It’s easy to recognize what is a “bad”
documentary, you find yourself bored or completely uninterested.
Even a subject that you might have infinite interest in can be
made into a dreary eyed swallow of Excedrin PM if it lands in
the wrong hands. On the other side of the documentary coin, an
effective documentary can transcend what can be done by mere Hollywood
style storytelling and moviemaking and not only educate you, but
enlighten and entertain in a much more resilient manner even subjects
you think you have little or no interest in.
Every once and again I see a project that reminds me that the
documentary might be the greatest type of filmmaking, overlooked
generally by the masses, documentaries do something when they
are well executed that no other art form can do as effectively…show
you the real, true human condition. There’s a list of great
ones for sure. VERNON, FLORIDA, HARLAN COUNTY, USA, HEARTS OF
DARKNESS, GATES OF HEAVEN, I could go on and on with favorites.
Instead let me add another to the list of great ones and on top
of that, a quite obscure one. THE DEVIL AT MY HEELS traces the
five year ordeal of “The Mad Canadian” Ken Carter
in his quest to jump a country fucking mile in a rocket car. That’s
right Carter is a daredevil, the plumb crazy kind, and his beyond-obsessive
drive to jump his rocket-powered car across the St. Lawrence River
from Canada to the US, not only sucks you along for the ride,
but you’ll find yourself wondering if poor fucking Ken Carter
wasn’t the actual basis of Murphy’s Law as you weep
into your Moosehead. Most of you pussies get heart palpitations
just trying to enter the highway off the exit ramp. Ken Carter
eats spark plugs and poops axel grease. Okay, maybe not but you
get thepicture. Ken Carter is either very brave or too stupid
to be scared.
Ken Carter was one of those guys who made his living as a sort
of modern era (60s - 70s) version of an old fashioned barnstormer.
Instead of bi-planes and crop dusters, Carter and his ilk were
the guys who’d show up with a cache of ragged out old Chevys,
set up a ramp and thrill corn-fed audiences with feats of both
courageousness and stupidity. You know the type, the “jump
12 wrecked cars, meet you at the ER for autographs” sort
of gimmick. But Ken Carter was more than a little bit different.
No, he didn’t have spongey, rubber bones or anything fun
and functional like that. He’d stay on the road constantly,
traveling town to town, working for peanuts, doing everything
from the actual driving to training others crazy enough to get
into the game and even performing as Master of Ceremonies during
his own shows. Ken Carter liked his lifestyle and stuck with for
20 years doing it, needless to say that’s a long time in
the world of breaking your ankles and concussing for a living.
Strange thing, Carter made a pretty good one (a living) doing
just that shit.
Something happened about the same time as Carter was touring
through Canada with his daredevil show. That something was another
daredevil, maybe the King of Daredevils, Evel
Knievel. Evel began capturing sports broadcasts, news headlines
and even Hollywood. Folks were into this whole daredevil thing
and Ken Carter used Evel’s success to help bolter his business,
making the tricks more extreme and the show bigger and reaping
more rewards from doing so. But of course, deep down Ken Carter
felt he was possibly a better daredevil than this so-called King
of the Daredevils…and so maybe, just maybe, that’s
were this insane idea of Ken Carter’s took root. He wanted
to be recognized as “the best.” Comparisons with Evel
Knievel were inevitable and appropriate. Carter was obviously
much less famous, but they came from similar backgrounds, both
suffered massive amounts of fractures and injuries for their 'art',
both were self-publicists of the grandest order. Knievel, trim,
handsome, rugged, and bitchy, a made to order California-style
superhero. Carter, slightly deluded, cross-eyed, overweight and
gimpy, a Canadian live action version of your neighbor who mows
his lawn in one of those VelcroTM waisted, bath towel, cover-up,
wrap-arounds. They also both tried to cap their off their daredeviling
careers with jumps that simply would not be allowed in this day
and age and quite frankly you wonder how they convinced anyone
it was legit back then...Knievel, Snake River Canyon, Carter,
the St. Lawrence Seaway. So that’s were the story begins.
