Monday, September 29, 2008
See This Immediately: MAN ON WIRE
In 1974, crazy Frenchman Phillippe Petit walked a high wire strung between WTC 1 and WTC 2. He didn't just walk it. He went back and forth eight times, laid down on the wire, knelt, and spent a total of forty-five minutes in the clouds.
I must live under a rock, because before Man on Wire was released, I had never heard of this stunt. This seems impossible, but true. The New Yorker did an incredible job with their hommage to Petit on the issue the week of 9/11.
Petit didn't just walk between the Two Towers, either. Prior to that impossible feat he also walked the Sydney Harbor Bridge and the two turrets of Notre Dame. (Later conquests include the Eiffel Tower and the Louisiana Superdome). And, of course, he didn't do these things alone. He had a colorful crew of losers and friends to literally help him string the wires. The documentary is heist-tale of sorts: the crew had to find a way to get to the top of the World Trade Center without being arrested, manage to string the wire and get Petit across it all before being apprehended by the police. After several hilarious and nerve-wracking gyrations, they succeed.
The footage of Petit practicing his highwire and the photographs of him exercising his passion are perhaps the most impressive, breathtaking aspect of this documentary. But it is the focus on the relationships of these people, and how this singular event changed their lives forever that becomes the most heartbreaking, most meaningful reason to see this film. All involved parties are interviewed and their piecemeal accounts combine to form the narrative of the events leading up to the highwire walk on August 7th, 1974. But interspersed there is video footage from the seventies, mostly in Petit's backyard in France, where he practiced his walk. The same people telling us this incredible story are immediately transformed into their younger selves in what feels completely seamless: as if the moment of Petit's ascension aged them by thirty years.
In what seems to be a very French philosophy, Man on Wire seems to tell us to live our lives to the fullest, pursuing our passions and unabashedly worshiping our obsessions until they become a reality. But in what I believe to be perhaps the most poignant message of the film is the solitude and the resounding silence that occurs after said mission is won. Petit achieved an incredible and impossible personal goal that day. When one is confronted with the success of a lifelong dream, that changes everything, well, what then?
I find the parallels between Man on Wire and the demise of the Trade Towers eerily profound. (And yet 9/11, for understandable reasons, is never discussed). The Two Towers, for so many New Yorkers, and Americans represent those unattainable goals, those impossible passions and obsessions. And even if they are built, they can crumble around us. But, for those brief moments they survive, the journey is worth it. And then we must confront the ghostly reminder of our past, and its formidable mist that gathers at our feet.