Man on Wire
A Moment of the Sublime
At one moment in James Marsh's Man on Wire, highwire artist Philippe Petit talks about arriving in New York hoping to tackle the World Trade Centre. "It is impossible. That is for sure. Now let's start working." At another moment his partner in crime and the proper mastermind behind Petit's dare-devilry, Jean-Louis Blondeau, says, "if you want something nothing is impossible". We will have more to say about this notion of the impossible, but this wasn't only an act of astonishing daring; it was also illegal. They had to sneak in and prepare the operation without anyone finding out. Man on Wire creates an initially complex time structure as it moves towards the key event: it shows us Petit's previous accomplishments at Notre Dame and Sidney Harbour Bridge, and also the building of the Twin Towers, built, Petit reckons, specifically so he can cross them. This is background detail, of course, but it is also part of the film's determination to find what philosopher Immanuel Kant would call the dynamic sublime by passing through the mathematical sublime. Kant differentiates one from the other by seeing the distinction between our relationship with a mountain and with a tall building. While traditionally through Longinus, Burke and others the sublime had been awe in the face of the enormous, of high mountains and deep seas, of hurricanes and tornadoes, and thus more or less what Kant calls the Dynamic sublime (forces that overwhelm us and are immeasurable), the mathematical sublime passes through the measurable, and no buildings before them were so obviously measured as the Twin Towers.
We will say more about Kant's notion of the sublime later, but vital to the film's suspense is Jean-Louis and Philippe's own mathematical endeavours - their determination to take into account the variables that would make Petit's crossing of the towers possible. Knowing that there may be wind on the day of the mission, Petit in preparation in France gets his friends to pull at the wire to see if they can knock him off. Also, usually a highwire stunt needs cross wires to keep the highwire steady. In the circus, this wire will be attached to the ground, but that was never going to be possible when you are 546 metres in the air and the whole operation clandestine, so the idea was to attach the cross wires to other parts of the buildings. Marsh goes to great and understandable lengths to make us well aware of the risks involved and the thinking behind the event. This is the precise sublime, and yet we never get the sense of passionless boffins behind the scenes; more an amateurish determination to create mischief that can at the same time invoke awe. This is made wonderfully clear when Marsh includes footage of a cop, Charles Daniels, who waited on the roof to arrest Petit, while Petit made fun of the cops with funny faces as he refused to come in off the wire. "I personally figured I was watching something that somebody else would never see in the world, says the cop. Cheek meets awe and the cop's professional duty is secondary to the awareness of immense human achievement.
To have some idea of the craft involved in Marsh's film we can attend to the editing in this sequence. As the cop talks, the film cuts away from him five times, to include footage of Petit and another colleague Jean-Francois Heckel talking, various stills and also helicopter footage from above the towers. It gives texture to the bureaucratic cop's comments as he uses phrases like "we mentioned to his associate the fact that if he did not come in we would have a helicopter pluck him off of the wire..." but also acknowledges that the cop was astounded within his official duty. This is documentary filmmaking playing fair to the subjects it chooses to focus upon, even if it would seem to use devices that deny the objectivity often vital to giving dignity to those who speak. This was the ethos behind Direct cinema in the sixties where the film would usually work in long takes and wouldn't be inclined to use either music or cutaways to other events. This is exactly what Marsh does as he utilises Michael Nyman's music and uses other interviews, archival footage and photographs in between Daniels' words. Marsh even uses at various stages of the film reenactments, a device that in the wrong hands can seem crude and gratuitous, but here indicates narrative precision. In one sequence Petit discusses being on top of the towers at night just after Jean-Louis has fired the arrow which will contain the first piece of string, allowing the rope tying operation to be set in motion. Failing initially to find it, Petit strips naked and in the darkness hopes that it will rub against his foot or leg. Sure enough, he comes across it this way as Marsh offers a monochrome reenactment with an actor playing Petit. The arrow was hanging on the ledge of the tower; a gust of wind would have ended the dream.
