Liv­ing on the edge

In 1974, af­ter months of plan­ning and with the help of a team of co-con­spir­a­tors, Philippe Petit in­fil­trated the World Trade Cen­ter and took a stroll be­tween the two tow­ers – 110 storeys up on a tightrope. He tells Don­ald Clarke about com­mit­ting the “arti

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

OR MOST peo­ple old enough to re­mem­ber 1974, Philippe Petit’s il­licit high-wire walk be­tween the tow­ers of the World Trade Cen­ter was just one of many nov­elty “And fi­nally...” sto­ries cov­ered by News at Ten. It got filed away with the dog who could say “sausages” and that streaker with the po­lice­man’s hel­met over his pri­vates.

More than three decades later, Man on Wire, a su­perb new doc­u­men­tary from James Marsh, re­veals the as­ton­ish­ing truth be­hind this un­usual ad­ven­ture. Partly a heist movie, partly a wist­ful eu­logy for a van­ished epoch, the film ex­plains how Petit, an ec­cen­tric French ma­gi­cian and street per­former, spent six years plan­ning a stunt that, even now, de­fies be­lief.

“Yeah. My re­sponse was the same as yours ini­tially,” Marsh, a good-look­ing English­man in his mid-40s, tells me. “I was dimly aware of this event just as a piece of ex­hi­bi­tion­ism. It was a very beau­ti­ful thing in it­self. But when you be­gin to look into it, you re­alise it was this ex­tra­or­di­nary crim­i­nal con­spir­acy. Eight peo­ple were in­volved in an amaz­ing scheme.”

In­deed. Petit and his col­lab­o­ra­tors posed as ar­chi­tec­tural jour­nal­ists to get ac­cess to the top floors of the build­ings, then still un­der con­struc­tion, and took pho­to­graphs of ledges, ac­cess points and hid­ing places. On the af­ter­noon of Au­gust 12th, 1974, they split into two teams and con­cealed them­selves be­neath tar­pau­lins on ei­ther side of the chasm above New York. The next morn­ing, af­ter us­ing a bow and ar­row to fire a string from one build-

Fing to the other – the string was at­tached to a rope and the rope was at­tached to a cable – Petit stepped con­fi­dently from the 110th floor and into his­tory. “It is a dif­fer­ent busi­ness cross­ing a wire at that height than it is cross­ing at, maybe, 10 storeys,” Petit says. “You die if you fall from ei­ther, of course. But you are more ex­posed at 110 storeys. Also, the void is so great it be­comes al­most in­hu­man. It is so great it be­comes a mon­ster ready to de­vour you. That is what hap­pens when you are a hu­man con­fronted with some­thing of that mag­ni­tude.” Petit, now a sprightly 57, still looks very much as he does in the co­pi­ous ar­chive footage Marsh gath­ered to­gether for Man on Wire. A fu­ri­ous talker with an in­ex­haustible pas­sion for sub­ver­sion, he now lives in New York state and, in be­tween his du­ties as artist-in­res­i­dence at the Cathe­dral of St John the Divine in Man­hat­tan, he still finds time to prac­tise cir­cus skills and magic.

In the film, he traces his taste for break­ing rules to a strict up­bring­ing by in­flex­i­ble par­ents. “I think that prob­a­bly is right,” he gab­bles in his flu­ent, slightly ec­cen­tric English. “My fa­ther was a mil­i­tary man and had a very strict way of talk­ing to me. I had a hard time with that. I hardly talked to my par­ents. In a strange way, I re­acted against all that and be­came a street jug­gler and a per­former. When, as a kid, I was told, ‘Stop do­ing that! Come to din­ner,’ I would keep do­ing what­ever it was on prin­ci­ple. When some­body says, ‘Don’t go there’, I get in­ter­ested and that be­comes the only place I want to go.”

As a teenager, Petit taught him­self how to be a pick­pocket and has re­cently writ­ten a book on the topic. From time to time, he refers to him­self as a crim­i­nal, but it seems this is yet an­other act of cheeky provo­ca­tion.

“I am an artist and so maybe I am a crim­i­nal artist. Some peo­ple, af­ter I crossed the World Trade Cen­ter, said this was, maybe, the crime of the cen­tury. Well, per­haps. But I didn’t steal any­thing. No­body got hurt. So that hardly seems fair.” Petit’s first great act of artis­tic crim­i­nal­ity came in 1971 when he walked be­tween two of the spires at Notre Dame Cathe­dral. He later crossed a sec­tion of Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge, so by the time he at­tempted the World Trade Cen­ter op­er­a­tion, he had al­ready per­fected many of the nec­es­sary tech­niques.

The spark for the idea came dur­ing a visit to the den­tist in the late 1960s. While brows­ing through the mag­a­zines in the wait­ing room, Petit hap­pened upon an ar­ti­cle de­scrib­ing two enor­mous build­ings that were soon to be built in New York. The pos­si­bil­i­ties for mis­chief were im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent.

“I was just 18 at that time,” he says. “I saw a photo of the model of the tow­ers. I didn’t work on it day and night for six years, of course. But the idea would come back to me when I read some­thing about it. When I even­tu­ally read they were near com­ple­tion, then I knew it was time to move, be­cause it would be much eas­ier be­fore they were prop­erly fin­ished. It would be eas­ier to get in. I went there and spent maybe eight months do­ing spy work.”

