Thursday, August 07, 2008

Today marks the 34th anniversary of Philippe Petit’s art caper. At 7:15 am on August 7, 1974, the French funambulist, juggler and street performer, only 24 years old at the time, did a 45 minute tight rope walk on a cable strung between the very tops of the two World Trade Center towers. Over 100 stories above the ground. Without a net. Without a harness. And, as one snarky commenter wrote: and in bell bottoms, for crying out loud.

Indeed, Mr. Petit was rocking a David Bowie as the Thin White Duke kind of look.

Rita Hayworth and I went to see Man On Wire the other night, an interesting documentary, by James Marsh about Mr. Petit’s legendary skywalk.

The footage of the walk itself, although as one of the policemen who arrested him said: “it was more like a dance”, is white-knuckling. Even if you don’t have vertigo. There is something elated and beautiful and terrible about the whole thing. My heart was in my throat watching it. Mr. Petit is obviously in ecstasy, or some heightened state of being. You can’t miss the joy that shines out of him.

The towers were still under construction at the time and Mr. Petit and his crew disguised themselves as construction workers and business men, complete with fake ids to infiltrate the building with over 500 lbs of gear to make it all happen. Mr. Marsh’s documentary focuses on the how rather than the why to show the 6 years of planning that made this stunt happen. Mr. Marsh frames the coup as a heist, which adds to the excitement.

Many of those involved in the initial planning backed out of working the event itself. As one puts it: I didn’t want to be responsible for something that could cause a friend’s death.

Possibly Mr. Petit was conscious of having a legacy to protect even then. (Or perhaps he was just lucky enough to have a devoted friend with a camera.) Man on Wire has a lot of footage from the planning stages of what Mr. Petit called “the coup”, as well as footage of his early street performances. There are a few black and white reconstructions with actors. I found these distracting, but mercifully they were few. Mr. Petit had done similar high wire walks before. One in Paris, between the towers of Notre Dame, and one in Australia, over a massive tension bridge. But nothing equivalent in height and difficulty as the Twin Towers.

Mr. Petit himself, who currently lives in upstate New York and is an artist in residence at Saint John the Divine, is a very lively interview subject. For the events that were not filmed or photographed, he acts them out. His energy is very intense. Like stand back or you’ll crack the lens on the camera intense. One of his collaborators says that when he first met Mr. Petit, he thought he was crazy, or a con man. And certainly, that’s how he comes off. But when you see him walking the wire, he is another person. Transformed by concentration, you see the artist in him. Clearly, he was born to do this. But there will be some fall out around him because of it.

Sneaking into the Twin Towers, shooting an arrow between the two to link them with a wire, and orchestrating this whole stunt was illegal. Not mean, or bad, Mr. Petit points out, but illegal. But because of massive public outcry, the charges against him were reduced to trespassing and disorderly conduct. He was sentenced to perform a free show for children in Central Park, which became a major media event. Obviously a stunt like that would land him in Guantanamo today.

His friends were not so lucky. Some were fined. One was immediately and permanently deported from the U.S. He appears to have abandoned all of them. I’ve never had any experience of fame, nor have I been around anyone who blew up, but I think this is fairly standard.

His girlfriend at the time, Annie Allix, is the most philosophical about it. She says something like: Our relationship ended at that moment, and that’s how it should be. It’s beautiful that way. Ms. Allix was Mr. Petit’s constant support during the venture. She says that it was exhausting (I can only imagine). Her description of their relationship was telling. She said he was riveted by him. That he was so thrilling and courted her so sweetly, but that she became completely subsumed into his life to the point that he never even considered that she might have something of her own to do. I mean, there’s only so much of that a girl can take. Yeah, after getting him up there and down safely, and after 6 years of planning and sacrifices, I’d sure feel like that project was done too.

What Man on a Wire fails to mention is funding. Several transatlantic crossings for several people, a cable that cost $10,000 in 1974 (adjust that for inflation and that’s a whole lot of mango). Hard to finance all that as a street performer.

Rita Hayworth and I were discussing this after the film when a lovely French woman in fabulous glasses (and don’t French women always have the most amazing glasses?) interjected: these were children of privilege, you could tell by where they lived in Paris. But Rita Hayworth had an excellent point: what parents would give a kid thousands of clams to do some crazy thing that would probably get him killed? He must have had other income streams. Or other supporters. Perhaps since the whole thing was illegal, certain aspects remain secret to protect these supporters.

Thankfully, Mr. Marsh never mentions the destruction of the Twin Towers. I mean, you'd have to have been in a coma for the past 7 years not to know about that. In that sense the film could be seen as a tribute to the Towers but without any of jingoistic shlock that now surrounds almost any mention of these structures. The film importantly points out that the World Trade Center was not popular in the 70's. It was merely seen as a big behemoth in an already cash-strapped city. Mr. Petit's performance helped to raise public support for the buidlings.

I first heard of Mr. Petit in 1990. A distant cousin was visiting me from abroad. She was studying architecture and wanted to see the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine. Naturally we waited until the very last day of her visit, when she had to catch a plane that afternoon. It was also the morning after a particularly raucous party (though some of the guests were still in my apartment). Both of us were wearing beaded 1920s party frocks and admittedly still drunk when we took the hour long subway ride uptown. To see the cathedral at dawn was worth it.

But our appearance (and alcohol induced high spirits) attracted the attention of a pair of stonecutters who were working on the cathedral’s façade early to beat the summer heat. They insisted on giving us the grand tour of the place which was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. No, that’s not a double entendre; the building is that amazing. It’s the largest Neo Gothic structure in the world and to this day it’s still unfinished. They led us through secret passageways, we met the peacocks in the garden, and finally we climbed pigeon-shit encrusted ladders (in high heels) to be on top of the dome. That was terrifying, and ecstatic. Heights, I tell you, they are something.

To get there, we went through Mr. Petit’s office, a little nook nestled right beneath the cathedral’s roof. They told us that he was a professional wire-walker and an artist in residence at Saint John the Divine. And I thought: nice work if you can get it. But it was hard to conceptualize what that would look like.

Indeed, I don’t think that the spectators on the ground could really see all that much on this morning 34 years ago. He was a very distant figure 100 stories up. The magic of the high wire then exists not so much in the seeing of it, but the feeling it produces in the spectator.

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