Friday, August 8, 2008

A wire between two worlds


It’s strange how quickly extraordinary things can be forgotten.
In common, I suspect, with the majority of people coming to see Man On Wire, I had never heard of Philippe Petit, or of any of the amazing things he did just before and shortly after I was born.

Yet so amazing were they, and so complete my ignorance, we could almost have been watching a fake documentary along the lines of Zelig.
Man On Wire is basically enthralling if a touch overlong; the reviews do not lie. The famous image of Petit stepping out into the thin air between the towers of the World Trade Centre, his billowing flares and matching shirt blurring to form the appearance of a long, black ceremonial robe, is eerie and beautiful, and the obvious extra resonance it now carries – and which the film with extraordinary tact and awareness never once mentions or alludes to – has turned Petit’s gesture into a greater work of art than even he imagined.

The incredible power of these few fragile, frozen images (unlike the Notre Dame and Sydney Harbour Bridge walks there is, oddly, no moving footage) seems to throw into even sharper relief the evil of those who could never design or build the towers, still less walk a tightrope between them, and whose imagination is only up to conceiving the most appalling means imaginable of razing them to the ground.
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Of course what Petit did was not harmless. He could have fallen and traumatised or even killed bystanders, the police trying to grab him could have fallen, equipment could have fallen (and almost did), cars could have crashed; dozens of deaths could have ensued. Petit’s comments about living most fully in the presence of death reminded me of T. E. Lawrence’s words about the freedom of riding his motorcycle; both are suggestive of something missing.
Yes, of course, the contrast with the terrorists is absolute, but still I was left wondering if the exhilaration and fulfilment Petit found on that wire could not – should not – have been found more easily elsewhere, perhaps with an effort of will that such extreme sensations do not demand. But it is still a gripping story, culminating in transfixing, haunting spectacle.

We came in late and missed the adverts - ah, joy - but nothing much to entice trailers-wise: something called The Pope's Toilet (warning: zany and heart-warming) and more state propaganda from Shane Meadows: such phoney dialogue, such graceless reinforcing of consensus ideology. He's the Banksy of movies.