Director Robert Fortier (notable only fo rthis project and teh
fact he might directed one of the few Keanu Reeves films no one
has ever seen ONE STEP AWAY) was damned lucky enough to be involved
with Ken Carter at the inception of the idea to jump from Canada
to the United States and to find a little scratch to fund the
documentary on Carter’s vision. Little did Fortier what
a story he was in for over the next 5 years of his life. The optimism,
wide-eyed eagerness and naivete’ is evident during the first
moments of the film. As the narrator tells us, “Ken Carter
jumps cars for a living, and people like to see him do it. They
come for the thrill of watching a man risk his life, watching
a man fly a car and crash at 50 mph, Ken Carter’s been dong
that for 20 years…. Three times a week.” Carter talks
in a large boisterous way about his past as a journeyman daredevil,
his meager upbringing in the slums of Montreal, the long hours,
bad luck and general everyman side to what he does for a living.
Initially this looks like one of any number sports stories about
a guy winning out over adversity, a rags to riches journey into
sports herodom, and that is no doubt the story Ken Carter thought
he was making and starring in for Fortier’s camera. It’s
apparent Carter thinks highly of who he is and what he has achieved
and he exudes a confidence when he talks of his plan to jump a
mile in a rocket powered car, so much so he convinces others that
it can be done. First step, Goddamn it, he needs a car. Not just
any car after all, he is gonna need a rocket to fly a mile across
a river remember, and although the AMC Pacer dealerships in Canada
are great, they don’t carry a rocket fueled model on the
lot. Ken Carter was used to jumping junkers at the air rarely
ever reaching 70 mph with a stiff breeze at his ass, to jump the
river into the USA, he’d need to reach a speed of around
280 mph. So Carter has to get a little huckster-style salesmanship
going to help raise the capital to get this fancy flying rocket
car specially built. Ken drops his last $30,000 into a rocket
powered funny car. Whether it be stopping in the downtown streets
of Montreal to fire up the rocket engine or in front of a grandstand
full of gap-toothed fair goers, Ken puts on a show starting up
the car to flurried applause and talking about his future feat.
Ken, of course, knows this car can’t make the jump it will
take a car much more substantial, but he doesn’t tell the
press that, he needs to raise some interest and with that interest
he needs cold hard cash. Finally, he gets a front page story proclaiming
his quest as the “Greatest Daredevil Stunt of All Time!”
For the next year Ken tries his damnedest to raise $250,000 to
get moving on the project, hitting up every promoter and nutjob
in Canada and L.A. he could think of…net gain $0
The allure of THE DEVIL AT YOUR HEELS builds slowly. Ken trudges
forward, finally convincing a sports agent that the idea is sellable.
ABC Wide World of Sports seems interested in filming the event,
they sign a contract for $250,000 and Ken has leased some land
and broken dirt to build the ramp. Ken delivers a rather poignant
speech about positivity and “Keeping On Trucking.”
The ramp is a 1,400 foot runway which climbs to a height of 80
feet. The construction foreman is a little worried, it’s
raining it’s ass off. Basically they get down to a 4 week
window, it keeps raining. Ken also has builders working on the
car that will make the jump. It’s never been done before,
the cost of the car will be $100,000. Ken himself, must also get
ready for the jump, he does looped-de-loops in a stunt plane to
get used to the almost 3 Gs he’ll be pulling when he leaves
the ramp. Ken throws up…”from the turbulants”
the pilot says. “Other than that Ken assures us, “it
was a magnificient ride.”
With about 2 weeks left before the event is set to air, it hasn’t
stopped raining and ABC execs are pissing pickles, they send Evel
"fucking" Knievel down to assess the progress of the
construction and to meet Ken. Evel of course, makes comparisions
to Snake River constantly and generally is petty negative about
the whole affair. Ken talks mostly bullishit about wind, dirt,
and whines a lot about the weather assuring everyone that they
will get it done. Evel says to Ken, “Looks like a dangerous
jump to me boy…” He then tells the news crews, “This
may be the daredevil stunt to end all daredevil stunts.”
It airs on Wide World of Sports that weekend. Ken watches if at
home. The world’s most popular daredevil is talking about
him on national television. As Ken watches, he reminds us he’s
“always believed Knievel is the second best daredevil in
the world. Right behind me.” Ken is speaking of himself,
not actually me, although I'll admit to being something pretty
special when it comes to daredevil feats. Whether it's when I
jumped 5 people (one of them was a kid named Topper Wilburn) on
my bike over a plywood ramp on Clayton Avenue when I was 10 ormy
bizarre savvy for ejaculatory trajectory, I never fail to impress.
