Dancing among the clouds

New York’s World Trade Centre will forever be instantly associated with the horrors of September 11 2001, but a long-forgotten and inspiring perspective of the Twin Towers emerges in a new documentary by British filmmaker James Marsh.

Titled simply Man on Wire, Marsh’s acclaimed film charts the daring feat of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who on August 7 1974 linked the two towers with a cable before spending 45 minutes “dancing” on the wire among the clouds, 427m above the streets of New York.

The absorbing film, a winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to be released in the United States on August 8, strikingly makes no reference to the eventual destruction of the towers on America’s day of terror 27 years later.

For Marsh, excluding mention of 9/11 was straightforward.

“Philippe’s story represents a kind of magical moment where the towers, these two vast monuments to capitalism, were transformed as an artistic canvas for 45 beautiful minutes,” he said. “So I decided very early not to engage or reference any images of a disaster that is obscene and involves the tragic loss of thousands of lives, when Philippe’s story is the absolute opposite of that.”

Instead, Marsh’s film concentrates on the elaborate preparations for Petit’s wire-walk, which was carried out with all the subterfuge and attention to detail of a complex bank robbery.

Petit, who at the time of the stunt was just short of his 25th birthday, said he became transfixed by the idea of walking between the Twin Towers from reading a magazine article on the buildings’ construction while waiting for a dentist appointment in Paris in 1968.

‘Beautiful obsession’
“It became a beautiful obsession for me,” he said during an interview in Beverly Hills to promote the film. “I just had this crazy idea to marry these two wonderful buildings with a cable.”

With a rag-tag band of friends, Petit, who had already performed similar guerrilla-style stunts on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, began planning for his ultimate high-wire act.

He practised walking on the 204kg steel cable to be used on the World Trade Centre after setting it up in a field in France, with friends attempting to recreate the conditions he was expected to face in New York.

Petit and members of the gang also posed as journalists from a French architectural magazine to gain access to the roof of the World Trade Centre prior to the stunt, in order to survey rigging points.

But nothing could prepare Petit for the ultimate test of walking between the Twin Towers.

“My mind was a tempest, a tempest of pleasure and elation, a tempest of surprises,” Petit said. “The practice counted for very little, because practice a few feet off the ground can never represent what it is like to mingle with the void, to feel an ocean of nothing underneath you, with the turbulence in the air and the aggressivity of a giant precipice.”

After 45 minutes balanced on the wire, Petit gave himself up to waiting police, fearful that they might attempt to pull him off the wire and send him falling to his death.

Later released from custody, Petit’s stunt made headlines around the world. Yet he resisted the urge to cash in on his fame. “I turned down dozens of offers, because a lot of them were commercially oriented so I was totally uninterested. I said no to becoming an instant millionaire,” Petit recalls.

Though he has continued to perform, Petit says attempting a similar stunt to his 1974 walk in New York would be fraught with dangers in the post-9/11 world.

“I honestly think that these days one would be shot before you could do something like that,” he said. “I have many secret projects, buildings around the world that I would love to walk between. But we live in a different world and I don’t want to be shot attempting it.

“It’s very frustrating for me to see structures being made and to think, ‘I would love to put my wire there.’ Because if the phone doesn’t ring, or I don’t get the invitation from the owners of the building, then it’s impossible.” — AFP

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