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Man on Wire

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David Hast and Scott Vander Werf discuss Man on Wire, the Academy Award-winning documentary about Phillip Petitt, who walked a high-wire between the World Trad Center buildings in 1974. Directed by James Marsh, it’s presented as a heist film

David Hast: Scott, have you seen Man on Wire?

Scott Vander Werf: I have seen Man on Wire, and I watched it in the theater when it came out. I saw it on DVD afterwards, and I've recently watched it streaming, and it's a wonderful movie.

DH: Yeah, I've seen this movie a million times, because when I was teaching, teaching a film class, I used to show that quite frequently as a documentary.

SVW: And it's just...to watch somebody who's obsessed with doing something that's totally insane and then gathering a team together to pull it off, it's almost like a real life heist movie.

DH: Yeah, it is. In fact, I noticed that it was listed on IMDb as a documentary, biography and crime.

SVW: Which is fascinating because when you get to the point when after the crime has been committed everything that happens afterwards is actually Pretty interesting as well.

DH: Yeah, and I'm gonna say what this movie is about and I am gonna, it is a spoiler. That's okay with this movie.

SVW: That's okay because it's a documentary.

DH: It's a documentary, but it is the true story of Philippe Petit, a French acrobat and wirewalker who walked between the Twin Towers. They strung a wire between at the top of the two Twin Towers in 1974 and he walked between them.

SVW: And I remember when this film came out in 2007 before I had seen it, I was thinking in my mind, this must have happened a decade before. I didn't really understand until I watched it how early on it was in the early 70s.

DH: Yeah, it was literally the day before Nixon resigned. And yeah, and it was a crime. Wasn't one of the fun things about this movie to see how easily they pulled it off. I mean, nowadays, since the Twin Towers were destroyed and with the state of terrorism in the world and everything else, security is so high. And these guys just made these lame fake IDs and snuck in and they didn't do this with permission.

SVW: The top of the towers weren't completed at the time. There was still some work that was being done on the towers. It was almost like 98% done or 97% done. It was those, it was where they were, that the very top where they strung the wire across, it was still being worked on. So that was one that otherwise they probably wouldn't have been able to pull it off.

DH: The structure was completed. They were still as tall as they were and they were at the very top. But yeah, they hadn't finished every little bit. But we picked this movie because it's such a wonderful documentary. It's a great example of documentary.

SVW: It did win the Oscar. for the best documentary as well.

Dh: And one of the things I really like about it, and it sort of shows how documentaries have changed, there was a time where the documentary movement, you know, when you go back to like the 60s and 70s, where the cinema verité movement that really started in France and then became very big in the United States because filmmakers had access to these very lightweight 16 millimeter cameras and could do...things very, they could get in places they couldn't in the past. One of the things, it was almost like a dogma that you could never use reenactments. It had to be totally as truthful as possible. So only real footage that you captured or archival footage. But this movie shows how the documentary has changed. And you see that a lot now, which is that they use reenactments of the event that they, you know, they stage and shoot some scenes that are supposedly showing us them doing the thing to get into the Twin Towers, obviously they didn't have, well they actually did have a little footage of a lot of the stuff they did, but they didn't have the detailed kind of footage that they reenact in the documentary.

SVW: But the reenactments are done, they change the way that the film looks with the reenactments. They make it plain for the viewer that this is a reenactment, and also they don't dwell on the reenactments.

DH: No.

SVW: They enhance it.

DH: I mean, it's interesting because they had a remarkable, a tremendous amount of archival footage. Philippe Petit and his group in France shot footage of themselves on video, on film, black and white, color, lots. They had a lot of archival footage. They had great present-day interviews with them. They could have done it without the reenactments. But the reenactments added, I mean, part of what makes documentaries great is when you see personal drama. Yeah, the reenactments, they did them all in black and white, and they did them all, you know, very sharp. It looked like high resolution, you know, state of the art looking film. So every time it cut to that look, and also the way they did those scenes, they almost shot them, you know, so professionally, they look like a movie. So you really could tell the difference between that and the archival footage. Let's talk a little bit about this idea of what's real and what's not. Because nowadays we live in a world where it's just impossible to even almost, to even answer the question what's real, right? I mean, everything's on video now. Everybody carries around a video camera with them essentially in their phone. Like the advent of reality TV had a lot to do with that, don't you think?

