At its heart, John Bolton’s Aim for the Roses is the story of two men and their obsessions. Those obsessions couldn’t be more different, but the force that drives them—that damn-the-torpedoes ambition that keeps the most irrational of dreams alive—unites the documentary’s subjects.
In 1976, Canadian daredevil Ken Carter (think of him as a hoser Evel Knievel) announced that he intended to pilot a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental off of a ramp and over the St. Lawrence Seaway, landing some 1,200 metres away on the American side, on a bed of rosebushes.
This frankly outlandish project consumed five years of the so-called Mad Canadian’s life and was subsequently documented in Robert Fortier’s award-winning 1981 National Film Board production, The Devil at Your Heels.
It was Fortier’s film that inspired Mark Haney to retell Carter’s story in his own way—through music. The Vancouver composer and double bassist’s 2010 album, also titled Aim for the Roses, is a masterpiece of absurdity and beauty, perhaps best described by the Straight’s own Adrian Mack (who appears in Bolton’s film), who called it “utterly amazing and completely fucking ridiculous”.
With musical structures based on the mathematical constant pi and arrangements incorporating dozens of layers of droning bass timbres, Aim for the Roses turned out to be an epic undertaking. Working with engineer and coproducer David Gannett, Haney entered the studio for what was supposed to be a few days of recording. Two-and-a-half years, one serious hand injury, and a crumbling romantic relationship later, it was finally released at a sold-out show at the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre.
“I was at the now-legendary album launch party at the planetarium in 2010,” Bolton tells the Straight in a telephone interview. “Everyone who went to that show got a free CD—and I was still using CDs back then. At first I was just kind of overwhelmed by it. It was an overwhelming sensory experience, because the planetarium show had visuals and everything.
“The more I listened to it, the more interested I was in it. I have a background in making classical-music performance pieces, and I felt like this was a piece of music that I could bring to life. I really had no idea what I was getting into.”
Right. Let’s rewind and amend that opening sentence: Aim for the Roses, which opens this year’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival on Thursday (May 5), is in fact the story of three men and their obsessions. As the scope of Bolton’s project grew—from a staging of musical performances to a full-on documentary, complete with interviews, fully realized set pieces, and seamless callbacks to The Devil at Your Heels—so did the challenge of actually finishing the damn thing.
“The film just kept getting bigger, and it did get way behind schedule, and it did go way over budget,” the filmmaker notes. “There were lots of times when I wasn’t sure if I’d ever finish it. At the end of it, I’d spent about as much time on the film as Mark did on his album and Ken did on his stunt, but I was making a film about them, so I was inspired by both of them all the way through. And I was inspired by the music all the way through.”
A qirky film about a composer and a daredevil seems like an odd fit for DOXA’s spotlight program Borders and Boundaries, in which most of the selections focus on such heavy themes as the Syrian refugee crisis and the struggles of migrant workers. There is an actual border in Bolton’s movie, of course; the St. Lawrence separates Ontario from the state of New York. As DOXA director of programming Dorothy Woodend tells the Straight, however, the true boundaries explored in Aim for the Roses, and in Jay Cheel’s How to Build a Time Machine, aren’t necessarily quite that literal.
“How to Build a Time Machine is an interesting one as well, because it’s such a far-out kind of hypothesis that they start with, but it becomes quite real by the end of the film,” Woodend says. “And I think Aim for the Roses does something very similar, where you start out with something that’s just absolutely, ridiculously cuckoo, and then you set out to make it possible, or to make it happen.
“And whether that’s a fool’s errand or a kind of tilting-at-windmills experience, there’s something that’s gloriously human about those kinds of endeavours. And I think that’s why something like Aim for the Roses is so compelling, because there’s that quest to do something that you don’t even know if it’s possible or that you’re capable of doing it, but that you can’t not do it. You have to do it.”
Haney sees that quality in himself and recognizes that it’s one of the ways his project echoes Carter’s. “I think there’s a similarity in mindset, and I thought that while I was making it,” the composer says. “I think that’s kind of what John ran with in the movie—it’s that locked-on-course, gonna-barrel-through-no-matter-what mindset that he and I definitely share.
“To me, that’s the big parallel. What I do and what he did are so far apart on the spectrum that it’s not fair to make comparisons, because I’m not going to break my bones or my neck or anything, but it’s that ‘This is what I do, and come hell or high water I’m gonna do it, even though by all signs it’s leading to disaster.’ ”
“What’s been fun for me is seeing Ken as an artist and Mark as a daredevil, as a stuntman,” Bolton says. “The film is about the beauty and the terror of making a living as either a composer or a stuntman. I think I’m interested in what is highbrow and beautiful about jumping cars, and what is ugly and lowbrow about composing contemporary classical music. So that’s been fun for me. If anything, I’m trying to mystify stunt driving and demystify composing.
“What they really have in common is a vision and a real work ethic, and obsession,” the director says of his similarly driven subjects, but he could very well include himself in their company. “What that line is between a healthy obsession and an unhealthy obsession, who are any of us to say? I know I certainly never asked myself that question.”
Aim for the Roses opens the DOXA Documentary Film Festival at the Vancouver Playhouse on Thursday (May 5), with an additional screening on May 15 at the Vancity Theatre.