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Follow that (Demented) Dream
The Devil at Your Heels (1981)
Project Grizzly (1996)

According to its website, the National Film Board of Canada is "a public agency that produces and distributes films and other audiovisual works which reflect Canada to Canadians and the rest of the world." Its first commissioner, John Grierson, envisioned the institution would, "through a national use of cinema, see Canada and see it whole: its people and its purpose."

Why, then, would the NFB produce such insane documentaries as The Devil at Your Heels and Project Grizzly?

Devil follows stunt driver Ken Carter on his venture to jump a mile in a rocket-powered car; Grizzly follows outdoorsman Troy Hurtubise as he develops a suit of armor to protect him from bears.

Both films are fascinating character studies. Each features a quirky-yet-charming eccentric, like Mark Borchardt in 1999's American Movie, as they embark on some quixotic quest, à la Terry Gilliam's movie-production nightmare in 2002's Lost in La Mancha.

Though most observers would regard their respective enterprises as absurd, both Carter and Hurtubise are dead serious. They have devoted their lives to their misguided projects and, in spite of their potentially fatal risks, are determined to see them through.

Along the way we get to know these men, as they say, up-close and personal. They share a tendency toward relentless bravado and nonstop chatter, yet both are oddly endearing. Their unassailable enthusiasm is actually quite contagious, even when things don't go as planned.

The Mad Canadian

Ken Carter is a genial, pudgy, cross-eyed doofus, who grows visibly fatter as The Devil at Your Heels progresses. He's a bit of a know-it-all who seems uncomfortable with silence, so he constantly rambles on about himself or his stunts, anything to avoid dead air. However, he really has just one thing to say: "I'm looking for the ultimate statement: 'Ken Carter, World's Greatest Daredevil.' Really, that's what it's about."

Carter grew up in a Montreal slum, where he played with rats as a child. As a teenager with only a fourth-grade education, he dropped out of school to perform car stunts with a team of traveling daredevils. Soon he was a solo act, jumping at racetracks all over North America. He developed into a consummate showman, earning the nickname "The Mad Canadian" for his death-defying antics.

Now, after 20 years of countless car jumps (and countless broken bones), Carter wants to transcend the small-potatoes daredevil circuit; he wants fame, glory, immortality. He sets out to make what he figures would be the greatest stunt of all-time: a rocket-powered car jump across the St. Lawrence Seaway, from Canada into the United States, covering a distance of one mile.

Carter sinks his last dime into the project, but has trouble raising the additional quarter-million dollars needed to pull it off. ABC eventually comes to the rescue, in exchange for airing the stunt on Wide World of Sports. The live broadcast is scheduled in a few short weeks, on September 25, 1976.

Construction begins on some farmland near Morrisburg, Ontario, across the seaway from upstate New York. Fifty acres are cleared to make way for a 1,400-foot long takeoff ramp, which would rise to 85 feet atop a massive earthen mound. Carter anticipates a live audience of 100,000.

It's a race against time, reports expert Wide World correspondent Evel Knievel, not-so-fresh from his Snake River fiasco. Constant rain mires tractors in the mud and otherwise hampers construction, and the rocket car isn't completed by the deadline. Carter subsequently misses Wide World's broadcast date, and ABC withdraws its support. A heartbroken Carter announces the jump's cancellation at an emotional press conference, fighting back tears as he sees his dream slip away.

The movie cuts ahead to the following year. A freshly optimistic Carter has found new backing from some unnamed group, so preparations resume. But the car still isn't ready, summer turns to autumn, the weather worsens, and once more, the jump is cancelled.

The movie cuts ahead to the year after that. The jump is on again, then cancelled again. The same issues keep arising from year to year: financial backers come and go, inclement weather and incompetent engineering delay site construction, and a safe, reliable rocket car has yet to be delivered (among other flaws, its fuel tanks keep exploding). Carter simply can't synchronize these necessary elements. Even though his undertaking is becoming a colossal comedy of errors, he maintains his Pollyannaish disposition.

