Wednesday 12 August 2009

Man On Wire - Philippe Petit

Did anyone catch this fabulous docu-film on BBC2 the other weekend (Sunday 2nd Aug)? I Sky Plus'ed it and only got round to watching it last night (hence this rather belated post), but I have to say it was a completely enthralling and truly gripping ride.

I first became aware of the genius\madman (delete as appropriate!) that is Philippe Petit back in the year 2000. On holiday in Canada, a friend and I took a day trip out to Niagara. The falls were simply awe inspiring... It's somewhere i'd wanted to visit ever since I was a child, and they did not disappoint. However, once you've 'done' the falls there is little left of much interest. The town that has built up around the falls is a pretty tacky affair to be honest... think Southend seafront with a wonder of the world bolted on the side! Still, we were there for the day, so thought "in for a penny.." blah blah, and hit the touristy trail. This included a visit to the Imax cinema which was showing a film entitled "Niagara: Miracles, Myths & Magic"... which was actually pretty good. It was a general re-cap on the history of the area, but with a section devoted to all the daredevils who have attempted to 'tame' the falls. In the film a tightrope walker re-creates the feat of 'The Great Blondin' who walked across the Niagara Gorge in 1860. Guess who was the only person crazy enough to re-create it for the camera when they made this film in 1986??!

Man On Wire however, focuses on Philippe Petit's insane idea to walk a tightrope between the twin towers on the World Trade Centre... roof-to-roof! The documentary features new interviews with Philippe, his girlfriend of the time, and many of his accomplices who helped to make the whole thing happen. You'd think that seeing Philippe sitting there in 2008 retelling the story would take the edge off it somewhat, knowing that he's still alive and all that! But there was none of it... this really was compulsive, edge of the seat stuff, in much the same way that 'Touching the Void' was. The film is also considerably enhanced by 'home movie' footage, capturing all of the planning and preparation stages.

The obsession goes back to 1968, when Philippe first read about the construction of the twin towers... which when complete would become (at that time) the highest buildings in the world. Already a tightrope walker of some note, he made the decision there and then that he wanted to walk across them. For the next 6 years he worked on his goal.... The planning was out of this world, and the attention to detail simply stunning.... but then, if you are thinking of walking a tightrope almost 1,400 feet in the air, without a safely net, I guess you'd want to be pretty thorough!

He traveled to New York numerous times to watch the towers being built, even taking helicopter rides over the construction to take ariel photographs. He proceeded to gain access several times over the years, hiding on a roof or unfinished floor. He studied the clothing of the construction workers and copied them, then with fake ID cards, he and his accomplices managed to gain themselves more regular access. They actually got away with telling security they were installing an electric fence on the roof! Later he would pose as an architect to enable himself to interview the workers. Using all the information he gained on his many visits, Philippe built life size models of the tops of the towers, to practice the feat. There was no way he could factor in the 'sway' of the buildings, or what the wind would be like at that altitude, so he just got his mates to pull and bounce on the wire to try and knock him off!

Finally, one night in August 1974, two teams went up to the top of the towers. A fishing line was fired from one roof top to the other via a bow and arrow, and the rest of the night was spent rigging the 'wire' into place. The next morning Philippe finally realised his dream.... walking backwards and forwards between the two towers for a whole hour. Oddly, having filmed all the preparations up to this point, there was no actual footage of the tightrope walk itself. However there were some simply stunning still shots of it. I wasn't expecting them to be, but I found these photographs of him walking between the towers quite moving. At one point he knelt down on the wire, and at another, incredibly, he lay down on it.... a quarter of a mile in the air! News traveled fast (even in the 70s!), and by the time Philippe came off the wire, two burly New York cops were waiting to arrest him.

History will no doubt tell it differently today, but in the early days, America was pretty uninspired by these twin towers, and at the time of Philippe's stunt, much of the building was empty and the landlords were struggling to rent out the floors. This high wire feat seemed to bring warmth to the construction, and started to change the way people felt about the buildings.

