On the 7th August 1974 Phillipe Petit walked a wire stretched 450m, 1340ft, or 1/4 mile above the ground between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, an illicit act which had taken many months of careful planning and the help of several accomplices to achieve. After 45 minutes and 8 crossings of the wire suspended high above Manhatten Petit stepped back onto the roof of one of the Towers to be immediately arrested. One of the arresting officers, interviewed straight after the event, was noticably moved by what he had witnessed and admits on camera that although illegally carried out he thinks it to have been an astonishing and wondrous act.
A film, directed by James Marsh, Man on Wire, uses interviews with the protagonists, contemporary photographs and film footage, and reconstructions to tell the tale of the heist like build up to Petit's incredible wire walk. I recently watched Man on Wire a second time, the first being last year at the cinema when it was initially released. It is a beautiful film of a beautiful act.
In the film Petit, a street performer from Paris, refers to himself as "a poet conquering beautiful stages." The word 'death' occurs frequently throughout, Petit says the act was "framed by death". As does the word 'passion'. "If I die," he states, "what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion." There is a fire in his eyes and a seemingly limitless energy to the man as he tells his story. Those close to him are visibly touched by the experience, a number of them weeping at the recollection. His girlfriend of the time, Annie, says "everyday was a work of art to him", and his American accomplice, Albert, says of when he saw Petit practising on a wire "he had an ageless mask of concentration...he became a sphinx." A childlike joy and a childlike seriousness pervades the group of collaborators.
The images of the wire walk itself (there is no surviving film footage, only photographs) are so intensely poetic, the fragility of this tiny human being surrounded by the vast expanse of air and the enormity of the steel and glass of the Towers themselves, that the first time I saw the film I thought to myself 'no matter what I produce in this life as an artist I will never create anything so profoundly beautiful as this act.' One of the most common questions Petit has been asked regarding his wire walks is 'why?' Why does he do it? Why does he risk his life for something so apparently pointless? His answer to this question is an answer only a true poet or artist would offer or maybe even understand. His answer is simple: "There is no why."