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Man on Wire

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Ellen West - web producer | 13:09 UK time, Wednesday, 30 July 2008

James Marsh's documentary about Philippe Petit's famous wire walk across the skies of New York comes to cinemas around the UK this weekend. In 1974 Petit and a small group of co-conspirators tricked their way into the World Trade Center. Having smuggled a large amount of equipment into the WTC, the group spent hours hiding under canvas until they could rig the wire between the towers. Petit then spent about an hour performing on the wire while thousands of New Yorkers gazed up at him in amazement. Man on Wire tells the story of what Petit describes as his "love affair" with the towers and his attempt to conquer them, interspersing this with material from earlier attempts on Notre Dame cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can watch an extended version of Mark Kermode's Culture Show interview with Philippe Petit here.

Director James Marsh is happy to let the participants tell their stories and leave loose ends dangling. This is intentional - he's attempting to communicate the beauty of Petit's idea, without pinning it down so that becomes a cliché. What we get instead is our own walk along the high-wire: a headlong rush through Petit's criminal caper in which we are continuously agog, feeling like the story is unfolding directly in front of us. And what a story it is! I caught myself wondering a couple of times if it could actually be true: whether all this amazing footage was real or whether it had been necessary to wait until the 21st century to invent it. This impression was heightened by the fact that reconstruction of the 'coup' (as the WTC wire walk is described) has been mixed in with archive material, both of early practises and previous walks, making you wonder where reality ends and its representation begins. You breathe a sigh of relief that Petit had the foresight to refuse offers from previous directors, waiting until he had found the right collaborator: somebody who could employ the cinematic equivalent of sleight of hand.

Man on Wire is an interesting counterpoint to Marsh's 1999 film Wisconsin Death Trip. The past was reconstructed in this film as well, but instead of Petit's "life wish" Marsh documented a series of murders, suicides and mental breakdowns from a local Wisconsin newspaper at the end of the 19th century. Although the tone of Wisconsin Death Trip is gloomy it also - like Man on Wire - has moments of absurd humour, and at the heart of each film is the question of what life is for. Petit communicates the joys of life lived as an adventure and reminds us, as cannot be done too frequently, that to dare is to feel truly alive.


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