by Daniel Brown
Article published on the 2008-11-25 Latest update 2008-12-01 15:02 TU
60-year-old Petit gained notoriety in 1974 with his illegal walk between the Twin Towers. British director James Marsh has brought this to life with Man on Wire, a film that was dubbed the “artistic crime of the century”. It has been nominated for the 2009 Oscar Awards.
“Why do you do it?” asked an American journalist shortly after Philippe Petit was arrested on 7 August, 1974.
“There is no why,” answered the 25-year-old Frenchman with a smile.
After his 45-minute walk across the 43-metre gap between the Twin Towers, the self-taught wire walker was arrested by the Port Authority Police Department.
This is how the arresting officer Charles Daniels described the early morning feat between the 104th floors of the skyscrapers:
“I observed the tightrope 'dancer' - because you couldn't call him a walker - approximately halfway between the two towers. When he saw us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire."
"And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the highwire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle. He was bouncing up and down. His feet were actually leaving the wire and then he would resettle back on the wire again. Unbelievable really. Everybody was spellbound," he says.
Thrity-four years later, what makes Petit's daredevil walk all the more poignant is that it was done between buildings that have since disappeared. Shortly after the film's release, Petit told RFI how the 11 September attacks somehow enhanced his feat:
“In a way, it makes my story, my adventure, and film something of a legendary item, and people salute it as such. I’m still alive, but I’m like a folk hero in New York,” he says.
Some accuse the artist of a degree of smugness when he describes his current star status. It could be one of the reasons why the French have not taken to Petit as much as he would like. A reality which has left him somewhat bitter:
“I wish I could come back as a artist who is welcome in my own country. But when you look back over the past 20 to 30 years, it’s very strange. I have had success all over the world. It seems that only the French don’t need wire walkers.”
“I’d love to come back,” he says. “I’d love my book (To Reach the Cloud) to be published in France.”
Petit divides his time between his adopted home in Woodstock and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where he is an artist-in-residence. It allows him to continue to plot other potentially breakneck wire acts.
He already has an impressive list that includes wire walks over the Seine River, Notre Dame de Paris, the Louisiana Superdome and the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
James Marsh’s feature-length film reveals the poetic and complex nature of a performer who is also a juggler, unicyclist, magician and pantomime artist.
The documentary by Marsh, Man on Wire, has won awards at the Sundance Filmfestival 2008 including the World Cinema Jury prize, and prizes at the 2008 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina.
It's the hot favourite for the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary in February.
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