Friday, August 8, 2008

Getting high on a wire -- really high

I've always been skittish about heights, so "Man on Wire" -- a documentary about Philippe Petit, the man who walked across a cable strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center -- was a genuine white-knuckle experience for me. I watched the movie with my eyes, and felt it in my stomach.

You may remember this bit of 1974 insanity, which unfolded long before the World Trade Center became a symbol of something far more disturbing than a violation of common sense and city ordinances. Oddly, 9/11 never is mentioned in this generally fascinating documentary, which includes some recreated footage that's well done, but still may offend purists (I'm one) who think documentaries shouldn't contain wholesale recreations. On the other hand, this may be a time when an exception really does prove the rule. No one would have been able to photograph the real events that took place inside the World Trade Center in 1974, and seeing just how Petit's crew turned two buildings into a high-wire stage has an obvious value.

As for mentioning 9/11 ... The argument here presumes that director James Marsh wanted to take us back to the time when Petit was able to leave New Yorkers (and the rest of the country) gawking with wonder. Petit, a mime and daredevil by temperament and training, long had had his eye on the towers, which he learned about while perusing a magazine in a doctor's office. He read about the towers, and knew that he'd found his destiny.

After a variety of warm-up stunts (the Cathedral of Notre Dame among them), Petit enlisted a crew to help him sneak into the towers and string his cable. These sequences have compared to a good heist movie. Maybe so, but the reason to see "Man on a Wire" has more to do with the walk than with preparation. Footage of Petit on the wire is breathtaking, and it had me clutching the arms of my chair.

As an artist who's able to find poetry in his efforts, Petit -- who now resides in rural New York -- makes an able storyteller, and it's difficult not to appreciate the crazy courage it took for this Frenchmen to step off one of those towers onto a wire. Petit actually went back and forth eight times, as if to emphasize the sheer magnitude of what seems like the height of folly to those of us who prefer keeping two feet firmly planted on the ground. Petit, I suppose, would find such an idea dull, prosaic and perhaps even unthinkable.

Local publicists offered a variety of pre-release screenings of Nanette Burstein's "American Teen," but I wasn't able to get to one until the night before the picture opened. So here's my quick take: Burstein ("The Kid Stays in the Picture") has made an over-produced, disturbingly slick documentary about a year in the lives of four high school seniors in Warsaw, Ind. As if sent from central casting, the main characters fill out a roster of standard-issue teen types: the jock, the nerd, the super-popular princess and the rebellious girl. Some critics have suggested that some of the movie's scenes look as if they might have been staged. Maybe, but here's the good news: The stereotypes eventually give way to flesh-and-blood human beings who endure romantic heartbreak, anxiety about getting into college and rampant insecurity. I stayed with these characters as the year unfolded, but ultimately found the movie less moving than the best of director John Hughes' work (say, "The Breakfast Club") and less profound than Frederick Wiseman's 1968 documentary, "High School," which felt more like a bona fide cultural investigation than a documentary that fits a little too neatly into a teen-pic mold.

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