Man On Wire Documentary Analysis Essay

The first question is answered largely by Mr. Petit’s own testimony. In his 50s, he is elfin and energetic, a beguiling combination of showboat, idealist and con man. And in his early, outlaw years, before the twin towers walk brought him fame and a measure of legitimacy, he combined an exalted sense of artistic mission with a street criminal’s sense of serious mischief.

Accordingly, “Man on Wire” is constructed like a heist movie, in the manner of “Rififi” or the revived “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise. Though Mr. Petit was alone on the cable that August morning, his walk in the sky was the result of a conspiracy of true believers and casual adventurers. In his two previous acts of guerrilla funambulism — at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris and on the Harbor Bridge in Sydney — he relied on the logistical and moral support of several friends, including his lover, Annie Allix, and his faithful sidekick, Jean-Louis Blondeau.

In interviews, they and some of Mr. Petit’s other confederates — including two American goofballs and Barry Greenhouse, a flamboyant insurance executive who served as the all-important inside man — reconstruct their project, which they referred to at the time as “the coup,” in fascinating detail. There were engineering problems and also challenges that seem to belong to the world of espionage, as well as the inevitable tensions that arise when a group of people pursue a dangerous goal.

Why did they do it? Rather than risking banality by addressing this question head-on, Mr. Marsh allows the answer to be at once self-evident and profoundly mysterious. A work of art is its own explanation, and “Man on Wire” leaves no doubt that Mr. Petit’s coup deserves to be called art. Mr. Blondeau, a sensitive and cerebral foil to the impish Mr. Petit, chokes up when he recalls watching his friend step out over the abyss. “The important thing is that we did it,” he says.

And without making any grandiose claims, this lovely, touching film demonstrates that the World Trade Center sky walk was an important event. The proof is in the emotions — amusement, amazement, awe — evoked by those images of a tiny human figure balancing above a void. Also gratitude. It is easy to imagine that, in contemplating the scale and solidity of those brand-new towers, Mr. Petit saw them at least partly as the vehicle of his own immortality (whether or not he survived the crossing). No one looking up at the New York sky on a hazy morning 34 years ago and seeing a man on a wire could have suspected that the reverse would turn out to be true.

“Man on Wire” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes nudity, sexuality and drug references.

Man on Wire

NYT Critic’s Pick

  • DirectorJames Marsh

  • StarPhilippe Petit

  • RatingPG-13

  • Running Time1h 34m

  • GenresDocumentary, Biography, Crime, History, Thriller

  • Movie data powered by IMDb.com
    Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
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On 7 August 1974 at seven a.m. Philippe Petit crossed the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center. Suspended on his high-wire, Petit balanced in the gap between the towers for forty-five minutes before returning to the surface of the south tower, and entering into the custody of the police waiting to arrest him. Petit’s suspension, which captivated the massed onlookers below, proved so mesmerizing that the New York district attorney eventually dropped the trespassing  and various other  charges, and instead the Port Authority awarded him a permanent pass to the observation deck of the towers. Petit, the criminal turned hero, thereupon gained international recognition. His story was told countless times in newspaper articles and interviews, and later recounted in multiple books and films, each of which attempted to capture something of this singular event.

While the public,or at least publishing,interest in Petit’s feat never completely waned in the years following the walk, it has, since the tragic events of 11 September 2001, experienced something of a renaissance. [1]  The subject of one film in the twenty-six years preceding 9/11, in the seven that followed, Petit’s feat was featured in two documentaries, one animated film, and three books. This increased attention on Petit’s now thirty-some year-old walk, revived since the towers’ collapse, certainly then is tied to the renewed interest in the towers themselves, and their history, of which Petit’s forty minutes without false step remains a brilliant moment. [2]  Its renaissance, accordingly, can be understood as just one more series of attempts to capitalize on the coincidence, and on the increased fascination with all things connected to the towers. But it may also be that this rekindled curiosity testifies to a more significant link between these otherwise disparate events. It raises the question, at the very least, whether something in Petit’s feat is singularly spoken to by September 11th, or vice versa, which would make its retelling imperative today, and now perhaps more than ever.