I am now very keen to read Philippe Petit's book 'To Reach The Clouds', on which this film was based. Incredibly, it took him 27 years to pen his memoirs on this stunt.... and it was whilst he was writing them that the planes went into the towers.

I found this documentary oddly inspiring... I wont be taking up tightrope walking any time soon i might add, but there was a powerful message behind it all. He really did reach for the sky... and he got there too.

Here's the trailer for the film:

Here's some CBS news coverage from the actual day of the stunt:



E F RICE said...

You bugger Piley, I have this taped and also notice it is on Virgin Catch Up 'poor man's Sky Plus !' and cannot wait to kick the girls out of the lounge to watch it.

Really fancied this when I saw the original trailers and your post has increased the buzz to a major scale. Will report back once viewed.

Martin said...

As someone who get dizzy just standing on tip toe I can't help feeling I'd find it all a bit heavy going watching this. Still, hat's off to him he's obviously made of sterner stuff and got a bigger sense of adventure than me. I've been trying to think of the bloke who featured on Blue Peter a few times and eventually fell off somewhere. This was some while ago as I a fairly young kid at the time. Hopefully Mr Petit will have better luck.

Piley said...

EF - Whoops! Sorry fella! Thought I must be the last person to watch it by now... erm... or maybe I lied... mabe he DID fall off... there, that's got you guessing now eh??

Martin - Didn't Peter Duncan have a go at tightrope walking when he was on Blue Peter?? Think he's still with us tho!


Heff said...

Gotta say I missed it, lol !

Would've like to have seen it though, mostly for the possibility of catastrophe ! Those people are NUTS !

Kolley Kibber said...

I thought this was an amazing film, but I also had a very odd personal response to it - I wondered if I was watching an exceptionally well made fake! There was no doubt that the films of him practicing as a younger man were genuine, but they seemed so professionally made for a bunch of kids playing around with a camera. The one made on the day seemed similarly well constructed, which surprised me given the intensely emotional state they were all in at the time.

I also (typically egotistically) felt sure I'd have been able to remember some news reports of this from the time - I'd have been eleven in 1974, and generally have very good recall of things I saw and read back then, but I have no memory of this happening at all, and nor does anyone else I've spoken to.

I've obviously read too many conference papers on 'suggested memory', but it did occur to me that it would be a fascinating exercise to spend thirty years working on constructing a faked event, and then convince people retrospectively that it actually happened. This kind of thing would be perfect, especially given the emotional power that the Twin Towers later came to represent.

Then I just had a quick word with myself and decided not to be so bloody stupid. Even my Clinical Supervisor looked at me strangely when I told him my 'theory'.

Mondo said...

MOW has been on my must view list for a while now, having been obsessed with the twin towers in the in the 70s - but was away when it aired. Still buzzed up for it though

Ps Have you heard they're making a sequel to Touching The Void - it's called Touching The Cloth

Carl said...

What impressed me was that he did that walk in flared trousers. Now i grew up in the 70's and i remember what it feels like having the wind blowing your lional blairs around. Imagine that while on a high wire between the twin towers ???. Incredible stuff, sadly i missed the programme too although i had ear marked it as a must watch. A ballsy guy.

Piley said...

Heff - you still not got BBC2 over there yet dude??!

ISBW - my you have a suspicious mind!!! and you've got me bloomin thinking now!!! Ahhh!!! What we need here is a Heff or a Wil to confirm they remember this from their childhood... even better, we need a New Yorker like Nazz Nomad, if it happened he'll remember it... HELP Nazz!

Mondo - don't let this one get away! You can pick up the dvd for pocket money over on amazon... less than a fiver. Hey, do you know this is the SECOND time you have made reference to 'touching cloth' in a comment on my blog??! Something you need to share with us fella??!

Carl - haha! yes, i hadn't thought of that! Must of had to factor in the extra wind for them 'knee-drops' he were wearing! As above, less than a fiver from amazon... a bargain. unmissable.


