18 July, 2008

Hold me closer tightrope dancer

So here's the thing.

I started my 2008 Film Festival with Man On Wire (see the trailer here), a really enjoyable documentary.

A French tightrope-walker named Philippe Petit had seen an artist's impression of the World Trade Centre in a newspaper article in the early 1960s, when construction was just commencing, and apparently immediately had a dream of one day crossing between the twin towers. In the years since seeing that picture, he's tightrope-walked between the spires of Notre Dame, and between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. And then one night in 1974 his plan came together. The structure of the World Trade Centre was finished, the roof was on, the bottom 80-odd floors were occupied and functioning while the top 20-or-so floors had final construction work to be completed. A small group of people stole into the building, went to the roof, erected a wire between the two buildings, and then the next morning, Philippe walked out and spent 45 minutes crossing between the two buildings eight times.

It was a really enjoyable film. The documentary presents the events of his stunt, nicely interwoven with the larger story of Philippe's decade-long preparation for the event. Philippe has extraordinary charisma - it becomes clear how he was able to gather together a group of people to in effect break the law. He recreates moments from the events of that Above all, Philippe is an incredible performer. He doesn't just walk across, he kneels, he even lies down on this thin wire 400 metres above the ground. One of the cops on the roof trying to bring him down actually called him a tightrope dancer, since what he was doing certainly wasn't walking. I've always viewed tightrope walking as a stunt, but Philippe's performance definitely supports his view of it as an artform.

In a surprising (at least to me) way, the film turns out to be a bit of a heist film. Philippe watches gangster films constantly, imagining the preparation for the event as a bank robbery requiring careful planning, and in a funny way, he's right. After all, they're not allowed up there, so the exploit requires two groups of people in the two towers, fake IDs and disguises. And, as in any good heist film, problems arise (Philippe and another guy get trapped under a tarp for three hours, and in another moment play hide-and-seek with a guard checking the roof).

There are two things I'm disappointed by with the film. No film was apparently taken of the actual stunt from the roof-level, so we have to make do with (admittedly spectacular) photographs and footage from his earlier performances at Nortre Dame and the Harbour Bridge. But that couldn't be helped. The other disappointment was just that I would have liked to get to know a bit more about Philippe - how he actually got into tightrope walking would be a fascinating story.

But still it's a well-made documentary, nicely combining talking heads, footage from the time, recreations, and even Philippe enacting moments in his own house. Plus, it (thankfully) managed to avoid any mention of the towers' ultimate fate (which I was a bit worried about). It's just an enjoyable entertaining film, laugh-out-loud funny, and well worth trying to take the time to see.

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