By Umut Newbury
August 7, 2008
“To me it’s so simple that life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise in rebellion, to refuse to taper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success, to refuse to repeat yourself to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge and then you are going to live your life on a tight rope.” -Philippe Petit
Life, death, dreams and rebellion… The French have always been extraordinarily talented in defying the mainstream Western cultures’ accepted notions on these. The last time the French were truly successful at jarring our sense of what is good – life, what is evil – human mortality, was done through New Wave cinema with the likes of Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
James Marsh’s new documentary, Man on Wire, combines the best of that era: Godard’s Breathless, and Truffaut’s 400 Blows, with a touch of Camus. For the post-911 world inhabitant, it is a foreign time, where breaking into buildings, i.e. the World Trade Center towers, and mocking death was an act of art, not an act of terrorism.
The subject of Marsh’s masterpiece, Philippe Petit, is not your typical Frenchman, just smoking cigarettes and drinking Bordeaux and cursing the meaninglessness of life at a sidewalk cafe. He is a reckless high-wire walker taunting death on a daily basis. His goal: To walk on a wire suspended between the North and South towers of the World Trade Centers shortly after they are built in 1974.
“My story is a fairy tale,” Petit begins rather innocuously. He was a little boy with a passion for climbing things, anything: “Why, I’ll let the psychiatrists to figure out the reasons. To escape things, to see things from a different perspective.” Well, the little French boy gets a toothache someday and is sitting in a dentist’s office looking at magazines. He sees a picture of these two towers (the French media cleverly juxtaposed the Eiffel Tower in front of them to show how magnanimous they would be when they were built) and is smitten instantly. He rips the picture out of the magazine and carries it with him: “Usually, when you have a dream, it’s there, tangible. The object of my dream doesn’t even exist yet.”
The film doesn’t quite explain how Petit grows up to have the luxury of just walking on wires in his backyard and dreaming of scaling large, prominent buildings, and it really doesn’t have to. This story originates in France, after all, and we must start with a romance. Petit pursues a shy 20-year-old, Annie Allix, and she immediately becomes his number one fan and supporter of reckless acts. By 1971, Petit gets his first grandiose idea: To walk on a wire between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral. He sees it not as trespassing on the holy, rather describes himself as “a poet conquering beautiful stages.” The footage is simply breathtaking, even for those who have never been a fan of circus acts. There is a deep philosophical sense about Petit’s act. Somehow, it is not about the ridiculousness of a young man risking his life publicly. He is making a statement.
Two years later, in June of 1973, Petit, Allix and Petit’s other, nonsexual cohorts, repeat the act at the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Again, it is a magnificent scene. The whole bay of Sydney stretched out below a lunatic, while regular folks are communing to work, provides an immensely ironic perspective. When he gets arrested, Petit is still playing around, managing to swipe the watch of a Sydney policeman. The viewer would think this is a child who does not understand the consequences of his actions. But he does. “The fact that high-wire activity is framed by death is great,” Petit says. “You have to take it seriously.” With every potentially fatal act, Petit seems to be saying, “I understand life. I understand death in a way you will never know.”
After the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, where does the high-wire walker take his act? Of course, he could have chosen any of a number of well-known European or Asian sites, however, this was all a means to an end – The World Trade Center towers. “The two towers galloping in my head, as I return to Paris, the towers were almost built,” Petit recalls. His girlfriend Allix admits to having limits to her undying support. “When he showed me the pictures, I was afraid. It’s inhuman to want to go up 450 meters in the air and walk. This was demonic, I wanted to say, ‘Stop.’” But she doesn’t. Neither do his buddies, Jean Louis Blandeau or Jean Francois Heckel. Heckel says about the Notre Dame project, “It was against the law, but not wicked or mean. It was wonderful.” So when approached about the World Trade Center project, Heckel is in. So is Blandeau, after receiving a postcard from New York. He looks at the towers on the front of the card, with a line drawn between them. “I thought, of course, that’s why they are there.”
Blandeau is the voice of reason in the group, immediately realizing that there is no way to accomplish Petit’s crazy dream legally. No one is going to authorize such a wildly risky, childish dream. Once again, this will be a covert operation. Petit’s small group of outlaws soon grow, with an Australian, a couple of stoner Americans, and even an inside man from the WTC. To some, it is “a fun adventure,” others admit that they have been drawn to things, “that are not totally legal.”
The team travels back and forth between New York and France. They spy on the World Trade Center towers, disguise themselves to get information, set up a “training camp” in a meadow in France. By all modern classifications, they must be terrorists. The day of the act, affectionately nicknamed “Le Coup” by Petit, they sneak in the buildings with fake IDs. Everybody is terrified, everyone is convinced they will get busted and end up in jail or deported. But after more than 12 hours, in the early morning hours of Aug. 7, 1974, Petit manages to get on his wire between WTC North and South towers. He walks back and forth for 45 minutes, making the crossing eight times. Sgt. Charles Daniels, one of the two Port Authority police officers on the scene describes him as a “tight rope dancer because you couldn’t call him a walker.” Petit keeps walking back and forth smiling at the police, taunting them, only agreeing to step off after being told that he will be plucked by a helicopter. Everyone, including the authorities, is mesmerized. “I personally thought I was seeing something I would never see again, once in a lifetime thing,” Daniels tells the local press.
The footage of this crazy little Frenchman kneeling on a wire in between the two World Trade Centers is one of the most haunting images one will ever see on the big screen. The images of Petit on top of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the bridge in Sydney are powerful, too, but because of our collective history in the 21st century, it becomes something else. It makes the viewer wonder what happened to us as a human race. When did we get from that to this in less than 30 years? But perhaps, it is best to not think of this film in the context of recent history at all and to stick with Petit’s philosophy, “Why? There is no why.” Modern life is both beautiful and terrifying, and we’d be better off just accepting that. Man on Wire will help anyone come to terms with the absurdity of our existence on this planet.
Man on Wire
Directed by James Marsh
2008 Magnolia Pictures