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They had a perfect moment in time, and that was all that cliff was going to give them
It was a time of big rigs, big jump suits – the brighter the better - and big cameras. Carl Boenish had a big, bright personality to match, but he was also a nerd, an inventor and innovator, and a spiritual, contemplative thinker who believed God had a plan for him. His almost naïve enthusiasm for fixed object jumping was driven by a ‘wow we can do this’ wonder, untempered by the future collective sorrow of too many deaths…
All of this is captured in Sunshine Superman - a beautifully crafted documentary that deftly combines Boenish’s pioneering footage with modern recreations to tell a compelling story of his life and the birth of the BASE organisation.
Before BASE was BASE jumping it was ‘Skyscraper Skydiving’ and authorities reacted with surprise and confusion rather than anger, outrage and arrest. Even then Carl Boenish was on a mission to explain the unexplainable – WHY?
“We feel like we’re Astronauts walking on the moon, it gives us a real sense of power and joy, and we want to share it with the world, but people can’t relate because it’s out of their realm”, he told a TV News Anchor. Carl’s goal was to put it in their realm by making skydiving and later BASE jumping films that conveyed the beauty and freedom he felt.
As a snapshot of Carl Boenish’s impact on freefall cinematography and his determination to capture the ‘beauty and humanity’ of the sport on film, Sunshine Superman is a 'must-see' for every skydiver and BASE jumper. It’s also a fascinating and thoughtful insight into Carl and Jean Boenish’s life and philosophy and their role in trying to formalise BASE jumping as a sport.
While the narrators of the film refer to it constantly, the extensive archival footage used throughout the documentary powerfully conveys Carl’s huge passion for life and filmmaking. Perhaps stemming from his near-death experience as a child with polio, he clearly lived with a rare and indefatigable intensity that he applied most fervently to skydiving cinematography.
His passion became a career after he was asked to take charge of the aerial freefall sequences for the iconic Hollywood skydiving film ‘The Gypsy Moths’ starring Burt Lancaster and Gene Hackman. The film premiered in 1969 and was billed as an insight into ‘the Death Defying Game of Skydiving’. Burt Lancaster’s character, a barnstormer famously performing a stunt in a suit with wings, failed to deploy his parachute in a scene no-one who has seen the film will forget.
After Gypsy Moths, Carl quit his day job as an Engineer and made skydiving camera his life’s work. He described himself as a ‘filmmaker first and a skydiver second’, but he was also an innovator, always looking for new ways to convey the ‘humanity and freedom’ of skydiving. Even clandestine jumps from buildings were delayed until Carl gave the OK that the light was right. The archival footage of these earliest BASE jumps from the first of Los Angeles’ skyscrapers is priceless.
When Carl turned his attention to Yosemite’s El Capitan there was no going back. For him the challenge was as much about filming as it was jumping. While it’s not mentioned in the documentary, the first BASE jump from El Capitan was in 1966 by Mike Pelkey and Brian Schubert but Carl’s crew were the first to jump with square parachutes and the first to extensively film it.
With the help of local climbers Carl set up a precarious looking ladder that jutted out from the cliff so he could capture the first footage of a jumper running off. The ladder was incredibly exposed and his friends called him ‘nuts’.
Kent Lane was first off. He had 600 skydives and a big 16mm camera on his head. Carl, perched on his ladder, gave the countdown. Before the jump Lane said he was terrified, afterwards he said he ‘couldn’t wait to do it again’. Park rangers on horseback met them at the landing area.
“We were a success in all our cliff jumps because I think we were being led by our attempts to glorify mankind’s beautiful spirit of seeking adventure and we were within our rights of freedom and dominion over all the earth. There are many manmade laws that need to be broken. One is that it’s impossible to jump off a cliff. We don’t want to be limited by anything except nature. We always have to listen to nature’s laws.” Carl said.
The head Park Ranger, Bill Wendt only partly agreed, ‘Carl had a great aura of life about him but you don’t have to dislike someone to take away their freedom. We both wanted the same thing - to legalise it and thus reduce the danger.” After a year of negotiation the Park Service started to issue permits to jump. “It worked for a while, but then it started to become untenable. There were too many free spirits and we had to shut them down,” said Bill Wendt.