The most recent and well-known of these retellings, and one that seems to confront this very question, is the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire (UK 2008), by British director James Marsh. This narration of the crossing (what Petit refers to as the “coup”) enlists nearly every technique available to documentary film. Marsh combines archival footage recorded in the seventies, contemporary talking-head interviews with Petit and his accomplices made for the film, and staged reenactments designed to reproduce the tension of the hours preceding the walk. Along with a complex array of flash-backs, flash-forwards, and dueling narrative arcs that produce two separate accounts of the coup, these techniques present an ambitious documentary project. But what distinguishes Marsh’s film and makes it of interest here in this discussion of untimely cinema is not simply the ambition of its technical virtuosity. It is rather the ambition of its narrative aim. For, in attempting to tell the whole story of Petit’s coup, from its inception to its execution and aftermath, it must both tell the story of a criminal infiltration of the World Trade Center towers,along with the years of planning and espionage necessary to pull it off,and communicate the sublime feat of an artistic endeavor that in truth teems with ambivalence. And it must do so after 9/11. Such is, in a sense, the gamble of Man on Wire, and why its incredible success is all the more remarkable. It tells a story that seems today quite untellable. That is, of how a crime involving the twin towers can be a work of art.

Man on Wire, of course, is not simply the narrative of a crime. It also tells the story of a ‘dream.’ Of Petit’s dream to cross between the twin towers, and of his unflinching dedication and unbelievable luck, all of which culminate in his dream’s unlikely realization. This oneiric aspect reappears throughout Man on Wire, mobilized by Petit and his friends in their accounts of the coup, and present in the film’s very narrative structure, which opens with the reenactment of a dream (this time in the literal sense of the term) dreamt by Petit on the eve of coup. [3]   It is this aspect of the walk, an aspect that is moreover undeniable, that perhaps also explains why Disney reportedly once took an interest in making their own film version of the events. [4]   And it might, for that matter, also help to explain why, despite being conceived in 2006, Man on Wire makes no explicit mention of the 2001 attacks, whose impression had since left such an indelible mark on Petit’s feat. An interview with David Jenkins, given by Marsh just before the film’s release, is in this respect telling, precisely for Marsh’s dismissal of any broader aims of Petit’s coup:

When asked why he did it, Petit says there’s no reason. If you can’t instantly see why this is amazing and beautiful, then you shouldn’t ask. He wanted people to enjoy this vision of beauty for forty-five minutes, then carry on with their lives. [5]

The same could be said of Man on Wire, and its resistance to address the tragedy of September 11th directly, perhaps in the name of creating something “amazing and beautiful”; of sustaining as it were, and even extending, Petit’s dream.

But the question of what Man on Wire creates, and by extension, what its relation is to Petit’s coup, quickly becomes clouded, as we observe that the absence of a direct address to 9/11 in no way precludes reference to the event, nor ensures that Petit’s dream will remain a pure one. And, indeed, what image of the World Trade Center towers can today be seen without implicating, referring to, or hinting at, the event of their destruction? Our understanding of Man on Wire, as well as the work of its narrative, depends on such a question. And even more so because Marsh’s film reads as an exploration of the intimate, formal similarities between Petit’s coup and the subsequent terrorist attacks; as an exploration of that which they share beyond the sheer coincidence of place. [6]   Marsh himself admits that the film, “has the structure of a heist movie,” [7]  and subsequent parallels only confirm this eerie resemblance: both plots will take the towers, and New York city, by surprise, and both will be concerned with bringing into question a form of authority. This latter point is powerfully illustrated by one of Petit’s accomplices, Jean-François, as he recounts the way in which during the walk Petit whimsically approached, and then drew back from, the officers who had arrived to arrest him, toying with and in truth taunting them from a position they could not hope to attain. It is the very same desire – to play with the law – which is reaffirmed in the film by nearly every one of Petit’s accomplices, as each admits that it is this aspect of the coup, its slight illegality, that intrigued them. [8]

The two events, then, even seem to be linked by their differences, which form oppositions so strict that they cannot but be drawn together: the external and destructive nature of the 2001 assaults, which bore onto the towers from outside, versus the interiority of Petit’s performance, which emerged from the inside of the towers and drew on their own internal division in order to join them, by crossing them with Petit’s wire.

