Icarus, Reversed: Sunshine Superman

BASE jumping is back, baby. The acronym stands for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth. In practice, it means strapping on a parachute and hurling oneself off a tall, fixed place, whether a skyscraper, communications tower, bridge or forbidding mountain cliff. The rush is real. And so is the folly. As part of the promo leading up to the Pan Am Games in Toronto this summer, a duo of BASE jumpers leapt off the CN Tower a few weeks ago. Footage of the feat will be part of the Games’ opening ceremony. At the other end of the spectrum, veteran jumpers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt died in May BASE jumping with wingsuits in Yosemite National Park. Between success and failure, the experience is truly extreme. Marah Strauch’s Sunshine Superman (2015) takes up the life of one of the sport’s most charismatic pioneers, Carl Boenish (rhymes with “danish”). Let’s take a look over the edge, but careful, it’s a long, long way down.

YouTube is littered with extreme athletes of all stripes capturing their lunatic daring on GoPro cameras. Carl Boenish was one of the original adventurers, beginning with skydiving in the sixties, a 16mm movie-camera strapped to a helmet on his head. The films of his exploits earned him the attention of director John Frankenhemier, who hired Boenish as an expert cinematographer for his skydiving movie The Gypsy Moths (1969). The success of the film led to more work for Boenish, but soon he was jumping full-time.

Boenish was evangelical about skydiving. In a counter-culture vein, he didn’t want to be constrained by any of “man’s rules”, and found the purest expression of freedom adrift in the air. The documentary relies heavily on Boenish’s own footage of his wind-whipped descents, and they’re spectacular. He lectured around the country, showing his films and turning people into yellow-suited converts. He met his wife Jean that way, a bespectacled practical woman with a hitherto unknown streak for plummeting with abandon. The two became inseparable, and among the most celebrated jumpers of their day.

Eventually, leaping out of a plane got old. Boenish and his compatriots, who were also avid hikers, began to contemplate jumping off the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Thus began a game of cat and mouse between the parachutists and the park rangers, for of course what they were doing was illegal, or at the least dangerous and unregulated. Boenish’s enthusiasm slowly won over the rangers, and it’s plain in the film how one aged ranger admired Boenish’s indefatigable optimism. For a time, jumpers could attain permits from the park. But as the dangers became more evident, the practice was halted.

Boenish and friends had gotten a taste for something new and different. From there, it was a small jump [wink] to sneaking into skyscrapers still under construction in L.A. and leaping into the air, plunging forty stories or more before pulling the cord and breaking their fall. The public found the stunts fascinating. Building owners were not amused. The daredevils coined the term BASE jumping for what they were doing, and an underground sport was born.


The climax of the film finds Boenish and his wife traveling to Norway in 1984 for a fateful Guiness World Records television special with David Frost and a young Kathie Lee Johnson (better know to us all now as a Gifford). They successfully jump off a terrifying jagged cliff face straight out of Peter Jackson’s Mordor and the record is set. The next day, Carl feels invincible. He decides to jump again, off a different point his crew had previously ruled out for its danger. It’s no spoiler to say he fails, and thankfully, there’s no footage of his body as it smashes into the sheer cliff wall. A mordant pathologist (is there any other kind?) describes Boenish’s traumatic injuries, assuring us the sheer force of his impact made death instantaneous. Within days, the cool introvert Jean jumps again, to keep the spirit of the sport alive.

Boenish’s enthusiasm was legendarily infectious. His wilfulness may have been foolhardy, though he seemed for most of his life to have been a judicious preparer. A Christian Scientist, he never sought treatment for a severe leg injury from a jump gone wrong years before, and in some way that fatalist confidence in God’s plan and provenance finally took a dark turn on the high Norwegian crags. Sunshine Superman takes its name from the 1966 song by Donovan, and it captures the naive idealism that informs Boenish’s man-child demeanour. The movie never really takes up the psychology of this strange Icarus who came crashing to earth, but it is fascinating. And watching Carl and Jean soar through the air, red and yellow swathed bodies in serene descent, I’ll tell you right now, it’ll blow your little mind.

Sunshine Superman is playing in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, running through this week. For more info and tickets, see here. It’s also playing festivals and in limited release around the world.

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