Dancing Between the Towers

Originally posted 9.11.08
Philippe Petit, the Man on Wire
Today I’d like to mark the anniversary of 9/11 with a look at Man on Wire, the documentary film that celebrates the feat of an acrobatic young man who walked on a cable stretched between the two towers.

The event took place shortly after dawn on August 7, 1974.

Philippe Petit, a Parisian street performer, took six years and numerous trans-Atlantic flights to prepare for the event. During that time the aptly named Petit also walked a wire strung between the two towers of Notre Dame and between the supports of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia. In both instances, the rigging was set up surreptitiously with the help of friends. These same friends would help him smuggle— with the assistance of an “inside man,” an insurance executive with an office in the South Tower—the hundreds of pounds of cable, clamps and other rigging that was needed to secure not only the inch-diameter walking cable but the two sets of guy wires that would support it.

The fine-lined geometry of the wires, Petit’s balance pole, and Petit himself--a speck dressed in black--against the vertical lattice of the buildings' facade, is a visual haiku about the possibility of the impossible
All photographs in this post are by Jean-Louis Blondeau

The documentary by James Marsh, based on Petit’s memoir, To Reach the Clouds, shows the planning that went into Petit’s astonishing performance. Although the chronology sometimes gets confusingly Tarantino-esque as it moves between the late 1960s/early 1970s planning, the 1974 event, and the present, it’s set up like a heist movie, with both actual footage of the planning and reenactments of key events.
In a building not fully completed and largely still unrented, there are real scenes from the early Seventies where Petit is shown interviewing the construction workers, ostensibly for a French magazine, while his photographer is shooting the best places to anchor cables and a videographer records it all; reenactments show close calls with guards on the 104th floor and the rigging sequences that took place overnight, illuminated by the red warning beacon on the roof.

My favorite scene, also real, takes place in a field somewhere in or near Paris, where a practice wire has been set up about six feet off the ground. Having realized that the winds at the top of the towers can be strong and unpredictable, Petit asks his friends to pull on the wire to simulate the effects of shear and torque. "Make it dance," he instructs as he bobs wildly.

Scenes like the wire surfing are joyful, but Petit and his friends were well aware that they would be breaking the law. And intended or not, there’s a distinct parallel between the planning that went into the taking of the towers by aerialist as the buildings were nearing completion, and the aerial assault that brought the buildings down 27 years later. That second event is never mentioned in the movie. It doesn’t need to be. However there is one telephoto image, shot from below that eerily presages what would come: Framed by the two towers, Petit is performing on the wire, and in the upper left corner, a jet is heading, it appears, straight for that tower at that side. The footage of Petit on the wire is breathtaking; but that image with the plane sucked the air right out of my lungs.

Petit remained on the wire for a death-defying 45 minutes, crossing back and forth eight times. During that time he didn't just walk. He lay down on the wire, and he also jumped so that his feet left the wire completely. There was no net, but the look on his face was joyful and relaxed. The towers are simply suppporting players (though it is their height, at the time the world’s tallest buildings, that he said “called” to him).

The audience laughed when the footage panned from Petit to two policeman standing at the edge of the building. He taunted them, staying ever out of their reach. When those officers told his best friend Jean-Louis Blondeau, the chief wire rigger (as well as photographer of the pictures you see here) that they would send a police helicopter to pluck Petit from the wire, Blondeau called him in, knowing that the wind from the chopper would knock him off.

It’s incomprehensible to me that someone would want to perform on a wire a quarter of a mile off the ground with no safety precautions save his balance pole and his own physical prowess. It seems impossible that Petit could have gathered willing accomplices (as one said, "I didn't want to be responsible for a friend's death"); that their caper, planned though it was, could actually have set everything in place, particularly the rigging; that it wouldn't rain; that the wind wouldn't be too strong; and that, miraculously, the young man who worked through the night to to finalize every aspect of his plan would not be too exhausted to pull off the performance without losing his balance--and his life.
Man on Wire is a testament to and document of that reckless, transgressive, illegal, dangerous, poetic, balletic and crazily uplifting achievement.
.A decade after the crossing, a writer friend of mine interviewed Petit at his loft downtown and reported that he kept a wire strung overhead so that he could practice. Two decades after that, the film shows a still elfin Petit on the wire in his back yard (somewhere in the Catskills). Just slightly fuller of form than the androgynous young man of the pictures, he's still dancing, still defying gravity.
Oh, it’s lovely to know that some things haven't changed.


S.A. said...

Fantastic post Joanne! Thanks.
I met Philippe a few times back in the early '80s and his intelligence and centered calm seemed to permeate his personality -- his fierce daring stayed in reserve. Can't wait to see the film.

Joanne Mattera said...

"Fierce daring." Great phrase, Steven. That's the stuff of twenty-somethings, isn't it? By the time you realize you're mortal (oh, around 30), some of the fierceness is drained from the daring--or vice versa. But that's what allows us to live longer, and in one piece, so it's a worthy trade.

Nancy Ewart said...

I have some vertigo so just looking at the photos made me dizzy. But what an amazing, crazy, astonishing feat! It reminds me of the things that we did when we and the world were younger and less cynical and frightened.

Jeffrey Collins said...

Wow. I didn't even know about this happening until now. I wasn't yet born in 74.

I'm definitely going to have to see this film. Thanks for talking about it.

Tristan said...

Great article. My favourite part is the scene towards the end, where two feet (from the present day Petit) glide across the wire. Shot beautifully.

Great blog by the by.

Joan Tucker said...

I saw the film with my 13 old granddaughter; I have a major fear of heights so just watching the documentary was hard.

Philippe's manic energy in the planning stages was balanced by the
remarkable state of calm he achieved during the act itself.

Perhaps a metaphor for life and art.I loved the film. Thanks for the post.

Joan Tucker, Off Center Productions,LLC

Jeffrey Collins said...

Looking forward to going to see this tomorrow. Would have seen it sooner if I had known it was in theaters.

Anonymous said...

I just saw this as a BBC docu, just curious and rather unmoved.... till a picture came into vieuw of Petit seen from a lower point with behind and above him in the left corner a passing aeroplane....
I am looking for that picture on the Net, it went straight through me... somehow it symbolises the Life and Death of the Twin Towers in one simple shot.

lucy mink said...

my book club last year read "let the great world spin" i really loved it, most of us did