In the end, however, such parallels and symmetrical differences invariably serve to distance Petit’s feat from any truly troubling resemblance with the terrorist attacks. For what, after all, could be of more stark contrast to this mischievous, non-violent wire walk, than the singularly destructive aims of a suicidal assault? The question, nevertheless, may still be posed as to what kind of work such resemblances, and even those in the service of contrast, do in or for the film. [9]  When asked about these ‘parallels’ Marsh’s response to Jenkins is again revealing:

Yes, it’s basically a plot against these buildings, and they’re all foreigners. They’re hanging around and taking all sorts of photographs and pretending to work for various official companies in order to gain access. The big difference is that the end result is something beautiful. It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked. [10]

Indeed, what Petit accomplishes is certainly not wicked. But how then are we to understand the bearing on it of this subsequent event? And moreover, on Man on Wire, whose narrative will take up Petit’s crossing after the fact?

A Narration of the Impossible

When the Eleatics denied motion, Diogenes, as everyone knows, came forward as an opponent. He literally did come forward, because he did not say a word but merely paced back and forth a few times, thereby assuming that he had sufficiently refuted them. (Repetition) [11]

In order, then, to understand what Man on Wire recounts, it first must be seen in what, precisely, Petit’s feat consists. But such will mean not simply to consider it, qua feat, as something accomplished, or attained, but to look at the sense of this dream as a work. As an intended, preconceived, and even premeditated, artistic act. For it is just this specificity of his walk that still remains too indefinite and too vague, precisely for seeming so absolutely accessible. The most memorable and magnetic images of Petit’s crossing, which in the interviews of Man on Wire are tellingly described as “beautiful,” “extraordinary,” and “magical,” remain the most difficult to decipher. And it is certainly because of their beauty that they commonly give way only to the most nebulous of descriptions. But if it is the case that Petit’s crossing is compelling today, its force must be understood on more clearly discerned grounds than these, even if those grounds ultimately prove abyssal.

The narrative of Man on Wire, while never turning directly to the question of meaning, or offering any explicit analysis of Petit’s walk, does give an account of it. Such is certainly the most recognizable feature of the documentary (both this documentary, and perhaps also the documentary in general) which in attempting to narrate what happened, tells the story of an event, here Petit’s walk, and does so by going back to its origins and reporting it as a sequential, even genetic, history. On 7 August 1974 Philippe Petit crossed the World Trade Center towers, and Man on Wire answers the question of how that was achieved. One of the film’s keenest insights, in this respect, is into the relationship between Petit and the towers, and, in particular, into the role the towers themselves played in making this story possible. The two (or three), Petit and the towers, are presented as sharing a bond, and this is emphasized early on in the film through the juxtaposition of images of Petit as a child and teenager, as he grows and develops, on his way to becoming the Petit who will cross the towers, with, on the other hand, images of the towers themselves still under construction, with artery-like beams exposed and workers hanging magnificently off the sides attaching portions of their yet unfinished exteriors. The impression given here, and reaffirmed elsewhere, of a certain destiny that Petit and the towers would share (a destiny that each would develop into, and ultimately aid the other in realizing) participates in a much broader drive, visible in the film, to present this event as a decisive moment in not only Petit’s life, but in the life of the towers as well. A drive to affirm the event, in other words, as the culmination and turning point of each of their histories.

Perhaps the strongest expression of this narrative, that is, as a genetic account of their development, is the successive presentation in Man on Wire of Petit’s two other monumental walks preceding that on the World Trade Center. One sees impressive footage of a young Petit crossing the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral in his native Paris, only to then fly to Australia to attempt the more challenging crossing of the Sydney Harbour Bridge pylons. This path, which culminates in America with the World Trade Center towers, the tallest buildings in the world at the time, is directly addressed by Petit in a voice-over early on in the film: “I started as a young, self-taught wire walker, to dream of not so much conquering the universe, but as a poet, conquering beautiful stages.” [12]  The process of conquering ever increasing heights, of mounting from stage to stage (a figure that here merges both the theatrical and progressive senses of the term) is thus a poetic movement of appropriation: a movement of poetry and sovereignty both, linked through the figures of height and beauty.

