A love for filmmaking can take an artist down any number of paths, the least obvious being that of BASE jumping. But the crossroads of these two activities, as well as the personal philosophy of the latter’s founder Carl Boenish, are the subjects explored in Marah Strauch’s film Sunshine Superman. Using a combination of Boenish’s beautiful aerial footage, archival footage, and interviews with family and friends, Strauch just grazes the surface of the legacy behind modern day BASE jumping.
What elevates this standard documentary feature, which tends to rely on Boenish’s contagious enthusiasm at the expense of delving deeper into more intriguing factoids, is its exploration of the mechanics of filmmaking and how a camera can capture exhilarating moments of life and human adventure for all to see and experience. BASE jumping, like most extreme sports, isn’t for everyone, and in the words of Boenish himself, it isn’t an activity he would have grown to love if it didn’t film so well. As a cinematographer who first entered the universe of skydiving while filming scenes for The Gypsy Moth, he saw the beauty in the choreography of falling, and was able to mastermind the ideal way of filming actions most of us will never experience in reality, just so we can begin to understand another form of human experience. It’s the most fundamental aspect about film, and one of the more interesting points brought up in the documentary.
The film also gains some steam in the way of its portrayal of some rather curious personalities, including Boenish’s wife Jean, a fellow BASE jumper, and an assortment of friends and colleagues who were there for the inception of the “sport.” There’s something about a group of people infiltrating Yosemite National Park to jump off cliffs, or investigating the latest high-rise construction to plan building jumps, that makes you want to have a beer with them. They are genuinely trying to legitimize what is considered juvenile behavior and they did it with a level of professionalism, and in the case of Boenish, pure bright-eyed optimism that is infectious even to the authority figures that try and many times succeed in shutting them down.
Sunshine Superman does a decent job of highlighting the life and work of Carl Boenish, a man well-loved but simultaneously out-of-place socially until Jean comes into his life and the two become inseparable. Their love story is a unique one, and Strauch captures the spirit of these two oddballs well, although there are facets about their unique connection and Boenish’s own personality that I wish were explored more. We are told of Bornish’s bad leg, a fracture sustained in a prior accident and his refusal over treatment because of his Christian Science beliefs. Such a strong adherence to an authority structure seems to fly in the face of all this man did to further his passion. Insight into these facets may have added a bit more nuance into understanding Boenish’s incredible drive. The film’s handling of the circumstances of his death are also a bit strange, and treated a little bit too much like an unsolved murder case and not the unfortunate accident it clearly was.
Despite these reservations, Sunshine Superman sheds some light on the interconnectedness of the physical world and its representation in the art of filmmaking that I enjoyed exploring. It’s a poignant reminder of the necessity of film in a world that always seem to be dismissing its relevancy.
Sunshine Superman opens today at the Ritz 5 theater.