A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Karl Wallenda dies, 1978
On this day in 1978, Karl Wallenda, founder of The Flying Wallendas, a daredevil circus act, died aged 73. Born into a family of circus people in Germany, Karl had begun performing aged six. By 17 he had his own act, with his brother and girlfriend. By the age of 23 he was performing in the USA. Karl developed the seven-person chair pyramid (on a wire), which was a showstopping part of the Wallendas’ routine, and performed it regularly until it went wrong, killing two members of the troupe (Wallenda’s son-in-law and nephew), paralysing another (his son) from the waist down and injuring Karl’s pelvis. Karl performed the stunt again, though only rarely. Wallenda died after falling 121ft (37 metres) from the wire while walking between the towers of the Condado Plaza Hotel.
Man on Wire (2008, dir: James Marsh)
The title comes from the charge sheet of Philippe Petit after he was arrested for slinging a wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center and then walking between them. James Marsh’s brilliant film tells the story of Petit’s 1974 act of mad heroics similarly to the way a previous film, The Burger and the King, explored the relationship of Elvis Presley to food. In other words, there’s a serious intent beneath the playful storytelling. Marsh is blessed that Petit and his gang of guerrilla performers took miles of cine footage of their preparations – how they practised for one of the most audacious high wire act of all time (417m/1,368ft up) on a rope only a few feet above the ground in a field in France. For the rest he uses talking head reminiscence, dramatic reconstruction, footage of the walk itself, to present what feels very like a heist thriller – we meet the people (“the Australian”, “the Inside Man” etc), we learn of the plans, the equipment (the 200kg cable, the 8 metre balancing pole), the security to be circumvented, and then we get the execution of the deed itself.
Petit had come up with the idea of making the walk even before the twin towers were finished, aged 17, after reading about the building in a dentist’s waiting room. He worked his way up – practising on the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Warm-up acts out of the way, kinks ironed out of his technique, Petit achieved the big one on 7 August 1974. He was arrested after he’d made the traverse eight times, walking, dancing, laying down on the wire and kneeling to salute watchers during the 45 minutes he was up there. Later he’d remark that “I did something mysterious and magnificent and I got a practical ‘why?’ ”, a romantic Frenchman’s view of meat-and-potatoes America. Lending the whole film poignancy is the fact that the World Trade Center is no longer there, the victim of another prankster’s less amusing intervention. But though Marsh could have played up this aspect, he doesn’t, thankfully, leaving it to us to supply our own subtitles when he gives us a glimpse of the pass that Petit still has – “Observation Deck of the World Trade Center – Permanent.”
- Winner of the best documentary Oscar
- An analysis of the times as well as the man, like James Marsh’s other documentaries
- The fascinating enthusiasm of Philippe Petit
- The new footage seamlessly integrated with the old
© Steve Morrissey 2014