Culture

Daredevils Unite in 'Aim for the Roses'

A stuntman, musician, and filmmaker: three obsessions come together in DOXA doc.

By Frederick Blichert 28 Apr 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Frederick Blichert is a Vancouver-based writer completing a practicum at The Tyee. He is a student at UBC's Graduate School of Journalism and writes for various film publications.

There is a poetic absurdity at the heart of John Bolton's new "musical docudrama" that is nicely summed up by its title, Aim for the Roses: it implies something beautiful and delicate, but the reality is wilder and more dangerous.

In 1976, Canadian daredevil Ken Carter announced he would attempt a mile-long jump over the St. Lawrence Seaway in a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental. He planned to soften the landing with a bed of roses, lending an air of high-class luxury to a kitschy display of bravado.

But Bolton doesn't just focus on Carter's death-defying stunt. He extends the film's narrative to Vancouver composer Mark Haney, who recorded a 2010 concept-album tribute to Carter's "stunt to end all stunts." Bolton borrows Haney's album title for the film.

Bolton says he wants to contrast the difference between the fates of the two men's stories. "The film celebrates the beauty and the terror of making a living as a composer and as a stuntman," he says in an interview with The Tyee.

With this, the film shows a triangle of inspiration between the three men: the daredevil, the musician and the filmmaker.

Diving into Carter's daredevil obsession through music, Haney set out to tell the stuntman's story with precision. He recreates the voices of Carter, "the announcer," "the statistician," "the ramp engineer," a Greek chorus of spectator/singers, Carter's fuel-tank team, and famed American stuntman Evel Knievel. Carter saw Knievel as an inferior daredevil who expresses his deep skepticism about the St. Lawrence jump in the film.

Haney was inspired in his album by Robert Fortier's 1981 NFB documentary about Carter, The Devil at Your Heels. He spent two-and-a-half years preparing the final collection of songs, a process that he had originally promised his producer would take only eight days. He wanted to get the passion project right, and his obsessive attention to detail paid off.

When Haney's album was released, Georgia Straight reviewer Adrian Mack called it "utterly amazing and completely fucking ridiculous." Mack appears in the film and describes the album as both highbrow and enjoyably trashy.

"He [Mack] gives all of us permission to not take it seriously," says Bolton, adding that we alternate between taking Haney's songs seriously and seeing the album as a farce. "That's kind of the magic of the album."

Bolton couldn't ignore the similarities between Carter and Haney as two men driven -- almost consumed -- by seemingly ridiculous projects. Each dedicated years of labour to his art. But while Haney's album was well reviewed, Carter struggled to find career success after attempting the jump.*

Aim for the Roses (the film) is made up of tongue-in-cheek dramatizations, theatrical asides, choreographed musical numbers, interviews with Haney and others, and archival footage from The Devil at Your Heels and a later documentary about Carter, Graham Hart's Ken Carter: Stuntman to the End.

We learn about Carter and Haney's personal lives and their struggles to achieve their goals while also hearing "expert" testimony on the cultural importance of both men from Mack and Jocelyn Morlock, composer-in-residence of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

Actions and reactions

Throughout Aim for the Roses, Bolton teases us with repeated build-ups to Carter's jump and Haney's CD release, refusing to reveal how either event turned out until much later when he reveals the divergence in the two men's paths. This creates suspense while reminding us of Carter's relative obscurity. "I realized pretty early on that most people don't know this story, so they don't know what's going to happen," Bolton says.

One of the strongest and most surprising features of Aim for the Roses is Bolton's ability to draw parallels between the passionate work of Carter and Haney, two performers who seem radically different on the surface.

The two men shared a great deal in their respective characters and lives, and Bolton succeeds in showing this. Both dream big and ignore the obstacles in front of them. Each honours his inner child, enamoured of flashy spectacle. They both celebrate high-octane stunts almost to the point of obsession: Carter in his physical feats, Haney in his music.

And Bolton himself becomes the third eccentric in the story, documenting their exploits in an absurdist way: "Ken inspired Mark to attempt something crazy, and both Ken and Mark inspired me to attempt something crazy."

Bolton's project stretches the limits of documentary storytelling, made up mostly of a series of impressionistic, musical reenactments of Carter's stunt. It grew to an almost impossible scale, evolving as he dug deeper into the backgrounds and characters of his subjects.

In understanding and connecting with them, Bolton offers both men a sense of legitimacy.

Haney enjoys a certain elevated status as a respected member of Vancouver's theatre and music scenes.

But Carter's legacy seems less sure. His daredevil skills are not widely valued or remembered, and even his eventual, tragic death in a later stunt seems somehow inevitable. It's not sad, according to Haney, because he believes Carter's story could never have ended any other way. But he deserves respect as a Canadian icon.

And Carter wasn't an icon. Despite how badly Cody Glive and Andrew Whitton -- the men who operate the very small Ken Carter Preservation Society in Ontario, near the jump site -- may want to see him celebrated and revered, Carter simply doesn't have the cultural capital.

It is one of the film's tragic ironies that Haney's album, a tribute to Ken Carter, should be an acclaimed success when Carter himself has largely faded into obscurity.

"What I'm interested in is not just the lowbrow drudgery of what Ken did and the high art of what Mark does -- the film is really about the high art of what Ken does and the lowbrow drudgery of what Mark does," Bolton says.

The film succeeds. Carter is such a compelling character and through all of his over-the-top showmanship and bravado, we can't help but cheer him on and take him seriously.

Aim for the Roses will have its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs on May 1 before playing at Vancouver's DOXA for the festival's opening night gala on May 5, and again on May 15. For more information, visit the DOXA website.

*Story clarification April 28 at 10:20 a.m.  [Tyee]

DOXA IS COMING

Aim for the Roses will have its world premiere at Toronto's Hot Docs on May 1 before playing at Vancouver's DOXA for the festival's opening night gala on May 5, and again on May 15. More ticket info here.

The film is part of the upcoming DOXA documentary film festival in Vancouver. The festival runs May 5 to 15. Full program details here.

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