Ted and Eric provide a delayed but lengthy response to the James Marsh documentary Man on Wire, which recounts tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s death defying and illegal walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.
We open with an interview between two old friends: Werner Herzog, the great German filmmaker, and Philippe Petit, the great French wire walker. (Published August 15, 2008, in Esquire.)
Werner Herzog: Film is beautiful to invent. And truth is not found in facts per se. In Philippe’s case, there’s a deeper truth in what he’s doing–an ecstasy of truth. And he’s discovering, of course, walking in the sky, in the clouds, means a form of ecstasy–a quintessential metaphor of an ecstatic moment. There’s a truth in it that we can somehow function beyond our limitations. He can walk in the skies.
Philippe Petit: Truth deserves more than being factually recorded.
TH: I think what’s interesting about the film is that it never really gets into the mechanics of the actual business of walking on the wire. Petit explains a little about rigging, but there’s no talk about balance. It is as if the film assumes that walking on a wire, at least for Petit, is the most natural thing in the world. And it probably is. And that, I think, it partly where what Herzog and Petit call the “truth” lies: it lies in the fact that what he does is almost beyond description, beyond words. There is only the Act, and it happens, and it is.
EM: That’s exactly what I was — the truth, in this case, as regards to Petit’s walking across the WTC, doesn’t lie in the details, but the spectacle. The stunt itself is the truth. The stills that remain, the shaky film footage from the bottom of the buildings in which you can barely make him out, the smile across his face, standing over 1,300 feet in the air. Which makes it all the more enjoyable, in my opinion, that James Marsh styled Man on Wire not only in the vein of crime and heist films that Petit watched, but that the film is certainly cast out of the Werner Herzog and Errol Morris mold: stylized recreations, exaggerations, eccentric characters (often staring directly into the camera), etc., and what’s probably the most important — the pure beauty of the act, which can only speak for itself.*
TH: Right. Dramatization has, of course, long been a contentious topic within the Documentary area of film, and many others (e.g. Errol Morris on his New York Times blog) have written extensively about different modes of documentary/ation. If one compares, for instance, the way that Robert Flaherty recreates Nanook’s hunt with the way that Errol Morris recreates the events of A Thin Blue Line, it is clear that there are different cognitive impulses coming out there. To recreate the wire walking itself would be a lie on multiple fronts, to be sure, and besides, how could the recreation be more compelling than the historical documents that exist already? I’d much rather listen to Petit describe the moment than watch a re-enactment.
I think it is telling, perhaps, that Herzog’s documentary work avoids re-enactment, preferring to record the stark truth of the moment (I’m thinking of the shots of empty streets in La Soufrière, or the shots of undersea creatures in Encounters at the End of the World.)
EM: I’m not sure how constructive this tangent might be, but nevertheless, one shouldn’t overlook the fact that many of Herzog’s documentary moments may not be ‘recreations’ per se**, but they are blatant fabrications and staging. In The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner Herzog attributes a quote to Steiner, which he of course never said, and has Steiner tell a story he made up. In Little Deiter Needs to Fly, Deiter Dengler is shown going through a series of odd, OCD and neurotic behaviors in his home, which were entirely made up by Herzog. The point being, of course, that the actions by Dengler are “how he really feels” and the for Steiner it’s “something he could have said”, and so on. So what can we conclude, if anything? I’m not entirely sure, since I haven’t seen any other films by James Marsh (which includes a documentary about John Cale and the cult film Wisconsin Death Trip! Count me in!). But glancing at his page on The Database, his work includes both documentary AND narrative, which already puts him in a camp with Morris and Herzog, and not to mention the ‘ecstatic truth’ style of Man on Wire.
TH: Your examples of Herzog’s stagings and outright fibs are enlightening, I think, because they highlight the difference between two types of fibs. On the one hand, you have the re-enactment, which is approximating (never replicating) an event already lost to history. On the other hand, you have a creation, out of thin air, of something that never happened before, but wouldn’t happen without Herzog there. The former has no hope of success in anything other than a quasi-educational aspect; the latter can be successful in illustrating/revealing a hidden truth through the use of artifice (after all, filming anything is inherently artificial, anyhow).
So when it comes to Man on Wire, we have re-enactments, but only of minor/inconsequential moments. Furthermore, these dramatizations are deliberately artificial, that is, Marsh does not give much thought to “historical accuracy” (e.g. the use of German Expressionist techniques). Despite this accuracy, though, I think they speak to a deeper truth, not the surface truth of factual history. It’s sort of like how journalistic “neutrality” is really just a cover for inevitable bias, bias that, if admitted, is easier to filter out and ignore.