And yet, can such a narrative do justice to what is most essential in Petit’s feat? That is, to the tightrope walk itself? On the contrary, it may be the walk’s resistance to the developmental, to the genetic and hence to the calculable, which defines the act itself, qua tightrope or high-wire performance. If the tightrope walk stages a confrontation with death (as Petit himself will claim at the beginning of the film [13] ) it is on the condition that the walker risk; that the event be open to the essential possibility of a misstep; that the result, in other words, never be knowable in advance. No degree of preparation, then, should be capable of preparing against this possibility, and therefore no narrative, of fully accounting for what will have come to pass. It is for this reason that any attempt to situate the high-wire walk within the greater context of a progression, within the growth of a child developing into an adult, or even within the narrative of its planning and preparationsuch as the whole of the film of Man on Wire masterfully does, misses something essential in the act itself, which resists the very ‘stages’ Petit speaks of, as well as any and all pre-destination, and at the limit, even all explanation. That is, to the extent that the performance depends on contingency (and this even as it attempts to demonstrate, phenomenalize or perform its mastery) this irreducible element of hazard precludes all prolepsis.

And yet, risk is still only one aspect of the walk. The specificity, not only of walking, but also of the walk’s site, is not simply reducible to it. Why select what are at the time the tallest buildings on the planet to traverse? At “the top of the world,” [14]  as Petit refers to them. To understand this choice is also, already, to understand why the World Trade Center crossing is not simply one more walk, or even, one morestage. And this, simply put, because after these towers there are no stages remaining.

Which is not to say that this walk would actually be Petit’s last,it is not. It is also not to completely discount the narrative presentation of it as the culmination of a series of walks performed in the 70s, of which it is rightfully considered the crowning achievement. But against the narrative inscription of the World Trade Center walk alongside these other walks, whereby it is understood to trump them precisely for representing the accomplishment of a more difficult and more daring feat, is a certain ambivalence of the walk itself. For being situated at the top, or on the limit, just below the clouds (Petit’s memoir, which would be used as the source for Man on Wire and only afterward reprinted under that name, was first called To Reach the Clouds) the wire-walk stages just this approach tothe limit, to the beyond, or, in other words, to that which will never be crossed or trans-cended. Being at the limit it indicates this, its limitedness, and the beyond that is essentially unreachable. But this is not gradually arrived at, in incremental fashion, by mounting systematically ever taller stages. It is instead immanent in each walk, engaged with all at once, or tout d’un coup, through the impression of the absolutely great. And it is this, consequently, that the narrative of incremental advancement misses: the performance of the beyond, which is never actually, or in deed, performed.What or where is the limit between Petit’s performance and his performance? That is, between that which is put on stage, spectacularized or phenomenalized, on the one hand, and that which he does, accomplishes, or achieves? The problem of such a limit is central to the nature of his ‘performance,’ and at the heart of the confusion surrounding just what interests in it.

One can see an intimation of this performance of the beyond during Petit’s narration of his first trip to New York City, when he would face the towers in person for the first time. Recounting the experience in Man on Wire, Petit specifies what has become of his ‘dream’:

And the minute I got out of the subway climbing the steps looking at them I knew that there [was] no dream. I knew that my dream was destroyed instantly. Impossible. Impossible. Impossible. It’s clearly impossible. Not only to walk across this (I probably hardly thought of it) but to bring almost a ton of equipment secretly, to rig a wire for hours, to guyline it. It’s clearly out of human scale. But something in me pulls me toward touching it. [15]

In his characteristically grandiose manner Petit declares his dream to be “impossible.” Repeating the term as one would a litany, and declaiming the dream to be thereby destroyed, Petit nevertheless does not abandon it. A few days later he will even decide to enter one of the towers and clandestinely climb to the top. Once on the roof of the unfinished tower, peering over the edge, he recounts in the film his thoughts from the time, repeating this troubling figure of the “impossible”: “And slowly I thought, ‘Okay, now it’s impossible. That’s sure. So let’s start working.’” [16]   Although “impossible,” although “out of human scale,” such will only become a further motivation to work. And this work then, strictly speaking, becomes an impossible work, a work of the impossible.

