Friday, January 15, 2010

Remembering the year 2008

Directed by James Marsh

2008 was the year I started being published as a film critic. I suppose one could argue that I was published prior to this as I was self-published right here on Black Sheep but there is something about being published in print that validated my journey as a developing film critic. My destiny was unfolding before my eyes. Not everyone believes in destiny but those who do probably see how the seemingly disconnected pieces of their lives come together to bring them to the exact moment where they stand. Perhaps their destiny is a job; perhaps it is love. Whatever it is, it is pretty safe to say that there aren’t too many people out there that believe that their destiny is to walk a tight rope between New York City’s infamous World Trade Center towers. It was one man’s destiny though, one that was filled in 1974 and one that is magnificently chronicled in James Marsh’s Academy Award winning documentary, MAN ON WIRE.

Your first instinct might be to assume that the man who pulled off this incredible feat must be completely insane. After seeing MAN ON WIRE, you might not think any differently of Philippe Petit. By cutting together rare archival footage of Petit and his gang preparing for the big event with still photographs, news footage and modern interviews with all of Petit’s cohorts, Marsh is able to paint a picture of how Petit got from point A to point B, or from the North Tower to the South Tower, if you will. The incredible, almost cosmic, momentum pushing Petit forward though comes directly from Petit’s mouth. The man is ridiculously animated and alive, not surprisingly. I might be too if I walked a wire 1350 feet off the ground. He never answers that inevitable question as to why he did what he did (which also included wire-walking across the steeples of the Notre Dame Basilica in Paris and the two north pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia) but simply asserts that he was meant to. When you see him on the rope, you know he is right.

As it is described a number of times in the film, to watch Petit walk across the wires is like a little bit of magic in an otherwise dull day. As these activities all took place over thirty years ago, there isn’t a vast collection of footage to pull from to recreate them. Reenactments are not exactly new to documentaries but the style with which Marsh attributes them here is certainly not something I’m accustomed to. Sumptuous black and white footage of what certainly could not have been captured as it happened is not only strikingly gorgeous but also fully engaging. Paul McGill plays Petit as a young man and, alongside a cast of 1970’s French artist/anarchist types, he helps to set the heist tone for the film that Marsh uses as a framework to heighten the suspense. History affirms that they are able to pull off their caper but placing us in the middle of the action helps us to feel like even we can have dreams as impossible as this one.

At no point in time in MAN ON WIRE is there any mention or image of the towers coming down. Instead, Marsh treats us to archival footage of their construction. Yes, their construction in the context of this particular story is to show them as mere devices in Petit’s personal journey but there is something exalting in watching these great structures coming into their own when most only have the image of their destruction in their minds to remember them. Marsh himself has asserted that he hoped his film would give the viewers a new image to remember the towers by – one of artistry and magic as Petit walked back and forth between them eight times in the middle of the air on what was otherwise an ordinary day.

(in alphabetical order ... click any title for full review)

THE DARK KNIGHT, Christopher Nolan (Director)
MAN ON WIRE, James Marsh
MILK, Gus Van Sant
WALL-E, Andrew Stanton
THE WRESTLER, Darren Aronofsky

1 comment:

Ryan McNeil said...

I'm slightly saddened that this is the last in your series (guess it's too early to do a 2009 one huh?). It especially leaves me saddened to think about how great a year 2008 was at the movies compared to the last twelve months we've had to endure.

Oh well, to better days, yes?

As for MAN ON WIRE, I loved that archival home video felt like a screen test from somebody in the French New Wave. I also completely agree with your note about the time-lapsed footage of watching the towers go up. I think one of the best things about this film is how it never utters a word about them coming down.

The whole message of the caper is to live life to the fullest and reach for the extraordinary. It would have cast a shadow over that entire idea had the conversation started wandering towards the sadness and senselessness of their falling.

Great choice of film, and for one last time...