Thursday, July 29, 2010
What Goes Up …: The Birth of Big Air
As irritating as David Blaine has become in recent years due to his tedious, surprisingly lusterless stunt (un)spectaculars, whenever I’m flipping through the channels and stumble upon the 1996 documercial David Blaine: Street Magic, I put down the remote control. By now I’ve seen the Leonardo DiCaprio-hosted special enough times to know all the tricks, even if I can’t explain how they’re pulled off. And although I’m still impressed by Blaine’s skill (I’ve always loved magic), the pure excitement I get from watching him turn an Ace of Diamonds into a 6 of Spades has long since passed. Meanwhile, Blaine’s undoubtedly effective stage presence, from his monotone monologues to his dramatic exhaustion shtick, has become downright tiresome. Yet still I watch. The difference is that I no longer watch Blaine. The genius of Street Magic is that in addition to allowing us to observe Blaine’s sleight of hand, the film also – and sometimes exclusively – allows us to watch the awed faces of Blaine’s marks. No matter how many times I encounter Street Magic, the sight of people staring in absolute amazement as they try to process the apparent reality of the seemingly impossible is nothing short of thrilling.
Incredibly enough, that leads us to the latest documentary in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series, The Birth of Big Air, which has nothing whatsoever to do with street magic but nonetheless has similar charms. Profiling a BMX daredevil named Mat Hoffman, the 50-minute film is peppered with moments in which Jeff Tremaine’s camera stares into the dumbstruck faces of people trying to process stunts so incredible that they might as well be illusions. That some of the stunts happened as many as 24 years ago, and that many of the guys shaking their heads in amazement have performed numerous gravity-defying feats of their own, makes their present-day wonderment, captured in talking-head interviews, all the more poignant. It’s one thing for a stuntman to dazzle in the moment. It’s another thing to pull off tricks so incredible that a decade or two later people still get goosebumps remembering what it was like to discover photographs of the tricks in trade magazines. Mat Hoffman earned his fame, and served as a trailblazer for his sport, by doing things on a bike that no one else could. Hoffman earned his legend, however, by nailing tricks no one else even imagined.
On that note, The Birth of Big Air is a celebration of vision as much as it is a chronicle of accomplishment. It’s the story of a kid from Oklahoma who built a halfpipe in his backyard and then spent every spare moment of his childhood testing his limits on it until he realized that it was the halfpipe that was holding him back. Driven by a heartfelt desire to honor his dead mother by reaching his full potential, and encouraged by the calculations of a stuntman who validated the attainability of the barely conceivable, Hoffman shifted his focus away from the standard 10-foot-tall halfpipe and began experimenting with something significantly more extreme, a 20-foot-quarterpipe, a nearly vertical ramp that he would use to launch himself toward a goal that was equally absurd: 20 feet of air. Such heights are commonplace in the sport now, thanks to better bikes and ramps, but at the time Hoffman was an explorer shooting for the moon in an era when his peers were still learning how to fly. So severe was Hoffman’s passion and so primitive were the times that in order for him transcend the 20-foot barrier he had to get towed by a motorcycle across a runway of loose plywood so that he could generate satisfactory speed. Pedaling alone wasn’t going to cut it.
It takes a special kind of person to take such risks – someone who is half-brave and half-reckless, or maybe all of one or the other. Hoffman is that man. Big Air is an ode to his perseverance and toughness. There are stories of broken bones, trips to the hospital and do-it-yourself stitches. There is respect paid toward the reality that big-air tricks are an all-or-nothing proposition. You nail them or you don’t, and when you don’t the failure can be ugly. The path to big air is fraught with big falls. If it wasn’t, anyone could do it. If Big Air is any indication, the only protection these guys get in the early experimental stages is a messy pile of mattresses to fall on (if they’re lucky). Other than that, it’s just a helmet and some woefully inadequate body armor between these guys and their wooden ramps. Big Air never mentions recent research about the cumulative effect of concussions, and perhaps it should have. Then again, the film isn’t an irresponsible, wholly romanticized depiction of the sport either. For many who watch this documentary, Big Air’s most memorable image won’t be Hoffman’s triumphant, jaw-dropping 20-plus feet of air. It’ll be the haunting sight of Hoffman’s inert body sliding down a ramp after a failed jump – an image made all the more grisly due to the tragic screams of Hoffman’s helpless wife, who just seconds ago was standing by her husband as the couple admired their newborn daughter.
The juxtaposition of Hoffman’s 2001 near-death experience with recent footage of ESPN’s X Games is chilling, precisely because they seem worlds apart. State of the art technology and years of refinement have made the formerly extraordinary seem almost commonplace to the point that it’s all too easy to forget the danger involved. To call these guys athletes is right on the money, but to call this stuff sport is to lure us into believing it’s all just a game. Big Air was produced by director Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville, the latter of whom earned fame by abusing his body on the TV show Jackass. It’s Knoxville we should think of when these big-air tricks go wrong, because if you’re not sticking a trick you might as well be hurling your body toward the ground from 20-plus feet in the air on purpose. From sport to Jackass-esque self-mutilation, just like that.
The risks inherent to BMX (or skateboarding, for that matter), threaten to keep it nothing more than a fringe professional sport. (Of course, that it’s a professional sport at all is in part thanks to Hoffman, who carried the fire during its lean years.) Perhaps fittingly then, Big Air isn’t anywhere near the top of the “30 for 30” series. It lacks the cinematic poetry of June 17, 1994 or the epic sprawl of The Two Escobars, and yet it has the thankless task of following those two superb entries in the ESPN Films series. Combining archival footage with talking head after talking head, Tremaine’s film is documentary bread and butter. Then again, I suppose you could say the same thing about a card trick in relation to magic. Just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it won’t make your jaw drop.
The Birth of Big Air premieres tonight on ESPN at 7 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.