With a title like Sunshine Superman, you might be expecting a biopic or full documentary retrospective of the career of the hurdy gurdy man himself, Donovan Philips Leitch. If that’s what you’re anticipating when you amble into Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas during the week beginning Friday, May 29, however, you’re going to be in for a shock: there’s nary a hint of mellow yellow anywhere in this film, though the titular song does make a last minute appearance during the final credit crawl.
Instead, Sunshine Superman introduces viewers to Carl Boenish, the father of the BASE jumping movement. If you’re like me, you probably hadn’t even heard of this movement before the recent deaths of several BASE practitioners in extremely unfortunate but not terribly surprising circumstances.
So what is BASE? The acronym stands for ‘building, antenna, span, and Earth’, and its adherents are fearless thrill-seekers who enjoy leaping off extremely tall structures (either natural or manmade). If you’ve ever jumped off the sofa, you’ve probably experienced an inkling of what these folks experience. Maybe.
Carl Boenish grew up (as did The Beach Boys) in bucolic Hawthorne, California, where – despite a childhood bout with polio — he lived an idyllic Ozzie and Harriet existence throughout the 1950s and ‘60s. A Christian Scientist who could play piano and discuss quantum mechanics with alacrity, but who wouldn’t get a broken leg set, the clean-cut Boenish worked for a time as an electrical engineer at Hughes Aircraft.
An epiphany came in 1969, when he was hired to work as a skydiving consultant for director John Frankenheimer’s (lousy) drama The Gypsy Moths. Completely enamored with the aerial work, Boenish soon threw in the towel at Hughes and took up filmmaking and parachuting as a full-time job (he considered himself as much filmmaker as thrill-seeker), completing one 15-minute skydiving film roughly every three years.
After making well over a thousand jumps, however, the thrill was gone, and Boenish and his friends graduated to greater challenges: the high rises of Houston and Los Angeles, Yosemite’s El Capitan summit, and eventually Norway’s aptly named Trollvegen (Troll Wall). Along the way Carl founded BASE and married his soulmate Jean, a bespectacled fellow enthusiast for things death-defying.
Director Marah Strauch blends truly breathtaking cinematography — best appreciated on the big screen — with home movies of Boenish (who seemed to film or videotape everything he did), vividly capturing his hyper-enthusiastic, larger than life personality. The result is a film reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man and James Marsh’s Man on Wire – a pair of films concerned with people willing to go any length in order to experience something few (if any) others have experienced.
Man on Wire, of course, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2009. Can Sunshine Superman duplicate that feat? Probably not, but I won’t be at all surprised if it gets nominated. Superman and Green Lantern, after all, ain’t got nothin’ on Carl Boenish.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.
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