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Friday, June 19, 2009
'Man on Wire'
Strolling to heaven and back
The hallic urge to build towers — from the mysterious "round towers" of ancient Ireland through the Crusaders' Krak des Chevaliers and hypercapitalist monuments like the Shanghai World Financial Center — as concrete symbols of power and virility, has been equalled only by the opposite, castrating urge of other malcontents to tear them down.
While al-Qaida's toppling of the World Trade Center, and the proposed Freedom Tower that will be erected in its place, are only the latest examples of this duality, we should turn instead to a less remembered moment, from August 1974, when a young Frenchman named Philippe Petit found another way to conquer towers.
Petit, an obsessed tightrope-walker, managed to infiltrate a small group of equally crazy friends into both towers of NYC's World Trade Center, string a 200 kg cable between them, and — as astonished commuters were jolted out of their early morning hum — cross between the towers eight times, 110 floors above the ground.
Petit, who considers himself an artist more than an acrobat, diminished the might of steel and glass by nothing more than the sheer human will contained in his diminutive frame. Whereas tower builders and destroyers are both seeking to make obvious statements of power, Petit's intent was far more sly and inspiring. He describes the aftermath of his epic wire-walk in the wonderful documentary "Man On Wire"; noting how everyone was asking him why he did it, Petit asserts "the beauty of it was I didn't have any 'why.' "
The film, directed by James Marsh ("Wisconsin Death Trip," "The King"), employs recent interviews with Petit and his band of coconspirators, combined with a copious amount of photos and home movies of the group from the early 1970s. Marsh also uses recreations of certain events leading up to the wire-walk to help build the suspense, much like Kevin MacDonald did in "Touching the Void." Petit's stunt was purely illegal, and much reconaissance, planning and deception went into accessing the Twin Towers and getting both groups with their gear onto the roofs unnoticed; Marsh says he always imagined the movie as a heist flick, and he's captured that spirit well here.
Petit describes himself as having "the mind of a criminal," and his wire-walking career leading up to the WTC was a series of grandiose acts of reclaiming public space: a walk at Notre Dame Cathedral, high above the streets of Paris, was followed up by another over Sydney Harbor Bridge, which tied up traffic for miles. When arrested by the police, Petit stole one cop's wristwatch for the hell of it — that says much about the man.
Both of these walks were assisted by Petit's childhood friend, Jean- Louis Blondeau, a photographer who documented their adventures together. The insane dream of walking between the Twin Towers required a bigger team, and the film tracks down many of those rogues and hippies, as well as Petit's then-girlfriend Annie Allix. Some three decades on, all still get teary-eyed when describing the WTC walk, this despite the fact that their friendship with the mercurial Petit does not seem to have endured over the years.
The WTC walk is a beautiful and amazing sight to see; "Man On Wire" 's sole drawback is that no footage exists of the great moment; cameras were prepared, yet the arrival of the police stopped filming quickly. (Indeed, only the threat of a police helicopter coming to "rescue" him persuaded Petit to return back to the WTC roof.) This is a shame, but the still photos that exist more than suffice in showing the event, which must be seen to be believed. You'd have to turn to that photo of the man outside Tiananmen Square standing obstinately in front of that column of tanks to find as powerful an example of human will bending reality entirely. Yes, anything is possible — just don't ask why.