Review: Watch Me Fall, BAC Burst Festival
Written for Culture Wars, 29.05.2009
In miniaturizing the super-size, Action Hero present a very British perspective on American culture. Just as A Western distilled the dusty, gunslinging idols of Hollywood with ketchup and novelty Stetsons, Watch Me Fall reduces the stadium stuntsman to truth-or-daredevil, exposing the emptiness behind the icon. The flash bravado and showboating ego remains, but the feats of heroic insanity have all but evaporated. It’s the American Dream as made on Blue Peter.
At the centre of Watch Me Fall is the recreation, or rather retranslation, of an Evel Knievel-esque leap of faith. With two banks of audience astride a strip of stage, making their presence felt through the flash and wind of disposable cameras, James Stenhouse cycles up and over a half-metre high wooden ramp. It’s an act so momentary that you can’t but miss it. No matter how determinedly you try to capture a mental mid-flight image all that ever comes into focus is the resultant crumpled heap of body and bike in the corner.
The majority of the forty minutes is taken up with the tension-building and legend-forging that allows Stenhouse to stand handlebar to handlebar with Knievel. Gemma Paintin, clad in a star-spangled dress, plays commentator – cycling through a history of ‘heeee-did-it’s in a musical American accent – and partner, both professional and romantic. Under a variety of near-pornographic pseudonyms (Dunc Danger, Jonny Legend, Dick Cheney), Stenhouse becomes idol. He stands arms-raised and high-fives his public, he sets his helmet alight, he holds two bottles of cola in outstretched arms for as long as he is able. This time, he assures us, he’s going further, going higher and going faster than ever before.
Action Hero’s success stems from the perfect balance of gentle cynicism and naive eagerness that allows Watch Me Fall to be at once ticklishly ridiculous and dangerously real. Simultaneously the company mine their resources – both visual and textual – to embrace great depth of thought beneath the surface entertainment. They look beyond the obvious question as to why daredevils take such risks to ask why it is we watch them for entertainment and, even more intriguingly, who really suffers. As Paintin kicks Stenhouse repeatedly round the head and later advises us not to touch him, I was reminded of the recent images of Ricky Hatton’s wife, her face cragged with anguish as he lay unconscious in the ring. Somehow the spoils seem dislocated from the potential suffering and, as such, the notion of risk appears skewed.
Likewise, their criticism of America remains temperate and tidily treated. In their presentation of the Maiden of the Mist withstanding the weight of a waterfall, Paintin splutters on a downpour of two litres of Coke, conjuring images of both oil soaked prospectors and victims of waterboarding.
Overall, the piece could itself go further and peak higher: its chest-puffing aggression needs an injection of testosterone and rage. Nonetheless, Watch Me Fall is a little gem that manages to be both spoofishly entertaining and lingeringly thoughtful.
Photograph: Action Hero