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A High-Wire Crime With An Artistic Punch Line

I remembered that a guy walked on a high wire between the buildings of the World Trade Center in New York in 1974, but it wasn’t until this week that I found out the story behind that lunatic, lyrical event through James Marsh’s documentary Man On Wire, now on DVD.

Man on Wire poster. © Jim Moore

Man on Wire poster. Photo © Jim Moore

Philippe Petit was the man who walked for almost 45 minutes, with police ready to arrest him as soon as he walked off the wire, 1350 feet above the ground between the Twin Towers. Petit, a French tightrope walker, became obsessed with performing the stunt after seeing a story about the towers’ construction.

The story is reconstructed through interviews with Petit and the people who helped him carry out this “artistic crime,” and as we find out, most accomplices knew that what they were doing was illegal, but were also aware that the only person who could be hurt by this was Petit, who as you’ll find out, had to do this.

Petit is as interesting an obsessive as you’ll ever find. The idea of walking between the towers is lunatic fringe stuff, but listening to Petit and his friends, you begin to see how this disparate group of people come to pull off this amazing feat and believe in it as the highest in performance art.

Besides enjoying Petit’s charismatic enthusiasm, I found the story just funnier than hell. It takes seven years to pull off the stunt, and Petit travels to the U.S. to case the buildings and charters a helicopter to take photos of the buildings’ roofs. Their attempts to get their equipment to the 110th floors of each building, if a bit unnerving remembering what happened to those buildings, have great comic energy, and at the top, they wind up hiding from security guards under tarps and almost lose the tightrope, which weighed more than two hundred pounds, between the buildings, expending hours of energy just pulling it taut.

Director James Marsh tells the story through contemporary interviews, 1970s film footage of the conspirators preparing for the walk, coverage of Petit’s earlier high-profile stunts, the first being the walk between the towers of Notre Dame, and still photography of the Twin Towers walk.

I kept trying to remember where I had seen photographer Jim Moore‘s work before. He shot rock musicians in the early seventies, where I saw his name in Creem and Rolling Stone. He continues to photograph musicians and artists. There is no film footage of the walks, but Moore’s photographs are dizzyingly graphic and lyrical in their own way.

Marsh pulls no punches, showing how his relationship with his friends deteriorated after Petit became a celebrity. But in the end, it’s a very human story about real people who get caught up in an extraordinary event.


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