Director Robert Fortier includes several goofy touches worthy of any of Christopher Guest mockumentary, suggesting that truth is funnier than fiction. Given the opportunity to speak at length, Carter appears to lose himself when trying to articulate his bizarre personal philosophies -- such as his dueling split personalities -- so he seems to make them up on the spot. In another scene he struggles to squeeze himself into borrowed jumpsuit, his protruding paunch in the zipper's way. All along he drops malapropisms and mixed metaphors: he fears he "cut off more than he can chew," "irregardless," he hopes to one day become "the first civilian astronaut... in space."

Five years into the project, on September 26, 1979, everything finally seems in order: the ramp, the weather, even the rocket car, housed in the body of a Lincoln Continental. A Hollywood producer has underwritten the stunt for exclusive film rights, on the condition there be no live audience. Fire trucks, rescue boats and helicopters stand by as Carter straps himself in, and the countdown begins. However, a mere five seconds before takeoff, a mechanical failure forces him to abort the mission. Sadly, this is the closest he'll ever come to realizing his dream.

Nine days pass. The film crew suspects Carter has lost his nerve and, not wanting to lose any more money, secretly convinces Carter's friend Ken Powers hijack the stunt. Powers doesn't hesitate. With only a few spectators on hand, Powers blasts the car down the runway; meanwhile, Carter sits in his hotel room, unaware of what's afoot.

The bumpy ramp prevents the car from hitting the requisite 270 mph, going only 180 as it launches into the air. The wind immediately tears off its paneling as its parachutes halfway deploy. The car flies a paltry 506 feet, far short of a mile, and crash-lands in knee-deep water. Powers breaks eight vertebrae, three ribs, and a wrist. The footage is spectacular.

Carter soon discovers what happened and is understandably furious, exploding into a muffled rage behind his hotel room door. After spending five years and a million dollars chasing his dream, a backstabbing friend jumped his car off of his ramp, stealing his thunder.

As it had done four times before, the movie cuts ahead to the following year, this time for the epilogue. Carter once again beams with optimism, still guaranteeing the big event: "This I'm going to do. This is my dream."

Unfortunately, Ken Carter never did attempt the stunt. In 1983, two years after the release of The Devil at Your Heels, he attempted a much shorter jump in a souped-up Pontiac Firebird. The vehicle overshot its landing ramp by 30 meters and landed on its roof. Carter was instantly killed.

A Close-Quarter Bear Researcher

The following summer, Carter's countryman Troy Hurtubise came face-to-face with a grizzly bear in the British Columbia wilderness. The bear hit him in the chest with its snout and knocked him down. Hurtubise literally shit his pants, certain he was about to die, but the bear simply walked away. The encounter changed Hurtubise forever, compelling him to design and build a suit of armor to protect him in any future grizzly confrontations.

With his portrayal by Project Grizzly director Peter Lynch, Hurtubise could pass as an oddball character in any work by David Lynch (no relation). He looks like a diminutive Patrick Swayze, sporting a Vanilla Ice haircut, fringe buckskin jacket and red beret. Like Carter, Hurtubise can't stop talking, whether about knives, or bears, or bear-proof suits.

Ever since he was a teenager, when he built a gas-powered volcano in his bedroom and nearly burned down the house, he was afraid of "being bored, being average." As an adult, when not toiling at a scrap-metal yard in North Bay, Ontario, he works as a "close-quarter bear researcher." Such research involves traipsing around trash dumps at night among foraging black bears, putting himself in the mind of the animals.

Hurtubise's suit evolves through increasingly elaborate models, culminating in the Ursus Mark VI, which took seven years and cost $150,000 Canadian to build. He describes its features in exhaustive detail: a fireproof, hard-rubber exterior, titanium plates, chain mail, a hard plastic inner shell, a layer of airbags, and a battery-powered cooling system. It was designed to resist six-inch bear claws; as a backup, its right arm has a built-in can of bear repellant. The helmet has a miniature camera mount, a two-way radio and a black box that, in the event of a fatal attack, could record Hurtubise's final screams. The Mark VI's overall appearance looks somewhat akin RoboCop (upon which its design was based), combined with a deep-sea diver's suit and Buzz Lightyear.

