Current TV last summer aired a list of 50 documentaries you should see before you die. My two Sarah Lawrence compatriots, Julie and Christopher, got me hooked on documentaries back in the 1990s. So I had seen a big chunk of the 50 on the list. But I made note of about 12 more I should see. Netflix just sent me Man on Wire, the documentary about frenchman Philippe Petit who walked a tightrope back and forth eight times between the top of the World Trade Center towers back in 1974.
The documentary was made in 2008 and lovingly describes the building of the World Trade Center towers without mentioning their demise on September 11, 2001. This gives the subject understated melancholy.
Petit was obsessed with walking across the highest landmarks without a net. A tightrope walker with great technical skill, physical strength and beauty, sometimes you forget you’re looking at a man on a wire and believe he's walking out into the open thin air…like something in a Dali or Magritte picture. Petit’s ballet performances also detracts from the fact that he has huge cajones to perform these walks illegally and without a net, risking his life every time.
Pulling off the tightrope performance in 1974 was tantamount to a bank heist. Planners and schemers were involved from France, America and Australia (one working inside the towers) and the movie recreates all the strategy sessions required to figure out crucial details like how to get a wire from the top of one tower to the other.
One thing that frustrated me about the recent documentary on Rumi was how blow-hardy the experts were when pontificating about Rumi’s motivations and inspirations. Petit is a marvelous contrast to this. His is articulate and deliberate, shows pure enthusiasm without being obtuse and excluding; and although you can see he’s pretty full of himself, he still connects with you (artist to artist) as he declares who he is and why he must walk the rope.
As soon as he was arrested after his 1974 tower walk. New York City reporters descended on him, wanting to know why, why, why he did it?
So American, Petit said. There is no why. He did it because it was beautiful.