SVW: At the very, very end of the 90s is when Survivor on CBS and all these different programs started popping up. They were making a lot of money for the TV networks. The networks didn't have to spend the money that they had been spending on so many dramas and comedies, paying actors and instead getting these people. And it created the illusion of reality because it's not very much, it's not reality. The producers are setting up scenarios essentially for the people that are involved in these. So it's unreality TV.

Dh: Isn't that the irony of so-called reality TV is that it's far from it, you know? But that has really affected, I mean we can go all the way back to an interesting movie that came out in 1967 called David Holzman's Diary, where the filmmaker Jim McBride made a movie that looked just like the cinema verite, the story of this filmmaker. And you see him, it's like an autobiographical film. He shows you his 16 millimeter camera and he talks about himself and his girlfriend and all this stuff happens and it seems so real. And he actually fooled the whole documentary community. And then at the end of the movie, the credits roll with the actors names and the director's name and the writer's name. And people were incredibly mad, but that was really like the first fake documentary and it paved the way for what we have now.

SVW: Yeah. The mockumentary.

DH: Yeah, right.

SVW: Which is done, you know, can be done very well. And yeah, I mean, the first really big one, this is Spinal Tap.

Dh: Right.

SVW: And which people know is a fake documentary, of course.

DH: But yeah, and that's it. Most of those are mockumentaries. David Holzman's diary didn't was not funny. And so it fooled a lot of people. But yeah, now you have this situation where reenactments are often used to deepen the drama and if they're done in an honest way, like Man on Wire, it's really interesting. Did you see the recent movie Pinball, The Man Who Saved the Game?

SVW: I have not seen that.

DH: That just came out last year. That is, well, I said documentary. It's not even listed as a documentary. Again, if you look at IMDB, they call it a biography, a comedy, and a drama, because in fact, it's all scripted. But it feels like there's a documentary aspect to it. It's the true story of this guy Roger Sharp, who got pinball legalized in New York, where it was illegal for decades because it was associated with gambling and vice. And… they even have a guy who, when I saw the movie, I thought that was the real Roger Sharp in present day. It's a guy sitting on a stool giving talking heads interviews, and then they do this narrative for most of the film with actors playing Roger Sharp back in the 70s when he's in his 20s, and then he'll interrupt it sometimes and say, no, that's not the way it really happened. So I thought, okay, that's the real documentary part, and they're using this rom-com kind of drama to tell it to. But then it turns out that guy was scripted too. But the real Roger Sharp approved the movie and was one of the executive producers. So here's an example. It almost crosses over into like a movie like All the President's Men or Spotlight or something. That's purely a historical reenactment that's a drama, but they do it in a way that it still feels like a documentary.

SVW: Well, with Man on Wire, when he actually is on the wire.

DH: Yeah.

SVW: That's interesting moment in the film because the tone completely changes. The soundtrack becomes silent and they only use real still photography of when it was happening.

DH: Yes. Something went wrong with their cameras. They don't have any video of them on out there.

SVW: Oh, I didn't know that something had happened.

DH: Well, I think so because there's just a few still shots.

SVW: It's not a few. It's enough that they.

DH: Yeah,

SVW: ,it's a brief passage because he was only up for a certain amount of time. And then the police show up fairly quickly within 45 minutes the police are up at the top of the twin towers,

DH: Right,

SVW: ,and he gets arrested and it's you know I always think of this movie is called man on the wire But it's man on wire and that's because that was the description in the police report,

DH: Yeah,

SVW: of his crime. His crime was man on wire.

DH: Yeah, that's hilarious, but yeah you and and they could have done a reenactment there too, but they did not right. They didn't want it for the really dramatic event. They wanted to keep what really existed in terms of documentary.

SVW: And you learn about all these different people, including his girlfriend, Anne, who help him throughout this whole process. And then very abruptly, after the wire walking is happening, happened, and then the arrest happens, there's apparently a lot of change. They don't really go into it, other than the fact that he breaks up with his girlfriend. They go into all these different personal things that must have happened afterwards.

DH: That's one of the most beautiful parts of the movie and what makes it even deeper, that personal drama, because you find out that after this happened, he became famous and the fame kind of went to his head almost instantly. It ended his long relationship with his girlfriend, it changed everything with his friends. And then you realize this isn't just the story of this great feat that they pulled off, it's the story of people.

SVW: Great movie, David, glad to talk about it.

DH: Thanks.

David Hast is a retired high school English teacher. He has an MFA in Radio/TV/Film from Northwestern University and worked 15 years in the film and video industry. Some years ago he taught video production part-time at GVSU, and as a high school teacher he regularly taught a course in Film and Media Analysis.
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