Monday, January 5, 2009

Man on Wire

Nowadays any jackass with a dozen grand can climb Everest; we can take bets on whether they make it down, but they can get a shady guide company to drag them up there. But in 1974, shortly after the towers of the World Trade Center went up, a man strung a tightrope between them and put on a highwire act for downtown New York. His name was Philippe Petit, a Parisian stereotype in black tights and beret, who liked to ride his unicycle around the City of Lights, and lived only to be a high-wire tightrope artist. When he saw photos in a magazine of the Towers' design, he immediately knew that he must walk the wire, between them.

Called "the artistic crime of the century," Man on Wire documents this fantastic accomplishment. I'd seen a short piece on it so I'd seen the same photos of the act they use here, and the impact was diminished for me. But it's a wonderful film played out like a document of a heist, which it was- they had to smuggle nearly a ton of equipment up there, and there were plenty of engineering problems to solve before he could do it. It's an amazing act of a kind that gets scoffed at today- now, people base-jumping off skyscrapers and such are seen as possible terrorists and threats to our morning commute, instead of artists trying to give us something cool to see for a change. We have to settle for Christof painting shit pink, with corporate sponsorship.



The movie itself is quite well done, but with no footage of the act in existence, much is left to the imagination. The photos give you an idea, and they re-enact quite a bit of the classic heist. Everything from tiptoeing behind a guard, and turning as he turned, like in a cartoon or Marx Brothers act, to bluffing their way past guards using workman's uniforms. There's actual footage of their planning and practice, which helps. Petit set up a ,mock wire at shoulder height in a field between two trees, measuring the exact distances and using similar guy wires to steady the rig. To mimic the possibility of the buildings bending in the wind, his compatriots pulled the wires and shook them.

How to get a wire 200 feet across? Too far to throw. They smuggled up a bow and arrow and shot it across. They invented a conical spool so the mono line wouldn't snag, something eventually used in bowfishing. They got an inside man so they could ship things that would be too suspicious to smuggle in. All this leads up to the fantastic feat of walking the wire between the now iconic Twin Towers; a tiny speck in black leotards seemingly suspended in thin air, 1350 feet up. I'd been to the top of the Towers, and looking down was quite a thrill. If you've seen the towers up close, you know they weren't just blocks of metal but had beveled edges along the top, which made it hard for Petit to find purchase for his wire.

I would have loved to see it. It was a foggy day and no footage exists; only some amazing photos of a man engaged in a seemingly lackadaisical and definitely daring feat between two engineering marvels. To show that humanity can reach for the sky in other ways than with monuments to our financial might, and that there will always be new Everests. It's a document of a bygone era, and a feat that can never be repeated. Maybe someone will try the Petronus Towers someday, but they'll probably get shot. Petit himself wanted to tightrope walk the Grand Canyon, but that fell through; now he's considering the moai of Easter Island. He's 60 years old and still an imp, and his joy of life suffuses this excellent documentary.

4.5 baguettes out of 5



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