Tuesday, November 04, 2014

There is nothing new under the sun ...

When I was a kid I was a fiend for Monty Python's Flying Circus.  (Still am, actually.)  It came on at 11:30, and I'd stay up to watch, howling in the otherwise quiet house.  One night my dad came into the TV room just as Python was about to start and said that he wanted to see what I thought was so funny.  He sat through the entire episode, as I remember it, without laughing even once.  When the show was over I asked him how it could be possible that he thought none of what he'd seen had been funny.  He said, "I thought it was funny when Ernie Kovacs did it in the 50s."

At the time I thought that that was kind of a weird response, but later I experienced my own version of it.  When It's Gary Shandling's Show came on critics went wild.  They especially heralded his unprecedented practice of breaking the so-called "fourth wall" and talking directly to the camera.  And as I read reviewer after reviewer lifting up this cutting edge concept I kept thinking to myself, "but George Burns did that on the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show thirty years earlier"

This came to mind a couple of nights ago while watching the incredible fanfare surrounding Nik Wallenda's high wire walk in Chicago (brought to you with breathless hype by the Discovery Channel).  I don't want to take anything away from his accomplishment.  It was pretty cool, especially the second segment where he walked blindfolded.  And, as he said, he'd strung his wire higher than it had ever been in his family's roughly two centuries of wire walking.  None the less:
  • While his wire was strung higher than ever in his family's history, it was still only about half as high as the wire Philippe Petit walked in 1974.
  • We were told how his team -- of a dozen or so riggers -- only had two days (!) to rig the wire, which included guys lines that reached a thousand feet to the grounds and special hardware that was bolted into the buildings.  Petit's team of four people (led by Jean Louis Blondeau), not only had just one night to rig his wire, but had to do so while dodging police, with the time pressure of beating sunrise, with the need to secretly get the wire from one building to the other (they used a bow and arrow ... seriously!), and without the ability to to attach cables to anything other than the roof of the towers themselves.
  • After his first walk of about three or four minutes the hyper hosts and commentators wondered if Wallenda would have the stamina to do the second leg of the walk.  Petit was on his wire for forty-five minutes, making about eight crossings.
  • Both Wallenda and Petit performed their walks without any kind of safety gear but Petit, again at roughly twice the height, did not have trained rescue crews on the ready to rush out to him should he fall and catch himself to hang on the wire.
  • Throughout his walk Wallenda was in constant contact with his family and his team.  Petit was entirely alone up there, and those who had worked so hard to make le coup possible could only watch and hope.
  • Wallenda walked two wires -- one with a 19° incline and the other he walked blindfolded.  Petit, on the other hand made eight crossings, as I said, during which he knelt and saluted, sat down, and even lay down looking up, as he said, at a seagull flying overhead.  (And did I mention that his wire was twice as high as Wallenda's?)
  • A reported 65,000 people turned out to watch Wallenda's walk.  It was hyped in the media as an event not to be missed.  There were commentators, expert talking heads, and even a computer generated model of what the winds might be like.  In James Marsh's haigiographic film Man on Wire there is a moving picture of some of Petit's friends and co-conspirators looking up at the speck that was Petit on the wire.  There are a few people who have stopped to look up, too, but there are others who keep on walking, oblivious.  Yes, Petit undoubtedly wanted an audience, but it does seem as though the experience itself was the driving force.
  • And while I can not say this for certain, I cannot imagine that Wallenda's team had anywhere near the passion and devotion not just to the walk itself but to the adventure of doing something impossible (and getting away with it) and to the sheer artistry and beauty of this surprise gift to New York City.
Again, what Nik Wallenda did in Chicago the other night deserves to be celebrated.  It was an incredible feat.  But he is not the first to have done something like this, and I fear that there are those who know nothing about the history on which this act was built.  If it hadn't been for Petit's team, and Petit himself, walking between those twin towers forty years ago, no one would have even cared about something like Wallenda's walk.

Our history matters, and our pioneers should not be forgotten.

Pax tecum,


Print this post

No comments: