A look at tightrope walker Philippe Petit's daring, but illegal, high-wire routine performed between New York City's World Trade Center's twin towers in 1974, what some consider, "the artistic crime of the century."
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On August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit, a French wire walker, juggler, and street performer days shy of his 25th birthday, spent 45 minutes walking, dancing, kneeling, and lying on a wire he and friends strung between the rooftops of the Twin Towers. Uses contemporary interviews, archival footage, and recreations to tell the story of his previous walks between towers of Notre Dame and of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, his passions and friendships, and the details of the night before the walk: getting cable into the towers, hiding from guards, and mounting the wire. It ends with observations of the profound changes the walk's success brought to Philippe and those closest to him. Written by
There was no why. No rhyme or reason, other than the fact that those towers existed. Existed, as one friend notes, for Philippe Petit to walk between them. People have always found it difficult to comprehend that Petit wire walked between the World Trade Center towers, nearly 1400 feet above the ground, without being able to justify his cause. Petit once simply stated that when he sees oranges, he juggles; when he sees two towers, he walks.
The story of how Petit and his motley crew pulled off the stunt is just as interesting as the walk itself. That day in August 1974 and the events which lead up to it are the focus of James Marsh's incredible documentary, Man on Wire. Marsh mixes documentary footage, provided by Petit and his colleagues, with reconstructions, blended so seamlessly every foot of film might as well be authentic. Petit and his friends tell the story with eager enthusiasm, particularly Petit himself. He is a man like no other. He is a ball of energy and charisma, completely harmless to everyone but perhaps himself. He has remained a child at heart.
He details the moment when he first concocted the idea to walk between the towers. While sitting in a dentist's chair, waiting to have a tooth fixed, he catches a glimpse of the towers as they are being constructed in a newspaper. He ran out of the dentist's office in a state of grace. He gleefully recounts that he didn't stick around to get his tooth fixed, and suffered the pain for weeks. But pain was no matter, he'd found his dream. He described his intentions not as a wire walker setting out to conquering heights, but as a poet looking to conquer the stage. A friend recounts that each day for Philippe was a work of art.
Petit had walked between the towers at Notre Dame, and the harbour bridge in Sydney. He was always arrested afterward of course. How joyful that when he was arrested after completing his feat in Sydney that his first order of business was to pick the watch of the police man arresting him for a gag! His reckless love for what he was doing was not fool hardy though. "The fact that death frames what you are doing makes you take it very seriously," he explains. Death was of course on his mind, but his aims were as a poet, a dreamer, an artist - not a dare devil: "If I die, what a beautiful death!" To accomplish his walk between the towers required months of preparation. The crew practiced in a field in France, with a wire the exact length between the towers. To mimic conditions, he had his friends jump and pull on the wires. He never loses balance, his concentration is impeccable. But the work doesn't end just with practice. They had to get nearly a ton of equipment to the top, all without being discovered - at least as impossible as the walk itself. They had to somehow get the rope across. How they do so is ingenious. They acquired id's to get inside, dressed as a mix of businessmen and construction workers (the towers were still partially under construction. One of the most incredible parts of the story is the night they went up to set everything up and do the walk. They're interrupted by a security guard as they begin unpacking. Philippe and his friend Jean-Francois have to run and hide under a tarp, on a beam above the WTC's 400 meter elevator shaft. They hide there, their bodies tangled, not moving, not speaking, for hours waiting for the guard to leave.
Man on Wire is built like a suspense film. It's engrossing and expertly crafted, and told with the passion and thoroughness of oral storytellers of old. Philippe Petit speaks as if he were reciting poetry in his thick French accent. Marsh accentuates the action with pitch perfect choices in the soundtrack, ranging from Satie and other classics to the disco classic A Fifth of Beethoven.
When Petit finally makes his walk, his friends gathered to watch below as he either committed suicide or one of the most poetic crimes of the century, the emotion is overwhelming. He recounts it with unbridled joy, his friends with tears in their eyes. I too was nearly moved to tears of joy. I can't remember the last documentary film to strike such a chord.
If Petit had of failed, he would have fallen to his death and likely been remembered as "that idiot." Petit recalls thinking with one foot on the wire, that to place his other foot on it and take that step was probably going to be the end of his life. Well, this life. If he fell, he would have fallen "to another life." That was his philosophy. But he didn't fall. He made it, 8 times. One police officer describes him as a dancer - he didn't just walk. He taunted police, laid down, knelt down. He had the time of his life. He was arrested with force as soon as he stepped onto the south tower - the police did not take kindly to his taunts. The charge: trespassing and disturbing the peace. The sentence: perform a show for the kids in the park as penance.
There is something so life affirming about one man boldly walking into what should have been his demise. People responded to his act of daring as if he had given charity. In a way, he had. His performance was a gift to the world. What that gift was is as abstract as the reasons for the walk itself. Sometimes we don't know why something is beautiful, we just know it is. What Philippe Petit did was beautiful, a work of poetic grandeur. Why I do not know. Words do not exist to explain. I just know.
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