Stealing Altitude, a film by John Starr & Roger Teich


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Did we coin a phrase?

At the risk of sounding a trivial horn, I've included the following article on this site.   In doing so I merely hope to preserve a record, and perhaps satisfy a curiosity. 

    About a year after the film embarked on a nation-wide (and international) film festival circuit, I was amused to read an article about a Florida BASE jumper who, while being arrested for parachuting from a high rise, turned to a reporter on the scene and shouted, "We love stealing altitude!"  Prior to that, the only expression I'd heard BASE jumpers use in that manner was "we're just borrowing a little altitude".

    Ever since then, I've had a sneaking suspicion about the apparent metamorphosis of our film's title into a stock phrase used to describe some outlaw BASE jumps*.   Indeed, it does seem likely that its use amongst BASE jumpers is largely the result of our film's initial popularity with that crowd.

    Even before the film saw widespread festival release, Fixed Object Journal (a BASE oriented magazine) editor Nick Di Giovanni had published two stories about the making of the film -- including mention of the film's title.  Given the magazine's fairly wide circulation at the time (almost exclusively to active BASE jumpers), I suspect that's probably what got the phrase kick-started. 

    What Nick and everybody else didn't know at the time was the rather ironic story behind the film's title. 

    Struggling for the ideal film title, Roger and I found little we actually liked.  At the time, local BASE jumpers referred to the act of sneaking onto a skyscraper for a jump as "borrowing altitude".  We considered that expression, but decided it was too tame.  So we tried "stealing altitude" and immediately loved it.

    Ironically, our film's main character absolutely hated it.  He felt it was misleading. 

    "I'm not stealing anything!" he said, before invoking the famous hiker's idiom "take only pictures, leave only footprints" that BASE jumpers were fond of.   He was proud of his otherwise low-impact sport (no pun intended), and fiercely opposed our choice of a title.

    Considering the significant sacrifices this man was making for our film, I felt we owed him a debt of gratitude.  Soon, I was arguing his case to Roger.   But Roger wisely refused to budge, and when I could think of no better title I gladly gave in. 

    So did our film coin the phrase?  Possibly. So far I've not been able to find any pre-movie use of the expression in newspaper and magazine articles.  I suppose the real question is this: "who cares?"

- John Starr

*A late 1990s front-page story in the Los Angeles Times said BASE jumpers referred to the act of making illegal BASE jumps as "stealing altitude".


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