Thursday, August 07, 2014

The 40th Anniversary of the Dance Between the Towers

Each year, on the anniversary of the day that the French wire-walker and street performer Phillipe Petit danced for forty-five minutes between the towers of the World Trade Center, I watch the wonderful documentary about le coup, Man on Wire.  And each year I am once again inspired.

I am inspired by the raw courage and sheer lunacy of this feat.  At one point in the film Petit says of his attitude on first actually seeing the towers, "It's impossible, that's sure.  So let's start working."  Petit's confidence in his own abilities is mindboggling -- that anyone could imagine that they could do such a thing!

But this was not a solitary venture.  Although Petit was the one on that wire a quarter of a mile above the streets of New York City, in truth he was only there because of his friends.  In the dedication of his own reminiscence of the event -- the book now also called Man on Wire but originally called To Reach The Clouds --  Petit names twenty-one individuals, and leaves at least a few unnamed.  He says that it is to these that "this story belongs."  It was not just Petit's faith in himself that's inspiring.  He also had a seemingly innate, unquestioned faith in those who were working on this project with him, and they in him.

That's something that comes through if you watch the film closely enough, or read the book for the story within the story -- each of these people believed in this crazy idea as much as Petit did.  Each of them thought it was worth doing.  Each of them thought it was possible.  Each of them thought that she or he was just the person to make it happen.  They were not merely his assistants; they were his collaborators, his co-conspirators.  It was not Petit's coup; the walk belonged to all of them.

Storytellers love a hero.  Audiences want to see one woman or one man with the courage and the skills to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles and do what no one else can.  (This is true, at least, of American storytellers and audiences brought up in the dominant culture of the United States.)  We want there to be a pinnacle -- to inspire us, to give us something to aspire to.  And so the images of Petit on that 3/4" wire, alone, touches something in our souls.  It's nearly impossible for us to imagine anyone else out there with him.

But there were.  Yes, only he had put his life on the line, but they had put the life of a dear friend on the line knowing that if something were to happen he would die a poet's death whereas they would have to live with if for the rest of their lives.  It was the skill of his feet and that insane concentration that kept him aloft on that early Tuesday morning, but it was the skill of his friends and their insane dedication that got him there in the first place.  There is another story -- a less mythic, perhaps, yet deeper and more true story -- about le coup.

It is also, I think, an ultimately more inspiring one.  When I was younger it is quite possible that I aspired to be that solitary hero.  (I don't know for sure, I'm old enough now not to really remember!)  Now, though, I aspire to be part of a community that's doing daring things; to be one of a group that believes that, together, nothing can stop them.

I used to call this day "International Phillipe Petit Danced Between the Towers Day."  I will call it now, the Anniversary of the Dance Between the Towers because those who were on those roofs with him, and those who'd been with him in the planning and were now down on the street, and even those of us who merely watched and wondered ... we all were dancing too.

Pax tecum,


UPDATE:  When I first wrote this post I was able to find photos of three of the team that were involved that day -- Jean-Louis Blondeau (who planed and organized the whole adventure), Annie Allix, and Jean-Fran├žois Heckel.  I wrote to Jean-Louis, with whom I've previously been in touch, and he told me that there were three other people who really needed to be mentioned -- Jean-Pierre Dousseau (who is never even mentioned in the film yet who drove the van into the Towers' delivery area and who was an integral part of the feat), and both Jim Moore and Barry Greenhouse (who do feature in the film).  He also sent me photos of these three so that I might honor them and their role as well.

So this year -- the 40th anniversary -- I salute them.

Jean-Louis Blondeau
Annie Allix

Jean-Fran├žois Heckel
Jean-Pierre Dousseau
Jim Moore

Barry Greenhouse

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Anonymous said...

Thanks, I was looking for more information and found your blog. Great to have updated photos.

Anonymous said...

With the movie The Walk being in theatres now, this is relevant again. It's a decent movie, but I do think they could have focussed more on the other people involved. Of course, it's a movie and they only have two hours or so to tell the story, so naturally a lot is going to be left out, but STILL. In particular I think the movie didn't really do justice to Jean-Louis. It seems to me he was so very important to this operation. Crucial. I wasn't there, so I can't say anything for sure, but from watching Man On Wire it's my impression that Jean-Louis was the glue holding everything together. Not only did he come up with the arrow-shooting idea, he was the one thinking of every little aspect of the plan Philippe didn't even consider, he was the one looking out for him, but more importantly: he kept believing in it. He was the one telling Philippe that it WAS possible when Philippe lost hope after their first failed attempt. (Which the movie left out entirely)

In The Walk, the fictionalised version of him just kind of tags along with his camera. Sure, it was clear he was one of Philippe's closest friends, but they didn't give the actor a whole lot to work with. I didn't feel just how deep he was in. From watching Man On Wire, I felt how much his heart was truly in it, and I didn't really get that from the movie. The other characters (except maybe Annie) stay quite one-dimensional as well. It's too bad. The Walk is fun to watch, but to get a better idea of the story, Man On Wire is so much better.

RevWik said...

I hesitate to watch The Walk for just this reason. From my correspondence with Jean-Louis it is my understanding that even Man on Wire goes nowhere near the truth of how collaborative this event really was (an erroneous impression I now try to correct in blog posts like this). I have been told, now several times, that even some of the apparent fundamentals of that story are not true -- at least, and this is my interpretation, not in any kind of journalistic historic sense. There may well be some poetic truth, yet even that I have come to believe is not the story at its best -- the courageous vision of one man fighting against impossible odds. There is an even greater poetry in the collaboration of a team in making the impossible possible. I asked Jean-Louis once whether he intended to tell the story from his perspective and he indicated that me might. I do so hope that he will one day do so. it's a story I think many of us will be inspired by.