When Philippe Petit walked his high wire between the Towers of the World Trade Center, in August 1974, I was not yet born. And yet, like so many other extraordinary events, and even before Man on Wire, the glorious documentary of 2008, I quite simply knew about the stunt and the man. I don’t know how I knew or when I first knew, I just... did. It was impossible not to.
While in the beginning, and before seeing it (note that seeing is key), I did think of a stunt, it is only over the past ten years or so that I understood that to refer to it merely as a stunt, would be to understate its instrinsict significance and ineffable quality. I don’t know about you but, these days, when I hear something defined as ‘a stunt’, I don’t so much think of an action displaying spectacular skill but rather I think of something done to attract attention. Sure it showcased incredible skill for certain, but it was not done to attract attention per se. It was the ultimate work of performance art, the stuff dreams are made of.
Regular readers will recall a post at the beginning of the year [this one] in which I spoke of the things I was looking forward to in 2015. Amidst all of the movies I listed, I sigled one out, The Walk. Thinking back to January, I don’t think there has been a movie in my entire life, let alone this year, I’d been waiting for with quite the same level of preoccupied trepidation.
Those of you who have seen Man on Wire will understand the preoccupied element very well. That documentary defines perfection and with the artist himself (and his accomplices), talking about the event some thirty odd years later, it acquires a quality of remembrance which, unusually and rather spectacularly to me, seems completely devoid of nostalgia. For the protagonists, the heist is as fresh, as new, as real now as it was in 1974. I am certain that Zemeckis of all people knew perfectly well that the usually cruel stakes of expectations were indeed extraordinarily high on this one.
But it came as no surprise that he did not disappoint, neither did the movie as a whole. I’ve read many reviews since I saw it, and while the consensus is extremely positive, I have come across some rather unfounded comments about ‘dodgy accents’ and ‘lack of pathos at ground level’. Well dear reader, I am one of those people cursed with a supposedly dodgy accent (over the years described as Polish, Dutch, Garman, Romanian, Scottish, Geordie, Russian, Brazilian, and the favourite catch-all Eastern European, whatever that is. Amusingly, it’s none or possibly all of these), but it seems like movie critics relish in the opportunity to belittle actors who are doing a fine job indeed. Like it or not, there are plenty of people who speak Frenglish in the manner of Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Charlotte Le Bon in this movie, just come to Kensington and Chelsea if you want to hear it live. Pay no attention to this dross or to the suggestion that the movie drags while preparations are on the way. It quite simply does not.
And then, very quickly, we are atop the South Tower, one foot on the wire and one still on the building, the world disappearing below and above and around: it’s only the man, his wire, and the void. But the void is not to be confronted as such; the void is no enemy, the void is what makes the magic happen. It is the void itself that creates the spectacle as the wire emerges from the mist of Philippe’s mind and extends, tentalisingly, ahead of him.
This man walking among the clouds is quite possibly the ultimate example of sublime beauty as epitomised by the English Romantics: his performance is so beautifully compelling because it defies what is to be human with its subtext (don’t you think it’s unfair that we kick the ground while the stars live in the sky?), while inherently terrifying those of us watching (below or above him, if you are watching at the IMAX). Ultimately, as the movie would have it, this isn’t at all about defying death: the performance is all about affirming life in the most poetical way possible but the sense of jeopardy for the watchers is so earth-shattering as to propel us into a sublime experience of beauty that terrifies.
There is no footage, only pictures, of the real walk among the clouds. I often thought, however, that the stills provide a special testimony of it. Being unable to re-live it millions of times through YouTube seals it as the work of performance art that cannot be experienced again and again: in its 45 minutes, the walk encapsulated the fleetingness of beauty and life itself in which the void is not oblivion but a stage for all the world to look at. You can find many wonderful pictures of the walk online but one shines above them.
'Secrets are like gifts: the former a joy to reveal, the latter a pleasure to offer'
In this shot, Philippe relaxes into the walk half-way through his first passage in what is for me proof that a human being is the reflection of the divine. As the elfin face relaxes into a smile, I am sitting here thinking I’ve witnessed [third-hand] something so beyond beauty that only my eyes can process it; my mind still quite cannot.
The life of the Twin Towers has been bookmarked by a man walking in the clouds, humanising them when they were so disliked, and by many falling from them, dehumanising them through no choice of their own. It is with an exceptionally poetic touch devoid of exploitation that Zemeckis acknowledges the lack of these beautiful buildings. As Philippe signs a steel beam and is given a pass to the observation deck from 1974 to ‘forever’, we all know that nothing lasts forever and yet, in our souls, some things definitely do.