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Man On Wire

September 11, 2008
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The other event is never mentioned.

It is impossible not to think about it, of course, and for almost the entire running length of Man On Wire, James Marsh’s extraordinary documentary about French tightrope walker Philippe Petit who crossed between the two towers of the World Trade Center in August 1974, your mind creates an enclave for that more recent and overwhelming memory, allowing, like the split-screen technique employed regularly here, a weird duality to exist.

The stunt, ‘le coup’ as Petit calls it, is detailed like a heist, a daring exploit accompanied by Shaft-esque funky beats and, when required, pulsating Michael Nyman strings. Six years of planning, extraordinary practice runs between the towers of Notre Dame, and the Sydney Harbour bridge, numerous transatlantic trips, and dodgy dealings with shady untrustworthy shadowy types to gain access to the WTC roof…all is explained in tense and sometimes farcical detail. There is terrific use of the team’s footage taken at the time, of shaky cine-reel, black and white photos, smart reconstructions and the talking-head reminiscences of Petit’s gang of helpers.

Three decades or so on, this crew are all a little more thick-set and sporting grey hair, but there is an aura of ‘we did this’ still about them, although it is tinged with a wistful sadness.

Petit himself is a wonderful twinkly-eyed raconteur, smiling with delight at how he and a co-conspirator had to hide covered by a tarpaulin as sleepy security guards stumbled around them during the necessary overnight stay before the early morning event. Giggling like a child he remembers dodging a guard ’round and ’round a concrete pillar, trying to predict and mirror the man’s movements so that he could stay out of sight even though they were separated by just two feet of post.

But, eventually, the morning comes and after firing a nylon fishing line at the other tower with a bow and arrow, to his support team, the cable that will support him is dragged across. As daylight breaks they are noticed and despite the wire being the poorest they have ever constructed (it is too slack), Petit can only evade arrest by walking out into the middle of thin air.

And that is when something utterly extraordinary happens, it lasts for the briefest of moments, but just then, that sharing trick, that duality, the thing that you as an audience member bring to the film, retreats. The talking heads, all these years on, stop too. Even now, they actually look up (to heaven, perhaps, rather than to Petit) and three of the members of his crew find they are still overwhelmed by it, and they break down. It is Petit who breaks their, and our, silence, and he does it in his cheeky, elfin way, expressively chucking his hands and shoulders around as if to tell us that he’s still here, and still alive.

As his 1974 self lays down on the rope, the most surreal image of the entire thing is shown, an astonishing photograph of this minute figure floating between these iconic structures, while a mile beyond him an airliner passes. You can almost feel your mind dragging that other memory back and sitting it down where it belongs, at the forefront of your thoughts.

Eventually, after almost an hour, during which he ran, danced and crossed eight or more times, Petit was persuaded by police officers to give himself up. He was arrested, of course (the description of the crime on his NYPD charge sheet simply says “man on wire”), and afterwards walked into a barrage of interest from worldwide news. All formal charges relating to his walk (trespass and disturbing the peace) were dropped, and with great good humour, the court sentenced Petit to perform a high-wire act for children in Central Park, and in addition he was presented with a lifetime pass to the Twin Towers’ Observation Deck by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The word that stands out on the pass, in block capitals, is ‘PERMANENT’.

Two New York moments, 27 years apart, sharing the same stage for two hours, one of which neither getting nor needing a name-check. It’s remarkable, like asking the audience to bring along its own special effect. All the more effective for this refusal to acknowledge the elephant-in-the-room are moments of genius – genuine, touching, heart-stopping genius – as you make connections and stop to think about one man’s love affair with the most famous structure in the world, which is no longer there, and yet, against the odds, he is.

Go along, be amazed.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2008 8:27 pm

    Go along, be amazed.

    I did, I was. Our local indie cinema was sold out for the entire two week run (glad I booked in advance). We turned up just a few minutes before the start so were stuck in the front row with our necks cricked to the sky – aptly enough. From the moment Petit talks about the dilemma of moving his weight from his back foot (on the roof) to his front foot (on the wire), I had my hand over my mouth as though I was watching it for real from the street.

    In relation to the friends and accomplices who break down, I wondered if part of this was due to the fact that they have gone their separate ways – it struck me that Petit, so single-minded and not-of-this-world, must have been as difficult to be with as he was joyous to be with.

  2. March 16, 2012 2:29 am

    *I want it! All because of (rev) iew.

    • March 16, 2012 10:13 am

      Ha! Thanks Beth…I know you’ve always enjoyed this review for some reason.

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