Vertigo, as Hitchcock taught us with his dolly zoom, is a sense of false rotation. It is disorientation, a spiraling as if sliding down through the slick whorls of a nautilus or a girl-in-the-clock-tower’s long plunge to doom. Kundera, years and oceans later, conflated vertigo with both the fear of falling and “the voice of the emptiness below which tempts and lures us…the desire to fall.”
This is a willful choice of meaning: dizziness, fear, desire.
In accurate parlance, not vertigo but acrophobia is the fear of heights, though it’s questionable whether that fish hook of terror is a fear of falling or simply of being up so high: exposed, able to see every vast expanse below you, there is no place where you yourself can hide.
In this way, acrophobia is the dark moon of barophobia, the fear of gravity.
Here is a triptych of what barophobes fear:
(1) terror that gravity will crush them as if they were The Crucible’s Proctor and all the atmosphere a flat heavy stone,(2) the irrational belief that gravity will reach up like an overeager lover to pull them down with it to the ground,
(3) the idea that gravity will abandon them and then, lonely astronauts unmoored, they’ll float away.
Perhaps we should switch out the lens and refocus. Maybe fear of falling lies closer to Jenny Holzer’s old LED Truism projections project: Protect Me from What I Want. What we want is to fly.
This is the truth that flickers inside Marah Strauch’s mesmerizing documentary Sunshine Superman (original title: Gravity), which presents us with Carl Boenish, a BASE jumping pioneer. At its heart, Sunshine Superman is a love story—both between Carl and his wife Jean, but also between human bodies and the air. Strauch worked on the film for almost a decade-culling and restoring Carl’s own recordings, filming reenactments of crucial scenes left unrecorded (the couple meeting, a climb along a Norwegian cliff’s rocky spine) and new footage (a long lovely sequence of a man in wing suit as he soars and glides).
Much of Strauch’s footage is archival and so we watch the jumps unfold with those who made them, separated only by time. Shots line up like dominoes to show us tall buildings, cliffs in Norway, Yosemite’s sheer granite wall. From them, jumpers plummet, confetti against the sky. From closer cameras, we see the few quick-counted seconds when a body plunges down untethered; then the parachute deploys, unfurling like an enormous flower, a silk goblet taut above the jumper, inverted to hold the weight of air.
BASE is an acronym which stands for the four places from which adherents leap (Buildings-Air-Span-Earth), yet also spells out a word that means a safe place to rest or land. There’s a paradox in the name: the type of jumps, the landing. Here’s another: to paraphrase Jean in the movie, the first few seconds of BASE jumping are not a jump, but a fall. When Carl and Jean jump-in tandem, or one following the other even down Norway’s Trollveggan (Troll Wall)-that leap is, of course, a kind of trust fall: faith in air and in equipment, in the universe which Carl believes operates according to design, and, for Jean, trust in her husband and in what he loves.
This is how love works, as with any act of creation: you leap, you fall, you hope something will catch you-keep you aloft in thin air.
Kate Angus is a founding editor of Augury Books. She has been awarded an A Room of Her Own Foundation “Orlando” prize for creative nonfiction and the Southeastern Review’s Narrative Nonfiction prize. She also is the recipient of residencies from Interlochen Arts Academy, the Writer’s Room at the Betsy Hotel, Wildfjords trail in Westfjords, Iceland, and the BAU Institute’s Fellowship in Otranto, Italy. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Court Green, Verse Daily, Quarterly West, The Awl, The Hairpin, The Toast, failbetter, Best New Poets 2010 and Best New Poets 2014. Follow Kate Angus on twitter @collokate