At the turn of the 20th century, vast majorities of the planet remained undiscovered for those restless ones who couldn’t possibly imagine a life spent behind a desk or in a factory. If they had the notion, and sufficient funding, there were mountains, deserts, jungles, two Poles and the seas in between calling their name. But, by the time the ’60s and ’70s rolled around, most of the Earth was discovered and mapped, leaving exploration either to outer space (requiring an astronomical amount of funding, thus eliminating any hobbyists) or of the self. These intrepid few discovered what could be accomplished by pushing their limits and staring death in the face. Daredevils like Evel Knievel, The Flying Wallendas and Philippe Petit were a few of this new breed of adventurer/athlete, as was the father of BASE jumping, Carl Boenish, whose own personal motto sums up the batch of thrill seekers: “There’s no future in growing up.”
Sunshine Superman, the new documentary about Boenish’s career and life, captures the Peter Pan aspect of Boenish’s resolve. Boenish (rhymes with Danish) was stricken with polio as a child, an Earth-bound disease that no doubt made Boenish hungry for a life up in the sky. And up there is where he found it. While working as an electrical engineer for Hughes Aircraft in the late ’60s, Boenish joined a group of skydivers and found his community. It also allowed him the opportunity to film the dives, which he segued into a career when John Frankenheimer made The Gypsy Moths (a 1969 film about three skydivers). Boenish was hired as an aerial photographer and permanently kissed Hughes Aircraft goodbye.
For Boenish, skydiving was just the beginning. Soon he was jumping off the high cliffs of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, 1,000-foot tall spires, skyscrapers in Houston and Los Angeles, anything and everything that was tall and provided good light, because Boenish documented all his jumps. Out of this came BASE (building, antenna, span or Earth) jumping. It wasn’t necessarily illegal, but it caused trouble for Boenish and his crew, and with trouble came attention. At first, Boenish did it for kicks, but as his popularity and exposure rose, so did the meaning behind his jumps.
Boenish believed his jumps would motivate others to try harder and do better. Some call it hubris, others, inspiration. Which of those took the lead in his death while BASE jumping in 1984 remains a mystery.
What Carl Boenish brought to the table was the same thing all daredevils bring: entertainment. The possibility of the crash is just as thrilling as the success of the landing, but with Boenish, his jumps became something more. For Boenish, they were imbued with a sense of the divine. From where we sit in 2015, that might seem foolish. For those on the mountain in 1984, it was as real as the rocks racing past you.
Sunshine Superman, directed by Marah Strauch, heavily benefits from Boenish’s goofy and charming personality, as well as a plethora of footage Boenish produced in his career as a cinematographer/jumper. The footage is spectacular, and the big screen is the perfect place to convey that majesty.
ON THE BILL: Sunshine Superman. Opening May 29, Mayan Theatre, 110 Broadway St., Denver, 303-744-6799. Tickets start at $8.50. www.landmarktheatres.com/denver/mayan-theatre