The idea of reenactment is not unproblematic, but it has been skilfully used at least since the mid-eighties, with Erroll Morris's The Thin Blue Line putting to rest the notion that it is a lazy, manipulative device for viewer's incapable of using their own imaginations. In Morris's film, the reenactments don't confirm an event but call it into question as we have different points of view that the reenactment dramatizes. Morris is looking for truth rather than drama but uses drama to find the truth. He wants to view the event from multiple perspectives before relying on the incompatibility of these perspectives to find out the lies; then out of these lies, and a very useful confession, to find the truth. Reenactments we can say are only as good as the truth they find not the drama they produce. In a work that shares some similarities to Man on Wire, Kevin Macdonald's One Day in September, the film plays up the drama to the detriment of finding the truth: its purpose is to generate outrage towards the Palestinians responsible and dismay at the incompetence of the West German police. A level of complexity is never quite addressed because it would get in the way of the narrative throughline: the tragedy that was Black September and the terrible deaths of the Israeli wrestling team. Macdonald may have tried to be even-handed in his telling, but suspense was the thing: "In broad terms, we were trying to make a piece of entertainment. It's not an entertaining story, it's not a movie to which you'd take a date, but it's entertaining in the sense that we're trying to tell what is a fantastically interesting story, in the strongest way possible, to keep the audience sort of gripped by the story." Macdonald adds And that was one of the main things we tried to do: we asked ourselves, what would happen if you took a really serious topic, did an investigation, and then reported it in a way that people usually associate with a fiction film, concentrating on narrative and tension? That was the basis of the project." (NLine.Com) We can understand Macdonald's wish, but some subjects don't allow the story to be told in certain ways without simplifying that story. Man on Wire is no less suspenseful than MacDonald's film but we feel its sense of suspense never undermines a truth within the telling. It plays fair to its own complexity. It doesn't matter whether a filmmaker is as faithful to what is in front of the frame as we find in Wiseman, Maysles and other practitioners of Direct Cinema, or uses a panoply of techniques. What counts is a fidelity to the tale told. Marsh acknowledges this by indicating that the dramatizing techniques he uses aren't inconsistent with the manner in which Petit speaks. He is himself a dramatist of his own life experiences; Marsh insists on finding a style that is consistent with this personality.
This is the adrenalized documentary meeting adrenalized subject matter. Petit is what we would call a larger than life figure despite his diminutive stature (he is 1m 70), someone who demands from a film made about him the drama he would happen to give to his own life. It is also why When We Were Kings is a marvellous account of Muhammad Ali's rumble in the jungle with George Foreman. It knows in Ali it has a subject you cannot easily overly dramatize, and why another very fine film about a boxer, Tyson, is much more subdued. In the former instance, director Leon Gast (using mainly archival footage and talking heads interviews in the present) locates a moment in a charismatic man's life where he defies the odds; in the latter, James Toback meditates on the question of what it means to be Mike Tyson: a black boxer with a ferocious temper he cannot easily control and yet whose personality suggests a high degree of rumination as Toback focuses on Tyson explaining himself. Gast and Toback respectively respect their subjects, finding in their form the nature of their personality. One is richly dramatised; the other quietly contemplative. If One Day in September is an 'exploitative' documentary it rests on trying to find suspense in a subject that also demands nuance. Marsh can justifiably claim to have in Petit a ready-made subject of suspense: what could be more self-suspenseful than to risk one's life crossing the Twin Towers? As Petit says, remembering the first time he found himself at the top of the tower. "I see the other tower and I imagine the void..." The film, like When We Were Kings, takes an event from history (both took place in 1974) and generates a tension that shouldn't really exist since we know the outcome. It possesses an unavoidable spoiler. But this is where we can see that the recent obsession with spoiler alerts are often irrelevant. If we can watch Ali beating Foreman, or Petit crossing the towers as events soon to take place diegetically, even if they have long since taken place historically, then what matters is not the fact of events, but the means by which they are shaped to give them significance. One reason why events survive their suspensefulness resides in what sits inside them. Life is in a strict sense constantly suspenseful but not necessarily meaningful: we do not know what the next moment will bring until it happens. Obviously, within this everyday suspensefulness, there is exceptional suspense and none more so than Petit's deed. But many documentaries and TV shows have taken everyday suspense and hyperbolized it as if it were exceptional suspense. TV will turn a possible break-up, a competition between two cakes or a cliffhanger question on a quiz show and utilise tension cranking devices, using commercial breaks and separate episodes to extend the excitement. But this is the everyday given a suspenseful present that has within it no suspenseful past. Once the tension is over it is over. Exceptional suspense can survive the spoiler alert just as it can survive its future revelation after the event. It contains within it meaning much greater than the suspense generated. Man on Wire offers adrenalized non-fiction filmmaking but it doesn't settle for suspense. It searches out nothing less than the sublime, and hence Petit's comment about the void.
