By Jake Howell

The Torontonian Reviews Sunshine Superman

sunshine supermanThere’s a range of buzzed-about nonfiction films at TIFF this year, but after asking the documentary programmers about their personal favorites in the selection, I was directed towards Sunshine Superman, Marah Strauch’s documentary debut that follows the life and times of gregarious BASE jumper Carl Boenish (“rhymes with Danish”). Before his untimely death in 1984, Boenish was a founding father of jumping from things he probably shouldn’t be—including Troll Wall in Norway, the craggy mountain that would eventually kill him—yet this tragedy only bolsters the film as an engaging love-letter to living life to the extreme.

BASE jumping—or building, antenna, span and Earth jumping—wasn’t a thing before Carl Boenish appeared, but because of him it’s now the liberating (read: insane) act of parachute-controlled freefall that was never really regulated or understood by the authorities as anything other than a liability. That includes park rangers who keep watch on El Capitan, the massive cliff in Yosemite Valley that Boenish and his fellow freefallers in the 1970s routinely scaled and flung themselves from, despite the fact that it was illegal. Detaining them wasn’t exactly going to stop them (let’s face it: if they’re jumping off cliffs, they’re not exactly too worried about a slap on the wrist), so Boenish organized a charge to make compromises with government officials with a cheerful attitude and his goofy, never-ending smile. In short, he caught more flies with honey, and it made him a natural figurehead for the activity.

Because Boenish was an avid cinematographer himself, Strauch has a wealth of spools from Boenish’s personal archive, which often includes the freefalling perspective of Boenish’s helmet-mounted camera. Much of it is exhilarating: taking to the skies and filming from great heights alleviates any potential talking head syndromes other documentaries suffer from, and the title of the film feels wholly appropriate. There are also flashes of Gimme Shelter here; Strauch includes footage of Boenish reviewing his own film, commenting on and laughing about what he’s documented, and it adds to the film’s vibrancy and joie de vivre.

There are contemporary interviews from the people involved with Boenish, including his sunny wife Jean, who alongside Carl quickly became a spokesperson for BASE jumping as a way to express the capabilities of mankind’s curiosity and freedom. That theme—the idea that life is something to make the most of and death isn’t something to be afraid of—is touched upon to compelling effect here, as the film ultimately culminates in the 1984 accident that claimed Carl Boenish’s life. Strauch catches up with Jean decades later to reflect on her late husband, and her sentiments aren’t that she regrets Carl jumped from something he knew was a poor idea. Rather, Jean extolls the virtues of Carl’s ambitions, and closes the film with a speech that reiterates the saying that no one leaves this mortal coil alive.


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One Response to “The Torontonian Reviews Sunshine Superman”

  1. Phil Mayfield says:

    This film is a tribute to the patience and resolve of Marah Strauch, as well as a tribute to my BASE brother, Carl Boenish. One thing they both have in common is a passion for photo-documentation.

    I never would have believed that it was possible, in this age of GoPro amateur photography and wingsuit flying (spawned by Boenish’s direct efforts), to turn thirty+year old subject matter into a story that has modern day appeal – to both jumpers and non-participants.

    Phil Mayfield – BASE #2, Night BASE #1

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon