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High Wire Act 

Wednesday, Oct 15 2008
Even as the first girders were laid in the mid-1960s, something about the World Trade Center -- that twin-pronged erection jutting from the loins of Western commerce -- inspired fantasies of lustful conquest. As James Marsh's documentary Man on Wire tells it, a mischievous French teenager was sitting in a dentist's office in 1968 when a magazine image caught his eye. It was a sketch of two gleaming towers, under construction, piercing the clouds above lower Manhattan. But their height was less intriguing than the short distance between them -- a mere 140 feet, just a puny gap in the drawing. Instantly, Philippe Petit found his guiding passion. Across that gap, the Parisian street performer and would-be wire walker inked in the detail that would consume his life for the next six years: a straight line. Part caper movie, part real-life superhero saga, and entirely engrossing, Man on Wire recounts in Rififi-like detail how Petit dodged cops, fought the elements, and defied seemingly impossible logistics to pull off a feat of death-defying frivolity: an illegal, hastily rigged tightrope walk on August 7, 1974, across the 1,350-foot plunge between the towers. Still lithe and trim, with a strangely well-muscled delicacy, the middle-aged Petit animates Man on Wire with his impish presence. Almost from the moment he saw the towers, Petit recalls, he began to plot his way to New York: first by practicing endlessly on a home-rigged high wire, then by taking warm-up runs (such as a mid-air stroll between the towers of Notre Dame). He assembled a core group -- including his then-girlfriend, Annie Allix, and his boyhood chum, Jean-Louis Blondeau -- for moral and physical support, though they privately worried he was courting death. Although it's taken from Petit's written 2002 account -- which he had begun, in a stroke of savage irony, just as the site of his great "coup" was eradicated by cataclysmic assault -- the story presented here is natural movie material.
Sun., Oct. 26; Mon., Oct. 27, 2008

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Jim Ridley


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