Extreme Zen: Man on Wire ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2008)

I’m up on the tightwire

flanked by life and the funeral pyre

putting on a show

for you to see

 –from “Tightrope”, by Leon Russell

On the surface, Man on Wire may appear to be a straightforward documentary about an eccentric high wire artist who is either incredibly brave, or incredibly stupid. But if you look closer, you might discover one of the best suspense thrillers/heist movies of 2008, although no guns are drawn and nothing gets stolen. It is also one of the most romantic films I’ve seen this year, although it is not a traditional love story. Existential and even a tad surreal at times, it is ultimately a deeply profound treatise on following your bliss.

Late in the summer of 1974, a diminutive Frenchman named Philippe Petit made a splash (of the figurative kind, luckily) by treating unsuspecting NYC morning commuters to the sight of a lifetime: a man taking a casual morning stroll across a ¾” steel cable, stretched from rooftop to rooftop between the two towers of the then-unfinished World Trade Center, 1350 feet skyward. After traversing the 200 foot wide chasm with supernatural ease, he decided to turn around and have another go. And another.

All told, Petit made 8 round trips, with only one brief but memorable rest stop. He took a mid-wire breather to lie on his back  and enjoy what had to have been the ultimate Moment of Zen ever experienced in the history of humankind, contemplating the sky and enjoying a little chit-chat with a seagull (Jonathan Livingston, I presume?) He even ventured a few Fred Astaire moves, as he giggled like a 4-year-old splashing around in a backyard kiddie pool. By the time he delivered himself into the less-than-welcoming arms of the NYPD, Petit had spent an astonishing 45 minutes frolicking in the clouds. The only injuries incurred were provided courtesy of the cops, who decided to test this uppity foreigner’s gravity-defying powers by handcuffing him and “helping” him down a flight of stairs.

Now, a stunt like this doesn’t just happen on a whim. There are a few logistical hurdles to consider. How do you transport 450 lbs of steel cable to the roof of one tower of the World Trade Center, and then safely tether it across to its twin? And perhaps most importantly, considering the fact that the top floors of the complex were still under construction and therefore “off limits” to visitors, how do you case the joint without anyone noticing? Then there’s the whole pesky issue of possibly ending up in stir on a reckless endangerment beef; at the very least, a charge of criminal trespass. Considering all of that, the actual act of traipsing the wire starts to look like the easiest part of the gig. A clandestine operation of this magnitude requires meticulous planning, and at least a couple trustworthy co-conspirators. Sounds like the makings of a classic heist film, no?

All of this potential for a cracking good true-life tale was not lost on director James Marsh, who enlisted the still spry and charmingly elfin Petit, along with a few members of his “crew” to give a first-hand account of events leading up to what can perhaps best be described as a “performance art heist”. Taking an obvious stylistic cue from docu-master Errol Morris, Marsh lets these intimate and engagingly spun first person recollections drive the compelling narrative for his artfully rendered mélange of archival footage and faux-cinema verite reenactments. Marsh also deserves kudos for his excellent choice of music. Excerpts from Michael Nyman’s lovely “La traversee de Paris” are used to great effect, and the accompaniment of Peter Green’s sublime instrumental “Albatross” to one of Petit’s more balletic high wire walks makes for a  transcendent sequence.

The most obvious question is “Why did he do it?” It certainly wasn’t for money (first clue: no corporate sponsors, at least up to and including his 1974 feat). It did not appear to be an act of willful self promotion, which is where he decidedly parts ways with say, an Evel Knieval. He didn’t appear to be making any kind of political or social statement. So what gives? At the time, he enigmatically offered “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.” Petit himself remains a bit elusive on the motivations for his stunts.

The director doesn’t  push the issue, which I think is wise. When you watch the mesmerizing footage of Petit floating on the air between the towers of Notre Dame, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and then ultimately the World Trade Center, you realize that it is simply an act of pure aesthetic grace, like a beautiful painting or an inspired melody. And you also suspect that he does it…because he can. That’s impressive enough for me, because I can barely balance a checkbook, and as to heights? I get a nosebleed from thick socks.

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