Thursday, October 15, 2015

Man on Wire

(James Marsh, USA, 2014)

Delightful.  Although burdened by various trappings of the contemporary documentary - an overweening musical score, copious re-enactments, ginned-up narrative tension - it remains a compelling, moving portrait of an artist.  That's the primary virtue of the Marsh's film: its willingness to take Petit at his impassioned, wildly unreasonably word, and frame his tightrope walk between the Twin Towers as a major work of art; furthermore, as one that reaches for sublimity.  Petit's search for transcendence, with all of the willfulness, self-regard, and obsession that such a search entails, comes to appear almost anachronistic.  In this era of performance art, which caroms between obscure and blandly provocative, is there someone else who can match Petit's courage, his instinct for drama, and his fierce emphasis on joy?  Marsh's direction is straightforward and procedural; Petit's irrepressible personality centers the film and drives it forward.  Woven throughout is a thin thread of critical reflection, not fully pursued, but not absent either: what are the costs of this kind of passion?  Petit seems none the worse for all of it; his magnificent stunt made him an instant celebrity, and he never looked back.  But his collaborators all bear, to one degree or another, a sense of having been burned by his incandescent quest.  They are uniformly grateful for having been present, but are also aware of the gulf that separates them from Petit, a gulf that seems as inevitable as it is vast.  In the end, there was only one man on the wire; the rest of us were merely spectators.  As close as we can get, we'll never be able to know what it was like, out there between the towers.    

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