"THEREFORE, I SOUGHT REFUGE WITH THE BIRDS"
In 1974, a young Frenchman names Philippe Petit ran a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center and walked across.
On a cold December day, Philippe Petit hurries through the glass and concrete canyons of Manhattan, clad in a trenchcoat and a worn leather cap. His gaze is turned inward, his pace restless, nervous. Petit, it seems, is not at home down here on the asphalt. Up there, all the way up, where the city ends and the sky begins, is the realm of Philippe Petit.
Petit is a high wire artist, he may be the most well-known in the world. In 1974, with the help of three friends, he ran a wire between the two towers of the barely completed World Trade Center and walked across – 415 meters above the busy streets of New York. It was an insane, illegal, fantastic idea. And he din´t just walk across - he danced back and forth, he knelt to salute his audience below and finally lay down on the wire to converse with a curiously circling seagull. It took the New York City Police Department more than an hour to coax the man off his wire and take him into custody. Philippe Petit was 24 years old, and this was the highlight - and the pivotal point - of his life.
Why?, is the questions that begs to be asked. It is the word that met him as the cops shoved him down the stairs of the South Tower, into the arms of a breathless, exalted audience. It was a chaotic triumph, as a scene from the documentary "Man on Wire" shows. Why would anyone do such a thing?
People have assumed a myriad of answers - a death wish, a yearning for attention. "Some people I speak to", says Petit, now 59, "waste the entire conversation on trying to prove that this or that must have moved me. It´s idiotic!" It has been 34 years since the "coup", as he likes to call it, the towers are no more, but still, Petit refuses to spell out an answer. "There are many reasons. Who I am, who I was. But this was something magical, something wonderful, and to try and tie it to a reason is to neglect magic itself!"
Magic? Petit is no showman who seeks the attention of the crowds. He is a jester, a dreamer, a whiz. When he came down from the towers, the young Frenchman was inundated by offers for TV-interviews, movie contracts, book deals. Burger King promised him 100 000 dollars for balancing on a wire dressed up as a hamburger.
The memory makes him chuckle."I said: Kiss my ass! Not enough zeroes!" He wasn´t interested in "people who perceived the world differently than i did". They failed to understand his act, the fools.
Philippe Petit lives in a barn in the Catskills, which he constructed with 18th century tools, and he feels a bit lost in these modern times. He sees himself as a man from the Renaissance . "I would have loved to help build cathedrals, or as a painter have ground and mixed the pigments of the earth." Instead, he is a "craftsman in a world of small pixels and binary code, and i hate them. And so I took refuge with the birds."
He does come across like a fish out of water. He agreed to face a handful of Journalists in this building on Third Street, where the bureau of German TV broadcaster ARD resides as well as the Governor of New York. This is no performance, no act of creativity, this is - gibberish. It is obvious that he is barely able to tolerate it. "Fuck Freud!", he barks at the inquiry of an Englishman in the group. "I lack respect for people who look for answers to unsolvable riddles in other peoples´heads. While they´re busy seeking some obscure answer, I am out there, doing it!"
Petit is a diva, vibrating with a great impatience in the face of the indolence and carelessness of his fellow people. It would be nice if he could have his tea brought to him, instead of having to search for it himself, he points out to the press agent with barely mustered civility. Also, the conference room has such terrible acoustics that one can hardly concentrate. He needs a break. then he insists to continue right on time afterwards.
Petit is a man who despises mediocrity, but it is not self-elevation above others which seems to fuel him. Rather, he strives ever higher simply because the opportunity presents itself. To him, life is an open invitation to grab it by the horns, to tear down constrictions and limitations. Again and again, he utters the word "impossible" - but in his mind, this is no warning to resign. It is a challenge to a daring dance on the edge.
