Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Review - Man on Wire

My last review of the season (last season, that is...I'm a little behind, I suppose)

Is being a daredevil an art form? After seeing Man on Wire, I’m still not sure, but I’m ready to consider it. Phillipe Petit, the subject of James Marsh’s documentary, certainly seemed to believe it was when he made a career of his high-wire act, subversively bridging famous monuments from Notre Dame to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to his ultimate achievement, the Twin Towers. But what makes the argument for him is not his own cocky reminiscences but the emotion-laden memories of those who watched him.

What hangs heavy over the movie, of course, is the loss of the Towers today. It seems to make Petit’s journey on a fragile string a metaphor of our own journey into a time when one event has “changed everything,” forcing us to look down at the danger below and realize there’s no net.

Of course, Petit’s fragile string is a strong, thick wire up close, but the danger he faced was very real. And perhaps his determination, in the face of that danger, is a passion that only a true artist could feel. The movie unfolds suspensefully, although we cannot help but know its conclusion. Marsh is able to convey the thick anxiety of the moment when Petit stepped out into air, knowing the very real possibility that the wire might not hold. We follow him as he plans and hope that he will succeed, even knowing the future in its full bittersweet glory.

The images of New York in the 70’s, an older (more innocent?) time, elevate the movie from a well-told story into poetry. Nowadays, reality television seems to have stripped any possible magic from watching a man take a foolish risk for the sake of eternal fame. Everyone seems to have a performer hidden inside, if not always a very interesting one.

But of course Petit is not simply a daredevil, nor one of the modern millions willing to face humiliation for public acclaim. He is a circus performer, whose ancient art is based on the idea that a single act of daring can become a statement about life itself. To live is to dare. Every step is a risk. For those who can take those steps – bravo!

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