Tuesday, 1 July 2008

"How many people are walking in the sky?"

The Times, 19 June, 2008

It is 34 years since Philippe Petit performed his masterpiece of “intimate theatre”, suspending a rope 1,350ft (410m) above ground between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, and stepping out into the void.

In 45 minutes he walked the 60m line between “my new friends” eight times; he sat on the wire for while, and even lay down as if sleeping. When he finally gave himself up, police threw him in a hospital for the insane.

Now Petit, in Edinburgh for the European premiere of Man on Wire, the elegiac documentary that charts his astonishing feat, is gazing from his hotel window towards St Cuthbert's Church and gauging the pitch of an imaginary wire stretched from its spire to the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle.

“To conquer the world, to run a wire between that beautiful church and incline it towards the castle — I am ready to do that tomorrow,” he muses. “It would take a few months of research and organisation and weeks of rigging. And it will cost a lot of money. But then, it will draw in a few hundred thousand people, and through the press, the entire world will witness another miracle.”

Why is it not happening, he wonders? “If the phone rings, and the mayor of Edinburgh says, Hey, Philippe, I saw your film and I know you would like to walk. My city says, Come here, let's do something.' That is my dream.”

It took six years for Petit to plan and execute his early morning walk over Lower Manhattan. Over the same period he carried out two equally terrifying high-wire walks between the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral and over the arches of Sydney Harbour Bridge. All three were illegal, but their magic impressed even the policemen sent to pluck Petit from the sky.

In James Marsh's film, Sergeant Charles Daniel of the NYPD, the officer in charge on August 7, 1974, is describing events in the usual “I was proceeding down Broadway” kind of way, when he suddenly breaks off, exclaiming: “I figured I was watching something that no one would ever see again, that is was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.” Petit laughs: “He was pulled out of his condition of being a policeman.”

The walker himself describes his experience that day in mystical terms. “I had to make the decision to take my foot, anchored on the building, and put it on the wire. Not many people dare to take that first step - to land on the Moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high-wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step, like the first step on a new continent.”

There is he says, no fear, nor expectation, nor even a sense of letting go at this moment of absolute truth. “It is more of starting a voyage of exploration, in a world that has not been touched by man. Look out of the window. How many people are walking in the sky? None. It's a mythic voyage, something out of this world. What I feel out there - and I love it so much for that reason - is something that you do not feel on Earth.”

Petit, 58, was a childhood rebel from his bourgeois upbringing, who pulled off his most famous walks in his early twenties with the help of old friends from Paris. They are witnesses in Man on Wire, and most say the twin towers experience was as life-changing for them as it was for Petit. Few now send Christmas cards. Most poignantly, Annie, his lover and a partner in much of his training, lost touch with him soon after his “miracle of New York”. This severance, Marsh implies in the film, was because he slept with the American woman who embraced him after his release from custody and said, “Welcome to New York.” Petit recalls matters differently: his love affair with Annie was already dying.

As for the notion that he has changed, Petit insists he hasn't. He still performs conjuring shows in parks in New York, where he lives with his partner, Kathy, and practises high-wire four hours a day. But he hasn't had a professional gig for three years.

“The world has changed immensely,” he complains. “When most people think of what I do, they must say, ‘This man is mad. He's risking his life. It's insane. We should stop him and put him in jail.' We are surrounded by cowards, who have forgotten how to live.

“Why are we letting them dull our senses? My profession is to do beautiful things, but I need to be invited.”


Philippe Petit’s walk between the towers of the World Trade Centre on the morning of 7 August, 1974, made him an instant celebrity, knocking Richard Nixon off the front pages, the day before the president resigned over the Watergate scandal.

The NYPD quickly relented, dropping charges of trespass and disorderly conduct, on the condition that the high-wire artist performed for local children. This he did, stretching a wire over the Central Park lake. Petit even received a lifetime’s pass to the twin towers’ observation deck from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and his signature, inscribed on a steel beam, was lovingly preserved.

The destruction of the buildings by al-Qaeda terrorists is not mentioned in Man on Wire, the documentary of Petit’s achievement, but the film has an elegiac quality for the buildings and the people who perished in them.

“It is hard for me to talk about my personal feelings with all this loss of life,” says Petit. “I had toiled so hard to get to know those towers, they grew on me almost as a living entity, and when they fell I felt something was pulled out of me.”

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