"Philippe is a pretty taxing character", says Kathy O´Donnell, his life partner. She is a resolute woman in her early fifties, bent over her laptop in the hallway. She assumes the role once inhabited by his friends Annie, Jean-Louis and Jean-Philippe - the executioners of his projects - high wire acts between Frankfurt´s Kaiserdom and Paulskirche, over the Superdome in New Orleans and Sydney´s Harbour Bridge. "I´m the witch who hires and fires people", Kathy says with a winning grin. The last guy she fired was a young aide who complained that he had only gotten two hours of sleep. "Philippe and I, we are perfectionists. We expect complete devotion and peak performance. We cannot afford slack." Of Petit, whom she met in the Eighties through a mutual friend, she says: "He is the most intelligent human being I´ve ever met. I don´t know many who command such a sharpness of mind. It is almost scary."
Even his parents were overwhelmed. His father, an Air Force Officer, and his mother, a homemaker, eventually refused responsibility for the young Petit. "Maybe they were afraid of this kid, this young man, who seem to gravitate toward things directly opposed to their own wishes", Petit speculates. "So when I was seventeen, they went to the authorities and officially emancipated themselves from me. Furthermore I would be responsible for myself. If I broke the law, I´d go to prison, but they would not be liable."
Petit had been expelled from multiple schools. Again and again the cops picked him up, mostly for lacking a permit for his street artistry. For Petit, every arrest was another opportunity to steal an officer´s wristwatch or empty his pockets.
Petit had taught himself to juggle, to perform magic tricks, to walk a tightrope. He was entertaining pedestrians along Montparnasse in Paris, but he yearned for bolder, more spectacular acts. In 1971 he ran a wire between the towers of Notre Dame by night and balanced across at daybreak. It was a sensation, a travesty, a crazy feat. But it paled in comparison to a project which was then already in the planning: A high wire act between the towers of the World Trade Center, the "crime of the century", as Petit calls it. The impossible.
For weeks, Petit and his partners in crime spied on the goings-on in the nearly completed towers, dressed up as business people or construction workers. They smuggled hundreds of pounds of equipment past the guards to the roof, amongst them the 200-kilo wire. On various occasions, they were nearly discovered, and at one point were forced to hide motionlessly under a tarp for several hours. And when they finally shot a leading rope across from one tower to the other, using bow and arrow, the heavy wire nearly slipped off the building.
But somehow, they made it. On the morning of August 7th, 1974, Philippe Petit walked out onto the roof. It is difficult to find words for this moment, Petit says 34 years later. "I call it the tempest in my head. The storm becomes a symphony, and the symphony then turns into silence. It is a whole world of events." He is looking at the wire, leading out into the void. "I see everything, I take it all up, even the invisible things. I see how the wire acts. I see the vibration of the air, the humidity - I perceive all which I must take into consideration to survive." Then, a great joy overwhelms him. In his book "To reach the clouds" he recapitulates this moment: He marvels at his feet, calls softly to the wire, feels the abyss and the emptiness around him with all of his senses. He taunts the helplessly calling cops on the roof. He gazes into the eyes of the gods, and is their equal.
New York loved the man who dared to do the impossible. And Philippe Petit reveled in the awed excitement which he had created. He became friends with the writer Paul Auster, who translated Petits Essay "On the high wire" into English and called him " a kind of hero". With the actress Debra Winger, who is said to demand a visual homage to Petits dance between the towers in every one of her film projects. With the director Werner Herzog, a man cut from the same cloth, "as he hauled a ship across a mountain", Petit says in reference to the making of Herzog´s "Fitzcarraldo".
Herzog had once referred to himself as "Conquistador of the useless", and this is how Petit grasps art, as well. "I cannot conceive of anything more sublime than to not know why one is damned to do something meaningful!" In a world saturated with bland entertainment, some performances become atrocities, he says, because the artist strives to please his audience or producer. "I think," says Philippe Petit, "that I can give the audience the greatest gift from a complete withdrawal - as a person who is consumed by his passion."
For Philippe Petit, the dance between the towers has become a symbol for the accessibility of the impossible. This is why he refuses to address their demise, either in the movie or in our interview. When the towers - Petit always called them "my towers" - fell on September 11th, 2001, Petit was at a friend´s place with Kathy O´Donnell, a painter who didn´t own a television. They hurried to another friend´s house and witnessed the impact of the second plane on the television there. "My towers became our towers", Petit says. Ever since, he has advocated for their reconstruction. And he has promised to then once again dance in the sky between them.