But is not the paradoxical nature of such a labor  doing just what cannot be done  at bottom just the condition of the feat, which, in order to be truly remarkable, or truly exceptional, must aspire to that which is beyond human capacity and even impossible? If, as Petit himself suggests, the impossibility of this feat is not simply a secondary or even a disappointing circumstance, but instead the necessary condition and motivating drive of the performance itself, the bind Petit here faces would be that which haunts the event as such. As Derrida has argued, theeventfulness of an event depends on its being singular, unanticipatable, and incalculable. An event that is worthy of the name should come as a surprise and, at the limit, should be impossible. It is this impossibility that opens the event’s possibility, marking its horizon as one of absolute surprise, and ultimately transforming the relationship between possibility and impossibility. [17]  Accordingly, we could understand Petit’s entire enterprise – to do the impossible – as just this desire to produce an event.

While then Petit’s assessment yields a radical vision of accomplishment, strictly speaking what he here testifies to is less an ontological determination of the accomplished featordeed, than an aesthetic judgment or impression upon reflecting on the size and grandeur of the towers and of his coordinate enterprise. And it is, in turn, the impression of this impossibility that must at first be attended to, and not the walk itself. The impression, that is, of the sublime or the transcendent that the performance metonymizes. For ultimately what is phenomenal, or exceptional, in Petit’s walk, is less what it accomplishes, than the impression it is able to create, which concerns the very nature of accomplishment, its limit and end. Which is also why the World Trade Center walk will never simply be reducible to the quantifiable differences of height and distance between it and the Sydney Harbour Bridge crossing. For even if Petit’s performance does not actually (in deed or in fact) attain to the impossibility he here proclaims – a question that will remain suspended – its sense, and we might even say force, remains irrevocably tied up with this possibility of its impossibility that it signifies through the performance. Tied to that which never happens, or is never present, but for that very reason remains embedded as the limit of all action, and here becomes its proper subject.

And for that matter, what is here exemplarily on display in the World Trade Center walk can be traced back to the activity of the wire walk generally – whether or not it may ultimately be grounded on a corresponding feat or deed. On the contrary, it may be just this inscription  the performance, the spectacle or the staging of the beyond – which first gives sense to the feat, whose conditions and possibility it will think.

To see this one need only ask where, after all, a wire walk takes place. Not between what, but where, in what space, does it happen, if it happens? On each occasion what is named, what can be named, is only the origin or destination, the beginning and end, the towers or pylons or structures, between which a walk may take place. But what the wire walk stages is just the departure from a proper, known space, into the improper expanse that is unnamed, and indeed, nowhere. The walk stages an encounter with that which cannot be named, or that which, at least, cannot properly be named: a between, a difference, or an abyss.Death also. It stages or simulates this contact with non-presence, and thus, on the one hand, gives itself as a figure for the attainment of the beyond. On the other hand, and by virtue of the very same gesture, it stages the suspension of the walker, whose presence over this abyss is at once threatening and reassuring. The walker, as an occupier of this liminal space, is and is not, is totally present in his absence, and absent in his presence. Suspended. And as the suspension perpetrated by the walker, if it appears at least initially to be masteredcontained, or performed, it nevertheless also brings to bear what threatens just such composure: what might always yet befall it.

This performance of liminality, finally, is also borne out by Petit’s relationship with the law. For by articulating and occupying what was, and in some sense remains to be, a non-space between the towers, Petit is no longer simply outside the law in the criminal sense of a transgressor or trespasser. Being outside the grasp of the police while on the wire, he performs a sovereign unattainability, something of which will continue to haunt him even after the walk, when what is figuratively borne by the performance is in some sense transfigured in the legal judgment that is made of it. For while his accomplice, Jean-François (who is also caught) is deported for his role, Petit’s charges are dropped. In exchange for one more performance Petit is freed, as though it were not the legality of his deed being judged, but the spectacle itself. As though the exceptionality embedded within the performance was here not simply judged, but expressed by the judgment.

