November 2008

Arts & Letters

High wire acts

By Luke Davies
James Marsh’s ‘Man on Wire’

In file footage from 7 August 1974, a New York City police officer speaks at a press conference. "Officer Meyers and I observed the tightrope dancer - because you couldn't call him a walker - approximately halfway between the two towers. Upon seeing us, he began to smile and laugh." The officer is doing his best to stay formal and solemn, but it's obvious that even he feels excitement at what he has just seen. "Everyone was spellbound in the, er, watching of it," he says. "When we observed the fact that he wasn't about to come in because he seemed to be enjoying it so much, we mentioned the fact to his associate that if he did not come in, we would have a helicopter pluck him up off the wire - at which time his associate spoke to him in French, being that he's a Frenchman ... I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see again in the world."

The officer had just arrested Philippe Petit, an elfin and likeable man who had illegally tightrope-walked - eight full crossings in 45 minutes, including a few vertigo-inducing leisurely lie-downs on his back - between two office buildings, 450 metres above the streets of New York. The buildings were the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and James Marsh's delightful and invigorating documentary (in national release) recounts the journey that led Petit to step between them and trust his life to a thin strand of wire on that summer day, three decades ago.

"As a child," Petit says, "I loved to climb everywhere. I'll let my psychiatrist decide why. Who knows and who cares? I was a little climber, and nobody, not my parents, not my teachers, could stop me." In old footage, he's a monocyclist, a juggler, a busker; you see him doing little card tricks and you know just how much of his youth he dedicated to this clowning and magicianship. What he makes seem effortless is actually the result of both a magnificent obsession and much hard work. He gathers supporters around him by sheer cheeky magnetism, and even in the retelling there's something infectious about his passion. Of those arresting officers, he says, with an urgent excitement: "They didn't know how to react to a daydreaming wirewalker lying down and dialoguing with a seagull, so they were really mad." Of driving down into the twin towers' parking basement on the day of the "coup", he says, wide-eyed and breathless, on the edge of his seat: "I felt that the horizontalité of driving through the streets of Manhattan suddenly became slant. I was on the ramp! I was being engulfed by the monster! It was suddenly not a dream any more, it was tangible." Thus, he frames his own life in mythic terms, and the documentary shows us how he earned this right to mythologise.

In June 1971, Petit strung a cable between the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral, setting in motion the practice he would become notorious for. "I started, as a young, self-taught wirewalker, to dream not so much of conquering the universe, but as a poet, of conquering beautiful stages." His friend Jean-François Heckel was a willing accomplice: "I knew it was illegal but, of course, that's what got me a bit excited. Against the law; but not wicked or mean." Petit's lover Annie Allix, painfully shy back then but wistful and eloquent now, had been "overwhelmed, bowled over, harpooned" by the passion with which he had pursued her. Petit reminisces about "Annie, who was beside me during my discovery of the wire. Whose large green eyes moved me." Annie, somewhat more sober in her retrospection, says, "He never thought to ask me whether I had my own destiny to follow. It was quite clear I had to follow his." Petit's closest friend, Jean-Louis Blondeau, is the one who seems most estranged from him now - perhaps for similar reasons. In any case, Petit and his merry band of followers and enablers all contribute to the reconstruction of the story, moving it forward at a cracking pace; all differences aside, their unabashed enthusiasm is charming.

After Notre Dame came more beautiful stages, starting with Sydney, in June 1973. With the addition of an Australian helper, Mark Lewis, Petit strung the wire between the north pylons of the Harbour Bridge. Footage shows police scrambling on the road below, the traffic banking up, the Opera House in the background, while Petit paces out his serene steps along the wire. "The fact that wire-walking activity is framed by death is great," he says, "because then you have to take it very seriously. It's a little half a millimetre of mistake, or a quarter of a second of inattention, and you lose your life."

The grandest stage was yet to come. Petit's obsession with the twin towers had been growing steadily since he had first seen an artist's impression of what they would look like, many years earlier. From that moment, he knew that one day he would walk between them. Notre Dame and the Harbour Bridge were the preludes; now the preparations and the trips to New York began in earnest. "He could no longer carry on living without having at least tried to conquer those towers," Annie says, "because it felt like those towers belonged to him. It was as if they had been built especially for him." For Petit, the obsession becomes all-consuming: "These twin towers are trotting in my head. I'm galloping in my brain."

