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The Birth And Death Of Big Air

ESPN's latest 30 for 30 documentary about BMX trailblazer Mat Hoffman may have been a well-timed PR play for the Summer X Games, but it was also a bone-crunching reminder of the deadly brutality of extreme obsession.


While one atrophied limb of the World Wide Leader was publicly tripping yesterday over what should have been a blithe and quickly-forgotten party report, its more toned production arm was flexing its muscles, releasing the schedule for a strong slate of documentaries this fall. (I, for one, am giddy with anticipation for the Tupac film made "with the full cooperation of Mike Tyson.")


The network also premiered The Birth of Big Air, a film about wild and crazy Mat Hoffman, who dominated and defined freestyle BMX throughout the late eighties and early nineties, nearly killing himself in the process.

The timing of the documentary's premiere might cause some eye rolls, coming as it did right at the start of the network's heavily-promoted Summer X Games, but whatever: I don't begrudge them for a little corporate synergy, particularly when it is so mercifully devoid of LeBron. Baby steps. And I mean, have you seen the way NBC shamelessly whores the Olympics?

"Mat is awesome as shit, so we decided to make a movie about him," reads the personal statement of filmmakers Spike Jonze, Jeff Tremaine, and Johnny Knoxville. And indeed Mat is: a leprechaun-faced, sparkle-eyed freestyling daredevil who did things on sketchily self-constructed ramps in his tweenage backyard ("he's this shady little kid from Oklahoma just blasting," recalls one former pro from that era) that no one else in the sport had even conceived of. Hoffman was so instant a splash that in his first sanctioned competition he took first in the amateur bracket, turned pro on the spot, and then went on to win first place in that class as well. By the next day he had 15 sponsors lined up.

But while the retrospective into Hoffman's game-changing theatrics appears on the surface a delish amuse-bouche for the X Games, it also may cause a few viewers to choke. He nails 900s, yes, but he also breaks over 300 bones. He flies high, but then he lays low. Like, in a coma-type low. As one friend of Hoffman says in the film, describing his jumps off an ever-heightening ramp: "It would go from this beautiful soaring thing to a violent crash so suddenly. We'd be like, ‘is he dead?'" (They weren't the only ones with the question: type Mat Hoffman into Google and check out what's suggested.)


It's only a matter of time before we witness a death at the X Games. Several medal-winners have perished in other events: freestyle motocross medalist Jeremy Lusk died last year after attempting a "Hart Attack" backflip and crashing so hard that his helmet was split in two, while CR Johnson, an innovative twin-tip freeskier who'd survived a prior coma, struck a rock with his head in Lake Tahoe this winter and never recovered.

As is often the case in profiles of extreme athletes, Hoffman's corporeal punishment is The Birth of Big Air's real central theme. There's a puckish lightness to the early scenes of his various crashes: Hoffman flashes thumbs-ups from stretchers and smiles through a mop of thick curly hair like some Brat Pack-era heartthrob. He carries around suture kits and sews his own Frankensteinian stitches. Tony Hawk describes his pal's wince-making resourcefulness, recalling a time that he fucked up his hand so badly he lost the ability to grip. He ended up duct-taping his hand to his handlebars, natch.


"He's an orthopedic surgeon's dream," says his father.

"He's more of a nightmare," says his orthopedic surgeon.

And here things cloud over, both the tone of the film and the state of his brain. "There's not an extremity he hasn't broken in a violent manner," remarks his surgeon, and then, over a sickening montage of Hoffman's head hard-hitting the ground over and over: "The most concerning injuries are his concussions – we don't know what the long term impacts of those injuries are."


Well, but we do, though. It's kind of a thing.

In the introduction to Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, the author compares the murderous Mormon zealots about whom he writes to some of the whacked-out thrill seekers he'd previously covered:

The zealot may be outwardly motivated by the anticipation of a great reward at the other end — wealth, fame, eternal salvation — but the real recompense is probably the obsession itself. This is no less true for the religious fanatic than for the fanatical pianist or fanatical mountain climber. As a result of his (or her) infatuation, existence overflows with purpose. Ambiguity vanishes from the fanatic's worldview; a narcissistic sense of self-assurance displaces all doubt...This perspective narrows until the last remnants of proportion are shed from his life. Through immoderation, he experiences something akin to rapture.


"Everyone you know, everyone you respect, everyone that you admire their opinions…[they] don't have anything to say to you that you want to hear," Hoffman admits.

It's reminiscent of a line from the gorgeous 2008 documentary Steep, which revolves largely around another X-Games-esque thrill-seeker, big-mountain freestyle skier Doug Coombs, who pioneered the practice of heli-skiing in Alaska. "No one could tell me where I could ski, what I could ski, when i could ski," Coombs says in the film. "Any of those rules were thrown out the window."

Another man featured in Steep, Shane McConkey, took his pursuit even further, strapping a parachute onto his back and catapulting off unskiable cliffs. (I thought of McConkey when Hoffman, having been sidelined by a crash whose impact ruptured his spleen and deposited him minutes from death, turned to a hobby he described as "gentler": skydiving with his bike.)


The great Coombs and McConkey are both dead now, each one killed as he lived: on his skis. But any glamour dissolves when you learn that they left behind not just their fresh tracks, man, but their wives and their children, both just 3 years old. Mat Hoffman is also a father: at one point we see his adorable young children kiss him good luck, just seconds before another crash sends him into a 3-day coma from which he took nearly a year to fully recover.

It's easy to see films like these and lament the death-defying choices of men who have families and children, to judge them harshly for their inability to say no, but I wonder sometimes what the alternative is. Some people are simply hard-wired this way. (It's almost too perfect that Hoffman had a dear friendship with Evel Knievel.)


Tony Hawk understands, saying: "That's who we are! We love it too much to hang it up. I hate when people ask me that: 'When are you hanging it up?' Like, if I'm standing on my own two feet? I'm riding a skateboard."

You can't watch the footage of Hoffman as a young kid and not see that he's different, that he can't not do these things. "I just kick my feet," he tells one professional rider who asks how he pulls off an impossible move, sounding like some kind of Will Hunting savant. He talks about lying in bed dreaming about how to build higher ramps. "That's the fabric of who Mat is," says one friend. Who are we to tell him to change?


I get it, and I'm always the last one to judge. But it's worth noting that Hoffman's two most near-fatal accidents shown in the doc occur as big-time cameras are rolling. "I [was] trying to give someone something, instead of trying to do it for myself," Hoffman says, reflecting on what went wrong.

He was showing off not for his Oklahoma friends but for MTV cameras when he ruptured his spleen; he was trying to fly higher not out of his own curiosity but for a world record-keeping crew from the Wide World of Sports when he slipped into a coma.


And at some point, some macabre modern-day situation will take place in full view of ESPN's radical new 3-D cameras, and we'll see the tragedy of Icarus unfold right there in primetime. It's charming when Hoffman jokes, near the end of The Birth of Big Air, that he longs to someday grow wings. But it's also a little bit chilling.

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