This returns us to Kant's ideas on the mathematical and the dynamic sublime. The mathematical concerns measurements; the dynamic (or aesthetic) intuition. As Kant says, when the imagination performs the combination [zusammensetzung] that is required to present a magnitude, it encounters no obstacles and its own progresses to infinity, while the understanding guides it by means of numerical concepts, for which the imagination must provide the schema' and in the procedure, which is involved in the logical estimation of magnitude, there is indeed something objectively purposive under the concept of a purpose (since any measuring is a purpose). (The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism) Man on Wire is impressive not because it focuses on an impressive event, not even that it draws a great deal of suspense out of that event as it builds cross-cutting tension. More importantly, it comprehends that while there is the mathematics of the action there is also the dynamic expression of that deed. When Petit and Jean-Louis use the term the possible they are unlikely to be thinking of the term philosophically, but that doesn't mean inside their endeavour isn't a feeling that coincides with the philosophical, as we might think of Kierkegaard's comment, "hope is a passion for the possible." Equally, when Petit uses the term void he won't be thinking of the various associations the term has philosophically, from Hegel to Heidegger, Nietzsche to Blanchot, evident, for example in Blanchot's "I lean over you, your equal, offering you a mirror for your perfect nothingness, for your shadows which are neither light nor absence of light, for this void which contemplates. (Thomas the Obscure) But it does not seem tp us pretentious bringing philosophical thinking to bear on Petit's actions, as it would to offer an essay on Heidegger and British baking, Kierkegaard and the pub quiz. We don't want to be overly facetious about this; just to give proper magnitude to the nature of Petit's deed, and Marsh's attempt to do justice to it.
It resides centrally in the idea of risk but even this won't quite explain the importance of Petit's achievement. As Paul Auster would say of a Petit book, On The High Wire, perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the treatise: the high-wire is an art of solitude, a way of coming to grips with one's own life in the darkest, most secret corner of the self. (The Red Notebook) There were other risk-takers during the seventies far better known than Petit, none more so than the all-American daredevil Evel Knievel, a figure who entertained crowds at Caesar's Palace revving his motorbike and hurtling above so many buses and trucks. These were impressive feats yet they also fall within the realm of what we can call a 'stunt', with its connotations of antic and caper. Petit's action would seem closer to a feat, a word synonymous with stunt, but at the same time distinct from it. No doubt Knievel risked life and limb, suffering from far more injuries than Petit, but this partly rested on Knievel's relative risk versus Petit's absolute risk. Knievel was not staring into the void but at a hospital bed: by 1975 Evel had broken 433 bones in various acts of daredevilry. It was as if people would go not only to see him succeed but also to watch him fail, knowing that while his crash would be a disaster, it wouldn't be a tragedy. It was a consistent loss of dignity rather than a single moment where he would lose his life. How we define a feat versus a stunt, a great contingent moment against a minor moment of suspense is not easy: how can we see Petit and Ali subjects for great documentaries while other figures like Knievel are not? A boxer, after all, would seem to be closer to Knievel than to Petit: someone who can expect to get hurt in the ring even if he wins the fight.
