“I do this for rejuvenation.”
The ability to conquer gravity and feel the freedom of open air has driven humans throughout history to break the bonds of Earth through artificial flight. The serene and exhilarating story of the inventor of BASE jumping, Carl Boenish, is elegantly presented in the documentary Sunshine Superman directed by Marah Strauch. BASE jumping, pioneered in the 1970’s, combines parachuting while jumping off of a tall object, like a cliff, bridge or skyscraper. If skydiving out of an airplane isn’t a bone-chilling enough idea, why not jump off of a much shorter structure, to heighten the terror? Sunshine Superman, utilizing original, thrilling footage shot by Boenish himself, illustrates how special this sport is, as well as the unique vision of the the inventor, a groundbreaking cinematographer.
Carl Boenish was an open-hearted and spiritual man who strove to not only expand the sport of skydiving and BASE jumping, but also revolutionize the field of aerial photography. Boenish was the rare athlete who did not push his body to the absolute brink for money and glory; he jumped off of cliffs to inspire others. Boenish and his team of jumpers, including his wife Jean, banded together to show the impossible could be overcome. If they could jump off of a skyscraper, you can reach any goal you set your mind to. Nothing is too small or too big of a challenge to try to surmount, and Boenish and his crew did so in spectacular fashion.
The documentary spells out Boenish’s story in a rather conventional manner, combining interviews with loved ones about his life’s trajectory, reenactments of personal audio recordings, plus fun news footage with interviews conducted by 1980’s-era Pat Sajak and Kathy Lee Gifford. The film’s soundtrack ranges from pop ballads from The Hollies, to the ubiquitous, yet appropriately-grand use of Wagnerian music to introduce the heaven-on-Earth that is Yosemite Valley.The absolute draw of this film is the cinematography which Boenish produced; it is beyond compare. Watching people jump out of the sky sends the heart racing and provokes awe; Boenish knew this fact and built his life around sharing this experience. With absolute glee and a healthy dose of ‘insanity’, as many in the documentary describe Carl, he set out to advance aerial cinematography in the most harrowing ways. Modern filmmakers should bow down to camera drones, for they will never have to operate a camera in the near-suicidal way in which Carl did to get his breathtaking shots.
Amongst all of the amazing jumps which Boenish filmed, one particular instance of film innovation will stick in the audience’s mind. In Yosemite, to gain the most complete range of angles, jumpers wore cameras on their helmets to capture their free-fall while Carl filmed them, suspended away from the cliff face. Boenish had constructed a rig which held him precariously over the valley, while perched on a bicycle seat holding a camera. To see the way he is sitting, thousands of feet in the open air with no net, smiling broadly as he captured the jump, is to witness a cinematography genius with no fear. To Carl, jumping wasn’t the most important part of the experience; being able to share the experience of flying freedom with was what drove him.
A sentimental thread in Sunshine Superman involves Carl’s relationship with his wife Jean; a couple described as “fun-loving adventurers”. Though seen as awkward oddballs by most, the couple shared a joie de vivre for pushing the boundaries of possibility. Carl introduced Jean to skydiving and BASE jumping, of which Jean soon became an expert practitioner. Their partnership of innovation in sport and supporting one another’s dreams, no matter how outlandish, shows true romance takes many forms.
The myriad travails, legal and physical, which Boenish and the BASE jumping community had to hurdle, further exhibit their commitment to this audacious sport. Night jumping off of El Capitan or staging record-setting jumps off of Norwegian cliffs was what Carl and his fellow athletes did to keep their dream alive. Set-backs and outright tragedy can and may befall most of us; Sunshine Superman’s portrait of Carl Boenish displays that a life lived with joy and purpose, despite the perceived folly of it, is worth the risk. The film’s final moments follow the flight of wingsuit flyer through the Norwegian cliffs. The majesty of nature and the absolute beauty of a human soaring as a bird show Boenish’s lasting imprint on the sport and our imaginations.
Note: If you have a fear of heights or are prone to motion sickness, you may want to skip this documentary unfortunately. The aerial photography is so well done it could induce negative symptoms.