Dancing on Air

Nearly three decades before the World Trade Center towers became sites of real-life tragedy and mythic icons of the war on terrorism, they served as the staging ground for an entirely different act. On August 7, 1974, a tiny figure stepped out into the space between the buildings. He didn't fall, nor did he jump -- although audiences watching James Marsh’s Sundance award-winning documentary Man On Wire may be reminded of the terrible images of those who did during 9/11. Philippe Petit was actually balancing on a wire suspended between the structures, but from the ground, it looked as if he was walking on nothing but air.

The diminutive Frenchman capered on his wire for 45 minutes -- dancing, lying down, kneeling and saluting, and traipsing across the void between the buildings no less than eight times before he delivered himself into the arms of the police, who promptly handcuffed the funambulist. Petit responded by balancing a policeman's cap on his nose.

He handled the American media's questions with equal irreverence. According to Man on Wire, reporters were obsessed with one main question: "Why did you do it?" Fifty-eight-year-old Petit, his voice crackling with amusement, recounts his response to those "so American" questions: "There is no why."

Man on Wire is extraordinary in many ways -- perhaps most notably in its refusal to offer explanations. It treats both its artistic subject and its audience with a kind of respectful reticence, and gives us the hermeneutical responsibility, the gift, to work through the possible significance of Petit’s act on our own. In so doing, the film sidesteps the pitfalls that often plague movies about artists -- the psychological reductionism used to "explain" their work, the "and-then" medley of greatest hits from the subjects' art and life, all the labels that wind up disengaging us from the shock of great art.

The film also keeps a wise silence on the matter of 9/11, although for many viewers the specter of that day will haunt Man on Wire from its earliest frames. Near the beginning of the film, director James Marsh split-screens scenes from Petit's childhood with footage from what appears to be Ground Zero. Only after I noticed the grainy quality of the images did I understand that I was seeing footage of the WTC's construction, not its destruction.

Man On Wire is structured like a heist film -- much of the documentary is narrated by Petit, his then-girlfriend Annie, his childhood friend Jean-Louis Blondeau, two stoner Americans, an inside man who worked in one of the towers, and others as they recount how they staged this guerilla tour de force. They planned what they aptly called le coup down to the last detail, as the 9/11 hijackers did their own plot. But they did so to the opposite end -- Petit's wire-walking didn't seek to create a thunderous Armageddon pitting one power against another. He staged his act of subversion, his playful play, in the empty space between the towers, thereby turning what they seemed to represent upside down. Those shrines to notions of progress and the spirit of capitalism were merely incidental, the background for an act of wild, unexplainable beauty. Petit had no cause, no answer. The film makes mention of none of this, however -- as with all visions that render one speechless or stammering out calls to the divine, Petit's act should not be placed so quickly in a simplistic narrative, the director's reticence seems to remind us. Sometimes why is just … the wrong question.

Concerned as he is with how rather than why, Marsh stages witty reconstructions of Petit and his friends' plot. The director isn't focused on verisimilitude, but on demonstrating the dramatic tension that fueled Petit's act. The group of friends that planned the coup was plagued by technical difficulties -- how to get the wire from one tower to another, stabilize it, smuggle in nearly a ton of equipment, cope with the twisting winds. The act was a potential suicide play, and the group was wracked with fear and conflict -- in the end, the friends' bond couldn't withstand the fruition of its galvanizing goal, nor Petit's subsequent fame.

Marsh doesn't shy away from Petit's obsessiveness, or the narcissism that leads the tightrope walker to sleep with an admirer after staging his grand show, ignoring both his devoted girlfriend Annie and his friends. To the camera, Petit speaks of the need for artistic rebellion -- against rules and definitions, and against one's own success. That he failed in this last doesn't damn him -- Marsh refuses to editorialize in this or other matters -- but renders the artist as complex as his work.

The film sketches a similarly nuanced portrait of Petit's pre-WTC walk on a wire strung across the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral. He struts to and fro, seems to sleep like a man in a hammock. When Annie rushes into the church, she finds the priests in the midst of a ritual, face down on the floor. Here, a lesser film might hammer home a secular stake -- the institutions of divinity are oblivious to human miracles. But Annie recalls the response of one of the men -- "Ah, how wonderful!" This moment, as much as the treatment of Petit's WTC walk, shows both the priests' and Petit's dedication to a sense of wonder, and to seeking a state of grace. They exist in a harmonic tension with each other -- the members of the institution and the iconoclast, face down in devotion and face up in defiance.

That tension finds its ultimate climax in Petit's WTC walk -- a lone man on a wire, rigged up by an invisible team and the unseen heroics of a forgotten friend; a refutation of gravity and time that is bound to it. In depicting this tension so fully, Man on Wire offers the best homage to the World Trade Center towers that I've seen: a revelation that remembers -- and dares to imagine -- something other than their destruction.

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