This, anyway, is what the performance stages, or has the potential to stage. For it is not at all certain what actually happens when Petit, or anyone else for that matter, steps onto the wire. If we can at least say that it has the potential to signify all this, then the value of the act or deed, what would be the feat (from the French fait, fact or deed), what happens in other words, is less certain than ever. For what this performance puts on display is precisely the meaning of the feat, the attainment of the beyond, or, to translate into the Derridean register: it shows what an event would be. It simulates, through this figural relay, the sense of the event that the accomplishment of the impossible, were it to happen, could it happen, would have. And this is the performance. Not what happens, but what it stages, or signifies.

Ultimately then, it is not because the wire walk does or says all this, but because it has the capacity to do so, that we should resist the temptation to equate what appears to be Petit’s actual accomplishment with the sense of his dream or its work, which may well exceed this. If, alternatively, we attend to or try to account exclusively for what happened, we find only the possible, or that which will have been possible: a masterful balancing act or a lucky enterprise. An accomplishment which strove at most for the near-impossible; for, finally, that which happens or that which is (achieved), comes to define, de facto, the realm of the possible, and thus is always and ever again only its repetition. The event, or an event worthy of the name, on the other hand, is by definition impossible, and it is this condition that Petit’s coup, and moreover the high-wire performance in general, gives us to think.

Petit himself will somewhat famously claim that, with regards to his performance, there is no “why.” [18]   That, in other words, it would be misguided to search for a cause, or reason, or motive. If this is indeed the case, if, as Petit indicates here, there is something in its very nature that is excessive and exempt from all conditions, or at least aspires to be so; if, in sum, there is something unaccountable in his performance, this, ultimately, only makes more pressing the question of its repetition in the narrative, documentary form of Man on Wire. Why repeat that for which there is no why? For, ultimately, even if Petit does not walk in response to anything, even if assigning to him, and to his performance, an interest in the impossible  what amounts to an interest in nothing – is already too reductive, we may still ask, to what does Man on Wire respond, if it responds? And not only to what, but when?

An Impossible Narration

To what does Man on Wire respond, if it responds? This is, in essence, to repeat our opening question as to the sense of the recent, and still growing, interest in Petit’s now thirty-seven year-old walk. As such, this is already a question about time, about the when of this, and other retellings, whose datings from after, or post-9/11, already seem sufficient evidence to at least wonder about a possible relation. It is thus a question of timeliness, of being on time, so to speak, and not simply co-incident, or contemporary. Do these retellings respond to an ‘imperative,’ which, far from excluding, might even make possible the economic capitalization in which they also participate?

The question of time, however, may not here be as straightforward as that of a simple call and response. Indeed, the exemplarity of Man on Wire, beyond its notoriety, was that of seeming to report too much, or too closely on the conditions of Petit’s coup, which at least threatens to put it in uncomfortable proximity with the terrorist attacks. The timeliness of Man on Wire, then, seems to be its very untimeliness, the very improbability of its retelling, which nevertheless has generally been received as “uplifting,” or even “strangely uplifting,” as it is deemed in the interview above. [19]   Strange as it may be, this untimeliness is still only a modificationof “being on time,” which surprises only to the extent that it is already in line with certain expectations, and thus timely. It still responds, and does so after the fact, and thus does not necessarily present a disruption to the linearity of events. A more profound difficulty begins to surface, however, if one attempts to identify when, exactly, this response takes place. It is perhaps a little odd to ask, in the case of a film, when it takes place. We can, for instance, point to its release in theaters in 2008, following less than two years of filming and production. But this date, while adequate to date the film as a work, is not sufficient for its narrative, nor consequently for the time of its response. Man on Wire may respond in 2008, but the time of its narrative, that of the perspective of the film’s narration, cannot be pinned to that date, or at least cannot simply and unreflexively be dated so. This, because the inscribed perspective of the narrative plays out in a time before, or at least outside of  we could even say askew to  that of the 2001 attacks and the towers’ collapse, whose absence, or effacement, cannot simply be read here as one omission among others. [20]

