Sunshine Superman is a dance with life and death
Sunshine Superman chronicles the daredevil lifestyle of Carl Boenish (1941-1984). Not unlike Philippe Petit whose death defying walk on a wire across the World Trade Center made headlines in 1976, Boenish created the modern sport known as BASE jumping, much of his style becoming mature in the late-70s.
Previously in the ‘60s Boenish had acted as a consultant for the films The Gypsy Moths and The Sky Divers, which is a making of featurette for Gypsy Moths (both 1969). John Frankenheimer’s barnstormer film featured Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, along with newcomers Gene Hackman and Scott Wilson. Gypsy Moths contains Kerr’s single filmic nude scene. The film ends in tragedy as Lancaster essentially commits suicide by not opening his chute and hitting the ground at speeds that would exceed what can be accomplished with a very fast car.
There’s a similar dance with death and life that Sunshine Superman documents. Free Press Houston spoke to director Marah Strauch who said as much: “I am interested in characters that pursue activities or goals that most people would think are a waste of time and in this case a death wish. This film is about having your breath taken away, either by love, passion, or by dizzying heights.”
BASE stands for buildings, antennas, spans (like bridges) and Earth (as in mountain tops). Jumping from stationary objects with a parachute. Nowadays the Go-Pro crowd has this down to slick Youtube image bites but it was Boenish who made it a reality in a pre-video era. Just as an aside, imagine if Philippe Petit had filmed his Twin Tower exploits instead of just had a photographer on one of the buildings.
Wing suits are a type of resilient body outfit that makes the jumper look like a flying squirrel. “People are able to jump further and further away from the cliff and have more free fall time,” explains Strauch. “There have always been people trying to create various types of wing suits. It makes you think of Icarus. In the ‘60s, like for Gypsy Moths the suits didn’t do that much, but nowadays they are really aerodynamic and really created to allow your body to fly. It’s quite an interesting piece of technology.”
Strauch was able to access Boenish’s filmed footage, which includes some truly stunning jumps. Strauch also recreated some sequences, playing Boenish’s wife Jean, specifically a scene at Norway’s Troll Wall, which is the “tallest vertical rock face in Europe,” a gneiss formation standing over 3500 feet. It was here that Boenish shuffled off this mortal coil in 1984. Ironically Boenish had set the Guinness World Record with a jump there with Jean the day before.
“Carl often didn’t jump first,” says Strauch. Boenish would have the first jumper with a camera attached backwards on their helmet so that he’s filming Carl jumping off behind him. “The helmet, the stomach, where ever they could strap a camera safely.”
At El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park in 1978, Boenish actually built a ramp with a pole and seat attached so a cameraman could film him jumping off that famed mountain with a bird like point-of-view.
“His motivation was about getting the shot, Carl was very much a filmmaker. What really attracted me to making this film was that Carl really tells his own story with the film that he took,” says Strauch.
Houston plays a part in BASE jumping because Boenish and his crew jumped off the then under construction Texas Commerce Building in 1981. On the same trip, Boenish also filmed himself jumping from one of the incredibly high antennas located in Sugarland.
“Houston was kind of where BASE jumping was born,” says Strauch. “Jumping from the antenna was slightly easier than jumping from a building in terms of getting in and getting out.
“They jumped that building more than once without getting arrested,” says Strauch, who also includes footage that shows Boenish and his crew recreating their getaway from the Texas Commerce Building after one of their successful jumps.
Strauch started off making a short subject doc then the project stretched into production as a full-length documentary for eight years. Noted filmmaker Alex Gibney came on board as executive producer late in the game and helped on “some of the strategic problems that first time filmmakers are going to face,” says Strauch.
Sunshine Superman, as per its rock song title, has a wall-to-wall soundtrack of great rock tunes. Sunshine Superman unwinds exclusively at the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park this weekend.
— Michael Bergeron