[This reflection on Man on Wire was originally published at Good Letters, the daily blog for Image.]
In a photograph from her recent wedding, my friend Tara stands on one side of the empty dance floor. On the other, Bryan, her groom, leans forward in his chair. Tara is about to reach out her hand in a gesture of invitation. No doubt about it—he’s ready to respond. Their gazes are locked in a fierce line. The tension in that open space is palpable.
Complicated histories, differing citizenship, taxing responsibilities—these two have taken their chances, venturing out together in such a dangerous endeavor. And while their marriage is a joyous occasion, it was a challenge to reach that point. Fourteen years after a disastrous fall from my own first marital endeavor, I know the risks involved. So many things can disrupt our balance. Fear. Overconfidence. Carelessness.
Tara and Bryan are out on the wire. I’m thrilled and scared all at once, praying that the weather stays calm and that they step carefully.
I’m reminded of the 200 feet of cable across which Philippe Petit walked on August 7, 1974—a line strung between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. His was a dream just as ambitious, a dance just as dangerous.
We watch it play out in James Marsh’s documentary, Man on Wire. Historic photographs, home movie documentation, enthusiastic interview testimony, and arresting re-enactments draw us into Petit’s conspiracy. It was improbable, not to mention illegal. But as I doubted my eyes, I listened to Petit and his conspirators describe how they had achieved it.
The dream began before the towers were built, when Petit tore some Trade Center concept drawings out of a magazine. Later, his girlfriend Annie explained: “He couldn’t go on living if he didn’t try to conquer those towers…it was as if they had been built specifically for him.”
“Writing every book,” says Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, “the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? and, Can I do it?” The same holds true for any worthwhile endeavor in artmaking. Re-enacting his early enthusiasm for that high-wire act, Petit says, “It’s impossible, that’s sure. So let’s start working.”
Petit and his conspirators proceeded with a strange and mysterious faith in each other, and in Petit’s abilities, believing they were called to something beautiful. We watch their home videos of hard work in a grassy field, pulling the wire taut so Petit can develop unfaltering concentration and balance. One of them later confesses that he persevered to the project’s fulfillment just because he wanted Petit to get through it alive.
How Petit’s crew went from practice to the actual performance—slipping through JFK airport with luggage full of shackles, ropes, knives, and even a bow and arrow—is difficult to imagine. The conspirators split into two teams, ascended the towers with cameras and forged ID cards, and escaped the security guards’ attention. So many things could have gone wrong—should have gone wrong. Their accounts of stringing the line defy comprehension.
And yet, for an hour that seemed endless, Petit danced on that strand, 110 stories above the street.
In her essay “The Stunt Pilot,” Annie Dillard describes the unexpected exhilaration she felt watching biplane pilot Dave Rahm defy gravity. She watched him “carve the air in forms that built wildly and musically on each other and never ended…. Rahm drew high above the world an inexhaustibly glorious line; it piled over our heads in loops and arabesques.”
And then: “Like any fine artist, he controlled the tension of the audience’s longing.”
Recounting his experience more than thirty years after Petit’s stunt, the acrobat’s partner-in-crime, Jean Francois, thinks back to the moment when Petit put that second foot on the wire. His expression wracked with fears revived, Francois describes how the agony of the acrobat’s ferocious concentration dissolved and, in the middle of the span, he relaxed and began to dance.
As one who fell, I’m moved by such daring and agility. The one who held my hand lost all of her faith in the grace that held us up. She jumped. We both fell. I might never have gathered the courage to try to climb the tower and try again without the examples of others who danced on so gracefully, and a new partner who sees what is possible, and why.
Two weeks ago, Anne and I celebrated our twelfth anniversary, and I find myself incapable of describing the measures of grace that have held us together suspended. But it’s still a frightening endeavor. There are certain wounds that time doesn’t heal, and they remind me of what’s at stake.
Recalling the indelible moments of Petit’s first walk across the void, Francois’ line of comprehension snaps in mid-sentence. Perhaps he suddenly glimpses the magnitude of the risks they took, or finally comprehends the wonder of their success. Perhaps Petit’s magnificent dance seems even more transcendent now, as we have also seen how hateful concentration can bring down the very framework that made such acrobatics possible. I don’t know. I doubt that Francois does either. He runs out of words, out of wits, and covers his face with his trembling hands.
Maybe it has something to do with the longing we feel when we see something impossibly beautiful—a triumph over death.
I stare at that photograph from Tara’s wedding, the moment before the dance. I feel like Jean Francois, transfixed atop a tower, watching Petit in the hour of testing. I share my friends’ hopes for what might be possible, as they walk a line that’s anchored by faith and trust. I hold my breath, praying that they’ll concentrate, that they’ll be given the grace to dance with beauty.
Shouldn’t this be illegal, that these newlyweds risk so much, so far above a crowd of open-mouthed onlookers? Petit was arrested and subjected to a psychological evaluation. Me, I’m still shaking from the fall.
But even policemen gasped in joyous awe when they beheld the acrobat in the clouds. They watched him lie down in the sky, the crossbeam laid across his chest. He looked for all the world like a flourish of musical notation on a line, a grace note. With unquestioning faith in the fastness of his stage, he was free to reach out into open space, a casual gesture, almost lazy, his hand open to the sky like a question. Or an invitation.