The events of 11 September 2001 have not been registered in the fiction of the narrative of Man on Wire. And such a fact would be absolutely unremarkable, were it the case that the film were simply a dramatic, or “historical” reenactment of Petit’s 1974 walk. But while the film does employ reenactment as a technique, such scenes alternate with retrospective accounts of the walk. Retrospective glances on what was, given from a present moment that is this past’s (present) future. And this future, the present of the film, or the point from which the retrospective glance of the camera lens illuminates Petit’s coup, re-presenting and inflecting it, this perspective is not simply a contingent fact of the film’s composition, but the very rule of its narration. Every interview and testimony is given in person, by a visibly older and aging member of Petit’s team. And that the walk will have resulted in the breaking of all Petit’s friendships, in the end of a love that he shared with his girlfriend at the time, Annie, and with a fame still being enjoyed today; that the memories of their mutual accomplishment still bring tears to Jean-Louis’ eyes, and contrition can still be heard in his voice, such is the veritable substance of the film, which is as much interested in the walk’s meaningtoday, as it is in its accomplishment in 1974. With so much emphasis then on what will have been, the omission of any open reference to 9/11 becomes both poignant and marked, and this whether it was deliberate or not, justifiable or not.

There is then a double gesture that we can locate in Man on Wire. On the one hand the emphasis on legacy, and on what will have been; on the security of a future which bears with it the certainty of a past. This is what no amount of archival footage or staged reenactment could testify to alone, and why the constant back and forth motion of the film, between this past and the present of the narration, is critical. It is through the reflection of the past in the (present) witness, and the relay between the two, that the foundation of both is secured: because the event is essentially presented as closed its legacy is assured, and the integrity preserved of past, present, and future alike.

On the other hand, when we consider the question of the time of Man on Wire, together with the fact that its project is, on the whole, unthinkable without 9/11, it becomes clear that Man on Wire inscribes itself as a response that will respond prior to the event to which it responds. It responds to 9/11, but also before it, bearing a narrative perspective ignorant of, and consequently anterior to, its precipitating event. It therefore responds both before and after the fact, and like Petit on his wire remains suspended: posed on either side of what it cannot speak, but likewise cannot not speak, in the inverted image of the tightrope walker. In attempting to recount Petit’s walk then, Marsh’s film has repeated it, or at least its suspension, and has done so by way of the intermediate event of 9/11. In a peculiar turn then, and by virtue of this relation, we could understand the whole of Man on Wire and its interest in Petit’s feat as its own fascination with the temporal paradox presented by its very structure. If this temporal signature is a sign of the still traumatic nature of 9/11, [21]  then Petit’s performance, which gives itself as a figure for the impossible, would supply a positive content for what remains unspeakable at the ground of the film: its own paradoxical response to an as yet unexperienced event. In this way, the very impossibility of responding “on time” would be the only possible response, precipitated, as it were, by something that can no longer simply be said to have happened.

WORKS CITED

Bennington, Geoffrey. Not Half No End: Militantly Melancholic Essays in Memory of Jacques Derrida. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. “A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event.” Trans. Gila Walker. Critical Inquiry Winter (2007).

Gerstein, Mordicai. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers. New York: Roaring Book Press, 2003.

Habermas, Jürgen, Jacques Derrida, and Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003.

Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 6. Trans. Edna H. Hong and Howard V. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

McCann, Colum. Let the Great World Spin. New York: Random House, 2009.

Petit, Philippe. To Reach the Clouds. New York: North Point Press, 2002.

Petit, Philippe. Man on Wire. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2008.

[1]  See High Wire (US 1984) by Sandi Sissel, for a pre-9/11 documentary on Petit’s World Trade Center walk.For those retellings of Petit’s story since 2002, see: Man on Wire (UK 2008), by James Marsh; the animated film The Man Who Walked Between the Towers (US 2005); based on the children’s book of the same name: Mordicai Gerstein, The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, (New York: Roaring Book Press, 2003); the documentary film series New York – The Center of the World, Part 8 (US 2003); Petit’s memoir: Philippe Petit, To Reach the Clouds, (New York: North Point Press, 2002); republished as Man on Wire in 2008: Philippe Petit, Man on Wire,(New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2008); and the novel, Let the Great World Spin: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin, (New York: Random House, Inc., 2009), which takes Petit’s walk as its centerpiece.

[2]  It is commonly accepted that Petit’s walk in 1974 played a large role in popularising the then unpopular Port Authority tower-project. See especially New York – The Center of the World, Part 8.

