Official Artist
Jimmy So
MC / Show Host , Photographer , Author
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"Man On Wire"

Song of Innocence“Man On Wire.”by Jimmy So“The Sorrow and the Pity” is the domineering parent of its documentary children—the weight of the name can break the backs of all those college dropouts with their cameras. It did justice to a subject as “The Times of Harvey Milk” did justice to a person. It was oral history and a story that no one else would tell, like “Hoop Dreams.” Its search for truth made it possible for an innocent man to be freed from prison because of “The Thin Blue Line.” Only some concert films and sports documentaries were able to break away, scoffing at solemn gravity and enjoying a joint or a beer. Then, there is the new work “Man On Wire,” concerned with something very much like a musical performance that drains the documentary form of its discovery apparatus and floods it with a celebratory spirit. This last-chance child is not interested in examining an issue or investigating the facts of a story. It is not a biography or a story that will shock the world. “Man On Wire” deals with a simple matter—one image, really, a now-timeless moment, when the tightrope walker Philippe Petit lay down a wire bridging the two towers of the World Trade Center on August 7, 1974, and danced on it.Petit, who was born in France in 1948, is now the high poet of tightrope walking. New Yorkers know him—in the early nineteen seventies, he performed slack-rope walking, juggling, and magic tricks in Washington Square Park, where he was practically artist-in-residence; that’s what he is, in fact, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. This all makes him sound professional—he is the most famous high wire artist in the world—but the director of “Man On Wire,” James Marsh, never gives Petit’s contrivances the spirit of profession. He begins the film with oomph, retelling Petit and his crew’s break-in inside the twin towers, only to break off and give us the true star in this star vehicle—not the “man” in “Man On Wire,” but the structure from which the wire was anchored—the twin towers. He shows us a lollipop dream, the World Trade Center the Oz for a dewy-eyed Parisian boy, and Marsh never lets Petit’s boyishness go. The heist-like sequences of the World Trade Center adventure will return throughout the film, and in between Marsh shows us the exploits that prepared Petit for his magnum opusr: his first “coup,” three years of preparation culminating in the walk between the towers of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame on June 26, 1971, which surprised the world and was beautiful enough if he never did another walk; and bringing his art to the other half of the globe, he walked between the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. But as an expose on tightrope walking and as a biography of the man on the wire, it is a failure. The viewer never gets a sense of what the ancient Roman art of high-wire walking is and how Petit changed it with his World Trade Center caper. Petit’s background is not outlined in the film: he was a rebellious middle child in a bourgeois family; his father was an aloof and strict author and war hero, a pilot in the Air Force; he was kicked out of five schools; he’s mostly self-taught; he insists that tightrope walking is not difficult and he himself posseses no special athletic abilities; he claims over five hundred arrests while he performed on the streets of Paris.There is a strong sense that, were we to follow Petit, he would provide a lyrical account of why he turned to a life of magic, juggling and circus acts. As it is, Petit is a superb interviewee, speaking excitedly in fast French-sounding English, eloquent beyond the illusion of the accent. His bust reminds one of Cicero. But all of Petit’s words and all of his friend’s testimonies, accompanied by archival footage of their young idyllic days and their escapades, are only buildup, and all this time the terrible beauty of a small black figure between the twin towers was at the back of my mind. I cared only about that, and when the moment came in the narrative for Petit to step into the skyscraping sky, there was plenty there to convince us that a simple walk can center an ordinary picture, if indeed that here is an image of unutterable wonder.Certainly you say to yourself: “It is only a tightrope walk. It isn’t much, and it can’t move me.” But then, you see Petit’s friend cry simply at the revisiting of the memory, and you can’t believe it has that grip on you. It is the memory of a moment, yet it reaches across 34 years. You realize that you are finding yourself in the same room with the memory of the twin towers without fury or pain. It does wonders to the process of grieving, like saying goodbye at the funeral. You don’t care about the bad, you don’t want the truth, you don’t want the whole picture, and you don’t even wish to hear the words of consolation. All you want to hear is that simple anecdote, the one story that might or might not have captured or symbolized the person you knew. You only want the memory of that dance you shared, and Petit had a most enchanting dance with the erstwhile soul of New York. “Man On Wire” is an elegy to the twin towers.What is it with the feather-thin mythology of walking on air, penetrated by a wire and a man with the will to step onto it? When I was preparing for this article, I was reading old articles about Petit and his many feats and plans to walk over this or that (including across the Grand Canyon, which he has yet to attempt). I realized that I was asking myself: “Did he make it? Did he fall?” But of course he didn’t, or he wouldn’t be here in “Man On Wire.” It is beyond my imagination that a person can survive a nearly hour-long walk a quarter of a mile in the air—I can’t even walk to my kitchen without stumbling. It takes something so banal and basic as walking to stun you into uncanny awe.There isn’t any mention of the old aggravating sounds of what happened to the towers. Petit and his allies do not break down and talk about it—if they did, “Man On Wire” would be colored by our disaffection. The dance cannot be done again. There have been already films on 9/11 (“World Trade Center”) and there will be more movies about 9/11. There might even be an expansive documentary on the terrorist act, the survivors, Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, or even the towers that were the World Trade Center. But a simple elegy like this? It can only be delivered once. This is all we need to remember the towers. And it has helped us say goodbye. ♦

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Languages Spoken
english, cantonese, mandarin
Location (City, Country)
New York City, United States
Member Since
November 27, 2007