Pronunciation:\äb-ˈse-shən, əb-\; Function: noun; Date: 1680
(Merriam-Webster) 1: a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling
Next to this definition in the dictionary, you might find a portrait of Philippe Petit, the French tightrope walker and subject of James Marsh's astonishing documentary Man on Wire. It's a film that captures the best of human ambition and the worst of human selfishness. It's a study of man who needs to walk a tightrope like a fish needs to swim. It's a stylish mash-up of interviews, Errol Morris-like reenactments, and grainy Super-8 footage, all brilliantly synthesized by Marsh to make a film that's as heart-pounding as the latest Bourne installment and as emotionally moving as this year's Young @ Heart. Already the Sundance winner for Best Documentary Feature, watch for Man on Wire to easily receive an Oscar nomination in January.
If, like me, you were born after 1974, Philippe Petit may only be a Trivial Pursuit answer or a random encyclopedia (make that Wikipedia) entry. What most of us fail to realize is that Petit was, at least for one fateful August day, responsible for bringing Lower Manhattan and the area immediately surrounding the World Trade Center to a complete standstill. His feat was, of course, his "disturbing preoccupation with an unreasonable idea": walking a one-inch tightrope between the tops of the two WTC towers. (Speaking of which, I was floored with grief when I saw a photo of Petit's signature on a beam on one of the tower's rooftops. Yet another casualty of 9/11, which is incidentally not mentioned one time throughout Man On Wire.)
Thanks to an unbelievable amount of archival footage, we meet Petit and his accomplices in the early 1970's as they're planning, practicing, and preparing materials for this criminal act (literally "Man on Wire" in the ensuing police report). It helps that we can look back and laugh with the crew as they recall the impossibly dramatic moments leading up to the morning of August 7, 1974, but I doubt you'll have the mental wherewithal to laugh when Petit takes his first step.
Because of the human element and the accompanying music (possibly the most beautiful rendition of Erik Satie's Gymnopédie that you'll ever hear), Petit's performance - and it was a performance, not a stunt - narrowly edges the underwater tracking shot in Encounters at the End of the World as the most visually arresting scene of the year. It's a moment that doesn't just stun you into silence, but one that truly demonstrates what it means to be alive. The most primal elements of the human experience come together in one scene.
And in the next, they all come tumbling down. A quote I found online seems appropriate:
"Passion is a positive obsession. Obsession is a negative passion."
In one way, I feel like Petit lost as much as he gained on that wire. Like so many "obsessed" artists, his achievements came before his relationships, and from the information I've found, Petit continues to walk on a tightrope several hours each day and makes a living from public appearances and street performances. It begs the question: if he is alone and/or lonely, and this film had not been made, would he trade in his historic feat to regain the jovial friendships shown in the archival footage?
Probably not, but that the question is even raised makes Man on Wire one of the best and most intriguing films of the year.
What did you take home from it?