by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 19, 2008
POET OF THE AIR
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It's rare that a film haunts me the way that the recent "Man on Wire" does.
This is the documentary by James Marsh that tells the story of the moment in August 1974 when 24-year-old French daredevil, juggler, tightrope walker and pickpocket Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire strung between the two towers of the World Trade Center and, holding a balance bar, danced in the air for an awe-inspiring 45 minutes.
The film won two awards at Sundance, is rated at 100 percent on the site Rotten Tomatoes.com, received ecstatic reviews, and will be released on DVD on December 9th.
Many things about the film moved me. The first was the enchanting, elfin and mischievous personality of Petit himself, who offers a running narrative of how he first conceived of the idea - in a dentist's office, while reading a magazine article about the future construction of the world's two tallest buildings next to each other in lower Manhattan. He drew a line between the towers and imagined himself on top of it. Then he surreptitiously tore out the story and ran, leaving him with a lasting toothache and a longer-lasting dream.
The film, with some recreations but also with historical footage, shows how Petit and his gang of accomplices, including his girlfriend, Annie Allix, and his best friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau - both of whom appear in the film - practice and problem-solve the daring feat. (They ended up using a bow and arrow to shoot the 200-foot wire from one tower to the other, and developed a special crosshatch rigging to keep the wire from swinging violently in the air at 1,350 feet.)
This "poet of the air," as Petit calls himself, had done other illegal wirewalks before this one: he walked across the towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris, and the Harbor Bridge in Sydney. But he was obsessed with the towers. "What a beautiful death," Petit sighs, "to die in the exercise of your passion."
An interviewer recently asked Petit, who now lives in Woodstock, N.Y. and dreams, in his late fifties, of walking across the Grand Canyon, if he felt fear. He said, "I felt an immense elation, and that I was actually venturing in another world. Literally a world where man is not really allowed. There was some turbulence also, where the air current was moving me around, so it was another world and I was an explorer there."
He was arrested when he came off the wire, of course, but his only punishment was an order by the mayor to give a children's performance in Central Park. He thought it was obscene when reporters demanded to know why he did it. "When I see three oranges, I juggle," he said. "When I see two towers, I walk."
His reward was a permanent pass to the World Trade Center's observation deck, which he used frequently, including making a trip just a short while before the towers fell. He was offered millions in sponsorship deals but refused them because "I don't want to use my art to sell a pair of shoes or a beer."
But Petit is not some pure fantasy artist figure. His egotism is as compelling as his honesty. He freely admits that after he came off the towers, instead of running to his group of friends - which included his then-girlfriend -and sharing with them the joy of his victory, he went off to "enjoy the pleasures of the flesh" with a woman he had just met. In other words, he stepped onto the towers as an unknown artist and stepped off of them into a fame he has happily exploited ever since, leaving his friends behind.
One of the most moving parts of the film is the footage of the construction of the World Trade Center. Here is Ground Zero when it is open to possibility, and here are the distinctive vertical girders being hauled off into the sky. Sept. 11, 2001 is never mentioned in the film, but we all remember what those girders looked like on the way down, and who can forget that iconic photo of a torn piece of them leaning in the dust and rubble.
The New York Times movie critic A. O. Scott said in his review, "It is easy to imagine that, in contemplating the scale and solidity of those brand-new towers, Mr. Petit saw them at least partly as the vehicle of his own immortality (whether or not he survived the crossing). No one looking up at the New York sky on a hazy morning 34 years ago and seeing a man on a wire could have suspected that the reverse would turn out to be true."
Today, as we drown in a sea of dumb mediocrity, of art made for shock and profit, of derivatives and subprime mortgage bundles that cost fortunes but turn out in the end to be worthless, of torture, murder and hate passed off as political policy, and the celebration of every kind of self-serving greed and vapidity, Petit's lust for art and life stands as an example and an inspiration.
As his girlfriend said, "Every day was a work of art for him." Maybe we can learn something from that.
Joyce Marcel is a journalist whose first collection of columns, "A Thousand Words or Less," can be ordered from her website, joycemarcel.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.