August 11, 2008

Taking It Home: Man On Wire

Arguably the best scene of 2008.


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 Gymnop
édie 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?


  1. I haven't seen this yet, but it is must-viewing for me. When I was young, I was obsessed with The Great Wallendas, a family of tightrope walkers that spanned generations (and suffered great tragedies). I went to Cirque du Soleil in July, and it was so difficult watching their tightrope walkers do the human pyramid.

  2. Fascinating, Marilyn! Fans of the physical feat won't be disappointed, but there are enough characters and enough emotional depth in MoW that probably anyone can connect with it. I'd love to see your review with those personal insights about the Great Wallendas.

    And yeah, the Cirque du Soleil performances are pretty incredible. I'd love to see a behind-the-scenes documentary on it, or a study of how circuses have basically disappeared.

  3. I'll promise a review if and when I see it. I am very interested in high-wire performers as people, so that will be a real plus.

    Cirque du Soleil kind of put circuses back in business, but it is a dying entertainment. People aren't as thrilled by the feats of daring-do, the rise of animal rights activism has (thankfully) eliminated the animal element from many circuses, and clowns just don't make people laugh like they used to. Circuses were made for isolated towns. With the Internet, cable/satellite TV, and Netflix, entertainment of all sorts can get there.

    Believe it or not, Cirque du Soleil was my first live circus. So being older is no guarantee you would have seen one.

  4. I cannot wait to see this...

  5. I for one am still impressed by the feats. Cirque du Soleil's "Corteo" remains one of the most impressive performances I've ever seen in person. Literally breathtaking.

    I figured that animal rights factored into the death of circuses, as well as human exploitation in general (dwarves, etc.). Clowns? Yeah they don't make me laugh so much as they make me find the nearest exit to run screaming toward.

    I love your thought about technology and entertainment, too.

    I think I saw a Barnum and Bailey show about 15-20 years ago, but since then it's only been Cirque du Soleil.

    Nick, it's going to blow you away...

  6. I am thrilled to see you (a documentary expert) now becoming an integral part of the MOW lovefest. What more can I say? Your piece here were as good as the film itself. Congrats!

  7. It's getting a little scary, Sam - nobody has anything negative to say about...


  8. Movie of the year so far. All I'm sayin'

  9. Tough for me to claim that as well, it being a documentary and everything. At this point I don't know what to do with it but highly recommend it.

    In any case, if you were some random guy and you came up to me saying MoW was the best movie of the year, I'd be pretty impressed with your taste in film. Too many people would name drop something idiotic.

  10. This is such a fantastic film. I saw it at Hot Docs this year, in the front row looking up, literally. It was the hot ticket of the festival and played to a packed house and the director was in attendance. Fantastic.

    The film literally moved me to tears, that is what I took from it.

    I change that happened to the people involved after the fact actually make complete sense to me, it's like working on a theatre show - you all work together towards a big goal and when it's done, things change. It's the natural cycle of events but on an astronomical scale. Beautiful review of a beautiful film.

  11. Thanks much, Shannon, and for sharing your thoughts. I can't imagine seeing this in the front row! How about IMAX or, even better, and Omnitheater domed screen? Awesome.

    Interesting comparison to a theater production. I guess that really is the way they might have been looking at it, especially since some of the key players were basically strangers. Still, you wonder why Petit's relationship with his girlfriend soured so quickly. That was harsh.

    I know many people were really moved by this, but I somehow didn't shed a tear. The scene shown in the pictures here is about as close as I came, but it was never at a raw emotional level like Young @ Heart.

    It's not that the potential isn't there, it's just that it didn't crush me at that moment for some reason.

  12. I was just about brought to tears. It's beautiful in so many ways. I'm with Craig - this shot to "favorite movie of the year" status for me. So glad I saw it.

  13. Wow, Fletch! That says a lot, knowing the number of movies you've seen this year.

    It's official: there has never been a year like this for widely released documentaries. There are still more on the way by year's end, and I just have to separate them for a documentary-exclusive Top 10 list. That being said, I don't know what my favorite non-documentary movie of the year is...

  14. Daniel - Finally saw Man on Wire. Review, as promised, up on my site.

  15. I have taught Grade 1/2 for decades. And the children's book The Man who Walked Between the Towers is one of the children's favourite. I doesn't matter if you were born before or after 1972 generations are fascinated with this story. And, to make things even more interesting, my cousin Jim was a sheet metal worker on both towers. This is a one of a kind story.

    1. Thanks so much for the reflection, Jackson. It really is a story that deserves to be retold and revisited. I think at the time of the film I was a little distracted by my dislike for the re-enactments, but when it comes down to it the sheer drama and magic of the story transcends the minor issues I have with how that story was told.


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