Walking a tightrope with the Film Club

August 23, 2013

We all have a morbid fascination with hire-wire tightrope walking. I remember as a child marveling at pictures of Blondin’s famous high wire crossing of the Niagara Falls, while recently the world looked on askance as an aerialist walked across the Grand Canyon in America.

Sunday’s monthly Film Club screening deals with probably the greatest artist of them all.  Philippe Petit was born in France in 1949, and at an early age discovered magic and juggling. At 16, he took his first steps on the wire, and, assisted by being expelled from five different schools, learned everything by himself. Something must have eventually gone right, as he is now the author of eight books!

“Within one year”, he told a reporter, “I taught myself to do all the things you could do on a wire. I learned the backward somersault, the front somersault, the unicycle, the bicycle, the chair on the wire and jumping through hoops.” He also became adept at equestrian sports, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing and the art of bullfighting.

Petit briefly headlined with Ringling Brothers circus, but circus life was not for him, and on the sidewalks of Paris he soon created his street persona. In the early seventies he frequently juggled and worked on a slack rope at New York City’s Washington Square Park.

He soon began eyeing world- famous structures as stages for high-wire walks, which he executed as a combination of circus act and public performance, performing his first such walk between the towers of Notre Dame de Paris. In 1973, he walked a wire rigged between the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Thirteen years later, in 1986, he re-created Blondin’s famous crossing of Niagara Falls, and in 1989 then Mayor of Paris Jacques Chirac invited him to walk a wire strung from the ground, at the Place de Trocadero, to the second level of the Eiffel Tower, to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the French Revolution. But, in his earlier days, many of his wire walks were highly illegal, and he was often arrested when completing the walk!

Petit’s most famous walk was performed when he conquered the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in 1974 – and this is the subject of Sunday’s film.
Petit was first inspired, in 1968, to attempt what he called his “coup” on the Twin Towers while reading a magazine in a Dentist’s waiting room about the yet-to-be- constructed World Trade Centre towers in New York. He began collecting construction plans and other information whenever he could.

The “artistic crime of the century” took six years of planning – how to rig a steel cable 200 ft. across the gap between the towers in the dead of night, the problems of the towers swaying because of wind and, most of all, how to sneak all the equipment on to the top floor and then the roof through security.

Sunday’s film “ Man on Wire” is as much a thriller as a documentary. Made in 2008 and directed by James Marsh, the title of the film is taken from the police report that led to Petit’s arrest (and later release) after a performance that had lasted almost an hour. The film is crafted like a “heist” film and presents rare footage of the preparations for the event, still photographs of the walk and present-day interviews with the participants.

“Man on Wire”, rated PG, is considered one of the greatest documentaries ever , and won the 2008 Academy Award for Best Documentary. It is considered an anthem to the World Trade Centre’s eventual tragic destruction. It will answer some obvious questions – how did Petit’s team manage to smuggle their equipment into the building and onto the roof? How did they get the 450 pound steel cable the 200 feet across the gap between the towers in pitch darkness?

“Man on Wire”continues North West Theatre Company’s policy of screening films that are different and interesting, and rarely enjoy cinema releases in this area. The remainder of the year will see a fantastic variety of films – “ The Overlanders” and “Storm Boy” (September), “Warhorse” (October) and “The Intouchables” (November), plus the Presidents surprise freebie for members in early December. You can see these six films, including Sunday’s, for only $24, and membership can be arranged prior to our starting time of 4pm at the Roxy.