11 June 2009

MAN ON WIRE (Dir. James Marsh, 2008, UK) - 'If I die, what a beautiful death!...'

1974, New York, French man Phillipe Petit walks across a wire between the twin towers

British film maker James Marsh rose through the ranks of the industry as an associate editor, working on heritage films like 'Howards End' and 'Carrington'. With 'Man on Wire', a documentary about the larger than life personality of wire walker extraordinaire Phillipe Petit and his significant contribution to the Red Riding television series, James Marsh is emerging as one of the most versatile film makers working in the UK today. Grierson's constructive thinking on documentary as a popular mode of address with a didactic imperative continues to influence British cinema even today. Consider film makers like Winterbottom or Loach and its quite apparent that the blurring of the boundaries between reality and fiction in their films has usefully been labelled as social realism. What makes 'Man on Wire' such a unique documentary is the emotional intelligence with which Marsh inter cuts personal testimonies and candid interviews with noirish reconstructions of key events that led to the magically insane feat of witnessing Petit walk across a wire stretched out between the Twin Towers in New York.

The film benefits enormously from the eccentric narrative diction of Petit who is like an over excited child, a wondrous ball of energy and ultimately, a suicidal magician. Petit's charismatic presence consumes and enthralls us as an audience, as his every word and gesture is an evocation of a demented reality over which he has complete and total control. Yet is this even a documentary when considering the explicit cinematic nature of the genre allusions to film noir, the heist film and an overwrought score by Michael Nyman. Picking up the Oscar for best documentary, 'Man on Wire' has been an incredibly popular entry in the canon of recent British documentaries and in a strange Grierson kind of way, it also seems to offer a deeply educative view on the complexities of the human condition.


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