When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk.
October 11, 2008 7:55 PM   Subscribe

When Man on Wire won a Grand Jury Prize: at Sundance this year, many could hazily remember Philippe Petit's high-wire walk between the World Trade Center Towers in New York in 1974 (previously) but few knew the extent to which the entire endeavor was a wacky multinational caper.

Additional trivia: The movie has gotten 100% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes; Debra Winger has it written into her film contracts that there should always be a visual tribute to Petit; [conspirator's] Jean-François Heckel's reward for the twin towers coup was to be unceremoniously expelled from the United States, whereas Petit received a lifetime pass to the WTC observation deck; Petit has been arrested over 500 times and can kill someone with an issue of People Magazine. Longer Petit interview from 1999 on Charlie Rose.

In Petit's own words
I found out that the only way to protect my life was to know as much about the wire, about the rigging, about my limits as possible. Life is something to be cherished, and in this very, very dangerous profession of mine, a millisecond of inattention, a millimetre of being in the wrong place puts you out of balance and you lose your life immediately. Since I absolutely don't want to do that, I am in a very strange kind of solid control, in a world that is made of infinite fragility...
posted by jessamyn (31 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, jessamyn.

I'd been meaning to see this when it came out, but I totally forgot about it.
posted by Poolio at 8:32 PM on October 11, 2008

And the Oscar for Exemplary Form in a FPP goes to. . .
posted by spock at 8:33 PM on October 11, 2008

I could have sworn that I heard an interesting piece recently about the film and Petit on Fresh Air or To The Best of Our Knowledge, but searching hasn't brought up anything substantial.

Regardless, thanks for the post!
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:15 PM on October 11, 2008

I sat at home watching Phillipe Petit's miraculous (it seemed at the time) walk between the towers. I was very little at the time but remember it vividly. After the Towers collapsed, some days after, I saw Phillipe talk about his relationship with the towers, speaking of them as brothers he had just lost. Phillipe's sorrow was mine. He knew the towers intimately just as I did seeing them on the skyline growing up, every day. Anyway, I don't know what I am trying to say. I've got to go see this film and great post jessamyn.
posted by johnj at 9:19 PM on October 11, 2008

I vividly remember when this happened, so I was thrilled when I heard about the film. Of course, living in backwater USA I'll have to wait for the DVD, although I would love to see it on the big screen.

Thanks for the post. There's also a great interview by Roger Ebert.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:20 PM on October 11, 2008

Oh god, looking at the wires between the Twin towers my stomach immediately gets all weird, knees feel weak, the soles of my feet throb, I involuntary moan. How could he do that!? That is a serious prank. Man, according to the Charlie Rose interview Petit was up on that wire over an hour! And how the hell could he have stretched those wires secretly?

Don't know if I have the stomach to see the movie but I liked the post.

Interesting he's called a "high wire artist". huh. Guess his art is the dance/balance between life and death.

What comes to mind seeing the Twin Towers is those hundreds of people who fell from that unbearable height on 9/11. aww, no.

Port Authority Police Department Sgt. Charles Daniels, who was dispatched to the roof to bring Petit down, later reported his experience:

I observed the tightrope 'dancer'—because you couldn't call him a 'walker'—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire....And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle....He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again....Unbelievable really....[E]verybody was spellbound in the watching of it.

I like the cover of the New Yorker with Petit doing his thing between the towers on the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

I'm way more of the oops kind of person.
posted by nickyskye at 9:47 PM on October 11, 2008

I still don't understand how he didn't fall down from all that wind. I mean, he was 110 stories above New-freakin-York. I guess that's where the tights come into play? Aerodynamics, and all that.

I'm also astounded that Petit did much more than simply walk from one roof to the other. From Wikipedia:

The 24-year-old Petit made eight crossings between the still-unfinished towers, a quarter mile above the sidewalks of Manhattan, in an event that lasted about 45 minutes. During that time, in addition to walking, he sat on the wire, gave knee salute and, while lying on the wire, spoke with a gull circling above his head.


jessamyn: "few knew the extent to which the entire endeavor was a wacky multinational caper. "

Aw, I wish the "caper" tag saw more use. It's a fun one!
posted by Rhaomi at 9:55 PM on October 11, 2008

Petit's eight crossings between the Towers was an homage to fellow French funambulist Jean François Gravelet-Blondin, who first crossed over Niagara Falls eight times in 1859.

