Blind Man with a Pistol

‘I see three oranges, I juggle. I see two towers, I walk.’


I saw James Marsh’s fantastic Man on Wire (2008) last night. It’s a film about Philippe Petit, wire walker par excellence. Paced like an action film, Marsh uses interviews, tasteful re-enactments and original footage to recreate Petit & co.’s daring ‘coup’ in which they counterfeit identification, dress-up alternatively as workmen and businessmen, fire an arrow from one tower to the next with a cord attached and string a 450-pound cable between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers. All this for the easy part: for Petit to walk above 110 stories in the early hours of 7 August 1974.

Even the Port Authority police officer, Sgt. Charles Daniels, sober in his report to the press, couldn’t hold back his wonder in the final instance:

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….I figured I was watching something that no one would ever see again, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There is the added thrill of seeing these artists, vagabonds, grifters and potsmokers break into the WTC in the context of the 1993 attempted bombing and of course, 9/11. As Marsh says in an interview with Time Out,

it’s basically a plot against these buildings, and they’re all foreigners. They’re hanging around and taking all sorts of photographs and pretending to work for various official companies in order to gain access. The big difference is that the end result is something beautiful. It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked.

For me, that’s the magical part of Petit’s story. After 9/11, Electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, when prompted for a reaction to the attacks on the WTC, famously responded by calling them ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’. The hijackers, he continued, had achieved ‘something in one act’ that ‘we couldn’t even dream of in music’, in which ‘people practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically, for a concert, and then die….You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5000 people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment’. It was grotesque detachment on the part of Stockhausen, but certainly, this sentiment is going through the back of our minds when we watch Marsh’s film. Except wonderfully, magically, Marsh, through Petit, subverts the horror, the ate of the September 11 attacks and gives us the beautiful image of a man dancing a quarter mile above the streets, kneeling in midair and saluting us with an impish flourish.

Marsh inlays Petit’s story with all the conventions of a heist flick: love interest, ‘professionals’ vs amateurs, the untrustworthy accomplice, and a bond of homosocial love between the protagonist and his lifelong friend shattered by the momentousness of the crime. However it is difficult for any mere action plot to recreate the drama contained in this candid statement from Petit:

I had to make the decision to take my foot, anchored on the building, and put it on the wire. Not many people dare to take that first step – to land on the Moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high-wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step, like the first step on a new continent.

It’s a beautiful thing. See it!

2 Comments so far
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I am agog, BMwaP. I’m not sure I could watch the high-wire dance — I have this thing about heights, and depths too.

Stockhausen is very difficult for me to stomach. I agree that there was something of the aesthetic to be grasped about 9/11, and I don’t often think that ethics trumps aesthetics — but that’s because I believe that true art does not subvert the truly moral.

Comment by skdadl

I admit I swayed in my seat a bit when Petit spoke the last line a quote–matched with a bird’s eye view of his foot looking down 110 stories! Still, most of the film is pure action and drama. Acrophobes fear not!

As for Stockhausen, his sensational comments capture the spectacle that was 9/11 (or at least, the spectacle that the West turned it into) but his mistake, I think, was to take the attacks out of context, which you can never do to art. Marsh’s film almost rescues 9/11 from spectacle, because of course the attacks haunt the film, but the result of the crime–the ‘coup’–seemed so wonderful, so incredible, so fantastic to me, that hope appeared where despair used to live.

Comment by Blind Man

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