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Man On Wire

man on wire

We went to see Man On Wire this weekend, a documentary about the tightrope walker Philippe Petit and his dream to walk between the World Trade Center towers.

After years of planning, plotting, observing, cajoling, and visualizing, Petit walks the misty morning of August 7, 1974. He steps in scuffed ballet shoes onto the cable while his friend, Jean-Francois, waits in fear on the other side. Suddenly, after passing a tricky point, Petit grins. This is all captured: Petit’s shift from uncertainty into inhabiting his bodiless loft. He begins to play, crossing back and forth between the North and South towers 8 times.

Why is the question Philippe Petit was asked when he came down from his death-courting walk. Petit was (and is, in the film’s present) resistant to the question. As he explains at the beginning of the film, his tightrope walking is not about “conquering the universe but, like a poet, conquering beautiful stages.”

The film honors Petit’s resistance to the question of why by forming itself around his walk. But what makes this film so good is what happens when Petit comes back to earth. The tellings by his friends and accomplices tether the walk; we’re tethered in the characters.

Looming outside the film is this story’s uneasy concourse with 9/11. The fact of people leaping out of WTC windows in 2001 flickered in me as we watched Petit walk the wire between the towers in 1974. In my movie seat, riveted to 1974, there was the Austerlitzian sense of disjunction: past events have not occurred but are waiting to do so…

(What a gift from the filmmaker, not to mention 9/11, the non-mention flagging in me how it is recalled.)

P.S.

See also: Mordicai Gerstein’s book for children, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.