John Bolton’s Aim for the Roses is a quirky and ambitious film. Set to make its world premiere at Hot Docs 2016, Toronto’s documentary film festival extravaganza, Aim for the Roses is a story of obsession.
The film opens in 1976. Famed Montreal-born-and-raised daredevil, Ken Carter, proposes to do an impossible stunt. He wants to jump over 1,000 ft. across the St Lawrence River in a rocket-powered car and land in a 200 sq. ft. bed of roses. He contracts an engineer to build a massive runway and ramp, modifies his car so it can use jet fuel, and alerts the press. He says it will be “the ultimate statement.” This is the daredevil stunt to end all daredevil stunts.
In an archival clip featuring Carter, he is shown discussing the ramifications of his plan. At one point, there’s an aerial shot of the island in the St. Lawrence he hopes to land on. There isn’t much space on the shoreline before a thick patch of forest – one of the many sure hazards. Thus, this is where Carter devises his plan to plant a bed of roses to pad his fall. Matter-of-factly, he says, “If we get into the trees, it might be disastrous. So, we gotta aim for the roses.”
As we learn about Carter’s story, another story weaves its way into the narrative. This one starts in 2008 with Mark Haney, the relatively obscure double bassist and composer. Haney, after putting the finishing touches on a long and arduous divorce, fears that his life as a just-scraping-by musician is inconsequential. He too, is looking for “the ultimate statement.” Haney becomes obsessed with Carter’s stunt so much, that he creates an avant-garde concept classical album titled, Aim for the Roses. He mixes the album himself, which is no easy task. At times there are over thirty tracks of bass that he has to layer. Even more impressively, he plays one line of music throughout the entire piece for its backbone – The Pi Line. Haney explains that, “this is the musical representation of the first 499 digits of Pi. Every number determines the pitch and length of the note.” He layers voice-overs, lyrical songs, choruses, and other instruments on top of The Pi Line. The lyrics are inspired by archival news clippings about Carter’s actions leading up to, during, and after his jump. As quoted by Adrian Mack, a music critic from The Georgia Straight and admirer of the album, Aim for the Roses occupies “the space between highbrow art and complete trash.”
Bolton’s film mixes Carter and Haney together in order to explore what it means for one to obtain self-worth in a belittling world. Both men strive for purpose. They want to be greater than what’s expected of them. Unfortunately, the film is too much of a hodge-podge of clips, anecdotes, and oddly staged re-enactments to resonate for more than a few moments. Touted as a “musical docudrama,” Aim for the Roses lacks the sustained drama necessary to keep the viewer engrossed in the narrative. There are too many interchangeable subjects and styles for the film to achieve a steady pace. As soon as one story starts to advance, Bolton cuts to something else. For all this talk of ultimate statements, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one.
Aim for the Roses makes its world premiere at Hot Docs 2016 on Sunday May 1st. There are additional screenings on Monday May, 2nd and Friday May, 6th. Buy tickets here.
Check out the trailer: