The risk-taker who outlived an icon

On the subject of crazy, illegal art projects.. you’d have to go some way to beat the one detailed in the new documentary Man on Wire. But this film reveals a pathos completely unintended by the artist at the point of creation.

In August 1974 a wire-walker called Philippe Petit strung a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and spent 45 minutes walking across it and other feats – before returning to earth to be arrested.

And now there’s a film about it, by James Marsh. Over to Andrew O’Hehir at Salon:

Walking on air

Whether you want to call Petit’s exploits daring or foolhardy, beautiful or crazy, they made him an instant folk hero in a city and a country plagued by soaring crime rates, a worsening fiscal crisis and a meltdown in national politics. (Richard Nixon resigned the presidency a day after Petit’s wire-walk, although I discern no obvious connection.) One of the reasons “Man on Wire” feels so magical is that you can clearly see that Petit transformed and humanized those towers at the time. For many New Yorkers, they were faceless, monolithic colossi that represented a reshaping of Manhattan in the image of capitalism; with his 45-minute stroll, Petit remade them into soaring, abstract sculptures that defined a breathtaking column of negative space.

Even without the inevitable context I mentioned earlier, Petit would make an irresistible protagonist for a motion picture. At age 59, he looks only a little older than the compact, charismatic figure — possessed of both tremendous athleticism and prodigious mental concentration — who danced between the towers. As an interview subject, he’s confident and combative, brushing off questions that don’t interest him and avidly seizing on those he likes. Fortunately for Marsh’s purposes, Petit has attracted attention all his life; there are home movies, for instance, shot at his clandestine training camp in the French countryside where he built models of the towers’ roofs on the ground.

Of course those towers no longer exist except in memory, and all the tactics and subterfuge used by Petit and his friends — the fake I.D. cards, the helicopter surveillance, the workmen’s clothing and the rented utility van, the scouting visits as a French architecture reporter — may resonate differently than they used to. But I think it’s a mistake to belabor any perceived historical ironies in this story. (And it certainly would have been a mistake for the film to bring them up.) As Marsh suggests in our conversation, the odd or tragic or troubling context of “Man on Wire” — the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the succeeding seven years — belongs to the viewer, not the film. Read full review and interview here…

Visit the film’s website and watch a preview here >>

I really do hope this is going to be available in the UK. I’ve asked my DVD rental company to consider stocking it, if possible.