Wednesday, 3 September 2008

man on wire (d. james marsh)

This is another film that I hadn't really wanted to see. But Tuesday afternoons at the Coronet cost a princely £3.50, so I made the effort and crossed the tracks. So many people had recommended the film that I was wary of it, fearing my perverse streak would mean I therefore wouldn't like it.

It's good to be proved wrong. Marsh's film is a minor masterpiece. It's a strangely moving documentary, based on a quite remarkable story. Not for the first time this year I sat in the Coronet and wiped the odd tear out of my eye.

The film is an account of Phillipe Petit's quixotic mission to walk on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. Straightaway, this gives it a poignancy, and the detailed account of how Petit and his team planned and executed the stunt has strange echoes of both terrorist attacks on the building, as though it was made to be the object of subversive attack. Petit's relationship with the building is almost mystical - from the way he describes it, it was the building itself which prompted him to take up his eccentric vocation. In a way his tightrope walking stunts are reminiscent of the Situationists, or even the work of an artist like Christo. Because, what is clear from the account of the three missions he accomplished, these events were works of art, and Petit was an artist, who used the wire as his canvas. (There's remarkable footage of the NY cop who apprehended Petit, saying that he was 'a tightrope dancer, you couldn't call him a walker'.)

The absurd uselessness of Petit's stunts, and the dedication with which his team helped him to accomplish them, feels like an exploration of man's potential. The image of a man, walking a tightrope in the clouds, is angelic, reminiscent of Hamlet's lines about form and infinite faculty. Another contrasting image, from a similar time, would be Armstrong walking on the moon, and Petit's achievement seems no less remarkable than NASA's. However, unlike NASA, the Frenchman had the back-up of a comical bunch of amateurs to facilitate his mission, something that makes it all the more poignant: it is possible to achieve your dreams, with next to nothing, if you are only willing to believe.

Marsh's film knits the narrative together beautifully. The interviews with Petit and his former companions, guardians of the secret of their achievement, help to keep the narrative flowing, and ground the astral story in its human context. When Petit's friend and the project manager, Albert, breaks down on camera, it's a moment which reveals the immensity of what they achieved, as well as the tragedy of this then placing everything that will follow in its shadow.

Marsh is blessed by some remarkable archive footage of Petit, his girlfriend Annie, and his accomplices, suggesting that Petit knew full well he was readying himself for some kind of immortality. Yet it's fascinating to see that when the walk between the towers takes place, there's no video of it, only stills of a man in his flared black trousers, carrying the white balancing stick, framed against the clouds. It feels better this way. Film could never have done justice to the wonder of the moment; for this was an event that is, and of course now always shall be, unreproducible.

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