Ken continues to ready himself for the jump. He’s used
to jumping cars but never at over 250 mph. So he needs to see
what it feels like to drive that fast. Carter borrows Lew Arrington's
rocket funny car, Carter had never truly been over 90 mph before
in his whole life and Arrington seems more than a little nervous
about this guy borrowing his $30,000 plaything. To make things
even worse, poor Ken doesn’t bring his own fire suit or
helmet to the track and has to try and fit into the nearly 6 inches
shorter and 50 pounds lighter Arrington’s jumpsuit. And
we are spared none for the agony. And once the suit is on, Carter
can't even squeeze into the cockpit, so he strips off his borrowed
firesuit, takes off his shoes squeezes in and promptly goes 255
mph in about 4 seconds. A 255 mph rocket driver in jeans, T-shirt
and sock feet! This Ken Carter has moxie! Lew Arrington, seems
to be overjoyed, Ken Carter didn’t destroy his car.
As time closes in it’s apparent, with the rain, the construction
is not going happen in time. Oh, and the car back in Chicago,
isstill not done. Well, not done isn’t quite the right descriptor.
The fuel tank explodes everytime they test it. Is Ken Carter’s
dream gonna suit ABC’s needs? Take into account Evel has
basically labeled Ken’s endeavor as misdirected, foolish,
ill-prepared and dangerous. Unlike the reality hungry TV hounds
today, ABC wasn’t crazy, no doubt, about seeing a person
potentially die on Sunday afternoon television. The network pulls
Ken Carter doesn’t stop there though and neither does the
THE DEVIL AT YOUR HEELS and the drama is only getting started.
Ken has a couple more years of ups and downs trying to see this
dream come into being. I found myself so involved with Ken’s
goofy vision and wanting to see this happen that as it approaches
really happening time after time, I felt so connected with this
bad luck Shleprock that I began to get sick at my stomach as my
heart raced and my palms got moist.
Weird coincidence after coincidence gets in the way, Ken hires
a new crew to finish the bridge, work continues on the car, now
a Lincoln Mark IV with wings and a rocket powered engine! Ken
tests the car with famed drag racer designer Sammy Miller. Miller
tests it at renowned Sanair dragstrip and promptly crashes it.
Once repaired, Miller sticks Carter in the seat but doesn't tell
him that he's upped the gas. Ken needs to travel 280, but Miller
tells him he’ll be going 250 or so. Carter takes off so
hard even the cameraman is blown on his ass. Ken keeps it on the
track though and seems happy with his accomplishment. Sammy tells
Carter how fast he was really going and apologizes to Carter under
the directive “it had to be done.” Good ol’
Ken Carter takes it all in stride but needs a new pair of race
ready underdrawers due to fact he has just shit his pants. Sammy
Miller gets to test it again on the banks of the St Lawrence in
a pre jump 'run up' in the souped up Lincoln. We are getting closer.
Time marches on.
After 5 years of trial and tribulation, Ken has attracted new
money folk, Hollywood types who are looking to film the spectacle,
sell it to a studio, release it in theaters, sell Ken Carter dolls,
stunt cars and other marketables. Ken’s financial backers
decide to film the stunt without a paying audience and decide
to make their money by selling the rights to the film. Ken is
less than keen on that idea but relents, forever stating “The
jump is the important thing.” But he adds “What the
Hell am I dong here, I’m fixing to get in this car, and
who knows…get dead, for all I know.” Probably my favorite
line, in a film full of great ones by the crazed Ken Carter. Ken's
a showman, the idea of not promoting teh thing as a big live event
bums the guy out, I understand. But it's still just about the
jump. As the big day approaches, the car is complete. Ken tests
the ride and it’s sweet, sort of. It looks long and awkward,
but can move at about 280 mph. Ken Carter’s ultimate daredevil
stunt might just happen. Hell, it has to happen, the bastard can’t
take much more, Hell, neither can the audience.
A huge crowd was on hand to watch the stunt. The seaway was closed
for two hours, police were on the scene, fire brigades were there
and divers in several boats were on hand in case of disaster.