Marsh’s fu­ri­ously ex­cit­ing film, which blends re­con­struc­tions with orig­i­nal footage filmed by Petit, tracks down many of the col­lab­o­ra­tors who helped plan the op­er­a­tion. One of the many ques­tions that spring into one’s mind con­cerns the mat­ter of how on earth th­ese ap­par­ently sane peo­ple – most of whom re­mained on good terms with Petit – were per­suaded to em­bark on such an un­likely scheme. If an ec­cen­tric young French­man ap­proached you and sug­gested break­ing into the city’s tallest build­ing for a spot of cir­cus­re­lated fun, what would you do?

“You must re­mem­ber that, af­ter Notre Dame, there was a front-page pic­ture in all the news­pa­pers of the world. ‘Here is the newly born poet of the high wire’ and so on. There was a lit­tle wave of celebrity. I was able to show them this scrap­book and show that I was not com­pletely crazy. Later, I be­came a kind of folk hero to New York.”

In th­ese days of ag­gres­sive se­cu­rity and in­tru­sive sur­veil­lance – much of it in­spired by later, less happy events at the Twin Tow­ers – it is cheer­ing to dis­cover how tol­er­ant the New York au­thor­i­ties were of Petit’s ad­ven­ture. When he was even­tu­ally per­suaded to come off the wire, he was, of course, ar­rested, but the charges were even­tu­ally dropped on the con­di­tion that he stage a show for the city’s chil­dren.

Though New York did warm to Petit, many de­clared them­selves be­wil­dered by his re­fusal to ex­plain in one-syl­la­ble words why he at­tempted the walk.

“Why? Why? Why?” he says with Gal­lic shrugs. “Al­ways this ques­tion.” Maybe he wanted money. Maybe he wanted fame. Maybe he just liked show­ing off.

“No. I don’t care about money or fame, ex­cept that they help me to do more ex­cit­ing things,” he says. “And for me there is not an ounce of show­ing off in­volved. When I hear that phrase, ‘show­ing off’, I think of an im­be­cile. I think of some­body who is not pro­found, but wants to be recog­nised for his prow­ess. I was a man of the theatre who wanted to cre­ate a bridge and turn a man-made place into a theatre.

“I am not at­tracted by silly ac­tions. I am at­tracted by a more pro­found path. If I were a sculp­tor, I would work in clay. I work in space.”

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Petit has spent much of the last 30 years field­ing of­fers to make films of his life story. But, as he ex­plains, most pro­duc­ers sug­gested deals that merely re­quired him to ac­cept a nice big cheque, keep his nose out of the pro­duc­tion and then turn up smil­ing at the pre­miere. James Marsh, cre­ator of the ac­claimed 2000 doc­u­men­tary Wis­con­sin Death Trip, made it clear that, while the di­rec­tor would re­tain fi­nal cut, Petit would be con­sulted through­out the pro­duc­tion.

The re­sult is one of the year’s most riv­et­ing en­ter­tain­ments, but many view­ers will find a par­tic­u­lar topic con­spic­u­ous by its ab­sence. Marsh has wisely de­cided to make no di­rect ref­er­ence to the events of Septem­ber 11th, 2001. That un­spo­ken sad­ness adds a som­bre qual­ity to even the hap­pi­est mo­ments in Man on Wire.

“I was in New York that day,” Marsh ex­plains. “I ac­tu­ally filmed some of the footage that later ap­peared on the BBC. When it came to mak­ing the film, I was clear that I didn’t want those events mixed in with what was a es­sen­tially a ca­per movie.” He does, how­ever, in­clude a photo of Petit cross­ing the wire while an aero­plane flies over­head. The jux­ta­po­si­tion of air­craft and sky­scraper is mo­men­tar­ily star­tling.

“It was just one of the best pho­tos show­ing the scale of the achieve­ment,” Marsh says. “But why should we al­low those build­ings to be re­mem­bered for just one rea­son? The rea­sons for show­ing it are more com­pelling than those for not show­ing it. It be­came a mat­ter of prin­ci­ple: I will not let what hap­pened 30 years later af­fect my de­pic­tion of this great mo­ment.”

Petit has a few small com­plaints about the pic­ture – he hates the con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous pop mu­sic, for ex­am­ple – but, on bal­ance, he finds it a very sat­is­fac­tory piece of work. In­spired by the ex­pe­ri­ence, he has re­cently signed a deal with Robert Ze­meckis, di­rec­tor of Back to the Fu­ture, to de­velop a dra­matic fea­ture based on his life.

It sounds as if the artis­tic crim­i­nal may be join­ing re­spectable so­ci­ety.

“Well, I try to be­have more now,” he laughs. “But, you know, when I see a sign say­ing ‘don’t step on the grass’, then that is still the only place I want to step.”

Out on a limb: above, Philippe Petit tack­les a sec­tion of the Syd­ney Har­bour Bridge. Top right, Petit is ar­rested fol­low­ing his World Trade Cen­ter es­capade and, be­low right, speak­ing to the cam­era in Man on Wire

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