (as they kept saying), they can't change course, they can't grab on to anything, they just fall. These people live for that thrill and nothing else. It wasn't about trespassing onto property or about breaking laws just to show that they can do whatever they want, it was about the thrill of it, and the film spends most of its time trying to explain the feeling. There's even a few segments early on where Boenish is interviewed on 70's TV news and he explains, with a big goofy grin on his face, how it's such an exciting and wondrous activity.
Over the last few decades, the sport of BASE jumping has become increasingly condemned and is generally frowned upon. Aside from the inherent dangers (which are the same for skydiving/parachuting) too many people go after those involved claiming everything about it is wrong and illegal. This doc, on the other hand, instead focuses on the glory and good side of the sport and gives us the lovable Boenish to follow. Boenish, who describes himself as a filmmaker first and foremost, recorded everything. He was one of the first guys to strap cameras on helmets and make movies to show his friends, and one of his first gigs was coordinating the aerial cinematography in The Gypsy Moths (1969), one of the first Hollywood movies about sky diving.
Setup almost like a biopic, the doc uses recreations with actors to depict some of the scenes which Carl did not film, including some moments with his wife Jean Boenish. When they finally introduce her that's when the doc went from exciting to inspiring. She follows in Carl's footsteps and becomes a BASE jumper just like him. The doc eventually includes a lot of narration and interview footage of Jean, who is as fascinating of a subject as Carl. She quips with a smile about how she stepped right over all the concerns that she doesn't seem like someone who would be doing this, and showed them she is as fearless, as courageous as everyone else. Watching her speak so freely about all of this was incredibly encouraging, in so many different ways.
The film just got to me. After a certain point I was sitting there with a big smile on my face that wouldn't go away. More, more! More footage of them jumping off of cliffs, more archival news footage of them telling newscasters there is nothing illegal and nothing wrong with BASE jumping, more footage of Carl and Jean being adventurous and seeking out fun places to jump from. Everything about this film is inspiring, and not in a condescending "why aren't you out there doing this?" kind of way. Instead, it's all about capturing the spirit of Carl Boenish and all his friends that loved doing this because they absolutely loved doing it. Laws be damned. This tagline for Gypsy Moths sums it up without actually saying go jump out of a plane yourself: "When you turn on by falling free… when jumping is not only a way to live, but a way to die, too…"
In terms of presentation, my biggest problems with the film are the recreations used throughout. I'm not a big fan of recreations in most documentaries anyway, sometimes they go too far or feel too cheesy or too manufactured, but most of them work fine in this (thankfully). Not everything worked, and I always knew when it was fake. This is the biggest issue with the otherwise polished documentary, especially because Carl talks about how much he loves filming everything and how much real archival footage we do get to see of him jumping. In fact, I felt there were a few scenes that needed title cards: "first jump off of a building" and "first jump off of a TV antenna" ever by a human being. When looking back at those jumps in this context, they are actually historical moments that deserve acclaim. Nowadays its been done thousands of times over.
Sunshine Superman is one of those outstanding documentaries that is as entertaining as it is inspiring. It's a great film to enjoy, and let it affect you. Let it inspire you and connect with you in its own way. It may be something Carl mentions off-hand in an interview, or something Jean says in response to that, or what Carl says right before he jumps off a cliff. Whatever it may be, it's in here, somewhere. Just waiting to be the spark for that fire inside of everyone, often times only in need of being lit or just in need of extra fuel, more motivation. Watching people like Carl Boenish and Shane McConkey (please watch his documentary, too) is all the inspiration I need. They are the best examples of living life to the fullest, and they had so much fun.