“It’s Impossible, that’s sure. So let’s start working.” Man On Wire (James Marsh, 2008)

ManOnWireSTILL

Man on Wire is the incredible story of Philippe Petit’s lifelong dream to erect a high-wire between the twin towers and walk across. At multiple times through the film Petit declares he believes the towers were made for him to fulfil this dream. If anything, this story was made for a documentary, it is without hyperbole absolutely extraordinary that this ever happened. Taking place in 1974, it is almost equally insane that a documentary has taken this long to be made. Winning the Oscar for best documentary last week Man on Wire makes me feel comfortable in exclaiming a very tired cliché; you really must see it to believe it.

 

Petit’s dream unfolds more in the vein of a heist film than a documentary. Trust the French to have such an audacious idea but then have the gall to actually follow it through. Thus, the real centre of the narrative are the extraordinary logistics of illegally gaining access to the top of the twin towers and erecting the wire itself. More often than not it is the preparation and execution of installing the wire that seems more implausible than the actual act of walking across it. Of course Petit didn’t do this by himself and his accomplices provide an interesting group dynamic, complete with love affairs and distrust. 

 

Director James Marsh deftly mixes Petit’s excited accounts with those of his companions as well as utilising well conceived dramatisations and footage from the time. Incredibly while there is a wealth of footage of preparation and practice no one appeared to think of filming the actual event. Thankfully someone had a still camera, and the montage of images assembled, playing over an overused Eric Satie piece, still defy comprehension. 

 

Sensibly, there are no references to 9/11. Of course it is always at the back of our minds, yet Man on Wire operates like a swan song, it is the self contained story of an event of fantastic dreams and staggering beauty that happened there. Petit’s exquisite act gives us something to offset the usual despair associated with the towers while also proving nothing is impossible. There I go again, employing another cliché, however its difficult to articulate myself having just witnessed something I truly did believe to be unthinkable. 

3 thoughts on ““It’s Impossible, that’s sure. So let’s start working.” Man On Wire (James Marsh, 2008)”

  1. I went to see Man on Wire with my mother and a friend, and after it my mother said simply “something like this will never happen again.” Meaning not so much that someone won’t try something death-defying or crazy like walking a tight rope somewhere or climbing up a building (matter of fact that still happens in Manhattan as recently as a couple of months back), but that this sort of situation- a man going across something as perilous and unique as the Twin Towers- is based in a film that preserves his story like so. Philippe Petit was already a tight-rope walker who did some crazy stunts (i.e. crossing Notre Dame’s stretch of space in Paris), but this was his crowning achievement which, oddly enough, didn’t quite get the kind of buzz the film might depict; the day of Petit’s walk across the towers, Nixon resigned from the presidency.

    Just a simple profile on the man might be enough, and hearing this artist (however “French” he might get in saying that it’s like poetry, which maybe it is for all I know) is something to behold as a figure who sees himself as a rebel but not without some reason or in what he does. But Marsh’s magnificence is first to actually make us forget, just a second, that the towers are no longer with us; it’s never mentioned in the film that they’re gone, so the lingering absence is all the more troubling once remembered by the viewer. One is left with the purity of this on-the-surface stunt that becomes akin to a bank robbery to Petit, as he plans and spies on the site and forms a ‘crew’ to do the job of sneaking up to the top level and for three days continuing to stay elusive (even going under a tarp for hours on end with a co-hort to hide from guards) while attaching the cables- which also, at one point, nearly falls apart as a plan.

    Then, second, Marsh reveals himself as good as a director of dramatization in a documentary I’ve seen since Errol Morris; perhaos even more daring with his black and white photography of what starts as a sneak-in (watch for fake sideburns on the actors), then transforms into a full-blown noir with beautiful lighting and exterior shots of the building and other angles that just stun the crap out of a viewer not expecting such artistry. In a sense Marsh is attempting something as daring as Petit, only by way of telling the story, however non-linearly, in a manner that should get his DP an academy nomination (if, of course, the academy ever got wise to nominate for cinematography for a documentary). And, on top of this, despite knowing partially the outcome- mainly, of course, that Petit lived to tell his tale to the camera as did his (once) friends and lover- it’s still thrilling and even suspenseful to see all of this buildup if one isn’t entirely researched on the details.

    But it’s not just about the build-up and execution of that tight-rope walk, although when Marsh gets the chance to show his subject walking across this or other examples he puts it to beautiful, heart-aching music that transcends the material just enough. The man himself, and the people who knew and/or worked under him, takes up most of the time in the story. Petit is a curious fellow who can ramble like any energetic and, obviously, passionate Frenchman, and confesses how he’s always been a climber since a child and loves the aspect of showmanship when he can (when not wire walking, he juggles and rides a unicycle, a lovely if strange clown).

    We also see his effect on others, like his friend Jean-Louis who co-planned the WTC project, and his lover Annie Alix who found him irrisistable and barely spent a moment worrying what would happen to him. And then there’s the assorted ‘characters’, like in any good noir, that spring up as entertaining and interesting both in present and retrospect form; even a guy with one of those *real* twirling moustaches comes forward and talks, as well as one particular member of the crew who spent 35 years smoking pot and also during the WTC job (Marsh has a wonderful way of sort of ‘introducing’ them as well, in a walk-in profile and name tag). Hearing them expound about the mechanics of the job, and of Petit’s personality and effect on them all, for better or worse as a kind of partially blind optimist, is also a major part of the appeal in Man on Wire.

    While Marsh possibly leaves out some possibly intriguing details about Petit after this job ends (save for the immediate details about his sentence and a brief, Clockwork Orange-filmed ‘fling’ with a local girl), and here and there finding him or even the film pretentious isn’t out of the question, so much of it is alive and enthralling and even spiritual to a certain degree that I could forigve most of its possible faults. Just seeing some of that 8mm and film footage, shot at the practice sites, and the stills of Petit’s walk late in life, is something that’s hard to even put into words how to feel. I’m almost reminded of the wonder one feels when seeing the physically demanding art of Jean-Cristo, who also finds specific locations to pursue his craft. You can’t say it specifically, but you know it’s art, as is Marsh’s film itself.

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