To air is human

Is an illegal 1,350 feet high tightrope walk a stunt or an art display? We watch a new documentary about one surreal Manhattan morning to try and find out.

Though his English is excellent, French-born wire walker Philippe Petit is struggling for the right word (‘How you say…?’) in a way that’s almost show-offy. No matter; the expression he arrives at is worth the wait.

‘Arrogant? Yes. It was arrogant on my part,’ he concludes. ‘Way too early. It was my masterpiece, and you don’t do a masterpiece when you’re 18 or 20 years old. And still, I felt I possessed my art enough that I found myself at the top of the highest building in the world at age 24.’

Petit, speaking to Time Out in a hotel room much closer to sea level, is casting back on that famous grey morning – August 7, 1974 – when, unannounced to the media, he stepped out on an illegally rigged cable stretched between the relatively new Twin Towers and danced at 110 stories. Almost an hour later, Petit stepped off of the wire and into a blinding glare of flashbulbs, psychological concern and the awestruck wonderment of thousands of onlookers.

‘He doesn’t live in the same world as you or I,’ says James Marsh, 45, the director of Man On Wire, a riveting and unexpectedly moving new documentary about Petit’s walk, the years of preparation it took and the team he assembled for what would be called the artistic crime of the century. ‘But that’s not to say he’s crazy – not at all,’ Marsh adds. ‘Philippe’s a hedonist. He doesn’t accept the rules, whether they’re rules of nature or of civil society.’

‘I still have that taste of the illegal in my mouth,’ Petit agrees. ‘If not, your creation will be neutered. True art has, in its chemistry, a few drops of risk to it.’

Some might call tightrope walking at 1,350 feet risky enough. But Petit, who seriously chafes at the term stunt, is referring to his troupe’s stealthy overnight entry into the WTC (provocatively recounted in Man On Wire in the tense grammar of a heist film), and the public surprise of his appearance the following morning. ‘Maybe it comes from my years of street juggling,’ he offers. ‘But not having permission was important to me.’

‘The buildings were there for office people to make money, not for an impish Frenchman to go and essentially make them human,’ Marsh says. ‘To prove that you can scale them, tame them, even use them as a stage, is a wonderful, subversive idea. There was real ambivalence at the time about whether these buildings were somehow… hubristic.’

The director is choosing his words carefully. The British Marsh, a New Yorker for the past 14 years, knows full well the weight of the elephant in the room; his strategy of never once referring to 9/11 in Man On Wire is, as it happens, the doc’s most sensitive acknowledgement.
‘I remember when we screened the film at Tribeca; I was really nervous,’ he recalls. ‘I didn’t know whether the city was ready for this, whether it was premature to show what is essentially a comic tale, a comedy of errors. I wanted to tell a different story about these buildings so defined by their demise,’ Marsh adds. The film received a standing ovation; early archival sequences of the Towers’ construction, set to the serene strains of Michael Nyman’s ‘Fish Beach’, brought the audience to tears.

‘I think that was the great thing that James did—not to allow any kind of overlap,’ Petit says. ‘When I see how his movie inspires and touches people on a very tricky subject, bringing joy to them, I can’t help but salute it.’ (There is slight tension in this admission; Petit harboured dreams of making a fiction film for decades, starring himself, but the project never materialised. He says he rejected several Hollywood offers in order to find a ‘certain collaborator.’)

‘You enter Philippe’s world on his terms, and you need his full-on co-operation because he’s the protagonist,’ Marsh says. ‘It’s his fairy tale.’ But the documentary film-maker won over the playful Petit (who picked Marsh’s pocket at their first lunch) by appealing to his sense of defying the odds. ‘Philippe fell in love with the city and thought that anything was possible here. And hopefully still is. Why not?’

‘Man On Wire’ screens at Middle East Film Festival, Abu Dhabi, on Thursday 16 and Friday 17 October. See for details.

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