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Thread: James Marsh: Man on Wire (2008)

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    James Marsh: Man on Wire (2008)

    James Marsh: Man on Wire (2008)



    Art in the sky, with cops watching holding handcuffs

    Review by Chris Knipp

    What does Philippe Petit do now? Is he Professor of Advanced Balance at the Sorbonne? Is he a therapist dealing exclusively in the treatment of acrophobia? He seems to be a man so specialized that he was meant in life to do only one thing, at one time, and this film is about that moment and shows why a moment--a half hour or so in the early morning of August 7, 1974--can define a life and reshape one's perceptions. After the long slow methodical buildup, when the moment comes, calmly accompanied by a famous piece for solo piano by Eric Satie, it is so awesome, so still, so transcendent it makes you cry. No question why this film needed to be made.

    Why is it that walking across a wire up in the air can be an aesthetic experience so exalted it brings you to tears? I don't know, but that's what Man on Wire is about.

    Philippe Petit is a clown, a sprite, a magician, a juggler, an athlete, and a dancer--a world-class version of the French staple, the saltimbanque, the street acrobat, an entertainer for the people. Paris still has them. They date back to the Middle Ages. But what aspirations he has! When he was seventeen, before the World Trade Center was even built, he knew it had to be his. It was as if it was invented just for him. This was his greatest exploit. His triumph. It was to make him world famous.

    A funambule, the French call them. A tightrope walker: the epitome of risk-taking. Only this time he increased the risk. Like his earlier walks between towers of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and pylons of the Sydney Harbor Bridge, only more so, Petit's walk on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the tallest buildings in New York City, was illegal, a rififi, a break-in, a caper. Some call it "the art heist of the century." But it's not an ordinary heist. They stole nothing, except the air, our breath. Petit and crew didn't take anything out. They took in a ton of equipment, most importantly enough heavy wire and support wire to secure his pathway across the towers.

    If you could make a documentary about a successful robbery, it might be something like James Marsh's film about this event. There is the conception, the reconnaissance, the gathering of accomplices, some of whom out of wisdom or fear opt out, even up to the last minute. The false start and bailout. The months of rehearsal. The miniature mockups of the top of the towers (handsome, and in wood). The trial runs and on-scene observations, the skillfully made false documents and identities, the changes of costume (for Petit himself, businessman, construction worker, and the ballet shoes and black velvet costume for the performance). And of course Petit and company were documenting all of this. Marsh has admirably gathered all the images, plus simulations, plus the present-day talking heads, several in French, the others in English. This time simulations seem quite justifiable. There are things we need to see--particularly the crew dodging and hiding from guards on the towers.

    It's all like a game; a lark. And at the same time, lethal, dangerous, and a defiance of the laws of man and God. The simulations are appropriate because this is all so unreal anyway. Why not add a little fakery?

    And maybe Petit is a little bit strange. No; he is very strange. And in some indefinable way he is also quintessentially French.. Not only has he an incredible insensitivity to danger (and drive to overcome it), but this diminutive, almost weightless fellow has his unmistakably Napoleonic side, his grandiosity. But also playfulness. One of the best moments is when he is being arrested and photographed (charge: trespassing; event description: "man on wire"), he takes a policeman's uniform cap and balances it on his forehead by the bill, then flips it onto his head. His exploit had made him a celebrity and a mascot. He has enhanced life, as art does.

    After the event, he knew he was famous. How can you ask me if I'm thirsty, he says to a psychiatrist, when 300 journalists are waiting to interview me? And his first act after release was, as somebody put it "to bang a groupie," which he himself describes as "disgusting." Maybe he was steadier out on the wire, where he remained for 45 minutes, smiling, happy, high over New York, without a net, crossing and re-crossing eight times by his friend's count. And then afterwards, somehow things were so bent out of shape that he ended two key relationships--with his girlfriend and his collaborator (both of whom help narrate this film).

    This is troubling, but Petit is also wise, a saintly kind of man, immune to ordinary temptations (except groupies?). When asked why he'd done it, he said: "If I see three oranges, I have to juggle. And if I see two towers, I have to walk." The psychiatrist judged him "same and ebullient." His was a pure act, an existential declaration of joy, an example of how to live life daily to the fullest. "Every day for him was a work of art," says his girlfriend. "L'art pour l'art," art for art's sake, is his motto. All of which is pretty thought-provoking, and may be inspiring. At a time of many excellent documentaries, this one seems indispensable. It provides a very pure kind of thrill. Needless to say after 9/11, the buildings gone, the recreation of this moment evokes added nostalgia and sense of loss.

    Actually Petit has done much since the event. Right afterward the charges of trespassing and criminal conduct were dropped with the promise that he would perform juggling acts for children in Central Park, and he was given a permanent pass to the towers. A policeman interviewed at the time says when he watched, he knew he was seeing something unlike anything he'd ever see again. Sometimes you do know. When he was interviewed for this film, he was artist in residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 07-20-2011 at 04:41 PM.

  2. #2
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    I saw the trailer. Looks very well made, as you describe.
    Petit is now an artist in residence?
    Does he talk at all about the demise of the towers?
    How much footage is there of his walks on the wire?
    Is it good quality or grainy stock?

