Sunday, December 14, 2008

Man on Wire: Grade B

Man on Wire (2008)
Philippe Petit. Director James Marsh

In 1974, Philippe Petit strung a tightrope between the two towers of the World Trade Center in New York City then walked out into the void. He spent 45 minutes out there, a quarter mile above the traffic, dancing, twirling, showing off. It was a worldwide news incident, as intended. When he finally came in, police snatched him up. He was charged with trespassing.

This documentary tells the story with some background from his youth and reports on his earlier wire-walks between the towers of Notre Dame and the towers of a bridge in Sydney. The story is told in convincing reenactments, archival news footage, and interviews with Petit and the friends who helped him. The story is only slightly interesting, though photography, editing and directing are excellent. Philippe is charming, as is his French-accented English. I would have liked a lot more information about the technical and financial aspects of the stunt. How is the wire made and anchored? What kind of slippers does he wear? Where does he fix his eyes while walking? What does he think about? How is the balance pole used? Who paid for all the equipment and airline flights? None of these questions is addressed. What's left is a report of an inconsequential media stunt from three decades ago.

At first, I wondered what kind of a nut Petit was. He would have made an excellent terrorist. But in the DVD extra interview with him, I became convinced that he is a genuine performance artist, deranged only to the extent any great artist must be. It might have been a better film to frame it more clearly as an inquiry into the soul of an artist rather than as a news report. But it is an engaging worthwhile hour of viewing.

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