It’s a full on professional fucking production. Everything
looks perfect. Then something really fucked up happens, the Hollywood
crew filming the event to be sold to teh studios demands more
money. It’s a stalemate, finally someone goes to the bank
and gets cash but it is really late in the day. This means that
the jump is delayed, Ken did not get in the car until 6:45 pm,
it was already getting dark. Well, too dark to actually film anything,
the window of opportunity is gone. The seaway is reopened, the
police go home, the fire personnel and lifeboats all disperse,
they’ll have to reschedule.
Seven days later the whole show is back again. But for all the
pomp and circumstance and large crew and staff for the first attempt,
it is quite a different picture this time. There were only two
guys in a rubber dinghy and a guy with a 25 gallon water barrel
on the back of an old tow truck. There’s a handful of gawkers
and the seaway remains open to traffic. Ken Carter’s Spectacle
of Daredevilishness is going to happen it looks like but no one
cares. But as I watch it, amazingly I care even more! Ken wraps
his rocket car around himself and begins the ordeal of psyching
himself up for the jump. After being in the car for 45 minutes
psyching himself up (now be honest, if you were told for 5 years
that this was a bad idea that would end with you dead you might
spend an extra 45 minutes praying to every available deity you
could muster) rain sets in and the jump is called again. Ken is
once again devastated, albeit, it’s hard tell now if he’s
loosing his nerve or is just beaten.
But two days later, the Ken Carter saga takes an abrupt and unforeseen
turn. The money folk decide to secretly put Kenny Powers, Ken’s,
right hand man, in the car while Ken is relaxing in his nice plush
Four Season’s hotel room. Ken has no idea that the jump
is going ahead. Seems, like me, the producers decide that maybe
Ken has lost his nerve and so they replace him with another driver.
Kenny Powers, Ken’s young protege’ is even more ill-prepped
to get behind the wheel and make the jump. He had never even been
in a rocket fueled car but nonetheless, he’s ready to do
this thang! Kenny Powers may just be the most sincere form of
Judas ever put on screen. Obviously, a sort of Canuck version
of a redneck, Kenny is manipulated by the Hollywood types trying
to get this project completed and sold. Kenny seems like he’s
betraying Ken not so much to steal his glory, but to just sort
of get it all over with. At one point he tells the camera crew
that it's better he make the jump that Ken because,"Well
you know Ken's bones are..." Now that is great justification
for scrweing your friend in the ass after his 5 year plight to
make this happen eh?
So the drama builds, but I can’t give it all away to you,
you must see how it all wraps up. It doesn’t fail to disappoint.
But the whole trip isn’t just about the ending, the film
works on such a very human level. Anyone who has tried and failed
at anything can relate to this “normal” guy chasing
that elusive “thing” that will separate him from the
pack, of course, what Ken never realizes is he’s already
separated from the pack just for bothering to dream the crazy
dream that he has chosen. Narrated like a classic NFL film, you
laugh along with some of the foibles while trying to not cry about
other strokes of rotten luck Ken runs into. Ken Carter is an extreme
version of any artist or creative type. His jumping a mile is
someone else’s making a great film, writing a great book
or painting a Sistine Chapel. Ken Carter liked to fantasize big,
sort of like me and my Oprah Winfrey redundant jerk-off dream.
As a sad side note, the next year after the documentary was completed
Ken Carter was performing at a local show, trying to raise money
again, he attempted to jump a fairly large body of water but fell
terribly short and landed in the water. It took rescuers several
minutes to get him out. But he survived. Over the microphone he
vowed to the crowd that he would come back the next night and
jump over the water, something he most always did after any sort
of crash, hoping to fill the seats again as folks went away telling
their friends to come see “The Mad Canadian.” Indeed,
the next night he completely cleared that body of water, in fact,
he cleared the water by so much that he landed on the roof of
an old dilapidated bit of grandstand and was killed. Ken Carter
was a fucking daredevil, he lived and died it. RIP you crazy bastard!
A nice copy of this rarity is available through Shocking
Videos. Tell 'em BOF sent ya.
Email Prof. Tread
THE DEVIL AT YOUR HEELS.
|Ken is his own jumpsuit
readies himself to drive a car a mile in the air.
|The Candian Fire
Department stands ready in case of catastrophe.
|Ken Carter, a daredevil
and his ramp.
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