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30 for 30: The Birth of Big Air

Director: Jeff Tremaine
Regular airtime: Thursday, 7pm ET

(ESPN; US: 29 Jul 2010)

Voices Inside of My Head

It always gets to the point that it feels like everything’s been done and then somebody does something else and that opens up a whole new realm of possibilities. Mat’s probably done that a dozen times.
—Spike Jonze


“If you fall during your life, it doesn’t matter,” says Evel Knievel. “You’re never a failure as long as you try to get up. The most important thing in life is, if you have a dream, I mean a real good dream, follow it.”


Evel Knievel only appears briefly in The Birth of Big Air, but he resonates. In part, this is because he knows something about falling, and falling takes up a lot of screen time and emotional energy in Jeff Tremaine’s documentary. But it’s also because the larger-than-life example he set—for adventurers, daredevils, and dreamers.


Big air is the dream for Mat Hoffman. And the BMX freestyler has set his own examples, inventing tricks, designing bikes, and organizing shows and contests to keep the sport moving forward during its “recession years,” the 1980s. The film opens with a series of testimonials by well-known alternative and extreme sports stars—from Tony Hawk to Danny Way to Travis Pastrana—who admire Hoffman’s ingenuity and above all, his passion. As Bob Haro puts it, “I was a first generation guy, and probably set the tone for a lot of the initial tricks but it was the next generation that kind of took things to a new level and in Mat’s case, he took it to a whole new level. “


The film remembers that “whole new level,” providing minimal context or distraction. Yes, he had a family in Oklahoma. Three siblings appear for a moment in the film, seated in a row to recall his sudden fame at age 13 (“After the first show, he had 15 sponsors: everybody wanted a piece of him”), he had a dad, Matt, who built his first ramp and cautioned his wife Joni not to watch Mat practice his tricks, but rather to wait until he had perfected them. She was enthusiastic in her own way. Steve Swope (titled here Mat’s “best friend”) says that Joni sent an early airborne photo to Freestylin’ Magazine, not because she was seeking publicity, but because “She just knew Mat was something special and it would be cool, you know, if they knew that he existed.”


Hoffman frames his inventiveness as a pursuit of pleasure. “I learned,” he says over a series of photos of him in hospital beds, “That one doesn’t come without the other: if you’re gonna have fun, you’re gonna be woken up unconscious pretty often, if you’re gonna have fun the way I like to have fun.” Just how this pursuit affected his friends and family remains general: the kid was awesome, you know. Another level.


Aside from the occasional comment from Mat’s dad—reinforcing what the film has already made clear (“He’s very independent: he respects me and looks to me, but he certainly doesn’t say to me ‘Dad, I’m gonna build a ramp, what do you think?’”)—The Birth of Big Air keeps focused on its own version of forward motion, noting events in order, without contexts: it’s the 1980s, Mat’s “decade of dominance,” without any reference to the world outside the shows for which there’s footage—so you can ooh and ahh as on-site spectators do.


Early on, the film repeats itself in the way the riders repeat themselves. Photos and footage illustrate: “He was different, he was big,” says one. “Here’s this cute little face with curly hair,” says another, over a photo of a smiling child. “And then when he put his equipment on, he was just this warrior going into battle.” Cut to Mat in helmet and jumpsuit, riding up a ramp en route to another surprise trick.


The film tells something like a story, noting that the tricks (the Flair, the 900), impressive as they were, were early steps in a career of boundary breaking, of thinking up previously unthought possibilities. Swope says Hoffman had a “what if philosophy, that philosophy does not work for most people.” One of these boundaries was how high a man on a bike could fly, and Hoffman devoted himself to going higher and higher. Once he got together with Johnny Airtime, the film submits, his frontiers changed shape: taller ramps and faster speeds produced bigger air. And Hoffman found ways to get there—starting from a second ramp above, taping a weed-wacker motor to his bike (an idea Swope describes as “very Oklahoma”), getting towed to the 20-foot ramp by a motorcycle.


At times Hoffman jokes about his drive to go higher: “Is that really possible,” he wonders with an eye on that 20 foot ramp, “Or am I just completely an idiot?”
Though he insists he was uninterested in setting records or gaining renown, the film shows a few occasions when he’s plainly seeking recognition, performing for MTV cameras and, trying to prove he had set a record for which someone else had credit, he performed for ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Hoffman doesn’t say it, so Swope fills in, “it was like he was hoping for to show the world nobody’s ever gone higher than me and I’m gonna prove it again.”


The closest the film comes to understanding the process by which Hoffman gets from one point to another in conceiving and then executing a stunt “I do this stuff alone,” he says, “because I have to be inside myself and that’s where I find the focus to achieve it.” When camera crews set up for a show, he continues, “That’s where it goes wrong, because I lose those voices inside of my head that are telling me, you know, how to do it.”


It’s a brilliant, concise, and evocative description. He stands tall over the camera, helping the rest of us mere mortals comprehend how thought can become action in an instant, how the many moves, so brief and so specific, might come together in a sequence that is absolutely perfect and reckless and put together all at once. It’s the briefest of glimpses into how he does it, how he launches himself and flies, twists and arches, each time thrilling and unique.


It’s how we imagine the fabulous grace of athletes, the moment in which a ball is caught or dunked, a race won or a landing made. How can anyone explain the million moves—or voices—that make that moment happen? Without knowing, we ooh and ahh. And really, we mean it.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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