THE short life of New York’s World Trade Center began with one spectacular crime and ended with another. Philippe Petit can only speak for the first. “My story is a fairytale, ” he says at the start of Man On Wire, a new documentary about Petit’s illegal tightrope walk between Twin Towers on August 7, 1974.
This film goes on to confirm that the thinking behind the act was infinitely simpler than the staging, but its meaning has never been agreed upon. Only Petit himself knows why he did it, although he has also suggested that he doesn’t, except to say that he was operating in the realm of aesthetics, where reasons are considered inscrutable, irr elevant, or tasteless. “When I see three oranges, I juggle, ” he famously declared at the time. “When I see two towers, I walk.”
Today, he claims “total ownership” of the deed that made him famous at the age of 24. Not that fame or age had anything to do with it, according to the qualifying statement that follows .”I simply do not comprehend how these things are presented by most people, ” says Petit. “I am obviously ill at ease on this Earth, in this century. I think I belong to the renaissance, or another planet. Sometimes people ask me how old I am and I honestly don’t know. I feel the same as when I was 18.
“Of course, my body is different, but I think it is a force and not a weakness to slow down sometimes, to tailor your movements to the capacity of your muscles and bones. I am stronger today in my mastery of the wire and of myself.”
For the record, Petit is now 59, and appears to dye his hair, unless the heights have somehow turned it not white but bright orange. He still speaks English with a French accent after more than 30 years in the United States, where he lives not far from the scene of what he once called “the artistic crime of the century”. He and long-term partner Kathy O’Donnell have a wooden house in upstate New York, with a barn that Petit built himself, where he plans and rehearses his tightrope walks, most of which are legal these days (although Petit has been arrested more than 500 times for unlicensed street-juggling).
Arriving to be interviewed on the top floor of an Edinburgh hotel, he goes straight to the windows, and asks about specific features of the skyline. In places that he doesn’t know, he orients himself above street level. This can become a game, he says, in which he stares at a fixed point overhead until other people stop to see what he is looking at. Which indicates a certain superiority to the crowds who gather below him wherever and whenever Petit walks on the high wire.
“It’s a torn situation, ” he admits, looking out towards the castle through sunglasses. “I love to travel and to share my thoughts with people and have wonderful human encounters. At the same time I look at a city being destroyed by tourists and I have no faith in people at all. I would like to live, or I do live, in the clouds. It is very silly, I know, but I feel that life is short and I have tried to live it very close to the way I want; and so, voila.”
In his 2002 memoir, To Reach The Clouds, Petit suggests that he started climbing, as a four-year-old boy, out of premature contempt for his fellow man. His career might even be read as a means of putting himself at progressively greater distances from the rest of the world, beginning with his bourgeois parents. He dropped out or was thrown out of several schools and ran away to Paris, where he taught himself street juggling, pickpocketing, and funambulism – the art of the tightrope – with additional coaching from the Omankowsky family, a dynasty of Czech high wire experts.
“I had no contact with my parents for many years, ” says Petit, “although towards the end of my father’s life someone persuaded me to open the door and we became best friends. It was sad that it did not happen earlier, but the way I recall it, I did not feel any understanding or support.
“Even after my most famous adventure at the World Trade Centre, I imagine that they still had trouble at garden parties, explaining what their son was doing. I can hear my father saying, ‘Oh, he is a man of the theatre’.” Petit had designs on the Twin Towers before they were even built, having seen the plans in an architecture magazine in a dentist’s waiting room.
By the time he arrived in New York to look at the almost-finished structures, he had already performed unlawful wire-walks over Notre Dame cathedral in 1971, and Sydney Harbour Bridge two years later, but the World Trade Centre was of barely imaginable height and complexity.
“It is definitely not man-made, ” wrote Petit in his notebook, “nor of any use to us humans . . . I know it’s impossible, but I know I’ll do it!” He could not have done it alone. Man On Wire contains original footage of Petit and several friends rehearsing their so-called “coup” in a French field. He says he has been happy to rewatch it, “remembering the feelings, the essence of my adventure”, but Petit draws the line at nostalgia. “It’s nice to see a bunch of us rolling in the grass and having a great time. But my life has not stopped, and it has pulled me in different directions.”
So many, it seems, that Petit never got around to making his own movie of the event as originally intended, and is no longer in touch with anyone involved, although all of them appear in Man On Wire. His former best friend Jean-Louis Blondeau and ex-lover Annie Alix weep on camera while recalling how their connections to him were somehow severed in the process of achieving the impossible.
Petit waited decades before granting screen rights to producer Simon Chinn, who offered him in turn a measure of creative control, and recommended British director James Marsh for the resulting documentary. His own film might have been “a little more abstract”, he suggests, more playful in terms of music and editing. “But this is only to describe how there is the living entity of a filmmaker within me, and not to criticise the beautiful movie that James Marsh has made.”
