Hot Docs 2016: Aim for the Roses
One of the interesting trends to emerge out of this year’s Hot Docs Festival is films that blur the lines of traditional documentary filmmaking. We are seeing examples that play with a blend of fact and fiction and examples that are experimental in how they present their material, deviating from the standard formula. John Bolton’s Aim for the Roses is an unusual film that pushes boundaries of what it means to be a documentary film. It pairs several unlikely elements in an effort to be an ode to a composer and to a legendary Canadian daredevil.
It was the height of the daredevil craze in the late 1970s. America was fascinated with Evel Knievel and his heart-stopping stunts. Canada had its own answer in Ken Carter, a stunt driver aiming to be known as the best daredevil in the world. He performed all over the country building up his name. In an effort to set a world record, he devised a plan to jump a mile over the St. Lawrence Seaway in a rocket-powered car, starting in Ontario and landing on an island on the American side. He would plant a bed of roses as his landing target and aim for it. He worked with investors, engineers, and car modifiers to work out what he believed would be the speed and ramp height that would give him the trajectory to complete his jump. Plagued by years of problems and believing Ken Carter had lost his nerve, investors secretly selected another driver to complete the stunt. This attempt ended in disaster. The driver was not heavy enough, there were bumps in the runway so the car began to bounce, the speed was not nearly high enough, and the car broke apart in the air just seconds after being caught by the wind during takeoff. The driver sustained multiple injuries and the entire ordeal was complete failure.
Musician Mark Haney, a double bass orchestral player and composer, has always been fascinated by Ken Carter and this journey he went on to create the jump across the river. He wanted to create an album that would pay loving tribute to this man, this event, and his career. After several years of dedicated work, the end result was a dreamlike avant-garde album affectionately named Aim for the Roses that mimicked Carter’s journey up to his death in 1983. Haney used audio from interviews Carter did and words from his newspaper ads to create the lyrics of these songs. He layered tracks of the double bass to change the sounds and give fullness to the audio; he worked out mathematical equations to determine where to place certain moments in the overall landscape of the complete album, and devised a method of turning words and numbers into notes. Haney likened his journey of creating this music to that of Carter needing to complete the jump over the Seaway, only he made it all the way across.
The film uses actors and singers to recreate the key moments of Ken Carter’s career, all set to the music of the album. This was to give us a visualization of how these elements paired together. In bizarre fashion, long stretches of the film are spent watching these surreal scenes unfold. It leaves a sense of wondering what we are witnessing, and a feeling of there not being enough material to create a feature-length film. Unfortunately, at times it feels like filler material.
This is not a film for everyone. If you prefer more traditional structure and subject matter, it would be best to make another choice. It can at times be difficult to sit through and absorb. At the same time, it should be appreciated that the director attempted a new approach to documentary filmmaking. It’s a form that can grow stale in its presentation so any effort to offer a story in an unorthodox manner should be encouraged. Much like Haney’s album, this film walks a fine line of being genius and completely ridiculous.