Thursday, January 1, 2009

Man On Wire

Man on Wire

By far the best film (video) we saw this Christmas season was Man on Wire, a documentary about the tightrope walker (wire walker) Philipe Petit who walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope in 1974. It is an astonishing film, and I've been thinking about it ever since.

There is, first and foremost, the audacity of the act. Before the Towers were even built, when he saw a drawing of them in a magazine at the dentist's office, he drew a simple line connecting them. There are so many ways to see that act itself: what does it mean to connect these buildings or to see the world as a series of points to be connected and/or traversed?

The act itself is, as many people in the movie say, "impossible." There are only reasons against it, and no reasons for it. All that is accomplished is an act of pure art, an act of beauty-- made all the more beautiful because it is so, well, impossible.

Mostly what it made me think of is a video I watched recently from the AIGA (association of graphic designers) of a talk by Malcolm Gladwell. If you have 38 minutes, you should watch this video. He basically outlines the concept of his new book, Outliers. From what I can tell, the book explores why certain people are extraordinary or able to accomplish extraordinary things. At the heart of his theory is the "10,000 hours rule;" basically he claims that it takes 10,000 hours of "work" dedicated to a task before you can expect to achieve something extraordinary.

What impressed me most about Philipe Petit and his extraordinary accomplishment was that he didn't practice walking on a wire until it was "easy." He didn't spend his 10,000 hours until he was "at home" on the wire and it was like walking down the street. He became absolutely extraordinary at walking on wires, it's true, and even this individual act seemed to require about 10,000 hours worth of planning and execution time, but in the footage you see that every time he stepped out on the wire, be it in his backyard or between the Twin Towers, it was hard. And he snapped into this focused state, his face became a mask of concentration, and he executed the task-- not easily, but with supreme focus.

There is so much to see and say about this movie-- it is endlessly rich for interpretation. There is the echo of the hubris of Petit's act and the hubris of building the Towers themselves. There is the echo of this extraordinarily triumphant act with the knowledge of what we know happened to the Twin Towers in 2001. There is footage of the Towers being built, and that site looks so much like Ground Zero after the Towers fell. There are airplanes flying low overhead as they stand on the top. There is the knowledge of those who jumped from the Towers. No parallel is ever made-- much to the filmmakers' credit. Why state the obvious?

There is also the aesthetic reality of the Twin Towers and the art they inspired. I remember being at my friends' Frances and Jim's loft on Henry Street in Brooklyn where we could lean way over and get through one of their windows a view of the Twin Towers. And one night we could see this amazing art project taking place, where it looked like electric current was moving between the two Towers as between nodes on a battery, and enveloping the Towers themselves. It was extraordinary and beautiful. And of course the twin towers of light projected up into the dark space of night after they were brought down on 9/11.

There is also the fact that right up to the very end, walking between the Twin Towers is not on some level the right thing to do-- not because it is illegal but because it is too risky. Some of the more rational people on the team, who have put considerable time and energy into planning it, start to drop out. Yet, he does it.

And it is transformative. He is not the same, ever again, for having done it. In this way he is like we have imagined in our film and literature the mythology of astronauts who go to the moon and return changed. Petit is, in some very real and inexplicable way, no longer one of us, not of this world. In some ways that makes the act heroic. In many ways the film, and the act, invite us to consider: What would I risk to do something extraordinary? And what would my extraordinary task be, should I imagine myself in that way?

It begins in a dentist's waiting room. He sees the Twin Towers, and he draws a line between them. That line changes the world. It introduces something impossible, and yet he really says, "It is possible. I will do it."

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