Recently I saw "Man on Wire," the film about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in the summer of 1974. I was slow to warm to the film's charms but the tale finally and completely won me over. Primarily, this is because Petit is an intriguing, exasperating, narcissistic, fairy tale figure. A little prince in many senses, he is both a singular personality and a caricature–as well as very very French. (Which is almost like being a caricature, anyway.)
What I didnt expect from the film was how emotional I would be over seeing so much footage of the World Trade Center: its construction, as backdrop against the city, sweeping aerial beauty shots.
For most of its existence I was indifferent, at best, to the WTC. I have no recollection of actually visiting the towers though I think there may have been a trip to the observation deck at some early juncture. They served a purpose as a visual anchor, a directional on which to get my bearings upon emerging from an unfamiliar subway stop. Other than that, I disliked their needlessly overscaled banality– their crudeness. I had been attuned to architectural grace notes and these buildings were power chords.
It was totally without context, then, that less than a year before they were destroyed I had an abrupt change of mind about the WTC. I was virtually struck in one epiphanic moment. The double towers in tandem, along with their uninviting windswept plaza were one conceptual gesture about scale, less about execution and finish than idea. A simple notion that, for some reason, I had not comprehended, and then I did.
Like lightning rods the WTC attracted Petit's fanatical curiousity. His nearly mystical draw to the towers began with an article he'd read in 1968 about their initial planning and was not extinguished even after completing his mission 6 years later. In the film, Petit recalls his high wire walk as spiritual, a "gift", "elation...I was actually venturing in another world.” The footage in the film shows Petit practically dancing on the wire, weightless, it seemed, and imparting an unexpected delicacy to the colossus he was so barely tethered to. He pulled off this caper, this coup, and managed to bring the building itself into the poetry of the moment.
When he stepped onto the roof after his 45 minute sojourn a quarter mile in thin air he was ambushed by police and reporters. Barraged by what Petit termed a "typically American question" he was repeatedly asked "why did you do it?" The disconnect between the question and the event itself was a sadly comical point in the movie.
Twenty-seven years later in the aftermath of a devastating surreal spectacle people were again asking, "why did they do it?"
Images from top: Tom Fletcher's New York City architecture; "before 9/11" by Baldwin Lee; from wikipedia; from Man on Wire.