EM: I think we’ve done enough beating around the bush, for now. I’m going to put forth some declaratives. Man on Wire is highly entertaining. It’s engaging as a criminal heist film and also uplifting in its moments of beauty. It’s quirky and comedic, much in the debt of Petit’s collaborators: odd Frenchmen, stoned NYC hippies, an Australian, etc., and of course the centerpiece, Petit himself (who’s bizarre, to say the least, and a natural born storyteller, which makes sense given his sense for adventure).
TH: The film is staggering. Having Petit himself is obviously a huge help, because he is gifted in so many ways – really just a natural entertainer, perhaps as much so as Keaton or Chaplin or the like. Everything you say is true.
That being said, I do wonder what the film would’ve been like as a purely experimental piece – and maybe you don’t want to go here – but I feel like this film could’ve worked almost as well as just pure visual images of all of his riggings and wire walks in Paris, in Sydney, and in NYC. Maybe if they just showed it with no sound, just musical accompaniment.
EM: I’m not sure I do want to go there. But I’ll entertain the thought. Petit’s wirewalking as simply a visual piece would say a lot, and I’d watch that shit any day. But so much of what is great about Man on Wire really does rely on context, on Petit’s obsession, his drive, his friends and collaborators, and the nature of the WTC walk as a tense, full blown heist. It’s treatment as a “crime” makes it all the more intriguing. I’ve read elsewhere (the internet, reviews) that many have called Petit’s walking between the twin towers the “artistic crime of the 21st century”. I can’t exactly think of any obvious ones off the top of my head, but was wondering how you felt about that …
TH: Yeah, it’s probably best not to go there, for all the reasons you mention. It was just a thought. The focus of the film isn’t the wire-walking, as ethereal, ephemeral, and unreal as that is. The focus, the subject, is obsession, is the man’s obsession (which is why Herzog is such an admirer – they are kindred souls, really).
As far as being the “artistic crime of the 20th century”, well, I think that’s probably true, only because it’s hard to say what else there has been besides graffiti. And of course, it’s a crime with no victims – he’s breaking laws that are there solely to protect people from themselves. But that’s the whole point of his life, that’s his message: we need to stop worrying about dying and start with the real living, right?
EM: Absolutely. I think one of the reasons I enjoyed the film so much was its uplifting, life-affirming type of feel. It’s cheesy as hell, and I’m swallowing my cynical, hipster pride right now, but god damn. And of course, we can’t write or talk about this film without mentioning the elephant in the room — 9/11. On one hand, we have the World Trade Center towers, their birth christened by an act of beauty, insanity, and joy, the illegal walking of the wire by Philippe Petit, made possible by deception, fraud, etc. On the other hand we have September 11, the destruction of the towers, ended by an act of ugliness, insanity, hate, made possible by (more or less) the same methods. So we have the two bookends, one the focus of Man on Wire, and the other not mentioned at all, though its ghost dreadfully hangs in the theatre.
TH: It is quite amazing that Marsh managed to make a film about the WTC without even mentioning 9/11 one time. As a conscious choice, I couldn’t applaud it more. As you point out, the spectre of that event hangs in the theatre the whole time, but left unsaid, it’s more powerful than if they mentioned it at all. Had Petit mentioned it (and he’s obviously savvy enough not to), it would have pilloried what he’s all about – energy, dynamicism, motion. Instead, it hangs there like a counterweight to the whole project.
In a sense, this is part of what Herzog is getting at with his thoughts on Truth: what Petit does probably comes as close as anything can to transcending mediation, transcending politics. It is as close, probably, as a human can come to the Real. Asymptotically close. When Petit is on the wire, everything disappears. It is just a man walking in the sky. There is no time for war or for emotion. There is only action.
*[Maybe interesting to note, that of all the recreations Marsh shot, it’s very satisfying that it was limited to background story, the build-up of the crime, and the painfully dramatic moments right before the act — but of course, not the act itself, which to recreate would be sacrilege. -EM]
**[Wings of Hope (2000) is entirely a recreation, but in present tense. Having been the sole survivor of a plane crash in 1971, Juliane Koepcke, at the urging of Herzog, walks through her entire jungle survival route post-crash. Shit’s heavy, but I’m not so sure this could be considered a recreation as much as a present-tense reliving. -EM]