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The virtue of treating life as if it's a tight-rope act

Documentary screening at the French Cultural Centre celebrates the high-wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974, and the attitude that it takes to do it

By Dianne Janes

You have to excercise rebellion. to refuse to tape yourself to the rules.

AFTER watching James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, you may well think, as I did, “What the hell have I been doing with my life?”

The subject of the film, French tight-rope walker Philippe Petit, embraces his life and art with an infectious joie de vivre that inspires the viewer to get off the couch and do something a little unexpected.

Petit expresses a truly French artistic sensibility, and a desire to live each day to its fullest.

“To me, it’s really so simple, that life should be lived on the edge”, he says.

“You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to tape yourself to the rules; to refuse your own success; to refuse to repeat yourself; to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge.

“Then you will live your life on the tightrope.”

Fortunately for us, the audience, many of his early tightrope exploits were filmed and photographed, providing a window into his life and the events that led up to his famed 1974 World Trade Center high-wire walk that has been described as “The artistic crime of the century”.

In 1971 Petit began his tight-rope act with an illegal stunt between the spires high above the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Petit’s merry band of helpers was formed with girlfriend Annie Allix devoting herself to his efforts, along with long-time friend Jean-Louis Blondeau.
The team strung wires between trees, measuring distances, building scale models and simulating wind conditions so the artist could practice his act every day.

With a desire to try bigger and better things, their next stunt was a wire walk between the pylons of Sydney Harbour Bridge, which stopped traffic and caused chaos downtown.

Petit’s discovered his greatest ambition one day reading the newspaper, when he spotted a story announcing the construction of the World Trade Center towers in New York.

It would take some years for the buildings to be completed, and for Petit and his team to meticulously plan the technical aspects of such a dangerous walk.

Man on Wire goes into some detail looking at all the requirements of a tight-rope walk some 450 metres above the ground, from cabling and rigging to coping with the sway of the buildings.

The tight-rope act was of course illegal, although dodging security guards and police was part of the whole adventure.

The film captures the anticipation leading up to the event, as well as the tension and in-fighting among Petit’s group. Some of his helpers are shocked at seeing the height of the twin towers and, realising the danger, pull out.

Director James Marsh has tracked down everybody involved from Petit’s closest associates to the NYPD officer who eventually charged Petit when he came down, noting on his arrest sheet the criminal activity of “Man on Wire”.

(The coverage and public appreciation of Petit’s act resulted in all formal charges being dropped. The court did, however, sentence Petit to perform a show for the children of New York, which he transformed into another high-wire walk, in Central Park above Belvedere Lake (now Turtle Pond).

The film’s images are amazing, with views from all around and above the vertiginous World Trade Center, looking over the city.

The young, 25-year-old Petit is passionate about freedom of walking – and dancing – on a tightrope, balancing fear and joy simultaneously.
The film conveys the huge, life-threatening risk Petit took.

The final walk is more like a form of visual poetry than a mere stunt or acrobatic exercise, as Petit seems at one with the air, the sky and his beloved buildings.

Man on Wire screens as part of the French Cultural Centre’s September programme looking at architecture.

It is an unusual choice, as the film itself is not ostensibly about the physical structures of the twin towers or their design.

Yet as Petit steps out onto his wire, the film also conveys bravery and heroism, and inspiration itself; it celebrates the power of a creative vision, both as it is embodied in the design of the massive towers and also in the work of Petit and his team.

The shadow of September 11, 2001, when the towers were destroyed by terrorists, hangs over the film but is not discussed.

I would have appreciated a comment from the team as to how they felt watching the event, and what it meant to them. After all, for most of the people involved, Petit’s World Trade Center tightrope walk was the most important thing to happen in their life.

Sometimes buildings mean more to people than just a place to live and work. Petit’s walk is credited with bringing the then rather unpopular Twin Towers attention and even affection.

Man on Wire also adds another layer of meaning to the loss of the towers. Somewhere buried in the ash and the dust are the memories belonging to a group of people who were there on a fateful day in 1974 when one man floated and danced above the city.

Man on Wire screens with English subtitles on Saturday, September 26, at 7pm at the French Cultural Centre.



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