Perhaps a better way of looking at the question is to see that an event such as Ali beating Foreman in Zaire, or Petit crossing the Twin Towers, manages to go beyond a limited idea of temporality towards the void that makes the idea of suspense irrelevant. Obviously, such events are both historical and temporal, taking place in 1974 and containing the dimension of success or failure that retrospectively disappears. While this is the nature of any stunt or any sporting match, there are a few such moments that seem to go beyond their temporality and achieve a transcendent possibility. Just as in literature there are characters who epitomize given states - Captain Ahab's obsession, Swann's jealousy, Madam Bovary's frustration and so on - so there are events that do likewise.( Evel Knievel does not quite sum up anything bigger than the stunt, and the suspense involved is tied to its temporality and has very little life beyond it.) It is as if you were to choose one example of a particular sporting event or activity and let it sum up that activity and indicate the human's capacity for endeavour. This is tightrope walking we could say; this is boxing. It is as though most of human life avoids the void or fails to achieve the capacity to occupy it, and then along comes a great work of art, a great sporting event, or a momentous political action (the French or Russian Revolution, the Paris Commune, May 68 would be examples from the left), and one is no longer avoiding but risking the void, finding the possibilities in the new or the immensely surprising.
Petit's prior highwire adventures were impressive but they couldn't quite define the thing he was doing. They were highwire acts but still appeared to fall into the gimmick: they could not quite define the very notion of the highwire in the process of Petit doing the deed. There were several reasons why tackling the Twin Towers offered this chance. It wasn't just a tightrope walk, it was also a complicated criminal offence as Marsh works generically from the Heist film. This is the logistical operation that needs to pulled off by complexly clandestine means. A high-class burglar is a bit like a surreptitious engineer: someone who needs to work with very precise measurements but without legal guidelines. The burglar works if you like with illegal guidelines, knowing that it is not a public at large that needs to be protected as they work on a bridge, a high-rise or municipal building, but usually only themselves. Precision is self-safety: they must make the operation work for them and dissolve without a trace after they have left the scene. Whether it is Rififfi or The Red Circle, Le Trou or Un Flic, it is a genre the French would seem to have mastered methodically rather than suspensefully. The American equivalent often appears to play up the car chase and the action; the French film, the method in the execution. Had Petit been brought up watching these films and wanted to commit a crimeless heist and top it with a bravuro display on a tightrope to tell the world that he has nothing to take from it; only something to give? If engineering might seem like a staid profession indeed, one that offers a low level of nevertheless long-term anxiety as the engineer might twenty years later be sitting having his breakfast when the news informs him that a building he was the safety engineer for collapsed, Petit's endeavour puts all the anxiety into the given moment and consequently receives from it as his own gift an adrenaline boost few humans could ever hope to attain.
After the tightrope walk he was as high as a kite, with the impressive nature of the heights he had achieved managing to put that simile in its place: he would have been much higher than a kite. After a brief arrest, he was a free man in every sense of the term and immediately took advantage of this freedom by sleeping with a woman other than the girlfriend who had done so much to support him through the years leading up to the World Trade Centre. Annie was promptly jettisoned for a random beauty who wanted a taste of madness and celebrity and couldn't have done better than Philippe. Though the film pays no attention to this new, very brief woman in Petit's life, there is something fascinating about the impromptu groupie, someone who hears about his great feat and promptly shares his bed. The groupie might have been an especially seventies phenomenon, with the slackening of conventional morality meeting new levels of superstardom, but the point of the groupie is that they would attach themselves to someone who might show no fidelity towards them, but they would have shown in their ongoing admiration a degree of fidelity towards the star. The groupie may have gone to some half a dozen concerts before getting the chance to sleep with the singer of the band, but Petit's groupie presumably heard of his fame hours earlier and was readily available to join in the high. Annie Allix, who appears as a calm, patient and supportive figure who knew, after The Twin Tower high wire act and the subsequent betrayal, that the relationship was over, would not have been the partner of choice to accompany him after such a high, and while little is made of his sexual encounter (nevertheless given a black and white semi-comedic reenactment) it helps give to the film its melancholy, and also an aspect of low key tragedy and myth. Petit was an Icarus who did get to touch the sun, but he was also the prince for a day who didn't want to spend that time with his friends and girlfriend. Everyone felt betrayed and perhaps even more than Annie his childhood friend Jean-Louis: the scriptwriter to Philippe's metteur en scene; the brains behind Philippe's brawnish bravado.
