A holy fool atop the Twin Towers
By Nigel Andrews
Published: July 30 2008 19:25 | Last updated: July 30 2008 19:25
Cinemas showing Man on Wire should provide free hand towels. Towards the end of this enthralling feature documentary, my palms were dripping like rainforests. I could barely hold my pen. As my hands slithered over my notepad, my mind and senses aquaplaned likewise – thrilling without break from scene to scene. At the moment when Philippe Petit, French wire-walker, ventured out on to the cable strung between the World Trade Center towers, in the year of innocence AD1974, when those tragic twins still stood, I felt – and felt colleagues around me feel – the beauty, terror and transcendent madness of it all.
The French, bless them, are a crazy people. They cannot be romantic without intellectualising; they cannot intellectualise without romanticising. So everything they do is a perfect circle. The very lack of explanation for Petit’s folly – “I don’t know why” he tells New York reporters asking why he did it – is part of its greatness. It was concept art, an acte gratuit with infinite meanings. And unlike the 9/11 terrorists, who destroyed two towers for a cause and a god, Petit’s way of honouring those towers had no better reason than the beauty and the dream of it. Deities be damned. The best things we humans do are for ourselves and for each other.
James Marsh’s film is brilliantly achieved and assembled. Forty-year-old footage of the funambule at work (that French mot juste that makes a wire artist sound like a cross between “fun walker” and holy fool) bears witness to his Notre Dame Cathedral and Sydney Harbour Bridge conquests. No less wonderfully, home-movie moments from the early 1970s show Petit romping, chatting and scheming with his WTC conspirators-to-be. They seem like characters in a New Wave movie, a lost Godard or Truffaut film: prattling tousleheads planning a stunt as elaborate as a bank heist.
And it was. Petit and pals infiltrated the WTC illegally; hid overnight from sentries; then shot an arrow from roof to roof to secure the cable. In a medium-misty dawn, Petit stepped into the air. A stick figure gawped at by groundlings, he walked, danced, sat, even lay horizontal. After 45 minutes the waiting cops welcomed him back to the roof with a charge sheet – “Details of offence: man on wire” – and requested a signature, the first of several dozen autographs.
Petit’s ex-cronies, grey-haired today, are reinterviewed for long-distance memories. They are framed by the camera like successive heads on a trophy room wall, though two disrupt the formality by nearly breaking into tears as they recall the sensational deed followed by the splintered friendship. For Petit moved on and away, and the world moved on to spectacles of a more humourless madness. We filmgoers, sharing a reawakened moment, move out into the day carrying a little extra wonder and beauty with us.
In El Baño del Papa – The Pope’s Toilet – Ealing comedy meets Italian neorealism, with Spanish dialogue and subtitles. The Babel award for eclecticism, or amiable mixed-culture mayhem, could go to this Uruguayan film co-directed by writer Enrique Fernández and cinematographer César Charlone (City of God). The border townsfolk of Melo who await Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1988 – an actual event – hope to make a financial killing by serving food and drink to the thousands surging in from Brazil. Only petty smuggler Beto (César Troncoso) has the brainwave of servicing the – how shall we put it? – other end of the individual human food chain.
A seriocomic tale of self-help, the film starts as a manual on how to build a free-standing WC and enlist your wife (Virginia Méndez) as fee-taking attendant. “Half or full service?” she will ask clients, then nag them volubly if they take too long. It ends as a lesson in sweet serenity as life flushes human hopes down the U-bend without destroying the characters’ pristine defiance. Lots of bruised humour, quiet virtuosity – watch for the slow-motion montage of disaster – and doggy-eyed optimism.
Dogs, the director’s own, are the heroes, heroines and addressees of Bruce Weber’s A Letter to True. If this epistolary documentary – voiced aloud with pictures to the photographer/film-maker’s favourite pup and co-canines – meandered any more than it does, it could be arrested for vagrancy. Not even Weber’s best films (Let’s Get Lost, Chop Suey) are exactly nailed to a mast. But here we zig and zag, footloose and fancy-rich, through memories of Dirk Bogarde and Elizabeth Taylor (Weber idols who became chums), two American wars, a few American heroes, and feasts of poetic recital catered by Rilke and Spender and served by the voices of Julie Christie and Marianne Faithfull. Lovely if you like audiovisual scrapbooks.
The same air of serendipity hangs, perhaps more slyly crafted, over Quiet City and Dance Party, USA. Independent film-maker Aaron Katz masters in mumblecore, the art of designer inarticulacy. These mini-features, surely inspired by the slacker sarabands of Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia), are boy-meets-girl yarns in which form, shape and other sanctities unravel as the question is asked, “How long is a piece of mood-drama shtick?” Funny, strange and touching, at times a little menacing – Dance Party, USA gives its tongue-tied charm to a youngster revealed as a chronic sex predator – Katz’s work is good enough to keep watching, though works of mumblecore more core than this, by him and others, are surely on the way.
So to Hollywood. You may think we had forgotten it; we had only tried. At the end of the week’s movie meal, The Love Guru and The X-Files: I Want to Believe are like the free coupons restaurants dispense to tourists for entertainment spots they don’t want to visit. Roll up for a Mike Myers comedy in which the Austin Powers star dons wig and twirly beard. He plays a California maharishi administering wisdom to Jessica Alba, Justin Timberlake and others. Funny in fits and starts, though the fits are a little convulsive and the starts seldom come with a convincing ending or pay-off.
In the second big-screen X-Files adventure, Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are back, probing the preternatural. What could be more surreal than the main novelty here? A lapsed Scottish comedian, Billy Connolly, plays a guilt-haunted paedophile priest with psychic powers. He leads the FBI duo to severed limbs in the snow, which lead in turn to a plot dug out of the serial-killer deep freeze.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008