Tuesday, September 22, 2009

High On Wire

We watched Man on Wire, the 2008 documentary about Phillipe Petit’s 1974 World Trade Center highwire walk. Petit (born 1949) was a Parisian street performer who had been arrested in Paris for walking a wire between Notre Dame’s bell towers, and in Sydney for a similar stunt above the Sydney Harbor Bridge. How could the INS have let this arch-acrobat into the United States?

The award-winning film features middle-aged Petit and co-conspirators, particularly girlfriend, Annie, and childhood sidekick Jean-Louis, speaking to the camera. These rainettes shot a lot of film at the time -- of other stunts, preparation, skylarking -- and the archival footage is pretty good. The documentary also includes staged dramatizations: murky black-and-white passages of furtive figures hauling equipment and silhouetted policemen playing cat-and-mouse with the conspirators.

Given the history of the Center, which did not survive three decades, the events of 9/11/2001 are never far from mind (Maus author, Art Spiegelman has a book called In the Shadow of No Towers). The closest Wire comes to noting the Towers’ end is in a single black-and-white still, taken from the pavement, of a speck that’s barely recognizable as a tightrope walker, dwarfed by a looming airliner.

Both Annie and Jean-Louis choke up on camera, ostensibly because they were part of a great moment. The forty-five-minute event was an accomplishment of enormous skill, planning, and nerve. Petit could have died; the sky was misty, skyscrapers sway, and the hour was seven in the morning, following a long night of work, frustration, and hiding. The accomplices might have been abetting their friend’s suicide.

But it was a moment of no great consequence. Who cares that someone did this? Annie says that Phillipe pulled her into his obsession, not recognizing her as someone with her own destiny. Arrested, and having suffered a sentence that was almost a reward (community service, entertaining children) Petit emerged from the courtroom to have a stranger from the crowd invite him back to her apartment for a sexual American howdy. Petit had painted his masterpiece at twenty-five, and he went on to cozy artistic residence at Manhattan’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. On to to writing his memoirs. On to duplicating nineteenth century aerialist Blondin’s walk over Niagara Falls. Annie and Jean-Louis were the ones left behind.

And why were the French surprised that the Americans they picked up to help with the breaking and entering and wire rigging -- roustabouts for an outlaw circus, in 1974, on the cusp between the doors of perception and disco -- pot smokers?

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