Despite the bells and whistles, the 147-pound suit is incredibly cumbersome. It's impossible for Hurtubise to get into or out of without help from his crew, and mobility is extremely limited. "I can't walk two feet without falling on my face," he admits, and when he does, he can't get up by himself.

The Mark VI's field-testing scenes look like outtakes from Jackass: Hurtubise is repeatedly rammed by a three-ton truck running at 30 mph, bouncing him through the air. He throws himself down a 150-foot escarpment. He is knocked flat on his back by a 300-pound tree trunk, swinging into him like a battering ram. His crewmen bash him in the face with two-by-fours. A biker gang whales on him with pool cues. He even walks through a fire, presumably, in case he meets a fire-breathing bear. Ironically, at one point Hurtubise suffers a claustrophobic panic attack inside the suit, yelling at his crew to get him out.

Of course, the ridiculous suit doesn't have any practical use. REI would never carry it, seeing as how nobody could possibly enjoy wearing that thing on a weekend camping trip. All it really seems to do is provide Hurtubise with a sense of security. Maybe that's the point.

Hurtubise repeatedly refers to the grizzly as "the old man," applying the name to feel some kinship with his nemesis. Oddly enough, he also refers to his father as "the old man." He says his childhood was represented by a full-scale reproduction of an Indian village, painstakingly built by his father. Hurtubise tried to emulate his father's work by building the bear suit, and hopefully make his old man proud. To his dismay, his father merely chastised him, but Hurtubise laughs it off: "The old man had a couple beers in him... He never hit me."

The second half of the movie plays out like a deranged episode of Wild Kingdom, if not Bill Murray seeking vengeance on his rival gopher in Caddyshack. Hurtubise and his ragtag, six-man crew head into the Canadian Rockies for a weeklong expedition. Bringing to mind Captain Ahab's monomaniacal pursuit of Moby-Dick, Hurtubise seeks a second confrontation with the grizzly, only this time in the Mark VI. The rifle-toting, camouflage-clad posse rides into the wilderness on horseback, while the clumsy suit is flown in by helicopter.

Once in grizzly country, Hurtubise becomes noticeably edgy, as if he's wired on adrenaline. He turns serious and fairly aggressive, launching into a lengthy discourse about his trusty bowie knives. "I swear by my knives," he explains, gesturing with a giant blade in each hand. "They save your life a thousand times around."

Otherwise, no bears are to be seen, and not much happens. The group kills time, discussing strategy and bullshitting around the campfire. After a few days comes the season's first snowfall, and they grow concerned the bears have gone into hibernation. But the snow has melted off by the following day, and the group spots a grizzly on the horizon. Alas, the Mark VI is miles away, where it had been abandoned in the snow the previous day.

"This is like fate laughing at me," says Hurtubise, lamenting his botched opportunity. "I don't even want to see the bear. Sonofabitch. If I had the suit I could put it on and everything could work."

Instead, the group heads home. Troy Hurtubise looks ahead to his next expedition, and the movie abruptly ends.

An Engaging NFB Double-Feature

Although The Devil at Your Heels lingered with Ken Carter from year to frustrating year, it finally paid off with both the surprise twist ending, and the amazing jump itself (albeit with someone other than Carter behind the wheel). On the other hand, Project Grizzly's filmmakers apparently weren't as patient, ending Hurtubise's story after only one anticlimactic outing. As a result, the anticipated man-versus-beast showdown never happened, and Grizzly just fizzled.

At any rate, both films were nominated for "Best Documentary" Genie Awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscar), which Devil won in 1983. Said Quentin Tarantino of Grizzly, in a quote that appears on no less than three panels on its videocassette box, "It's fantastic!"

Viewed together, Devil and Grizzly would make for an engaging NFB double-feature, even if they leave their audiences disappointed, much like the loony Canucks they profile.

Though not quite as much -- we have our own dreams to pursue.

Written in July 2003.

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© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich