Friday, 1 August 2008

HIGH ANXIETY

Following my blog the other month about having (or not having) a head for heights, I recently took my first (and probably only) spin on the London Eye.

Our friend Michael was in town from Nashville, Tennessee, and - not unnaturally - wanted to ride this premiere tourist attraction -- in fact, he very kindly bought tickets for the three of us...

The night before the scheduled trip we were driving over Westminster Bridge when I came eye-to-eye with the Eye and got a sudden attack of cold feet. Eight years ago, I had waited at ground zero while David and a bunch of friends went round. Would the next day see a repeat performance...?

I spent a troubled night and an anxious morning and - until the moment our pod doors closed and we 'took off' - I still doubted if I would go through with it.

The first half of the trip was not too pleasant - I sat glued to the seat in the middle, looking away from the river and when we drew level with the top of the old Shell Building I felt decidedly queasy.

Somehow, however, I managed to stand up when we reached the top and took a hasty look around and even posed for a photo - just to prove that I did it!


Anyway, in the end, I decided it wasn't any worse than watching Batman Begins on the giant Imax screen (which we did that evening) in which the audience were tossed hither and yon above the dizzying heights of Gotham City.

But I can't say that the Eye cured my fear of heights, which is one reason why I watched Man on Wire (opening in cinemas today) filled with such heart-in-mouth apprehension.


'MAN ON WIRE' were the words on the charge-sheet drawn up by the New York Police against a 24-year-old Frenchman, Philippe Petit, who, on August 7, 1974, illegally rigged a 3/4" cable across the 138 foot gap between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and, in one of the most audacious stunts of the 20th century, spent forty-five minutes walking on a wire -- indeed not just walking but pausing to kneel and lie flat on his back -- 1,350 foot above the Manhattan sidewalks.

Petit who was a tightrope walker, juggler and magician (and who has, he says, the mind of a criminal) had already wire-walked between two of the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the two towers of Notre Dame Cathedral.

These escapades were but a prelude to the incredible coup that was, all the while, fermenting in his brain. After six years of planning and one aborted attempt he achieved his fantastical dream: an event which brought him - and the WTC - onto the front pages of newspapers around the globe.

Man on Wire is a tale of a man driven to a deed of daring bravado by the demon of a passion that began when, in 1968, he saw an article in a French magazine in a dentist's waiting room about the still to be constructed World Trade Center. On an artist's impression of the Twin Towers, Philippe drew a tightrope across the void...

I first read Petit's story in his 2002 book, To Reach the Clouds, and this excellent documentary film, directed by James Marsh, captures the courage and insanity of the project and retells it - through the archive recordings, recollections of Petit and his accomplices and dramatic recreations - with all the pace and panache of a gripping heist movie.

Using the words of the man himself - a born showman and storyteller supreme - and the, often emotionally charged, memories of his compatriots (including, most movingly, his former lover, Annie, and his best friend, Jean-Louis, both of whom lost their friend as a result of his walk on that wire as surely as if he had fallen to his death) we piece together not just the events of that August day, but are also forced to confront the desperate nature of life's challenge that few of us face or acknowledge...

"What a beautiful death," speculates Philippe - filled with arrogant, death denying bravado - before stepping onto the wire, "to die in the exercise of your passion."


Unlike the book, James Marsh's film never mentions the events of 9/11. It is as if the Twin Towers conquered by Philippe Petit still stood head and shoulders high above the Manhattan skyscrapers.

Is that curious? I think not...

The destruction of the WTC in 2001 is an event that most of us can replay in our mind's eye without prompting and we each bring our own memories and thoughts of that tragedy to the viewing of this film. It is the unacknowledged phantom overshadowing this story of impudence and insane heroism and, again and again, images of Petit's triumph trigger painful recollections of other tragic images - such as that photograph (later suppressed as being unseemly) of 'the falling man'. In one contemporary photograph we see Petit standing mid-wire while a plane passes behind him looking - it now seems to us - as if it is going to crash into one of those towers...

A construction worker interviewed by Petit while researching his coup in the disguise of a architectural journalist is asked whether the buildings are safe.

"What do you mean?" he asked, "Could it come tumbling down? Impossible!"

Breathtakingly exhilarating Man on Wire is a compelling, emotionally-charged record of an impossible vision: an absurdly daring dance on a wire strung between heroism and stupidity above the gaping void of certain death.

It is the not just a tale of an exceptional man, but also - as a cover of the New Yorker (right) moving suggested three year after the destruction of the WTC - a memory of what is now a lost era...

Here's the trailer...




“When I see three oranges, I juggle;
when I see two towers, I walk.”


- Philippe Petit on being asked why he did his stunt



Images: London Eye - Brian Sibley & David Weeks © 2008

6 comments:

Suzanne said...

Not 2000, Brian - 2001!
I only ever went to the Big Apple once - in about 1970-71 - before the towers were built so the New York skyline to me has always been towerless!

Eudora said...

Well Brian, that was a big step... the next... who knows; but you look fine, even relax ;) in the photograph...

Boll Weavil said...

Before anyone else does, I'll mention that the most infamous date (or one of them) in America's history is 9-11-01 not 2000.
I haven't seen the film yet but I imagine, that rather like the keyrings showing the Manhatten skyline that continued to be manufactured after that date, the film is partly an attempt to win back the twin towers as a symbol of architectural supremacy rather than some sub-concious image of destruction.This celebration of bravery and demonstration of what humans will do 'just for the hell of it' must surely go someway towards achieving that.

Brian Sibley said...

Sorry about the typo and thanks for the correction which is now corrected in the posting to avoid further corrections...

My first visit to New York, Suzanne, was after 9/11, so my personal experience is of the famous skyline dominated - as it had been for decades - by the Empire State Building.

Not sure that Man on Wire quite does what Boll is suggesting. If anything, it reminds us of the temporary nature of man's accomplishments: constructing what were, at the time, the world's two tallest buildings or walking on a wire between them for 45 minutes are both memorable - but essentially fleeting - achievements.

You're right, Eudora, I do look fairly relaxed but then I've managed that look before in equally stressful situations such as on stage or in front of a TV camera... Not sure it means much! ;-)

LisaH said...

You're a braver person than I am, Brian. I don't think you'd ever get me on the London Eye.
Man on Wire sounds fascinating, but I think I'd have my eyes shut some of the time if I went to see it.

Brian Sibley said...

LISAH - Don't let your own high anxiety deter you from seeing Man on Wire. The covert nature of the coup meant that it was only recorded from the buildings in still photographs and a few grainy video shots from the ground. Nevertheless, the sense of achievement is compellingly real and the sense of danger utterly palpable...