Walking On Air

I have always been afraid of heights. Unable to stand close to the edge of tall buildings without a terrifying sense of vertigo, I’m in awe of those who cheerfully defy gravity’s bonds.

Perhaps no one ever did so more dramatically than Philippe Petit, the French funambulist who on August 7, 1974, walked on a wire stretched between the two towers of the then-new World Trade Center.

Last night I watched “Man On Wire,” the remarkable documentary about Petit and his “artistic crime.” The film was everything I expected it to be – full of stunning visual images, funny little insights and historical footage of the Twin Towers back at their start. One of the most striking things about the film is the way it recaptures that time of relative innocence – when security was one cop with a flashlight, and ID cards could be easily forged with a little glue.

Even so, it  took Petit and his small crew of enthusiastic helpers six years to plan their illegal stunt. And the forty-five minutes he spent on a wire in mid-air above the streets of Manhattan will never be forgotten, largely because of the film, and the books written about the event.

But, while I agree with the critics that it was an amazing accomplishment, and that, in some ways, it was a sort of poetic act that transcends the personal, I was unable to swallow the whole thing without a certain bitter aftertaste. In trying to analyze why the film didn’t simply sweep me onto the cloud of admiration where so many others apparently feel dazzled by Petit’s undeniable skill and daring, I found myself haunted, not by the footage of the wirewalker’s graceful crossing, but by the words spoken by his most ardent supporters.

In the early segments of the film, which includes footage of Petit practicing his wire walking, the camera lingers on his former girlfriend Annie Allix, and in a voiceover from a recent interview, she says, “He never thought to ask me if I had my own destiny. It was quite clear I had to follow his.”

That floored me. Of course, the willingness to sacrifice your own interests for someone you love is fundamental, but, as the film went on, and as Petit’s account of  his determination to reach his own goals, at whatever cost, became more and more clear, I found myself less and less interested in him and more impressed by the small crew of crazy, passionate followers who devoted themselves to making this man’s dream come true. I think what bothers me is that he wasn’t exactly doing this to save mankind, or even to demonstrate his skill – he’d already done that many times over, after all, walking on wires suspended in other public places – and in each of those cases he was arrested too. That’s the thing that doesn’t ring true for me. He wanted to do something beautiful, something amazing. Fine. But he makes it clear in the film that it wasn’t enough simply to do it, he wanted to do it without getting permission, to enter the building illegally, sneak his equipment in, and shock people. To show off.

That he succeeded is clear. But, the most memorable moment in the film was not the sight of Petit lying on his wire in mid-air, or smiling at the baffled cops as he walked back and forth between the towers. To me, the most moving moments in the film come during the interview of Jean-Louis Blondeau, Petit’s childhood friend, who helped him every step of the way and watched with all the deep concern and tender joy of a parent as Petit had his triumphant moments on the world stage. Recalling how, after it was over, after he had been arrested, released and become an overnight celebrity, Petit had asked Blondeau what they should do next, Blondeau, fighting back tears, says there would be no more adventures for him. The strain of watching his friend dance on the edge of eternity was more than he could choose to bear again. He would follow no longer.

Petit, it seems, has been riding on the success of his great moment for the last thirty-five years. There’s no denying he did something no one else in the world will ever be able to touch. Yet, there’s something a little sad about it too. He never lost his footing, but sooner or later, we all fall down.

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