28 February 2009

Man On Wire: Tightropes and Slippery Slopes

I recently had the pleasure of watching Man On Wire, the Oscar-winning documentary about French tightrope performer Philippe Petit and his 1974 walk between the two World Trade Center towers. What a remarkable story.

What is remarkable, however, is not the walk itself--though I imagine if I suddenly found myself on a rope above a 1400 foot canyon I would have more reverence for the act--but the logistics involved in making it happen. In a past life, Philippe Petit could have been a classic bank robber, evading authorities like Bonnie and Clyde.

Previously, I had only been vaguely aware of Petit's feat. Knowing virtually nothing of the facts, I naively assumed that all the appropriate forms had been filled out and all the insurance paid up. Nothing of the sort. This was, simply put, a heist. And an ingenious one at that. After its opening in 1972, Petit and his friends spent countless guileful hours at the World Trade Center, observing comings and goings, studying blueprints, developing passable alternate identities, and collecting a small posse of unlikely accomplices to abet their wonderfully devious cause.

The film works so well because it plays to the strengths of the story: it is a movie about scheme and subterfuge, rather than a tightrope walk. It is a real-world Italian Job, and is presented as such. There is no dryness here, no uninspired narration, just suspense and fun throughout.

Perhaps predictably, the day of the event (August 7th 1974) was about overcoming unforeseen obstacles. The morning weather was less than perfect. The group had spent the night trying to haul the equipment to the two roofs, but Petit's sortie had the misfortune of ending up on a deserted floor with a security guard who had decided to stay there for the night. Petit lay concealed under a tarp, completely still, for hours.

One of the story's most amazing aspects is the ingenious way the team got the high wire across the void. It was achieved by--and this is just fantastic--a bow and arrow, tied to a fishing wire. After stringing the line across, they tied a slightly heavier line to that, and then a small rope, and then a heavier rope, and so on, until the weight of the steel cable could be supported. A complex problem, an elegantly simple solution.

The crossing itself was not so much a tightrope walk as a performance. Petit balanced on one foot, on one knee, he layed flat on the wire; he crossed eight times. The film has already shown us his charismatic personality, and so we are not surprised by his showmanship. He speaks poetically about the crossing; to him it is stage. He is a performer: "My objective was to venture through the negative space offered by the two towers and discover what kind of ephemeral, improvised theater I could write in the sky. Why did I cross eight times? . . . I was called by the towers, by the void, by my instinct to perform one more crossing . . . and one more . . . and one more . . ."

After forty-five minutes conquering physics, he steps onto the south tower, and is of course arrested. He would later be 'sentenced' to perform for the children of New York (which he does, in Central Park).

Upon his release, instead of finding his friends--who had traveled from all over the world and helped him overcome seemingly insurmountable odds--and his girlfriend Annie--who had supported him since their teens and had given up most of her dreams for the realization of his--he ended up sexually engaged with a random admirer who had offered to 'celebrate' with him. Annie and the others tried to call him, to contact him, but he pretended he had press conferences that were keeping him busy. The film does not preach on the ills of celebrity, but the result of his actions are implicitly clear. His friends were hurt--to this day they bear the scars and are seen to get emotional thinking of the incident in the interviews--but it did not matter to Petit, who had just walked on air at the top of the world. Such is, I suppose, the price of instant fame.

Finally, the movie excels at reminding us of the majesty of the towers, but does so while avoiding poignancy or descending into unnecessary tributes. Rightfully so: there is no homage here. There is simply no need. Instead, we are treated to dramatic views from 120 stories above Manhattan. Photographs show Phillippe and his friends atop the roof on their many reconnaissance missions. They are fooling around, sitting on the edge, precariously balancing above an unfathomable precipice. These still frames almost enticed me to shout at the screen. Get away from the edge! What kind of a person is this? How can he be so fearless (or is it foolhardy?). It really takes some stepping back and considering: it's one thing to watch a documentary about this feat, to maintain an interested detachment in something so astounding as to be intangible, but imagine actually doing it. Imagine that first step.

And of course, imagine the size of those buildings.

Let's be frank: 1 and 2 World Trade Center were not the prettiest buildings in the world. They were what can only be described as 1960s Utilitarian Chic, and when they were built, many in the public considered them downright ugly. But in spite of this, they were royalty. They ruled the skyline and represented continuing advancement in engineering and Western technology. The name World Trade Center--now synonymous with terrorism and conflict--then affirmed New York as a city seated on the throne of global commerce and integration.

And Philippe Petit gave us a view from the top.

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