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.


Michael Leddy said...

Angela, do you know Petit's 2003 essay about the WTC?

"My Towers, Our Towers"

When I visit NY/NJ and take the Boulevard East bus into Manhattan, I'm still struck by how empty lower Manhattan now looks.

angela said...

Oh God-- no I didnt know of his essay somehow! Will I be embarrassed by reading everything I've written said better, six years previous?

Michael Leddy said...

No, not at all!

angela said...

OK yes i see its different.
Thanks, Michael, for pointing me to this.

Steed said...

These photos are gorgeous. That one with the old 1970s cars in the foreground I've never seen before. Phillipe Petit has been celebrated of late, but George Willig seems to go unremarked.

angela said...

Hunh-- yes proof is I didnt even know who George Willig was. I suppose he relegated to the "also ran" bin of history.

One issue is that Petit's event was undeniably poetic. Willig's seemed more firmly established in stunt territory

Steed said...

I've always had a soft spot for George Willig because when I visited the WTC in the summer of 1982 I could see his magic marker signature on a steel beam on the roof outside the fenced-in area. You could look closely and read his handwriting.

I remember his TV ad. It said (as I recall), "Are you game enough for Will Gamer's pub cider? George Willig is game enough!"

Sorry to sully this discussion of Phillipe Petit's beautiful & poetic stunt with my recollections of his tackier rival.


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