[3]  Whether this is, strictly speaking, a “reenactment” or simply an “enactment,” is open to debate, as what is displayed on film never, properly speaking, took place.

[4]  Such is reported by Marsh in his interview with David Jenkins: David Jenkins, “James Marsh on ‘Man on Wire’” 5 October 2009,http://www.timeout.com/film/features/show-feature/5241/james-marsh-on-man-on-wire.html (April 2011).

[5]  Jenkins.

[6]  Ultimately, even this cannot simply be considered a “coincidence.” For in both acts it was above all the significance of this place, of the towers and their symbolic position, that made both gestures possible, even in their most divergent aspects.

[7]  Jenkins.

[8] Man on Wire as a film is extremely attuned to the importance of legality and illegality for Petit’s performance, and shows this by also tracing the short history of monumental walks leading up to that on the World Trade Center. The viewer thus also sees Petit’s earlier crossings of Notre Dame in Paris, and of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Sydney. On each occasion it is first a matter of breaking into the facilities and rigging his wire, then the walk itself, and finally, like clockwork, Petit’s arrest by the local police forces. Being arrested, far from the exception, is shown to be the rule of these performances. One may well consider it the performance’s conclusion, which would not then, strictly speaking, end with his dismount from the wire.

[9]  On this point, see the same interview with Jenkins, which treats the question of the film’s proximity to a “heist movie,” and its eerie rapport with the terrorist attacks.

[10] Jenkins.

[11] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition: Kierkegaard’s Writings, Vol. 6, trans. Edna H. Hong and Howard V. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 132.

[12]Man on Wire(UK 2008).

[13]Man on Wire(UK 2008). Petit’s precise words are: “The fact that the wirewalking activity is framed by death – it’s great because then you have to take it very seriously. It’s a little half a millimeter of a mistake or a quarter of a second of inattention and you lose your life.”

[14] Man on Wire(UK 2008). Petit reports saying this to the psychiatrist who he must see after being arrested: “I keep asking for water because I was so dehydrated. And he said, ‘When was the last time you drank?’ and I said, ‘Are you crazy? You’re mad! I mean, do you know what I did? I danced at the top of the world. I am in the front page of all the world.’”

[15] Man on Wire(UK 2008).

[16] Man on Wire (UK 2008).

[17]  On this notion of the event, see especially: Jacques Derrida, “A Certain Impossible Possibility of Saying the Event.” trans. Gila Walker (Critical Inquiry: Winter 2007), 441-461. On 9/11 and the event see his interview with Giovanna Borradori: Habermas, Jürgen, Jacques Derrida, and Giovanna Borradori, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2003). And for a helpful analysis of the event in Derrida’s work, see the chapter, “In the event,” in Geoffrey Bennington, Not Half No End: Militantly Melancholic Essays in Memory of Jacques Derrida (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2010).

[18] In Man on Wire Petit explains his response to the reporters seeking a reason for the World Trade Center walk: “You know, ‘Why? Why?’ and that was a very (again, in my way of seeing America) a very American finger-snapping question. I did something magnificent and mysterious and I got a practical ‘Why?’ And the beauty of it is that I didn’t have any ‘why’.”

[19] Jenkins.

[20]  It should be noted that while Man on Wire makes no mention of 9/11, Petit’s To Reach the Clouds does conclude with a chapter in memory of the towers. Petit actually began writing the memoir in early 2001, before the attacks, and only came to finish it in 2002 after a substantial pause.

[21] Cathy Caruth has identified the structure of the traumatic experience as one which, in occurring too soon, is not experienced by the subject. The traumatic event is essentially a temporal one, marked by the unpreparedness of the subject, who will consequently repeat, so as to experience, what was not, properly speaking, experienced the first time. It is then already in a sense a problem of responding, and of the impossibility of responding on time, the first time. Whether, to what extent, or for whom, 9/11 qualifies as a trauma, is ultimately less important here than the fact of its absence from the narrative of Man on Wire, in whose case we can say quite literally that it has not been experienced. For more on the problems of trauma and the unexperienced event, see Cathy Caruth,Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996).

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