Anonymous said...

i have a agree with i should be working, my first reaction was where is the footage, not just a few fake photo's (maybe)

He did a walk between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and there is video footage of this "walk" again he kneels/lays down, but i'm still not convinced.

Oh well if he did, he has huge balls to do it, and if he didn't then he has had a living off of it anyway, so well payed either way.

Nazz Nomad said...

Oh, he DID make the walk accross the towers.

I do remember it (as yer "noo yawk" connection). It was all over the news for days.

I actually remember viewing the towers as they were being built a couple of years earlier.
You must keep in mind how fucked New York City was in the 70's (they touch upon this in the story).
The city was broke, crime was epidemic and there was very little evidence of "fun city" to found.
When Petit made his walk, there was more of an outcry over how dangerous it was, more so than what a fantastic and miraculous stunt it was. The city had no sense of humor regarding this and they were ready to throw him in jail for a long time until cooler heards prevailed.

It really is unbelievable that Petit made it across... the winds are fierce and of course, one slip...

He was interviewed on the David Letterman show last year and still appears to be the same crazy f$cker who undertook this stunt.

A couple of years later, another daredevil... George Willig ( actually scaled the south tower!

Over the years people tried to jump from the towers with parachutes and hangliders as well.

Cocktails said...

I thought that I had commented on this before (but clearly I WAS just thinking about it!). The comments have been fab on this post and I went through a very 'emotional' time reading them.

I loved the doco, didn't think that it was fake although I was a bit suspicious of the lack of footage of the actual walk. So I was disturbed and shocked by ISBW's assessment and almost... almost began to agree with her. However, I am now completely and utterly relieved by Nazz's assertion that it was true. It would have completely ruined the film for me otherwise! Phew.

Piley said...

anon - have to say it put a seed of doubt in my mind too! But thank the Lord, Nazz has popped by to confirm the whole thing, Phewww!

Nazz - Bless you Sir! Thanks ever so much for putting us out of our misery. Very interesting recolections there, a great insight. You're a star fella!

Cocktails - I know what you mean... the shine had gone slightly for me too... and the more I thought about it, the more I could see that maybe it was one giant hoax... so pleased that it wasn't though, and I can now re-watch it and enjoy it safe in the knowledge he really is telling the truth.


E F RICE said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this with my favourite bit the comical concealment from the security guards by hiding under some tarpaulin on the way up to the top!

I was also amazed at some of the other landmarks Philippe had conquered and the reaction of onlookers, the Sydney Harbour bridge being pretty spectacular.

Nice post Piley.

Anonymous said...

Watch the director's commentary on the DVD... the pathetic excuse they give for there not being any FILM footage of the event, is that even though the team did take up a 16mm movie camera, whoever was supposed to use it (I forget which one it was) had allegedly tired his arms out so much from hauling up that heavy wire, that he couldn't even hold up the film camera. But COULD hold up a still camera. Yeah right.
How heavy could the wire have been? No mention of two people being required to carry it up the stairs at any point. But even if they DID need two people to carry it up the stairs, surely those two people could have fairly easily pulled it all back up the side of the building - IF it ever fell down in the first place?
The fact that there is no film footage tells me that it's a fake. You simply don't go to all that effort, years of planning, only to have some douchebag complain that his arms are too tired to hold a film camera. Come on. It's bullshit. Couldn't he just have sat down and rested the camera on his knees then, if his arms were too weak to hold a camera?
Read the review on IMDB which is where I first heard about the possibility that it might all be a fraud.

Piley said...

EF - Glad you liked it, a real winner isn't it?

Anon - thanks for dropping by. I have to say the more I thought about it the more I was coming to the same conclusions as you. Others have commented above with similar thoughts. But check out the reply from Naz Nomad, he's a born and bred New Yorker, and no bullshit merchant, he says he remembers it happening. A weird one indeed! It is bizarre that there is no footage though, after all that time and trouble preparing it.