Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Man on Wire

Asking for my ticket at Cineworld, I mistakenly called the film 'Man on a Wire'. Twenty minutes of adverts and trailers later, the BBFC certificate appeared on screen, rendering the title as 'Man on Wire'. Hmmm, a bit ungrammatical, I thought; wonder if it's a mistake. The opening credits, however, confirmed it.

Towards the end of the film, the provenance was made clear: "man on wire" is the phrase handwritten in sharply angled, authoritative capital letters on Philippe Petit's arrest sheet under the heading "nature of complaint".

Philippe Petit, for those not in the know, is a French wirewalker and all-round daredevil, a man who was arrested in August 1974 following a not-exactly-legal wirewalk between the two towers of the World Trade Centre. His earlier, similarly unapproved antics on the Sydney Harbour bridge also ended with Petit getting his collar felt. On that occasion, he lifted the arresting officer's watch even as he was being handcuffed. For this, if nothing else, Petit now has a place in my pantheon of personal heroes.

Now in his late 50s, Petit's contributions to James Marsh's documentary reveal a man no less infused with bravado and love of life ... just as long as that life is lived on the edge. Spurning the question of why he does what he does ("I had just done this marvellous thing," he recalls of his twin towers caper, "and all they could ask me was why"), Petit throws himself enthusiastically into recounting the events surrounding his iconic wirewalk. While other interviewees give static (but still emotionally vibrant) testimony, Petit prowls before the camera, acts out bits of the drama, produces models to demonstrate the intricacies of rigging up the wires ... The man is irrepressible. Marsh's film could have consisted of nothing but Petit talking to camera and it would have been 90 minutes of hypnotic cinema.

But Marsh does much more. He intersperses interview footage with re-enactments of Petit & co.'s conspiracy to smuggle into the WTC all the necessary equipment, get said equipment to the roof and rig up the wire, all the while avoiding detection by security guards. 'Crime' is a harsh word for what Petit and his collaborators did, but it was illegal, therefore Marsh's decision to shoot the grainy, urgent black-and-white re-enactments in the style of a '70s crime movie is both inspired and aesthetically valid. The latter stages of the plan - particularly when Petit makes it to the rooftop - would challenge any filmmaker given (a) budgetary restrictions, and (b) the unavailability of the towers themselves, but Marsh finds a way around this by employing a decidedly expressionist style for these scenes. The wirewalk itself is chronicled simply by using still photographs taken on the day. The result is no less vertiginous for the images being static.

It's not just the giddy heights Petit braved that induce a woozy light-headedness in the viewer. This is as much a film about the twin towers as it is about Petit's determination to walk a high wire between them. In 1968, the towers not yet built, Petit saw an artist's impression of them in a newspaper article. The sheer scale captivated him. He took a pencil and drew a line between them. This one moment decided the course of his life. The towers were the challenge that everything else he did led up to. And he broke the law - he and his co-conspirators (including an inside man who occupied business premises in the WTC) - in order to do so.

It will never be possible to watch 'Man on Wire' without the shadow of 9/11 falling over it. And maybe that's the point. Maybe Marsh, in bringing this astounding story to the screen in such electrifying style, is reclaiming two equally astounding buildings - epic feats of engineering - from the act of terrorism that has come to define them. Reclaiming them in the name of the acrobatic work of art that Petit achieved.


James Hansen said...

I can't believe I haven't gone to see this yet. Petit and Marsh were at some screenings in New York and I totally missed them. Argh. I'm very excited about this film.

Neil Fulwood said...

It's one of those to-be-cherised documentaries which reminds you that a documentary can be more than just a reeling off of names, dates and facts, and certainly more cinematic than a succession of talking heads. It kept me as rivetted and entertained as anything I've seen on the big screen this year.

Shame you missed the Marsh/Petit appearances - I wonder if either of them will make it to England to introduce and discuss the film?