Carl was 40, not married, and according to his friends ‘not popular with the ladies’ when he met Jean, and everything changed. In the style of a relationship that continued to be anything but typical their first date was to Lake Elsinore Drop Zone. The highlight was a ‘foot race’. Not put off Jean – who Carl’s skydiver mates had pegged as a librarian or maybe a nun – stuck around. “His purity was a very attractive quality,” she said. It only took them a few weeks to ‘figure out they wanted to spend their life together’.
Even though Jean ‘did not seem like the skydiver type’, Carl said she 'had a natural affinity for the air'. Cameraman John Long later said they were ‘diametric opposites’. But Jean said they shared ‘an intelligent approach to everything’. They were analytical, thoughtful and detail-oriented. When presented with the idea of jumping off a cliff, Jean said the idea was 'as pleasant as going camping’. They formed a personal and professional partnership.
They didn’t really fit anywhere, but they fit together
“Jean Boenish - if I saw her in the street, the last thing I would think is that she would put a parachute on and jump off a rock, but she believed and loved him so much that if Carl said you could jump off a cliff, she did it, and she did it better than most of the men at the time.”
One of Carl's crew
Footage of Jean jumping with Carl supports this assertion. She did look like she would be more at home in a library. Yet running off cliffs with a big camera on her head and a smile on her face, she showed no fear.
Nothing ever happens by chance, every single thing that happens; happens for a reason, according to the laws of the universe
They started jumping buildings and ‘TV Towers’. Then Phil Mayfield, Phil Smith and Carl came up with the idea of making an organisation and to be a member you had to jump all four categories of fixed object. They coined the acronym BASE – Building, Antennae, Span and Earth. It was 1981 and BASE #1 was awarded to Phil Smith. Phil Mayfield took #2 and Jean and Carl took #3 and #4. Today there have been over 2000 BASE numbers awarded.
Carl was great ‘media talent’ so the Boenish duo had much success with the mainstream media. Guinness World Records offered them the opportunity to attempt a World Record jump, for the highest BASE jump and the longest drop. They could go anywhere in the world and they chose the Trollveggen or Troll Wall in Norway. Their charismatic cameraman was John Long, a climber and adventurer in his own right.
The team surveyed the Troll Wall looking for a suitable place to jump. They did ten rock drops from a point known as the ‘Stabben Pinnacle’. Each time the rock hit between 3 and 5 seconds. Carl dismissed it as too dangerous so they found another location and made the World Record jump successfully. John Long said, “Carl was coming out of his skin with uncontainable enthusiasm, but Jean never seemed to get excited about anything.”
I wished Sunshine Superman ended there – with that beautiful jump, when the sun was shining and Carl really was Superman, but instead Carl went up again the next day.
For reasons no one will ever really know he jumped from the Stabben Pinnacle. John Long’s reaction at the recollection filmed some 20 years after it happened was heart-wrenching to watch. Long expressed his disbelief as to why Carl, not 12 hours after setting a new world record would hike back up there and jump a site they’d deemed ‘suicidal’ in weather that ‘was not good - raining and a little windy’. “What was he thinking? That he was the one person who could get away with it? But the Troll Wall had other ideas.” Long said.
Jean Boenish seemed much more contained, and I wondered at her emotional control. It is not clear whether she was a Christian Scientist like Carl, but perhaps she believed his tenet ‘that everything happens for a reason.’ There is some evidence of that in the final scene – a wingsuit jump by Jokke Summer in which Jean says Carl is ‘with the wingsuiters in spirit’. These are questions I wanted to ask her, but she declined an interview.
A few days after Carl died Jean jumped the Troll Wall again. She landed, and completely composed and smiling when the press interviewed her, she said it ‘was just like any other jump’. She said ‘it was important for her to jump to show Carl would have wanted everyone else to keep jumping’.
“Death doesn’t deserve praise. Life and the wondrous things we do in life from our good ideas, those deserve the praise. That’s what we should be standing by, that’s what we should be paying attention to, and that’s what Carl was all about.”
Sunshine Superman Official Trailer 1