Philippe Petit performed a ground- and lawbreaking walk
Tightrope walker Philippe Petit — who pulled off "the artistic crime of the century" when he crossed the divide between the two World Trade Center towers — is profiled in James Marsh's new documentary "Man on Wire."
Seattle Times movie critic
In sleep, Philippe Petit becomes a bird.
"I dream I am at the top of a soft hill, and I start running to the bottom of the hill, and in slow motion I slowly become a bird. I glide around, and it's a very pleasurable dream," said Petit, on the phone last week from his rural home near Woodstock, N.Y. The native Frenchman, who electrified the world in 1974 when he walked on a wire between the two World Trade Center towers, has spent much of his life on a tightrope, but his sleep is less grounded. "I never dream of walking on the wire," he said; instead, he's soaring through the air.
James Marsh's spellbinding documentary "Man on Wire," which opens Friday at the Egyptian, is the story of Petit's WTC feat, an illegal act described as "the artistic crime of the century" that required many months of planning and culminated in a walk in the sky that's almost impossible to imagine, let alone watch. With a team of conspirators, and under cover of darkness, Petit rigged a cable linking the roofs of the towers — 1,350 feet above the New York sidewalks — and, early in the morning of Aug. 7, stepped onto it. No safety harness held him; one slip and he would, as he says in the movie, "fall to another life."
45 minutes aloft
"I remember absolutely everything," said Petit of the walk, now 34 years in the past but still bright in his memory. "I did stop a few times, and I even sat down and observed down. The plaza was empty because it was still under construction. I saw some people looking up; after a while, a gigantic crowd." He remembers a seagull that hovered quite close to him for a few minutes, "gliding about me, looking at me as if to say, 'What is this guy doing here? What is this false bird invading my territory?' "
Petit crossed the wire eight times; an awed police officer, watching, would describe him later as "a tightrope dancer." He saluted the crowd, knelt on one knee, sat down, lay down on the wire and seemingly danced away from arms reaching to pull him off at either end. In his book "To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers," he writes of the performance, "I, a bird gliding back and forth between the canyon's rims, did not count the voyages, nor did I care to record the passing of time."
After about 45 minutes, he stepped back onto the roof of the south tower where the walk had begun. Officers arrested him on charges of criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct, sent him for psychiatric testing (he passed) and later dropped all charges in exchange for a wire-walking demonstration for children in Central Park.
Such a dramatic event seems tailor-made for the movies, and Petit said he was definitely thinking along those lines. He had cameramen taking footage (which appears in "Man on Wire") of his preparations for the walk in France. "But then I aborted making a film of the adventure while I was doing it," he said. "I had to choose to hide in the tower [the night before]. A movie crew following me would have been impossible." (In the film, the walk is depicted with still photographs taken by accomplices.)
After the walk, he received many offers for feature films, but turned them all down. "I wanted to be in the process," he said. "I didn't want to just sign, get rich and hope the movie would be faithful to my story." After 33 years, he agreed to Marsh's documentary, and he has recently said yes to a feature film, to be directed by Robert Zemeckis ("Forrest Gump," "Back to the Future").
Life on a wire
The man who dances in the clouds describes himself as self-taught, saying he would practice wire walking as a teenager instead of going to school. Petit remembers making "a little path of six or seven little ropes assembled together with some kind of coat-hanger wire to make it like a flat plank of rope. I would go with the widest shoes I would find. Completely ridiculous and absurd, but that was my logic at the time: the biggest shoes and the biggest ropes I could find. One day I take one rope out, and one rope out, and one day walking only on one rope."
His life now is made up of street juggling, writing, lecturing, working on the barn he's building with 18th-century tools near his home — and, always, high-wire performances. A self-proclaimed New Yorker, he's a frequent performer at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, where he is an artist in residence. In 1982, he walked on a wire across Amsterdam Avenue from a 16-story building to the base of the church's to-be-built tower, bringing the archbishop a ceremonial golden trowel.
In the years since the WTC walk, he has given numerous other performances around the world. As a favorite, he mentions a 1989 walk across the Seine in Paris, on a wire sloping up to the second level of the Eiffel Tower. The walk, commissioned by Mayor Jacques Chirac, was part of a celebration of the French bicentennial and involved 10 different kinds of music, two changes of costume on the wire and 250,000 people watching. He's equally fond of smaller walks, remembering a performance above the marble staircase of the Paris Opera, improvising to the accompaniment of an opera singer.
Now nearing 60, he still spends three hours a day on the wire in his soft slippers, always with music playing — "it is like the motor of my walking on the wire." More major walks are planned, though he can't confirm details now: one in England, one on Easter Island.
And he speaks poetically of his art, of becoming one with the rope on which he walks: "I have to understand what the wire is, and discover that the wire is alive and marry myself with the life of the wire in order to be walking beautifully and successfully on the wire." Like a bird, he's soared to heights most of us only imagine, leaving behind images that haunt our dreams.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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