“Why is ‘inspiration’ a dirty word?” asks Marah Strauch, director of Sunshine Superman, a documentary over eight years in the making about the extreme sport of BASE jumping and its early pioneer, Carl Boenish. Comparisons to the James Marsh 2008 documentary Man on a Wire are too simple, and suggestions to experiencing vertigo too frequent. Sunshine Superman, although completely satisfying as an compelling documentary, deserves praise for being more than just an exhilarating trip into the perilous sport. Strauch’s direction is thoughtful, and at many times, inspiring.
At the risk of having my New Yorker identity revoked due to a temporary abandon of extreme cynicism, I must call Sunshine Superman an inspiring film. Writer-director Marah Strauch is comfortable with the I-word, yet frustrated due to the co-opting of the term “inspirational” by religion. What’s wrong with a documentary showing a little positivity, offering its viewers a different way to live? No doubt Strauch has been questioned about the inspirational message of her film before. It certainly stands out among the documentaries we’ve been seeing recently, exposing some new injustice that causes viewers to leave the theater fist-in-the-air angry at dolphin killers and environmental polluters. As we become accustomed to such exposés, and the ubiquitous news and social media coverage of beheadings, natural disasters, and racial-fueled outrage expressed on city streets, Sunshine Superman calls for a celebration of the child inside of us. “I don’t want to be childish but I want to be childlike,” Boenish declares early on in the film.
It may be hard to imagine that a movie about the extreme sport of BASE jumping (BASE is an acronym for Building, Antenna, Span, and Earth) could be a source of inspiration considering the recent tragedy of famous BASE jumper Dean Potter, who died last weekend in Yosemite National Park after his parachute failed to deploy. This disturbing incident infuses the film with an immediate contemporary significance and a very real example of just how dangerous this sport is. It’s difficult not to cringe watching the archival footage shot by Boenish and his team as they not only jump off the side of Yosemite’s El Capitan, but do so with the youthful disregard, adding playful elements such as jumping from a handstand and a bicycle. The sobering reality of Potter’s death lends a pervasive sense of danger despite the film’s occasional attempts at lightheartedness, made all the more disturbing by the fact that these thrill seekers like Boenish and Potter are not children, but highly skilled professionals.
Originally titled Gravity, Strauch was initially inspired to make the film about her uncle, Mike Allen, who was a BASE jumper and areal cinematographer. She changed direction to focus on Carl Boenish, also a cinematographer, and a group of adrenaline junkies living in the moment by jumping from the top of places such as the then under-construction, 720 foot Crocker building in Los Angeles, and Yosemite’s El Capitan, which stands at 3,000 feet. With skillful direction and stunning cinematography using both Boenish’s 16mm archival footage and newly filmed shots— beautifully realized with the help of cinematographers Nico Poulsson and Vasco Nunesv—Strauch introduces viewers to the early days of BASE jumping with a cast of characters that would fit nicely in a Wes Anderson film—a name from Strauch’s list of favorite directors. Anderson’s musical and tonal influences can also be felt throughout the film. Musical in the most obvious way, her choice of songs including The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe,” and “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan. Sweet’s “Love is like oxygen” accompanies a montage of terrifying jumps made by the young, energetic thrill seekers. This is an example of a song that effectively captures not only the energy of the sport and its subjects, but provides the film with a sense of nostalgia, transporting the viewer to another time. A time without smartphones equipped with tiny cameras and instant uploading; a time with bulky cameras taped to the jumper’s helmets and precious celluloid to process. But more than the musical score Strauch and fellow editors Eric Bruggeman and Kevin McGuiness have shaped the film with a brilliant sense of rhythm that is at times undetectable, and at times rather obvious, resulting in moments of transcendent beauty. The visual poetics arise not only from the beautifully shot aerial scenes (both archival from Boenish and newly shot for the film), but also from an impeccable since of timing. These editors know exactly how long to let a shot play before cutting; a second sooner and the magic is lost. One such moment happens near the end of the film when we see a modern day BASE jumper donning a wingsuit as he prepares to jump. The moment begins in silence as a soaring camera glides over the subject—he jumps, a beat…and then the music begins. The result is not one of free falling, and dizziness, and thrill, as we have come to expect throughout the film but of flying—we are flying. It’s one of those rare movie moments that is both satisfying and pure, purely cinematic. I asked Strauch how she was able to achieve this moment. Her previous work in editing helped, but even more than that an innate understanding of knowing when something is not working. She attributes this particular skill not only to her background in editing but also her work as a visual artist (she studied glass blowing at the Rhode Island School of Design).
Carl’s message, or mission, was one of living an authentic life despite all consequences. After I had finished prying Strauch for what she hopes audiences will take away from this film, she commented that she felt that Carl’s message is for people to question the artificial limitations often placed on our lives, and [hope that people] will be inspired to live for themselves. Philosophy and good feelings aside, Sunshine Superman is ultimately a sports film about extreme sport fanatics, but what makes it deeper than just a thrill ride is its thoughtfulness. There is a shade of melancholy that’s ever-present as we are aware that Carl Boenish dies in a tragic fall on Trollveggen (Troll Wall) in Norway. The words of his wife, the odd but likeable Jean Boenish who looks more like a librarian than an extreme sports enthusiast, captures the sentiment: “Everyone does not escape death, so face it as fast as you can, and once you hit that wall, get past it as fast as you can.” Her words resonate long after the credits roll. Yes, we all will be touched by death, so face it, and then move on quickly. When she makes a BASE jump a few days after her husband dies she is honoring Carl’s words: “Death doesn’t deserve the praise. Life and what we do with it is what deserves the praise.” Leave your cynicism at home and allow this film to inspire you to live now, authentically—and for a brief moment, fly.
—John David West