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Walking on air
by Doug Muller
February 12, 2009 01:00 AM | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Before September 11th of 2001, there was another day - a very different sort of day - that brought the attention of the world to the massive twin towers in lower Manhattan. That day was August 7, 1974, the day on which Philippe Petit, a 24-year-old Frenchman, successfully executed a plan on which he had labored for six years: to walk a tightrope strung between the tops of the World Trade Center towers. Petit's feat is now the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, Man on Wire, that has already racked up dozens of awards and earned high praise from nearly every critic who has seen it. He also happens to be a Hudson Valley resident, and at a February 28 appearance at the Kingston Barnes and Noble, Petit will sign copies of both the Man on Wire DVD and the book of the same name (originally published as To Reach the Clouds).

Petit's story began, of all places, in a dentist's office in 1968, where he first read about the World Trade Center towers (then yet-to-be-built) and first laid eyes on the building's architectural models. He became instantly fascinated with the towers, and soon began planning and training for his feat. There were plenty of logistics to consider, certainly; but more importantly, there was a cultivation of a singlemindedness that few can imagine.

According to Petit, who continues to walk high wires - as well as to perform street juggling, write books and serve as an artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine - such intense attention to the act lies behind all high-wire performance. "It's a process; it's not overnight," he says. "I zoom in slowly to the task of walking the wire. After three months and three weeks, I've narrowed the mind to the wire itself. All the work prepares me. I cease everything else besides the essential." He characterizes the process as "impatient anticipation" leading to a moment of focused release; says Petit, "When I finally step on the wire, it's an immense joy."

For viewers, Petit's joy is fascinating - and intriguing. To some, his feat seems spectacular; to some, it seems insane; to many, it is both - and it prompts some pretty squirrelly feelings in the lower abdomen. But for Petit, the high wire is a path to the larger world. "It's a very natural state to be on the wire," he says. "I love the physical preparation and being so close to nature. It's as if I become some strange kind of bird, very aware of the elements. It's a very natural act for me."

Petit says that he still recalls his 1974 walk vividly; it comes rushing back whenever he talks to reporters. And the past 35 years have done nothing to diminish the power of the gesture in the public consciousness. If anything, the fall of the Towers makes Petit's narrative that much more compelling - a triumphant counterpoint to the nihilism of 9/11.

Petit himself has now seen the film in front of plenty of audiences, and he sees the appeal of the documentary as multilayered and universal. For many, he says, the movie brings to life the "beauty and joy of those edifices" - a sentiment that counteracts not only the dismal memories of this century, but also the general dislike of the structures common in the last. The Towers were often criticized as sterile and too far out of human scale; but through Petit's own fondness for them, they become treasured memories. "People tell me that I made those Towers human," he says. "It was amazing to me how New York was uplifted by my act."

The story's power is at the center of its Oscar nomination. The film chronicles Petit's feat in the manner of what he calls a "heist story - a man-on-the-street James Bond story," in which the audience sympathetically follows Petit's efforts to accomplish a "slightly illegal" artistic crime. The film was directed by James Marsh and produced by Simon Chinn, both relative outsiders from the United Kingdom who have garnered much attention through the film, which is up for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. For Petit, the prospect of an Oscar win is welcome, but not essential to his life's work. "If the award comes, it's supporting, encouraging, inspiring. But I don't stop and set my life to that acknowledgment." He says that his focus is on continuing with his performances, which include regular street juggling throughout New York and a special tightrope walk for literacy to be held this year in Central Park. He also plans on continuing to enjoy life at his upstate home, which he characterizes as a "place of respite" from his attention-grabbing urban endeavors.

Petit appears at the Barnes and Noble in Kingston at 3 p.m. on Saturday, February 28 - just six days after the Academy Awards ceremony. There he will sign copies of the Man on Wire book and DVD. Copies of both will be available for sale. For more information, call the store at (845) 336-0590.

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