Friday, September 11, 2009

Man on Wire

Eight years on and it still seems unbelievable: two giant towers, there one minute, gone the next. The New York City skyline still seems incomplete these days, even though the Empire State Building has more room to shine. The World Trade Center lives on in memory of course. The best memory is from August 1974, when a young Frenchman, Philippe Petit, walked eight times between the twin towers on a narrow wire.
Petit wrote of his dazzling feat in his 2002 book, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. The 2008 documentary, Man on Wire, is based on Petit's book. This is one of the rare cases when the film is better than the book in my opinion. British director James Marsh said he thought of his film as a "heist movie". It does feel like a heist film, focusing on the preparations for the walk -Petit readying himself with supporters in France, casing the towers and so on. There is no footage of the walk itself (unthinkable in these Youtube days!) but plenty of photographs. And the film is also a love letter to the World Trade Center, an homage.

Canadian writer Steven Galloway, of The Cellist of Sarajevo fame, centred his 2003 novel, Ascension, on a wire walker who walks between the twin towers in 1976. But his fictional walker is not a young Frenchman. He is Salvo Ursari, a 66 year-old Roma man. And his walk doesn't end as well as Petit's shall we say (we know this in chapter one - not a spoiler!).

Since 9/11 there have been the endless wrangles about how to both remember the towers and the people who died there, as well as how to replace the buildings. William Langewiesche wrote about the immediate clearing up of the site ("unbuilding") in The Atlantic magazine, later published as his book American Ground: Unbuilding the Word Trade Center. Philip Nobel wrote of the wrangles in Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (2005). The starchitect Daniel Libeskind, selected to do a master plan for Ground Zero, talks a bit about the aesthetic and other struggles in his 2004 memoir, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture.

Of course the reverberations of 9/11 go way beyond the towers. Just this summer the "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" came into effect, forcing everyone crossing the US-Canada border to have a passport. This "thickening" of the formerly "undefended border" between friends kind of means the terrorists won, doesn't it? Jim Lynch uses the politics, both personal, local and cross-border, of what he calls the "nonchalant border" between BC and Washington State as the setting for his excellent new novel, Border Songs. Small-town oddball Brandon Vanderkool unexpectedly finds his calling when he joins the U.S. Border Patrol and is soon at the centre of an uptick in pot smuggling and human trafficking. Mike Doherty in the National Post called the novel "required reading" and noted that Seattle-area writer Lynch "gets Canada right."


Blogger Tamara said...

You are absolutely right about ‘Man on Wire’ – it’s one of the rare examples of the movie outshining the book.

4:51 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Man on Wire" was an astonishingly gripping documentary. Even though you know that Philippe does not meet with disaster, you still sit on the edge of your seat, wincing and flinching as he walks the wire.

Great stuff!

5:11 p.m.  
Blogger Libarbarian said...

When I wrote this post I overlooked the novel "Let the great world spin" by Colum McCann. It also focuses on Petit and riffs on an imagined aftermath.

12:27 p.m.  

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