Now a new group of motley believers - crazy Americans as opposed to crazy French - gathered around Petit. By early '74, the towers were largely occupied, though the fit-out of the topmost floors continued. Armed with false invoices that got them into the buildings as workmen, Petit and friends planned to get all the equipment in crates on freight elevators to the seventy-sixth floor, then carry it up the fire stairs - 28 more floors - to the roof. They carried out months of surveillance, and at one point Petit gained rooftop access by posing as a journalist on the fictional Metropolis, "France's number one journal of urban planning." Mark Lewis, the long-haired Australian, accompanied him, asking questions of the construction workers while snapping surreptitious shots of girders and railings and the rooftop layout. In a stroke of good fortune - there seem to be many of these in this story - Petit was recognised in the tower lobby by a young man who had seen him juggling in Paris. That man, Barry Greenhouse, worked for the New York State Insurance Department, and had just moved into the south tower's highest occupied floor. "He sort of draws you into his world," Greenhouse says of Petit, "and I guess I was the kind of guy who was not totally averse to doing things that were, you know, not totally legal."

Another helper, Alan Welner, says of Petit, "I knew he was a nut. Or a con man. Or something. But he seemed harmless enough." Then Welner saw Petit wire-walk on a practice field in upstate New York, and he was converted. "I had never seen concentration like that. And I think I never have to this day. His face became this ageless mask of concentration. He became like a Sphinx. It was amazing." The film bears this out. On the one hand, Petit's mischievous energy infuses the film. ("What excited him most about this adventure," Annie says, "aside from it being a beautiful show, was that it was like a bank robbery. And that pleased him enormously.") On the other, this lithe and ethereal Sphinx is a positively beatific sight to behold as he walks on air.

As the big day loomed, tensions ran high between the French and American factions. "They really looked like losers," says Jean-Louis Blondeau. He was outraged that Alan Welner turned up so stoned. "I smoked pot every day for 35 years," Welner admits, grinning. "There's no reason to think I didn't smoke that day." But the teams made it up their respective towers, and the documentary is gripping as it recounts their frozen hiding, and the near misses with security guards. (At one point, Petit crouches under a tarpaulin on a beam above the lift well, which plunges 450 metres into darkness.)

Even though we know what's going to happen, the film draws to a beautiful climax as the day of the coup dawns, after the long night of hiding and preparation. With the wire finally tied and taut, there is nothing to do but wait. Jean-François Heckel speaks of the police sirens far below, the vastness, the sense of being on top of the world. "It was all so alive! And we were kings."

"There was peace and immensity," Petit concurs. "And in the middle of all this madness, I suddenly had hope and joy." The enormous crankshaft wheels on the roof begin to turn, showing the first elevator movements of the day. "I know my fate has been written now," Petit says. "Time is no longer smiling at me." Everyone in the film is a little mystical like this, but Petit, the most mystical of all, is a kind of celebrity monk. He speaks of that moment when he stepped out onto the wire, shifting his weight from the foot on the building to the foot on the wire. "This is probably the end of my life, to step on that wire ... something that I could not resist, and that I didn't make any effort to resist, called me up on that cable. And death is very close."

Earlier, in archival footage of the towers being constructed, we see latticework slabs of the steel facades being slotted into place like Meccano; and from the September 11 images engraved on our consciousness we recognise them instantly as the only fragments that were identifiable as architecture - rising like ancient ruins from the mound of rubble at Ground Zero - after the buildings collapsed. The documentary is haunted by September 11, though the link is never made directly. Even the team's simple but passable fake-ID cards hearken back to a lost age. There is an extraordinary contrast between the innocence of Petit's endeavour and the terrible violence that would later befall the towers and their inhabitants.

In a broad sense, Man on Wire raises the issue of art versus dogma. Art is play, and Philippe Petit is an exemplary homo ludens. He danced a poem on a wire: he used the twin towers as lightly as could be, in the tongue-in-cheek service of the "artistic crime of the century". "I did something magnificent and mysterious," he says. Mohamed Atta and his band of believers needed something more certain: destruction meant visibility, in the service of a kind of mania of idealism, and another blood-dimmed tide was loosed. Between the two events, in just a quarter of a century, the world changed more than any of us could have imagined. Petit's act, bathed in the nostalgia of its retelling and a reverence for the purity of his art, appears at the same time frivolous and noble.

"If I die," he says at one point, "what a beautiful death - to die in the exercise of your passion." Given the meticulousness of his planning, and the dedication of his training, the comment is a touch disingenuous. For Petit seems, in his mad escapades, to be trying to make his life, if not longer, then at least a touch larger. "To me, it's so simple," he says. "Life should be lived on the edge ... You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to temper yourself to rules, to refuse your own success ... to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge: then you are going to live your life on a tightrope."

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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