Marsh, for his part, will admit that he had to protect Petit’s story, in places, from the man’s own memories of it. To Reach The Clouds makes constant reference to the tools of Petit’s esoteric trade – cavalettis, lyra-shackles, marlinspikes, catenary curves – and he apparently considered those technical terms essential to the documentary. The director, however, considered them secondary to the comedy and drama of clandestine rigging at the World Trade Centre.
After years of toing and froing among various prospective accomplices, Petit finally snuck into the South Tower the night before the “coup” with an old friend from Paris and a half-hearted New York bohemian, while Jean-Louis Blondeau raided the North Tower with an even less reliable local newcomer to the plot. They hid until the guards were out of sight, then Blondeau threaded an initial thin line between the buildings by shooting an arrow from one rooftop to the other.
Unable to see it in the dark, Petit stripped naked to feel his way around the opposite roof, until the wire brushed against his skin. Even then it took hours to pull a much thicker and heavier tightrope taut across the gap, while one American fled and the other refused to help, leaving the French to race against the sunrise – Petit wanted everything ready before the streets below filled with office workers, who would then become his audience. Man On Wire is engineered much like a heist movie, but the reconstruction sequences become increasingly expressionist as Petit and his accomplices move closer to enacting his dream. They become silhouettes, and the stars wheel above them.
As Marsh sees it, strict realism would not have been in the right spirit. “It’s not just a bloke in tights walking across a wire, ” he says. “There is so much more at stake. It’s a defiance of gravity, and the rules of human conduct. He goes to a place that you have no right to go. He just presumes that you can.” Obviously, there were also more prosaic transgressions involved – breaking, entering and so on. Sergeant Charles Daniels of the Port Authority Police Department was ordered to arrest Petit but literally could not stop him, and had to stand and wait until the performance was finished.
Afterwards, he described what he saw as more “dancing” than “walking”, telling reporters: “Everybody was spellbound . . . I figured I was watching something that nobody else would ever see in the world.” The reporters could only ask Petit the same question that film festival audiences are still putting to him today. Marsh has heard it often enough to answer on his subject’s behalf. “Even now people are always asking him: ‘Why did you do this?’ It’s like asking Picasso why he paints. He did it because he couldn’t not do it. Because he had to do it. Something beautiful is always worth doing for its own sake.” Those same audiences tend to cry at the end of Man On Wire, despite the foregone conclusion – Petit obviously survived and succeeded, although they are not the same thing to him, and his art may actually reside in the difference between them.
“It is not interesting to me to go from point A to point B, ” says Petit. “If the heart is not completely involved, then the physical action is uninspiring. There is a beautiful Spanish word, ‘duende’, which means you are being visited by an otherworldly force that graces your performance, blesses you with a drop of the miraculous, and anyone who sees it is so moved, so touched, because something extraordinary has happened, something beyond human.”
Duende might indeed explain the reaction of most mortals to the sight of a man walking in the space between two buildings that no longer exist. But the more recent sight of people falling through that space might also have something to do with it. Man On Wire makes no mention of September 11, 2001, and having once contemplated the prospect of “a beautiful death” at the Twin Towers does not make Petit better able to imagine an ugly one. “No, ” he says. “I dedicate my life to a very simple task, that of walking. OK, I am walking in the sky, and the line is thin, almost invisible, but I cannot think of abandoning that line, subject to forces that I do not control. I cannot even talk about that.”
Petit prefers not to talk about death in general. He is a self-confessed “man of the contrary”, having admitted to feeling extreme fear before setting foot on the wire at the World Trade Center, but also great pride, and a certainty that he wouldn’t fail. He suggests that risk is a trick of perception, mitigated by “years and years of training”, but has also written that true mastery of the high wire creates “the illusion that life is not at stake”. The point, perhaps, is that these things are perfectly balanced.
Is he more afraid of the less remarkable death that comes to the rest of us – sick, hospitalised and earthbound? “Well probably I will rebel from that, ” he says. “I will not end my life old and ill with tubes sticking out of me, little machines beeping around me. I simply will not accept if death is inviting me in any way that I find disgusting.”
The worst has in fact already happened to Petit, who lost his only daughter Cordia Gypsy to a brain injury at the age of nine. He does not believe this makes his story any less of a fairytale. He even concedes the possibility that viewers of Man On Wire are affected not only by his feat itself, nor the fact that it restores to life two symbols of the world as it was, but by the glimpse that it provides of another world altogether. “Yes, ” says Petit. “I believe in another world in my heart and my imagination. Absolutely, this is how I felt. Meeting The Gods is the title of a chapter in my book, which is a way of sharing with the reader what happened that day.”
He is not referring to the gods of any particular religion, and instead invokes his own – To Reach The Clouds describes gods in the wire, in the crowd, in his feet, and in “the void”. He says he heard them howling as he passed over their heads. But only Petit himself can vouch for this. However he chooses to share his experience, we cannot know what he knows. But his book ends on a dedication to his late daughter, with which he makes himself clear: “The day I soar to meet you, Gypsy, they may say of me: ‘He learned to walk in mid air.'”