A fine and fascinating new documentary, Sunshine Superman provides an intimate portrait of the founder of a movement in which participants — perhaps I should say followers — commit protracted suicide in circus-like gestures that are public and grandiose and defiantly illegal. And for these gestures they are widely heralded as free-spirited heroes whose failed attempts to burst the bonds of human limitation are considered tragic evidence of their own greatness.
I’m speaking, of course, about the extreme sport of BASE-jumping, and in particular its “father” and earliest proponent, Carl Boenish. Directed by Marah Strauch, Sunshine Superman hones in close to Boenish, a preternaturally smiley fellow whose Peter Pan-ish disposition seems to have run a tight gamut between manic and ecstatic.
Thanks to a veritable treasure trove of archival footage from the ’70s and ’80s, the film traces the evolution of Boenish’s thrill-seeking, as he and his crew — including his comparatively level-headed wife, Jean Boenish — hatch the idea that jumping with a parachute from buildings, aerial antennae, spans (bridges) and earth (cliffs) seems like a wonderful idea.
Yes, I do think it’s a lovely, inspiring thing when a human being confronts fear and attempts to overcome obstacles, often self-imposed, but I fail to see how courting self-destruction as a flamboyant career choice qualifies as a heroic pursuit. After watching Sunshine Superman — which, make no mistake, is a very well-made if misguided documentary — I’m calling bullshit on Boenish and his ilk, which includes Dean Potter, who last month slammed into a hunk of granite in California’s Yosemite Valley while sailing in a squirrel suit.
Call it the law of unintended consequences, but what Sunshine Superman makes abundantly clear is that extreme sports like BASE-jumping represent a particularly insidious form of addiction. Like all addicts, BASE jumpers get gacked out on their drug of choice (adrenaline) to such an extent that each high must be higher, simply to combat the drudgery of regular old life. But it’s a false dichotomy, this idea that everyday existence is so drab that one must constantly seek manufactured states of consciousness in order to feel alive.
The circumstances of Boenish’s death, so excruciatingly and disturbingly laid out, offer an enlightening glimpse into the narcissistic self-delusions and death-wishing that drives adrenaline junkies. It’s difficult to conclude, after hearing the testimony of his wife as well as those he dragged along on his quest, that Boenish’s death was anything other than suicide.
In this regard, Sunshine Superman recalls a pair of cautionary tales about the sick man’s quest for self-actualization, one recent and one very, very old: the myth of Icarus and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, both of which had plenty of sunshine but nothing all that super about them.
Sunshine Superman opens Friday, June 5, at Bijou Art Cinemas; bijou-cinemas.com.