Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Plus 12

The film opens with a foreigner. He is describing his plans to break in. Soon we learn that others have joined him in his bizzare "quest." Most have come from outside the United States. Each has his role. It has been an idea for years, rehearsed for months, and at last the day has come. The film's black and white recreation of the day at hand shows them speeding towards their destination: the World Trade Center.

The whole idea behind the Ph.Geek project is art. It's almost always the art of pop culture, and sometimes it ventures towards nacho-cheese art, delicious and bad. Yet at its best, Ph.Geek is about the very best of pop culture, the snippets that strain against the bonds of the popular and venture into true artistic expression. I hope then that it isn't trite, that it isn't disrespectful, that it isn't simply wrong, to today, of all days, reflect on a place where popular culture and national tragedy meet.

It is on this day that I am rewatching Man on Wire, the masterfully understated documentary released in 2008. It is about Phillipe Petite who, in 1974 along with his crew, broke into the still-being-constructed Twin Towers and erected a wire from roof to roof.

The next morning, Phillipe walked between the towers.

His story is remarkable, and the documentary is wise to recreate the planning and break-in as a black and white heist movie narrated by the interviewed participants. It makes the deed tense and exciting, adding a palpable layer of cinema to the documentary.

Even more remarkable is the decision for the film to be consciously un-9/11. It offers no discussions about that day ten years ago; it suggests no connection. Yet beneath the surface, at the height of the film's subconscious, it is there. After the stark title card, we see all-too familiar images of the pit at Ground Zero: the dirt, the trucks, the concrete retaining wall. But it is not "Ground Zero" we're seeing--it is the new construction zone to the yet-to-be towers. We see the familiar metal exterior on the ground--but they are from archival footage, being the unfamiliar metal lines to a building that was not built yet.

The plot of the documentary moves to Phillipe's story. A young French man in a French dentist's office, he saw a magazine article talking about how, one day, these towers would be the tallest buildings in the world. Old Phillipe, the one of today, explains that at that moment he knew he had to walk between the towers.

And thus the film starts to capture his joy. Why did he feel this need? He tries to explain it, largely in vain: he has always been a climber, and he has always gotten in trouble for climbing dangerous things. This central question is something that the documentary doesn't answer... perhaps because there isn't much of an answer. Why does the painter paint, or the player play? It's the art of it, and we come to learn, and see through old home movies, that Phillipe's art is climbing upon and staying upon a wire. He does it for the joy of it, and he does it because few can.

The crux of the thing is, of course, not meant to be a plotted climax. That wire walking between the towers was planned is shown before the title card; that it was attempted is a matter of historal record from 1974; that Phillipe does not fall is never an option, as we meet him in his present, quite-alive state before we even know what he did. The surprising thing, however, is that the film captures everyone else's joy. We see the crowds gather in lower Manhattan; we hear the cheers for him, the applause as he eventually is brought out of the building in handcuffs. His strange, curious act put smiles on faces, and brings unexpected happiness to people witnessing something that would never be seen again.

Thus Man on Wire is the film I'm watching today. If the goal of terrorism is for us to be fearful of the thing at hand, then the film offers the opposite. It tells the tale of a group of foreigners who sneak in and hatch a plot at the World Trade Center... one that is done for art and joy and happiness. It is a tale of a man who walks, with is own two feet, solidly in a place on this earth where no one will ever go again.

And he does it to make himself, and others, purely happy. No other reason, no lofty lesson, no message. To simply walk between two buildings... to look down at the successes of humanity... and to bring about a happy smile on a clear, bright day between the Twin Towers.

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