It is the problem, the film suggests, of the single-minded. How can you expect a man to obliterate everything from his mind as he crosses a wire half a kilometre in the sky, and then immediately allow that single-mindedness to become once again multiply minded and empathic, with Philippe showing concern and consideration for those around him as soon he returns to earth? That was a feat Petit couldn't quite manage, as if adrenalized enthusiasm is contrary to ethical sobriety. This doesn't mean we should accept morally aberrant behaviour from high-achievers (pun intended), it is just that we shouldn't be surprised if such high-achievers don't manage it.To suggest that those who achieve great deeds are above the common moral herd can be an absurd a priori; to acknowledge that many who do insist on pursuing activities that rush adrenaline through the system find it hard to play fair to others is nevertheless not surprising. We are back to Kant, and this time his moral philosophy when he says one should will one's deed as a universal principle. Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law Kant says in The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. That is a hard call when only one man in the world can will himself up a world trade centre and cross a wire to the other one Does the act of the exceptional deed carry so often with it the correlate of moral abnegation? Does the sublime prove the exception that undermines the conventional, and do Annie, Jean-Louis and the others acknowledge that someone who crosses the Twin Towers isn't above moral judgement but isn't quite capable of it either? These aren't quite the same thing. Someone who kills because they feel they are superior to others is placing him or herself above the moral law (we can think of Raskolnikov's musings in Crime and Punishment); someone who takes a drug that makes them hyper-aggressive (think Nicholas Rays's Bigger than Life) is placing themselves outside the law. The latter has the mitigating circumstances of the drug as the former does not. We might choose to lock up the person taking the drug, but the main point should be banning it. In the latter instance, we bring the man inside the law by removing the drug rather than locking up the person. The law is the ban rather than a punishment. But then what do we do about great feats that place people beyond themselves, that make them ecstatic: to be literally outside oneself? As Petit says in an interview in the DVD extras, "let's do something magnificent. And when you think of that you need all your body and mind to do the impossible..you should lose yourself in your passion."
