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.


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Clarence Ewing said...

Jason, now that 30 for 30 is more than half over, I'm wondering what your (and other posters') Top 5 is so far. Mine are:

1. The U
2. The Two Escobars
3. June 17, 1994
4. Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?
5. Run, Ricky, Run

With honorable mention given to "Silly Little Game" for being a facinating subject that didn't get quite the treatment it deserved.

Daniel said...

Just saw the first ten minutes or so of this last night after having read your review. It reminded me a lot of Riding Giants/Dogtown and Z-boys, which is neither good or bad. All traditionally made but high quality documentaries, but all about extreme sports that I am tempted to think take themselves a bit too seriously at times, not in athletic prowess but social significance. Of course these are young sports, and these documentaries will likely age very nicely in the decades to come.

Jason Bellamy said...

Clarence: Great question. I've decided my favorite is June 17, 1994. I'm sure on that one. After that it's hard for me to distinguish between The Two Escobars, Run, Ricky, Run and The U. My fifth would be Winning Time, though I admit a personal bias there because Miller slaying the Knicks is one of my favorite memories as a sports fan. On a pure cinema level, though, it's playful (the opera music) and smartly edited, so I think it stands.

Honorable mention to No Crossover.

Agreed with you on Silly Little Game. It was great to see it recognized. At the same time, it was almost a tease. Wish it would have been better.

Daniel: It really is cool to understand the history of big air, even if the history isn't that old.

Richard Bellamy said...

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.

Well said here and throughout - on a topic that has actually been dear to my heart ever since my son took his skateboard, picked up speed across the kitchen floor, and ollied out of the kitchen, over three steps, into the garage. Since then, he suffered scrapes, bruises, bleeding wounds, a slight concussion even with helmet, and a cracked elbow - but he persisted and mastered stunts at the nearby high school that were increasingly daring (though, of course, nothing compared to Hoffman's stunts). Still, I remembered myself at his age - a rather fearful guy - and I had to admire his courage and persistence at a sport that seems to defy gravity and other laws of physics. Now, fortunately, he's realized, I think, that the older you get the more damage you can do to yourself and his avocation has turned to music. Still, he and his old buddy will go off to the skateboard park of an evening to commune with big air (relatively speaking).

TC said...

Good review. Seeing as how BMX is indeed a fringe sport, and one that I didn't know much about (aside from occasional X Games-watching the past couple years), I wish the separation between Hoffman and other riders when he started out would have been fleshed out a little more by Tremaine. He gives us a lot of talking heads in the first 5-10 minutes saying that Hoffman was on another level, but I wish he had expanded on that a little bit more, perhaps using graphics and numbers to show the disparity of Hoffman's air/tricks as an amateur compared with the pros that he was beating. (As opposed to just a stream of guys saying "He was getting huge air!") It just seemed like from a directorial standpoint, the film didn't get going until about halfway through, when you finally get invested in Hoffman's personality. I would have liked for Tremaine to give me more of a reason to care initially as to what set the kid apart.