For an assignment in the Sports on Film class I taught this summer, one of my students posted a clip on the class blog of a seemingly impossible feat: a man rocketing down a multi-story waterslide, launching off the end, and landing in a kiddie pool 100 yards away. A discussion about the clip’s veracity began online and continued in our classroom. This led to our watching several other clips of the “seemingly impossible physical feat” genre, such as a “Liquid Mountaineering” clip of outdoorsmen perfecting their techniques for running on water. That piece, which has racked up over five million views on YouTube, turned out to be a viral ad for Hi-Tec, a line of athletic gear.
Which brings me to the clip to the left, of a young man with tousled hair and baggy shorts making an unlikely basket from an airplane. Having first attracted attention for their home videos of unlikely swishes, the trick-shooting cadre of Dude Perfect have been called up to the big leagues. The former roommates from Texas A+M, who describe themselves on their website as “a group of college guys that follow Jesus,” have recently made a slate of television and internet ads for GMC trucks. The clips each follow a similar pattern: the group contemplating an impossible hoop dream, strategizing about the shot (while holding pieces of paper filled with arrows and diagrams—planning!), and then nailing the superhuman J. These are not game-winners (although they are, quite literally, money-makers), but instead, feats of daredevilry. The clips’ immense popularity is almost entirely fueled by debates over whether or not what is occurring on screen is real. Dude Perfect claims they made the crop-duster shot on their second try.
The increasing prominence of these trick videos raises a number of provocative associations and questions. These works contain the central technological dialect coursing through the history of the moving image: the camera’s ability to assist and deceive vision. Of course, trick photography is as old as cinema—Méliès’ was given the sobriquet “cinemagician” for his ability to manipulate time and space with the camera. These videos also recall the idea of the cinematic apparatus as prosthesis, as in the case of Dziga Vertov’s “kino-eye,” which augments human sight and our ability to understand the formerly unseen workings of the world.
In “The Myth of Total Cinema,” André Bazin prophesized that our collective hunger for a realistic representation of the world would result in the production moving images that were indistinguishable from reality. What these trick videos show, however, is that the technological capacity of today’s digital image-making results not in a re-presentation of the world, but in its re-creation. In these videos, the laws of science are rewritten, and the impossible is perpetually leapfrogged over, with style to spare.
The progenitors of these trick videos are the indie sports releases of the 1980s and 1990s. Motocross, skateboarding, snowboarding, and surfing VHS tapes eschewed narrative—not to mention organized competition—in favor of boundary-busting improvisation and death-defying spectacle, usually funded by whatever sunglasses, bikes, and boards were simultaneously on display. Just as these “extreme” sports made the leap from subculture to mainstream, Dude Perfect’s DIY aesthetic, coupled with their undeniable creativity, has catapulted them to national prominence.
Also worth mentioning is how these superhuman acts are tacitly (in the Hi-Tec clip) or explicitly (by the members of Dude Perfect) conflated with religion, particularly Christianity. American athletes are a religious bunch (it is estimated, for example, that between 35 and 40 percent of pro football players are evangelical Christians), and invoking the lord as a bodily presence on the field of play or in the parlance (“Hail Mary”) of the game are over-familiar endeavors to imbue athletes’ physical successes with patina of the miraculous.
It might be said that in these ads, faith trumps physics, while the stakes—and sales—are raised.