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The Artistic Crime of the Century

Believe the coincidence or not, but I followed the film about folks intentionally falling from absurd heights to someone trying not to fall from absurd heights.

Philippe Petit

Man on Wire is James Marsh’s fabulous portrait of Philippe Petit‘s infamous 1974 high-wire walk between the Twin Towers. Crime? Performance art? Stunt? Coup? All of the above?

Marsh combines vintage footage (much of which has never been seen before–in fact, he was the one who had it developed for the first time) and stills with re-creations and present-day interviews with the principals to tell a remarkable tale from a more innocent time. Juggling these different techniques for telling the story, he has as deft a hand with film as Petit has with the high-wire (and juggling and sleight of hand). And both men are expert storytellers. At last, at this year’s festival, I have finally run across a filmmaker who is doing something interesting with the documentary form. Films like this one are why I’m here.

The film tells the story from the moment the idea of the WTC wire-walk struck Petit through the plotting of how to do it and the training he did to prepare for it to the actual carrying out of the plan and its aftermath. Late in the film, someone remarks that an illegal walk like this one could never happen today–‘You would be shot!’–and I must say that at the beginning of the film, when we see re-creations of the preparation for the illegal ‘coup’ (as they called it), that thought had occurred to me, too, as I watched a bow and arrow set smuggled into the towers inside an architect’s cardboard tube and the wires get packed in a big wooden box that was put into a wheeled garbage container that the imposters (dressed as WTC employees and construction workers) took, unquestioned, into the guts of the towers. This just couldn’t happen anymore. That it happened at the WTC makes that fact even more pointed, of course. Marsh may not mention the ultimate fate of the towers in his film, but the subtext of that is there–whether he wants it or not.

This film is deeply intelligent and entertaining, it is astounding and funny, daring and beautiful, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

→ originally published 2008-04-22

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