What's the deal with humanity? I didn't answer that question in watching this film, nor writing this review. But viewing the work of art that tightrope-artist Philippe Petit created—both of himself, and of the World Trade Center twin towers—made me wonder just how we're going to explain ourselves to aliens. And the journey towards that answer may explain a great many things about life in general...
“A building is an act.” —Louis Sullivan
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2016: After viewing the 2008 documentary Man On Wire for the first time, yesterday evening, I wondered to myself if I could possibly explain to an advanced A.I., or intelligent alien life, just what is so peculiar about what human beings call intelligence (or creativity), that would, for starters, curse Philippe Petit with this vision, such that he would spend six years fitfully dreaming of it, and assemble a dedicated team around him to perform this unconscionably dangerous, unprofitable and seemingly useless public stunt? And then, cause so many onlookers to be at once transfixed, entertained, and in the end, left profoundly moved by its execution.
As Jean Francois Heckel, one of Petit’s project partners, finished telling his part of the story, his train of thought derailed as he was overcome by the memory of the ‘heist’, and finally burst into tears. Every artist or performer knows exactly why.
As artists, we all privately revel in the thrill of getting away with something, even looking back at our works as a string of ever-grander coups; an ideally ascending journey of aesthetic and intellectual refinement. But the thing about the ‘heist’ that gratifies us the most, and which is essential to the spice of everyday existence (as well for non-artists) is, as playwright/screenwriter David Mamet wrote, that momentary triumph over our own consciousness; that mental short-circuit when we are released from the cadence of everyday life and plugged into something more profound.
What did Petit’s audience gain from this triumph? If only in my opinion, it was in the ennobling illumination of the old WTC twin towers, which at the time of their debut were both publicly and critically derided for being ‘colossally dull’ (Dupré, 67). Petit, in falling in love with these towers and making them his own for 45 minutes, took these implacable monoliths from The City (the powers that be), and delivered them back to the people—if that makes sense. After that, I think, the people began to love these buildings too, and in a city wherein you're made to feel so small, to look up and dream huge.
Now I’m sure it didn’t work on everybody, and I’m not so sure a significant number of people would even call it intelligent. But the act—for the reasons why Petit did it, and why those viewers of the experience in 1974, and viewers of the film today are still transported by it—is undeniably human.
So what’s left to explain to our hypothetical alien observers? At the end of the day, we are left with a team of men, and one woman, who were cursed with a vision, worked diligently over several months to plan a complex and monumental act with no intrinsic value, and at great risk to their own life and freedom. Their coup was a success, and no one died. There were arrests, and at least one permanent deportation, but no carnage, no destruction, no declarations of war (holy or otherwise), and not the faintest detectable quantum of hate.
It is difficult to try and not get glassy-eyed at some of the photography of Man On Wire, both of the walk and of the towers themselves; indeed, the only thing that hurts my eyes more than the holes where the buildings once stood, is the regrettably inhospitable fortress that is the new One World Trade Center’s ground floor. If all new super-skyscrapers have to be this oppressively masoned, then I’d rather not have them.
(Or maybe I should just get off my Jane Jacobs high-horse and admit that the design team & stockholders had very real and defensible pangs of anxiety over this. But I think in refining the way the building meets the sidewalk, they could've struck a friendlier balance between the sublimely inspirational, and fearsomely cold.)
Add to that, the part of me which is still 16—as I was when the towers fell—and still doesn't quite live in reality and thinks nothing of the political turmoil surrounding the construction of the new tower, is smarting over the fact that its observation deck is lower than the old one. That no matter how tall that structural spire is, Ferris, Cameron and Sloane were higher still. The new building is orders of magnitude more secure and technologically advanced, no doubt, but as an act, is not as defiant as Minoru Yamasaki’s original twins.
And without a second twin tower to complete the set, Philippe Petit is precluded from making good on his offer, in the event the towers were rebuilt, to try again.
EDIT Oct 16, 2016: After listening to Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson's recent interview with Petit, and thinking back to the dilemma on which I opened this article, I was reminded of one of my favorite passages from Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent Of Man:
"The most powerful drive in the ascent of man is his pleasure in his own skill. He loves to do what he does well. And, having done it well, he loves to do it better. You see it in his science. You see it in the magnificence with which he carves and builds, the loving care, the gaiety, the effrontery. The monuments are supposed to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end, the man they commemorate is the builder."
That's all the aliens need to know, and I will take that passage to my grave.