Petit's fancy footwork — excerpted from his biography To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers — is detailed in the section Tightrope Walking of the book The Human Foot:
Petit recommends that in order 'that the foot will feel the cable and not lend itself to accidental slips buffalo-hide slippers are recommended, though in rainy weather these should be replaced by by slippers with rubber soles. But any unreinforced shoes with the main sole removed or even thick socks — several on each foot will do the job quite well.'

He also stresses the need to practise barefoot. The wire passes between the great and second toe, crosses the foot along the whole length of the sole, and escapes behind the middle of the heel. One must be able to use the great and second toe to grip the wire and hang onto it. 'This is the only way to avoid a slip during a Death Walk.'
For those of you who wish to funambulate at home, there's a helpful photo of Petit's bare foot on rope on p.149.
posted by cenoxo at 10:09 PM on October 11, 2008

I heard a story and long interview with Petit on WBUR's On Point, and immediately thought it would make a great FPP. You have made a much better one than I could have evar concocted. (Unfortunately, I can't seem to access the archived show.)
posted by not_on_display at 10:20 PM on October 11, 2008

The movie was absolutely astounding. I don't know if it was helped or hindered by my ignorance about the events, but I can't really imagine that mattering either way. Everything about the movie is incredible.
posted by ztdavis at 10:48 PM on October 11, 2008

I first heard about Petit's feat when I read the children's book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (which won a Caldecott Medal) for a class.

I still consider that children's picture book one of the best books dealing with 9/11 that I've read, and I still consider Petit to be one of those people that make humanity just a bit more interesting.
posted by librarylis at 10:55 PM on October 11, 2008

When you combine the images of Petit and those of 9/11, his otherwise wonderful skywalk reaches the pinnacle of irony. One little human being dances on a thread suspended in the sky while two mighty buildings (and thousands of their luckless inhabitants) crash to Earth beneath him.

Do we cheer for the one, or cry for the many?
posted by cenoxo at 11:17 PM on October 11, 2008

Do we cheer for the one, or cry for the many?

posted by humannaire at 11:26 PM on October 11, 2008 [2 favorites]

I spent many an afternoon watching Petit's whimsical performances in Washington Square Park. It was after he'd walked the WTC (which I only learned about years later), and yet he chose to do his thing for the few coins folks would proffer into his little threadbare tophat.
When I saw the towers fall, he was the first thing that came to my mind.
posted by progosk at 12:11 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Do you remember Wonder? You will after you see this movie. Mind-blowing in its humanity and beauty. Remarkable man, remarkable deed.
posted by wemayfreeze at 12:35 AM on October 12, 2008

and, while lying on the wire, spoke with a gull circling above his head.

That was no gull, that was Leonard Cohen in a clever marketing tie-in. Multinational indeed ...
posted by mannequito at 2:34 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

Debra Winger has it written into her film contracts that there should always be a visual tribute to Petit

And he plays chess in the cathedral with Sting. The man obviously walks a very fine tightrope between awesome and arsehole.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:56 AM on October 12, 2008

He named his daughter after a rope.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:58 AM on October 12, 2008

> I could have sworn that I heard an interesting piece recently about the film and Petit

The public radio show Studio 360 did a feature on them. Interview with Petit and an excerpt from the movie.
posted by ardgedee at 3:14 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

The documentary makes you think about the relative innocence of the world in which his small band of co-conspirators made Petit's caper happen back in 1974.

Man On Wire is an outstanding film - a must see!
posted by fairmettle at 3:18 AM on October 12, 2008

The movie is beautiful and poignant. It evoked a lot of emotions for me, and I spent much of the time wondering how much of the re-enactments were that or actual footage. I think it's still playing here in NY, at the Sunshine.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:11 AM on October 12, 2008

Do we cheer for the one, or cry for the many?

The really great thing about the movie -- which, yes, I saw last night -- is how much of a sense of poignancy and loss it manages to evoke without ever once talking about 9/11. It's clearly there as the unspoken coda to the whole event. The movie contains so much lovely and loving footage and photographs of the towers being built.

