There’s an indescribable elegance to James Marsh’s Man on Wire, one that practically forces me to reverse course on everything I ever thought about performance artists. Though I doubt I’m receptive to a full conversion, the central figure of this striking, hilariously moving documentary, Philippe Petit, is just the sort of man to bring me out of the shadows. He’s everything his ilk was, is, and will likely be until the end of time: vain, appallingly upbeat, eccentric, and pathologically driven, but his ultimate act of derring-do, walking confidently along a hastily constructed high wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center, seems to spring from a world we’ve somehow lost, even if the lust for fame consumes us like never before. And while today’s sense of celebrity entitlement believes mere desire is cause enough for tabloid coverage and internet adoration, Petit actually earned his keep by risking his very existence.
Not only did he trip along a thin reed for the 200 feet between the two buildings, he stood above an unfathomable chasm that heightened the sense of risk with every breath. Such a move is utterly absurd — and quite pointless — given that it accomplished little save the sense of shock it inspired in others, but at the very moment he embarked on that last leg of his journey, I could not help but admire the poor bastard. And then it hit me: let us be thankful we have such figures among us, these defiant, ever-shifting madmen, for what else offers refuge? The quiet desperation, routine, and impossibly gray uniformity that define so much of our lives requires, at the very least, an avenue by which awe — sheer unreasonable joy writ large — can overtake and inspire us. In whatever form possible.
Petit himself, at the time and in current interviews, refused to grant an explanation for the entire event, other than to offer the usual refrain of “because it was there.” He claimed a connection to the buildings after a visit to the dentist, where he read about their upcoming construction. Perhaps the immensity of the project brought forth visions of headlines for the lad (how else to achieve lasting glory than by tackling the world’s largest man-made structure?), but Petit, as loony as he can appear, doesn’t strike me as the typical glory-seeker. He takes great pride in what he does and devotes a great deal of preparation to each and every step; qualities that make the man instantly appealing despite being the sort who has all the time in the world due to a lack of any real employment.
After all, who wouldn’t want to spend their days pining away about adolescent fantasies that involve fun-loving pranks rather than time clocks and rush hour traffic? Before the World Trade Center, Petit scaled the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, proving that at the very least, the man did not want for travel expenses. He even had his cadre of fellow conspirators, including a girlfriend who appears to have walked in from a parody of artistic liaisons. So why is it that a Frenchman who asks the world to watch as he scales a looming monstrosity seems genuinely humble in the face of it, as if he would rather enjoy the walk without prying eyes?
The thrills of Man on Wire are numerous, but the film takes its most gratifying step in recreating the logistics of that fateful morning of August 7, 1974. Sure, the reenactments do not benefit from the unfortunate attempts at period wigs and facial hair, but mere words alone would not have been enough to show just how difficult the entire episode truly was. More than some guy throwing out a line and strutting about for a minute or two, this was a feat that required years of planning and assessment. Petit visited the World Trade Center time and time again (even by air), built scale replicas on the rooftops to provide additional perspective, and waited patiently while the building neared its completion. He even brought together a motley crew of fellow dreamers who created phony invoices, badges, and uniforms so that they could smuggle the necessary equipment to the top floor. In their way stood Port Authority police, security guards, and 110 stories of intimidation.
The whole process had all the trappings of a comedy of errors, but in the end, the man and his wire had a moment of unencumbered ecstasy. Having no great affinity for heights or the prospect of falling from them, the archival shots are truly stomach-churning, made more so by the realization that 27 years later, dozens of the unwilling would be forced to make the same leap. Not that I thought about the 9/11 tragedy throughout, or even often, despite the searing imprint the falling towers now hold in our imagination. Perhaps that’s another oddity of the film: just as the ribbon-cutting ceremonies of 1974 ushered in a new day of unbreakable steel and Gotham muscle, it is now equally impossible to believe the towers ever stood at all. Then, a lone individual thought so much of them that he wanted to highlight man’s fragile nature amidst their might. Years later, another group of men reinforced that same fragility through their catastrophic removal.
That the act was illegal is obvious, though Petit seemed eminently agreeable, even after arrest (he was eventually “sentenced” to perform a children’s show, and received a lifetime pass to the towers for his trouble). I imagine his fear of the authorities was related to the panic of prevention, not anything that might have occurred post-deed. One could reasonably argue that the high-wire act was the selfish act of a petulant child, what with the expenses incurred by civilian authorities and all. As his Sydney stunt also proved, traffic could be brought to a standstill, and distracted drivers could be a threat to others. But as pompous as it might sound, Petit has every right to insist that his art — or all art, for that matter — need not take notice of niceties or conventions, so long as consequences are respected. If art waited for convenience and passively stood in line, it would cease to be provocative and therefore differ little from wallpaper or inert pavement.
All of this assumes that Petit’s jaunt is art, and whether or not art requires meaning to grant it an exalted status. And if Petit himself refuses to answer for his actions, what are we to say of it? Naturally, he described the interrogations as “very American,” which goes to the heart of the matter with refreshing clarity. Whenever a disaster occurs, or a schoolyard is shot to ribbons, we plead for easy answers and quick fixes. What if the act itself is enough? A man puts his neck on the line for absolutely nothing, and walks away with a loving grin. Can we deal with it? Obviously not, and that too may have been Petit’s larger point. Once in awhile — more often than we’d care to admit — we need a good rattling to remind us that life, usually its best and most lasting moments, don’t make a lick of sense at the time. That is, if they ever do.