Petit's highwire feat was, of course, a crime in the strict sense: nobody would have given him permission to cross the towers so he had to do it on the fly. As Jean-Francois says, "...it was illegal. So I knew it was illegal but that was what got me a bit excited. Against the law but not wicked or mean." Equally, once the act was over, it would have seemed pointlessly punitive to punish Petit for such a moment of dare-devilry. The only people who were to suffer from his success were his nearest and dearest. Jean-Francois says he was (punitively) banned from the US, Annie knew that the relationship was over as she saw how responsive Philippe was to fame, and how everybody was treating him differently. Jean-Louis says that afterwards, Philippe wanted to move on to the next great venture but Jean-Louis told him it was over; there would be no next time. Philippe had gained a million admirers and lost it would seem his closest of friends. "There was something broken, probably, in this friendship," Jean-Louis says. Thus the film indicates Petit gained the celebrity that would keep him on a metaphorical highwire but lost the trust of those who could keep his feet on the ground. Perhaps he never wanted them on the ground as he recounts the tale with an enthusiasm that indicates he is emotionally reenacting the moment as he tells us about the details. At one moment Petit comes out from behind red curtains as Greig's 'The Hall of the Mountain King' plays on the soundtrack, with Petit a man still enthralled by the crowd, making a stage entrance. While Jean-Louis and Annie are reflecting on events, Philippe is reliving them: his speech quickens, his body moves rapidly through space, his eyes dilate. He gives to the film its adrenaline, of course, but it is Jean-Louis and Annie who give Man on Wire its capacity for reflection. It is very moving when Jean-Louis breaks down twice in the film and Petit shows his sly awareness of aesthetics along with his capacity to practice denial when in the extras he talks about Marsh's manipulation of events all the better to tell his story. Marsh "decided to give a lot of importance to the human feelings and the human dramas to the point that I think he manipulated it a little bit...as you see there are many tears." For Petit that was not his adventure. His was "of a young man falling in love with two giant towers and marrying them" with the wire that for Petit was like a smile. He offers metaphors; the others emotional realities, but it is to the metaphorical that the adrenaline speaks. Even as he talks in this interview, we sense in the urgency of his voice that there he is back on the wire again. The criminal activity that cost Jean-Francois entry in the states, is the metaphorical slaying that gives Petit his rush. We can note the insensitivity on Petit's part, but it would be unreasonable not to notice the astonishing act that insensitivity gave birth to.
Thus we are not at all saying that great achievements go beyond the ethical, though we may be saying that certain acts cannot easily work within it: that Petit needed single-mindedness that ruled out too many ethical considerations, and it is the job of others to act on that ethical failure after the event. For Petit, this may seem irrelevant to his adventure, but that would be Marsh's point. It would be irrelevant to Petit but very relevant for Jean-Louis and Annie, for example. The breakups and falls out might not have happened quite as quickly as Man on Wire implies, but Marsh's film nevertheless indicates that while Jean-Louis and Annie were thrilled to share in the excitement of Petit's feat, they also knew that they had to distance themselves from the self-absorption of his personality. "Of course my role was to support and encourage him... Annie says, it was always a matter of trying to understand what was going on in his head." Petit admits that Jean-Louis was not driven by the "impetuous feeling of dancing between the towers"; he wanted to help Philippe, not get caught and make the crossing a success. Cautious yet noble concerns Philippe acknowledges. They did not have a calling, a word Petit talks about in almost Heideggarian terms when explaining in the extras how he came to be a tightrope walker. A calling he says is to call someone or something but also it is an evocation, a faith. What called him to the towers we may wonder as he insists on giving it a metaphysical property that goes beyond the adrenaline rush we have invoked, even if that rush will be a property of that calling? Petit's insistence that this calling cannot be chosen, resembles Heidegger's insistence in What is Called Thinking that thinking itself is a calling. "The question "What is called thinking?" is of a different kind. When we ask, "what is called bicycle riding?" we ask for something everybody knows. If there is someone who does not yet know what it calls for, we can teach him - it is a well-known matter." But Heidegger reckons this is "not so with thinking. Most of our thinking is not thinking at all Heidegger would claim, as he notes that "what is most throught-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking." We might wonder if what Heidegger says about thinking can also be true of certain actions that are not quite like riding a bike. In our most action-oriented times are we still not acting? Is the volition too weak to be called an action; that there is no calling to our deeds? When we admire a great feat like Ali's against Foreman or Petit's along the highwire, we are perhaps also admiring the calling within the act, some need that cannot be pragmatically explained by competitiveness, egotism, fame and money. What is called action in this sense is a grace that need have nothing to do with God, but cannot easily be explained by pragmatic reason alone either. Such deeds do not at all rely on the suspense of their outcome, even if there is immense suspense in the doing of the deed itself. The act has gone far beyond the suspense that it has generated, into a realm that we cannot easily comprehend but that we cannot help but be awed by. It is indeed a mode of the sublime.
© Tony McKibbin