Wednesday, November 26, 2008

"When I see three oranges, I juggle; when I see two towers, I walk."

It's not often you see a movie that instantly compels you to tell everybody you know, once knew, or might not know yet to see as soon as possible. I'm taking a few days off to get some R&R and recharge after a two week tour and figured I would take in a few matinees in the city. I read about "Man on Wire" in TONY when it first came out and was instantly intrigued. I didn't know about Philippe Petit's famous highwire crossing of the Twin Towers before reading the review, and like any New Yorker was quite affected by any story involving the two spires that are no longer with us.

How often is one's entire life driven my one moment? For Petit, a Parisian street performer, this moment came while sitting in the waiting room of a dentist's office, waiting for some respite from a toothache. While thumbing through a magazine, he saw an article about the building of the WTC, which included drawings of the towers. Instantly, the yet-to-be-completed towers would give him the challenge of a lifetime. Petit, who had been a tightrope artist for years would also cross the Notre-Dame and the world's largest steel arch bridge in Sydney in the intervening years, defying both death and the law in order to do so. However, the sheer height between the towers offered him something far beyond anything else the world had to offer a man of the tightrope.

The movie follows the six-year planning that Petit and his rogue cast went through to fulfill the dream. Every step of the process had to be accounted for in order for the team to rig the highwire and for Petit to cross it. The trials and travails of the group are totally exhilarating, and the characters, a mix of hippies, renegades, and an insurance adjuster on the inside, are totally fascinating. When Petit finally gets up on the wire (after a night of countless mishaps), 450 meters in the sky, it is totally breathtaking. Not only did he cross the span. He danced up there, walking, running, dancing, hopping and even lying down on the wire, spending 45 minutes up there before walking into the arms of police. For the thousands of people who were there to see it, most of them probably on their way to work, it was a sight never to be forgotten. Most of us will never be able to understand how somebody could flirt with death to such an extreme, but seeing Petit interviewed throughout the film, you feel that this was his journey in life, the only way he saw of living. He has no answer to why he did this. Somehow, in all its absurdity, it just has to be.

One can't help but think what could possibly keep Petit going after accomplishing this feat. Certainly, there is little chance any structures side-by-side and quite so high will ever again exist, and modern security mechanisms, especially in this new age of terror, will never allow an amateur team the access to buildings necessary to pull of something of this magnitude. The movie delves very little into Petit's life since, and one certainly wonders how things must pale in comparison with that miraculous journey that culminated so beautifully that summer day in 1974.

In the words of Port Authority Police Department Sgt. Charles Daniels, who was dispatched to the roof to bring Petit down, later reported his experience:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it.

See this movie. Click here to go to the official site.

There is an excellent Gothamist interview with Petit here and one from Psychology Today here.

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