There are more little bits like that. His girlfriend who is his tried and true companion supporting him and yet never quite doing her own thing, is interviewed as an adult woman thinking back on to the whole episode where her role was clearly that of "girlfriend to the famous guy" and the movie makes a point [SPOILER, I guess] of mentioning that he hooks up with an adoring fan right after getting out of jail, instead of returning to hang out with his friends.

The reason there's not more actual footage of the walk is because his best friend, the guy with the movie camera and the guy who rigged all the wires [and they go into some detail about how they do that in the movie] and stayed up all night with three other guys putting it all togther got scared when the police showed up and bolted. I didn't realize this until reading the artcle after the movie; I was curious why he was crying in some of the interviews. That said, though there are some recreations, the majority of the footage is actual fillm -- you have to be sort of in love with yourself to do something like this -- and the breadth of photography and film coverage of this event even back then was the thing that surprised and delighted me about this movie.
posted by jessamyn at 6:19 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

It is a brilliant, moving film -- after all the tension and the beauty they show and the madness of this now rather wizened little Frenchman gesticulating his way through the story, there was a great moment after he's been arrested when he balances a police-man's hat end-up on his nose, that had the audience laughing like they'd just finally stepped off the tight-rope themselves. Great stuff.
posted by Drexen at 8:20 AM on October 12, 2008

The documentary makes you think about the relative innocence of the world ... back in 1974.

The world wasn't innocent then, now, or ever. We're as contradictory alone as we are together, but a caper like Petit's in the middle of the whole mess makes us remember that one human being can overcome — however symbolically — the greatest efforts of the rest of us.

Loki in the sky, with diamonds.
posted by cenoxo at 9:03 AM on October 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder if a camera might have made him fall. I wonder if what made this miracle occur was its ephemeral nature.
posted by Toekneesan at 10:58 AM on October 12, 2008

To put the danger in perspective (as if it need any more), it was only 4 years later that Karl Wallenda fell to his death while attempting a walk 10 stories up in Puerto Rico. I have vivid recollections of that as well, including a front page newspaper story with a chilling of photograph of Mr. Wallenda's fall.

I enjoy being in high places, but if my own skill and competence is what I have to rely on to keep me there, I can quickly go into a panic. I often hike on the sandstone cliffs 500 feet above my city, but you won't get me any closer to the edge than about 10 feet. The idea that Petit not only stepped out onto that wire, but stayed out there and made it his playground, is beyond my mind's ability to comprehend.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 11:25 AM on October 12, 2008

> To put the danger in perspective (as if it need any more), it was only 4 years later that Karl Wallenda fell to his death while attempting a walk 10 stories up in Puerto Rico

I recall an interview with a high wire artist (might have been Petit) who observed that, anywhere above a dozen meters, the consequence of failure is the same.
posted by ardgedee at 12:00 PM on October 12, 2008

XQUZYPHYR: the movie does not touch on 9/11 at all; there are no references to it, let alone footage or disturbing images

I strongly disagree. This movie would likely have never been made were it not for the towers' destruction. The movie is utterly filled with a sense of melancholy and dread, as it documents the towers being erected, not to mention Petit and his conspirators' efforts in evading the security.

How could it not evoke memories of that day?
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:55 PM on October 12, 2008

The movie is brilliant brilliant brilliant, although the characters and raw footage and story are so good it's kind of hard to see how anyone with a modicum of sensitivity could have messed it up. Nonetheless, magical stuff.
posted by so_necessary at 6:53 PM on October 12, 2008

The manner in which the movie portrays the story is part of what makes this a wonderful movie to see in a theater if at all possible. To join in the collective gasps and laughter of other movie-goers enlivens the whole story. Caper is, indeed, the perfect word for this movie.
posted by mightshould at 10:13 AM on October 13, 2008

The movie was ecstatic and probably one of the best I've ever seen, documentary or otherwise.

cenoxo, you're incorrect about the homage: Philippe has stated in numerous interviews that he didn't know ahead of time how many crossings he would make or how long he would stay up there, and he only left the rope because the police threatened to send a helicopter after him.
posted by archagon at 11:36 AM on October 27, 2008

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