I arrived in Newport, Rhode Island yesterday afternoon for the opening of the Newport International Film Festival where Traces of the Trade is one of the featured films. The film that opened the festival held particular interest for me. I missed it when it played at the Sundance Film Festival. Man on Wire was named Best Documentary of Sundance; the category in which Traces also played.
Man on Wire is the story of Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who-with the help of several cohorts-secretly and illegally strung a cable between the very tops of the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then tightrope walked between them a quarter of a mile above the ground for forty-five minutes one day in August 1974 before being arrested when he finished his walk in the sky.
I chewed my thumbnail. I fidgeted in my seat. I gasped audibly with others in the audience at particularly tense moments. I loved the film. When it concluded we were treated to a question and answer period with the man himself. Two questions in particular stayed with me. A little girl asked Petit, “When you leave the building and take that very first step what’s that like?”
Philippe told her it was a brilliant question. He said she really got it. “The first step is everything. It’s everything in walking the wire and it’s everything in any endeavor in life.” I recall someone telling me once that every great scientist, actor, writer, doctor, painter, you name it, began when they were none of those things. They took that first step.
The other question was the final one of the evening. A woman asked, “When you’re on the wire, where are you in your body?” It was clear that she wasn’t speaking about anything physical.
Philippe has walked the wire between the two spires of Notre Dame in Paris (he was arrested then too). He’s walked between two structures in Jerusalem from one that is significant to Jews to one that is significant to Palestinians. He noted that at the moment he was on the wire there weren’t enemies on the ground far below. There were 45,000 people applauding in unison together. The wire connects two “things” that we consider destined to be separated forever. The tops of the World Trade Center towers were designed to be two related-but separate-structures. Philippe connected them.
I thought of all the “things” we consider destined to keep us separated as people: race, gender, class, religion, politics, and so on.
Philippe Petit said the wire is a metaphor as much as it is a physical cable. The wire brings people together as it brings structures together. The instrument of his “dance” is a symbol for life. There is a clear beginning and a clear end. Everything in between is a high wire act.