Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Tue Aug 05, 2008 2:36 pm 
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Art in the sky, with cops watching, holding handcuffs

What does Philippe Petit do now? Is he Professor of Advanced Balance at the Sorbonne? Is he a therapist dealing exclusively in the treatment of acrophobia? He seems to be a man so specialized that he was meant in life to do only one thing, at one time, and this film is about that moment and shows why a moment--a half hour or so in the early morning of August 7, 1974--can define a life and reshape our perceptions. After the long slow methodical buildup, when the moment comes, calmly accompanied by a famous piece for solo piano by Eric Satie, it is so awesome, so still, so transcendent it makes you cry. No question why this film needed to be made.

Why is it that walking across a wire up in the air can be an aesthetic experience so exalted it brings you to tears? I don't know, but that's what Man on Wire is about.

Philippe Petit is a clown, a sprite, a magician, a juggler, an athlete, and a dancer--a world-class version of the French staple, the saltimbanque, the street acrobat, an entertainer for the people. Paris still has them. They date back to the Middle Ages. But what aspirations he has! When he was seventeen, before the World Trade Center was even built, he knew it had to be his. It was as if it was to be created just for him. This would be his greatest exploit. His triumph. It was to make him world famous.

A funambule, the French call them. A tightrope walker: the epitome of risk-taking. Only this time he increased the risk. Like his earlier walks between towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, only more so, Petit's walk on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the tallest buildings in New York City, was illegal, a rififi, a break-in, a caper. Some call it "the art heist of the century." But it's not an ordinary heist. They stole nothing, except the air, our breath. Petit and crew didn't take anything out. They took in a ton of equipment, most importantly enough heavy wire and support wire to secure his pathway across the towers.

If you could make a documentary about a successful robbery, it might be something like James Marsh's film about this event. There is the conception, the reconnaissance, the gathering of accomplices, some of whom out of wisdom or fear opt out, even up to the last minute. The false start and bailout. The months of rehearsal. The miniature mockups of the top of the towers (handsome, and in wood). The trial runs and on-scene observations, the skillfully made false documents and identities, the changes of costume (for Petit himself, businessman, construction worker, and the ballet shoes and black velvet costume for the performance). And of course Petit and company were documenting all of this. Marsh has admirably gathered all the images, plus simulations, plus the present-day talking heads, several in French, the others in English. This time simulations seem quite justifiable. There are things we need to see--particularly the crew dodging and hiding from guards on the towers.

It's all like a game; a lark. And at the same time, lethal, dangerous, and a defiance of the laws of man and God. The simulations are appropriate because this is all so unreal anyway. Why not add a little fakery?

And maybe Petit is a little bit strange. No; he is very strange. And in some indefinable way he is also quintessentially French. Not only has he an incredible insensitivity to danger (and drive to overcome it), but this diminutive, almost weightless fellow has his unmistakably Napoleonic side, his grandiosity. But also playfulness. One of the best moments is when he is being arrested and photographed (charge: trespassing; event description: "man on wire"), he takes a policeman's uniform cap and balances it on his forehead by the bill, then flips it onto his head. His exploit had made him a celebrity and a mascot. He has enhanced life, as art does.

After the event, he knew he was famous. How can you ask me if I'm thirsty, he says to a psychiatrist, when 300 journalists are waiting to interview me? And his first act after release was, as somebody put it "to bang a groupie," which he himself describes as "disgusting." Maybe he was steadier out on the wire, where he remained for 45 minutes, smiling, happy, high over New York, without a net, crossing and re-crossing eight times by his friend's count. And then afterwards, somehow things were so bent out of shape that he ended two key relationships--with his girlfriend and his collaborator (both of whom help narrate this film).

This is troubling, but Petit is also wise, a saintly kind of man, immune to ordinary temptations (except groupies?). When asked why he'd done it, he said: "If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk." The psychiatrist judged him "sane and ebullient." His was a pure act, an existential declaration of joy, an example of how to live life daily to the fullest. "Every day for him was a work of art," says his girlfriend. "L'art pour l'art," art for art's sake, is his motto. All of which is pretty thought-provoking, and may be inspiring. At a time of many excellent documentaries, this one seems indispensable. It provides a very pure kind of thrill. Needless to say after 9/11, the buildings gone, the recreation of this moment evokes added nostalgia and a sense of loss.

Actually Petit has done much since the event. Right afterward the charges of trespassing and criminal conduct were dropped with the promise that he would perform juggling acts for children in Central Park, and he was given a permanent pass to the towers. A policeman interviewed at the time says when he watched, he knew he was seeing something unlike anything he'd ever see again. Sometimes you do know. When he was interviewed for this film, Philippe Petit was artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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