Reflections on “The Walk” (2015) #film


A long, long time ago, before I learned to read, write, speak and think the English language, I came upon the story of an artist who did a high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. I remember reading how he used a bow and arrow to first shoot a fishing line across the void between the towers. The fishing line was attached to larger ropes, and eventually to a steel cable on which he performed the walk. He was so good at his art that at one stage he even lay down on the cable, his pole balancing on his gently rising and falling stomach as he breathed, silently watching the clouds floating across the sky, with the whole New York City brought to a standstill 417 metres below by this astonishing, awesome act.

Last night, staying home at these unusual times and trying to relax after a long day’s work, I randomly watched a DVD borrowed from our local library – and was stunned to discover The Walk tells the story of Philippe Petit that I had read about so many years ago. Distant memories surfaced, connecting the past and the present, in this case between the Chinese translation of an article from the July 1975 issue of the Reader’s Digest Magazine and a 2015 American 3D biographical drama film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the French high-wire artist. What a curious trip down the memory lane, across time and space, between languages and cultures…

Petit gained international fame in 1971 with a high-wire walk between the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. The Walk depicts how the artist conceived and planned for his renowned “coup” between the roofs of the Twin Towers in 1974, highlighting how he and a group of “accomplices” managed to transport all the heavy equipment up to the top of the buildings, which were still under construction at the time. Petit used a 200-kilogram, 61-metre steel cable to reach across the 42-metre gap between the towers. Then, with the help of his 8-metre, 25-kilogram balancing pole, he walked and danced back and forth on the cable, making a total of eight passes over a period of 45 minutes. At one stage he knelt to salute the cable, the two buildings that supported him, and of course the crowds watching him on the streets below. No doubt he made all the police officers trying to arrest him very nervous.

Gordon-Levitt, whose performance as Arthur in Inception (2010) is eye-opening, is truly impressive portraying a young artist full of fierce courage and dream-large confidence in his pursuit of excellence. As director Robert Zemeckis skilfully demonstrates, the key to Petit’s success is careful and thorough preparation, teamwork, and a sense of optimism even in the direst of circumstances. It is made very clear that even when the artist walks on the high wire in mid air, in absolute solitude, he is never alone, for he is surrounded by understanding and support. This is something that all artists celebrate and share, that Petit himself illustrates in Creativity: The Perfect Crime (2014): “There is no such thing as motivation in my world. I am not motivated to do what I do. As an artist, I am driven, I am compelled, I am thrust forward by a force so rooted inside me, so convincing, that it seems futile to try to explain it. Although it has a name: passion.”

The Walk is based on Philippe Petit’s 2002 book To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk between the Twin Towers. A paperback edition, apparently re-titled “Man on Wire”, was released in 2008. I intend to check it out.


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