    I will definitely be checking this one out.
    (But on the website listings Toronto has no dates)
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

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    There is also, which I neglet to mention but others do (Ed Gonzalez, Slant, for instance) a lot of footage of the construction of the WTC, which was barely complete if that when this happened. That footage is pretty grainy. The footage of the walk is good and clear. There are also a lot of awesome sharp stills of Petit up on the tower beforehand, and of what it looked like to look down at the street and the people from the wire. And good footage of his earlier exploits, and movies of him and his cohorts and girlfriend practicing in France, him riding his unicycle with top hat in the street.

    They do not talk about the demise of the towers and there doesn't seem to need to be. But it's said Petit's very sad about the buildings being gone themselves.

    I don't know what Petit is doing right now but I read he was artist-in-residence at St. John the Diviine and he's wearing a T-shirt of the cathedral in some of the talking-head footage.

    Some don't seem to quite get the value of this one act or see as justified making a film focused exclusively how this was carried out. It was immensely difficult, not only physically and technically but because it had to be done surreptitiously, bypassing security, like a heist, and by night. I simply feel when I see the result that this was a marvellous thing, worth the years of planning it took. I think many who saw it did too.

    It reminds me of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Running Fence (done two years later, in fall 1976), which however was completely different in that it was as all their projects have been, sanctioned through hard efforts to gain official and private permissions--it took them four years, and the New York Gates project took decades. But the similarity is that it's an interaction with the public and people scoff but if you're there and witnessed it in person as I and many others did, you become a believer. When you see it, you know what all the effort was about. And it's a work of art that, though momentary, enhances the place and your life and is never forgotten.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-05-2008 at 07:18 PM.

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    Rave reviews for MAN ON WIRE

    Thiis is the top-rated limited release film on Metacritic right now, with a rating of 90 based on 20 or so reviews. I don't know how many cities it's showing in now, judging from the reviews it's going to be spreading out. Opened in San Francisco and Berkeley today August 8 2008. I'm really behind this one. It took my breath away--amazing and thought-provoking experience. It kind of creeps up on you. For a long time it's methodical, almost plodding. Then it happens and your heart is in your throat.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-09-2008 at 01:03 AM.

  5. #5
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    Distribution of this film just expanded. It is now playing in Toronto, Johann.

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    Is Johann in Toronto?

    Where can I get the best information on up to date distribution figures for films? From Moviemaker.com this time I got this, this time:
    Man on Wire continues its run at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema and opens on August 1st at the AMC Empire 25 and City Cinemas 86th Street East. Not only will Man on Wire expand locally on August 8th in Brooklyn, Long Island and New Jersey, but will take its act nationwide, opening in the cities of Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Washington DC, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Austin, Portland, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Atlanta, with many more national markets to follow.
    Box Office Mojo doesn't have that information. I was thinking from the SF preview reaction this week that it was going to be big.

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    Man on Wire is playing at 92 theaters nationwide right now. Hope people check it out. It should surpass $2 million an the box office. One gets the sense watching it with an audience that a lot of people who would enjoy it won't find out about it or will erroneously conclude that it ain't worth watching.

    I got the impression all along that the natural, or perhaps the obvious, ending of the film would refer to the destruction of the site of Petit's dream project. At the very least, I expected the film to register Petit's mourning its demise. I don't know if the pathos that would have resulted from such ending would have enhanced the film. Perhaps it was wise to privilege that glorious 45-minute performance and leave it unencumbered by the more recent tragedy at the same site.

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    I think so. Well said.

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    This was one of those films that inspire one-word reviews:
    INSPIRING!
    ASTOUNDING!
    MIRACULOUS!
    AMAZING!

    And it is all those things. It's pretty exciting to watch this story being told.
    It was pretty insane to try to walk a wire between the two World Trade Center towers, let alone without permission.

    Death-defying is putting it mildly. Mr. Petit knew he could die in attempting this "wire walk". There were so many unforeseeable things that could go wrong with this that I'm stunned that it was accomplished. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime event. You have to see it to believe what happened.

    The first thing you think of when you see the enormity of the towers and know what this frenchman has in mind is "HE'S A LUNATIC!".
    Almost impossible to pull off, this stunt. The chances of this going wrong were so damn great that it literally IS a miracle nothing went wrong.
    The wind up there, the weather, the wire cable itself (how could they secure it without any security or WTC personnel knowing?) just getting to the roof!!!
    The planning had to be extensive and nothing could go wrong in any way in order for this to even have a hope of being attempted.
    It is literally jaw-dropping that it was accomplished. No one has ever attempted something so dangerous and potentially disastrous as walking a wire between the two trade center towers. This guy was a professional. He had walked between Notre Dame's spires and a bridge in Sydney Australia, but nothing like this, his "dream". It's pretty awe-inspiring.

    The shots of him actually on the wire were astounding. Wowza. He has nerves of steel and very sure feet....

    Bravo for the existence of this film and bravo to the team/group of friends who made this happen.
    I don't really know what else to say.
    Just see it and be stunned at the sheer LOFTINESS of it all.
    "Set the controls for the heart of the Sun" - Pink Floyd

  10. #10
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    That is a great film. One of the best preview screenings I've ever seen in San Francisco. I walked out awed and thrilled. It captures the magic.

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