In­no­cence on a wire

Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk be­tween the twin tow­ers in New York seems more po­tently po­etic in the af­ter­math of 9/ 11, writes Sar­fraz Man­zoor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IT was one small step, but for Philippe Petit it was to be a gi­ant leap into im­mor­tal­ity. The date was Au­gust 7, 1974, the lo­ca­tion New York City and the 24- year- old French­man was stand­ing on top of one of the twin tow­ers of the World Trade Cen­tre pre­par­ing to com­mit what be­came known as the artis­tic crime of the cen­tury.

Petit, tou­sle- haired and baby- faced, had been plan­ning this mo­ment for the past six years and now, perched more than 400m above New York, he was about to take his first step on to the steel wire he had sus­pended be­tween the tow­ers. It was 7.15am when Petit slowly moved his foot and put it on the wire. For the next 45 min­utes he walked, danced and lay on the steel wire, pirou­et­ting in the clouds and talk­ing to the seag­ulls as an as­ton­ished crowd gath­ered be­low. By the time he was ar­rested and charged with tres­pass, news of Petit’s per­for­mance had cir­cled the globe, the most as­ton­ish­ing event in the young his­tory of the World Trade Cen­tre.

‘‘ O death in life,’’ wrote Ten­nyson, ‘‘ the days that are no more.’’ James Marsh’s fea­ture doc­u­men­tary Man on Wire , which re­vis­its Petit’s sky walk is, among other things, a joy­ous ode to liv­ing and a lament for the days that are no more. It makes no ex­plicit men­tion of the events of Septem­ber 11, 2001, but death hov­ers on the fringes, like dis­tant dark clouds threat­en­ing the clear blue sky, and our knowl­edge of what later be­fell the tow­ers coats the in­no­cent lu­nacy of Petit’s ac­tions with poignancy.

When he was ar­rested, the ques­tion every­one wanted to ask the young French­man was: Why? It cer­tainly was not for the money; de­spite count­less of­fers in the af­ter­math of his as­ton­ish­ing feat, Petit re­fused all op­por­tu­ni­ties to cash in on his fame. At the time he re­sisted any easy ex­pla­na­tion for his acts. ‘‘ When I see two or­anges, I jug­gle,’’ he told re­porters. ‘‘ When I see two tow­ers, I walk.’’

In Man on Wire he tells Marsh: ‘‘ I did some­thing in­cred­i­ble and mys­te­ri­ous and the beauty of it was that I did not have any ‘ why’.’’ He may not have had a why 34 years ago, but to­day he seems more will­ing to of­fer an ex­pla­na­tion. ‘‘ I was driven by a sense of artis­tic re­bel­lion,’’ he says. ‘‘ I wanted to do some­thing that was in­trigu­ing, sur­re­al­ist and beau­ti­ful, a per­for­mance that would be out of this world.’’ In that he surely suc­ceeded; the pho­to­graph of Petit float­ing above the city is like a Rene Magritte paint­ing mag­i­cally brought to life.

The walk be­tween the twin tow­ers was the high point in a ca­reer that be­gan at 16. The self- taught wire- walker had al­ready walked be­tween the steeples of Notre Dame and above the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge even as he was pre­par­ing for his walk above New York. ‘‘ I didn’t choose New York, I chose the twin tow­ers,’’ he says. ‘‘ Or, rather, they chose me.’’

I won­der if, step­ping on to a steel wire 400m above the ground, he had death on his mind. ‘‘ I was not think­ing about death,’’ he says. ‘‘ I was think­ing about life.’’ Yet in the film he tells of how ‘‘ death was very close’’ as he be­gan his wire walk, but ‘‘ I was not gam­bling with my life, I was liv­ing it fully. You will never feel your­self liv­ing as in­tensely as on the limit of life.’’

On the fifth an­niver­sary of 9/ 11, The New Yorker mag­a­zine fea­tured a two- part il­lus­tra­tion on its front cover. On the first page was a draw­ing of Petit, bal­anc­ing pole in hand, sus­pended in a sea of empti­ness, walk­ing across the blank page. On the sec­ond page was Petit again, with the streets of New York be­low him, but miss­ing the twin tow­ers, their only trace two square in­dents far in the dis­tance. The cover bril­liantly evoked what had been lost in the years be­tween Petit’s walk and the ter­ror­ist at­tacks.

Since his walk be­tween the tow­ers, Petit has lived in New York. He is an artist- in- res­i­dence at the Cathe­dral of St John the Di­vine and he con­tin­ues to prac­tise for three hours each day on the wire. A day doesn’t pass, he says, when he doesn’t think about the fate of the twin tow­ers: ‘‘ They were part of my life. To know that they are no longer there, it is like see­ing a child­hood home de­stroyed.’’

Man on Wire is care­ful not to draw ex­plicit par­al­lels be­tween Petit’s artis­tic crime and the ter­ror­ist at­tacks, but they were both op­er­a­tions that re­quired care­ful plan­ning and in­volved teams of com­mit­ted for­eign par­tic­i­pants for whom the twin tow­ers were a sym­bol­i­cally res­o­nant tar­get.

Yet, watch­ing Marsh’s doc­u­men­tary, what is most strik­ing is how dif­fer­ent Petit’s ex­ploits were from the ter­ror­ists’ ac­tions. Where Petit was giddy with the pos­si­bil­i­ties of liv­ing, the sui­ci­dal pi­lots were in­tox­i­cated with a death wish; he was driven by art and po­etry, and they by re­li­gion and pol­i­tics.

One of the most po­tent im­ages in Man on Wire is a pho­to­graph of a crowded street of New York­ers, their faces cran­ing sky­wards. They are gaw­ping in de­lighted as­ton­ish­ment at Petit, but the im­age re­calls the hor­ri­fied faces of those who wit­nessed the col­lapse of the twin tow­ers. In an­other pho­to­graph we see Petit on the tightrope, and above him a plane hangs as if sus­pended in the sky, a haunt­ing glimpse into a ter­ri­ble fu­ture.

‘‘ The dream­ers of the day are danger­ous men,’’ wrote T. E. Lawrence, ‘‘ for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it pos­si­ble.’’ Both the ter­ror­ists and the tightrope walker were dream­ers, but where the ter­ror­ists dreamed of death the tightrope walker dreamed of life. The wreck­age of the tow­ers re­vealed the depths to which the hu­man heart can de­scend, the walk be­tween the tow­ers demon­strated the heights the hu­man imagination can reach.

That im­age of Petit sus­pended be­tween the tow­ers that are now only a mem­ory is not only an el­egy to a van­ished past but also a metaphor for how to live in the present.

In an­cient Rome, Cae­sar would of­ten be ac­com­pa­nied by a slave whose job it was to whis­per in his ear, ‘‘ You too are mor­tal.’’ Petit’s walk was a po­etic and pro­found work of per­for­mance art: he heard the whis­per of death and it led him to­wards im­mor­tal­ity.

The Spec­ta­tor

Man on Wire is re­leased on Oc­to­ber 16.

Liv­ing on the edge: Philippe Petit in 1974 on top of the World Trade Cen­tre, from the film Man on Wire

Like see­ing a home de­stroyed: Petit in 2006

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