***Stuntman A.J. Bakunas set the Guinness World Record for the Highest Movie Stunt Jump Without a Parachute while stunting for Burt Reynolds in the 1978 film Hooper. He fell from a height of 232 feet and landed safely on an air mattress. Within the year, another stuntman, Dar Robinson, jumped from a helicopter and unofficially bested this distance. In response, Bakunas staged a higher jump on the set of his next film, Steel. He seemed to perform this stunt purely for ego and publicity, as this jump had already been shot for the film. Bakunas jumped from the fateful height and landed on an air mattress, whose second chamber collapsed on impact. He died instantly. Tragically, Bakunas’ father was present for the first time at one of his son’s stunts.
***A year later, Dar Robinson went on to perform the Guinness World Record’s Highest Stunt Freefall—1,100 feet from the top of the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada—for the film Highpoint. A documentary film, The World’s Most Spectacular Stuntman, included this jump amongst his numerous and awesome contributions to the industry. He was quoted as saying, “From now on, I want every stunt I do to not only set new world records, but also put everyone watching totally on the edge of their seats.” Seven years later, during routine secondary shooting on the set of Million Dollar Mystery, Robinson’s motorcycle flew out from under him, and he died from the injuries he sustained. This was regarded as a “freak” accident.
***A month ago, at 1:14am, EST, I was given a reprieve. An editor of this magazine had
called me from San Francisco, asked me some questions, and then gave me an extension for this article. I felt an elated disbelief, attached with a weight. The same sort of weight I’d felt all the weeks approaching the deadline, and the same weight that lifted when the deadline passed. I often use deadlines as beginnings: after the pressure is off, I can write anything. Anything makes up for the nothing I produced. Deadlines are both stifling and life-giving affairs. They are not final, but they feel like a dress rehearsal.
My missed deadline was not from laziness or lack of interest. I’d been trying for several weeks to compose an eloquent rumination on the random unspectacular deaths of those practiced at the art of illusion and death-defying escapes. I felt dumb in my attempts to articulate why I’ve been absorbed with the inevitability that I am going to die, along with everyone else who calls themselves living. The fact that it was not coming together easily began to confirm my fears that I wasn’t thinking about it clearly, logically, or deeply enough, or that my fear of death itself was preventing me from really investigating and confronting its inextricable relationship to life.
***Not only has death receded from our everyday lives through antibiotics, hospitals,
safety standards, and other modern developments, but it has also come to be regarded as preventable. Our attitude has become one of: Shame on you. If only you had taken better care of yourself, taken more precautions, you would not be dead now. How could you have been so stupid?
***In the context of the extraordinary stories of these masters of escape and illusion,
what weight do their deaths carry? Does A.J. Bakunas’ dramatic death lend more meaning to the story of his life? Conversely, does Dar Robinson’s more ordinary death detract from the stunning performances he consistently gave for 14 years? Does it matter how they died? Or does more meaning rest in how we—the living—manage one another’s exit stories? What do we want to remember? What is conveniently forgotten? How does this describe our attitudes toward death? The cinematic world in which A.J. Bakunas and Dar Robinson worked projects the illusion that its inhabitants have control over their own fate—as if they can choose which stunts they will survive, and which will
neatly tie their narratives to a close. Bakunas’ death fits his profession—he lived and died as the stuntman we lauded him to be.
Robinson’s death is more problematic. He did not leave in a blaze of glory, nor during
a show-stopping performance. He faltered into the world in which the rest of us exist, the world in which dumb, unexplained accidents happen. His death doesn’t seem worthy of his profession.
Enter Gene Coogan. A stuntman for 26 years, having worked on films such as Mutiny on the Bounty and Many Rivers to Cross, Coogan died after falling asleep in bed with a lit cigarette. Though he wasn’t recognized for any particular accomplishments, stuntmen like Dar Robinson glamorized the profession enough for me to pause for a long time on Gene Coogan’s quiet smoky death. What do we do in the face of stories that don’t make memorable narratives? Is Gene Coogan’s death more saddening or less than A.J. Bakunas’? What do I pity more: that Coogan’s death seems prosaic and preventable, or that Bakunas couldn’t stand to see his record stolen? What makes the more noble story? Is death a plot device in the service of epic narratives?
***Bobby Leach, who survived a barrel fall over Niagara Falls in 1911, later slipped on an
orange peel and died from complications associated with this fall.
***How can one truly confront death until one has to? Maybe I’ve been thinking I can
prepare for a loved one’s death or my own through careful study and thought, much in the same way survivalists believe they can out-think disaster before it happens. By creating a logical system as a preemptive coping mechanism, death’s occasion will not be such a shock, nor the loss feel so profound—in theory.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the utter fragility of existence and how it is necessary to accept death’s presence in everyday life activities. When I am aware of the fleeting nature of a moment—that being present is the only way I can reconcile the fact that this will never be again—then I am recognizing death’s relationship to that moment. I have to catch myself, though. In my attempts to get my mind around the unknowable, I can lose the thought that life is equally as inevitable, weighty, and indifferent. And it is a quantity on which I can gather information by simply engaging in it.
If you are reading this, I’ve finished the dress rehearsal.
Satellite, Issue 1, pp 22–23