Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Man on Wire

I don't get to the movies much these ways (see below for the reason why) but last night I saw this haunting documentary. The director, James Marsh, said he conceived of his film about Phillipe Petit's insane and triumphant endeavor to walk a wire between the Twin Towers in 1974 as a heist picture, and that's exactly how it plays (the tagline is "1974. 1350 feet up. The artistic crime of the century"). But as if that weren't pleasure enough—suspenseful in spite of knowing how it turns out—it's also a film about an artist at work, and about collaboration. Petit's obssession, and his ability to bring others into his obsession, make this one of the finest films I've seen about artmaking, comparable in its way to my all-time favorite The Five Obstructions. The obstacles in this case are not those posed by a diabolical apprentice but are simply, staggeringly logistical. Yet in both films the artist in question has to cross the black territory of the unconscious without dwelling there in order to achieve works of lacerating perfection.

The lyricism of the images of Petit on his wire take on an additional elegiac resonance given the further destiny of those towers—an event referred to not at all by the film. Marsh knows that he doesn't have to mention it, and the peculiar interpolation of History with Petit's defiant assertion of art-for-art's sake (he derides, in a friendly way, those Americans who kept asking him "Why?" afterward) for me raises anew the necessity of art's autonomy from life. But Petit's autonomy is achieved almost literally on the razor's edge of life—it's astounding he didn't fall to his death—and this perhaps reminds us that one shouldn't speak too glibly of the imagination as that which resists the pressure of reality (to use Stevens' language—I'm reading him again in preparation for my modern poetry class). Petit staked his body on "le coup" as he and his team called it, and if poets don't do the same in kind, if not in degree, their work might succeed didactically or be politically engagé without having the real savor of what is simultaneously escape from reality and the penetration of it. "Strike behind the mask"—Petit is a good-natured Ahab who neither kills the whale nor tames it—he rides, he surfs, he flies, at one point on one knee, paying homage to the spirit that's within him.

The dark and utter contrast between "the artistic crime of the century" and what Karl Stockhausen infamously termed "the greatest work of art ever" requires no further comment, except perhaps to say that when you wield a razor instead of walking its edge you pass from revelation to obscenity. Perhaps there's a dialectic here, but it's one I haven't the stomach for.

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