Philippe Petit’s Gesture

October 19th, 2008 § 0 comments

The most inspiring fairytale, as it turns out, does not involve a prince, a castle, or a kiss, but is simply a gesture beyond the rationality of “why.”

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My only complaint with Man On Wire would have to be that the creators of the documentary forgot at times that no matter how they told, filmed, recreated, or edited the story Petit himself would still remain far more interesting. French men don’t tend to have excessively extroverted and magnetic personalities; they are almost too French to have that smiles-at-nothing charm of American celebrities—if you are inclined to think that is charm. Petit, arguably the world’s greatest tightrope performer, has the combined presence of an actor, a performer, a dancer, a lover, a comedian, a poet, an acrobat, and an artist. In 1974, after years of obsessive planning and preparation, he managed to string a wire between the newly erected WTC, walking back and forth across it eight times on a cold and foggy morning in Manhattan—the art crime of the century. The opening of this film shows the towers under construction, grainy images of steal beams stacked like toy blocks, creating hugely ugly towers. In light of the now gaping hole in the financial district, full of dozers and dirt, his “crime” seems more like the perfect memorial for all those towers could have stood for, and what they metaphorically stand for now.

In an industry of contrived narratives, Man on Wire (the title taken from the courts description of his act) is a refreshingly unique story. I find it hard to believe no one talks about it; remember that Frenchman who walked between the twin towers in the 70’s? He became instead the kind of celebrity that most artists/writers become, that of the eccentric outsider. Petit’s act was not a critique of the world, culture, or people, however, but a celebration of them. His act was not just about walking on a wire, it was a metaphor for all that walking on a wire could mean. As he stepped out that morning in a now-or-never moment, he said, “death was very close.” Looking at the images we well believe it. The radiant smile that lights across his face as he lies upon the wire gazing into the sky, resting peacefully, or dangling assuredly on a wire strung by a few friends, is almost as spectacular as the view of new york he commanded for that hour or so. Though dealing with amazing footage the film seems to trip over itself in an attempt to play too much with the heist/crime genre, it is at times funny and clever but slips too often into a kind of spoof. The problems with it reminded me of a film I made my freshman year in art school, a slow-motion comedy about cinematic representations of “true love.” The problem was that instead of looking like two people pretending to enact stereotypes, it read as two people honestly in love—it was also the films value.

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It is no surprise then that the most compelling sequences in Man on Wire came from the real footage (and stills), or what can be reasonably assumed to be real. An odd mixture of joy, foolishness, and a driving passion emerge in aged tapes of the characters that were drawn in by Petit’s energy and act. Sequences set in grassy fields where friends surrounded to watch and help Petit, or in a small apartment arguing over the best way to break into the world trade center and string a wire, showed how young and determined these Frenchmen were. They almost look like little boys playing at life, dreaming up grand ideas in a doctor’s office when they see an image of two towers in America—Petit also walked between the towers of Notre Dame. This seems to be one of the most important elements of the story, and a youthful energy of imagination still radiates from Petit, his interviews are silly and wise at the same time. “When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk.”

Despite my insignificant gripes with the film, it was by far one of the best I have seen in a long time, but I would venture to guess that is because it appealed completely to my sensibilities. I have spent weeks trying to think of a way to translate into words, beyond those of the usual critique, what it was that really made it a great film, but still without success. There is something so visually necessary to understand it that words can’t seem to explain—you either get it, see it, love it, or you don’t—and I can’t seem to pin down just what it is. I am reminded of things, a perfectly danced pas-de-deux, of moments of precision so great they are unbelievable.

If I drop the idea of artists and art, dreamers and dreaming, talent and execution, metaphor and meaning, I can say simply that I left in awe. It felt childish to be so filled by amazement, but wonderfully so. As adults are we amazed as we were as children? I wondered. As children we are allowed to read stories and be transported, we are allowed to look at art without being asked to understand or explain it, we are allowed to dream of being what we will never be. There is a connection between Philippe and his “dreams”, as he calls them, and the reality of his enacting them, that links these notions of the real and the imagined, the mind and the body, life and death, what can be done and what can only be imagined. I think of the art I make in my head, the images I create in my mind that can never be accurately expressed. I used to wish film could capture what I see through my eyes, exactly as I see it, before I accepted that art is the challenge of how to manipulate what we can capture into what we can’t.

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