Meet One of the Greatest Americans, the Frenchman Philippe Petit: A love letter to the Twin Towers

I was on a long oversea flight when I noticed the 2015 movie The Walk was one of the few listings that actually looked interesting to me.  I had avoided it in theaters because honestly, I get tired of all the sad stories about the Twin Towers destroyed in New York in 2001.  The topic started to feel like a perpetual funeral a long time ago—and I don’t like funerals.  I was a kid when Philippe Petit performed a high wire act by walking across the two skyline monstrosities breaking the law, yet winning the hearts of the world—so I vaguely remembered the incident.  Being stuck on a plane for 13 hours and having finished a book I was reading, I thought I’d give it a chance.  What I discovered on the Robert Zemeckis directed film was a love letter to what the World Trade Center towers represented before that terrible day on 9/11—and it gave me new respect for the anger that New Yorkers—like Donald Trump—still feel when talking about them.  Everyone promised not to forget when the towers were destroyed by radical Islamic terrorists on that fateful September day in 2001—but by the time The Walk had finished playing on the plane long over the Pacific Ocean coming down along the coast of Russia, I realized that Zemeckis had captured perfectly the critical issues on why legal immigration to the United States was part of the American experience and had properly identified without saying it why the terrorists had attacked those particular towers—because of what they represented to the rest of the world.  I found that The Walk was a movie that every American should see at least once because even thought Petit was a Frenchman, what he did and why he did it perfectly embodied why America is a special place and continues to be.  At the heart of the movie was a defined embodiment of the current political turbulence and a desire to recapture America’s spirit before 9/11 ever happened.  It was marvelous.

Philippe Petit (French pronunciation: ​[filip pəti]; born 13 August 1949) is a French high-wire artist who gained fame for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, on the morning of August 7, 1974.[1] For his unauthorized feat (which he referred to as “le coup”[2]) 1,350 feet (400 metres) above the ground, he rigged a 450-pound (200-kilogram) cable and used a custom-made 26-foot (8-meter) long, 55-pound (25-kilogram) balancing pole. He performed for 45 minutes, making eight passes along the wire. The next week, he celebrated his 25th birthday. All charges were dismissed in exchange for his doing a performance in Central Park for children.

Since then, Petit has lived in New York, where he has been artist-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, also a location of other aerial performances. He has done wire walking as part of official celebrations in New York, across the United States, and in France and other countries, as well as teaching workshops on the art. In 2008, Man on Wire, a documentary directed by James Marsh about Petit’s walk between the towers, won numerous awards. He was also the subject of a children’s book and an animated adaptation of it, released in 2005. The Walk, a movie based on Petit’s walk, was released in September 2015, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

He also became adept at equestrianism, fencing, carpentry, rock-climbing, and bullfighting. Spurning circuses and their formulaic performances, he created his street persona on the sidewalks of Paris. In the early 1970s, he visited New York City, where he frequently juggled and worked on a slackline in Washington Square Park.

I can’t promise by the time that you’ve read this article dear reader that the below film, Man on Wire will still be playing on YouTube.  If it’s not, you should find it and watch it.  If it is still up below, then take a few hours and watch it now.  I had not seen the film prior to the Zemeckis movie but instantly sought it out wanting to confirm that what I had seen in The Walk was real—which it was.  It is an inspiring documentary that serves as a fine complement to the 2015 feature film.  As spectacular as that event was in 1974 walking across the massive precipice of the World Trade Center from such dizzying heights, it was quite a relief to discover that the story was true and the real passion of Philippe Petit was not overstated.  The actual guy is just as passionate and authentic as the 2015 movie on him.   Petit was a modern immigrant who came to America because of the opportunities it provided him, and he stayed and never left.  Even though what he did was in definite violation of the law, New York embraced him because unlike other places in the world, such efforts often go with a reward.  America has always been a place where the law takes a back seat to innovation.  Of course Philippe Petit was arrested for his antics and if he had not been successful, things could have been very bad for him and the World Trade Center building complex that had not yet been opened to the public.  But as it was, Petit’s actions were authentic—driven from a pure heart to live by the spontaneity of his troubadour tendencies and the American continent recognized that effort with foundations of belief rooted in common experience.  Most people in America yearn to live as Petit did—not everyone does—but the purpose of art is to evoke such emotions and in this case it properly put its finger on the root of American Exceptionalism.  Petit is such a fine, raw example of American Exceptionalism.  It’s not something people are born with.  It’s a philosophy that embraces those who have no place else to display their genius—and that is what makes America great.  It’s not a born trait, it’s something you take for yourself—and America along with its entire people—thus benefits.

Petit saw something that at the time could have only been created by American capitalism—the World Trade Center and he took on impossible odds to perform his task.  Part of the difficulty is what shaped the event as being so extraordinary.  If it had been easy it would not have been so amazing.  I can say that I understand Petit’s efforts.   I have experienced similar things—even down to the mysterious stranger who showed up on the roof at dawn and looked him wordlessly to acknowledge his existence then disappeared just as inexplicably.  Who was that guy?  Nobody knows but he never tipped off the law prior to Petit taking to his feat.  I have a saying that I often have told my children that the treasures of life are not found along paved roads lined with signs saying stay off the grass.  If you really want to find the treasures of life, sometimes you have to step off that paved road and look in the high grass and weeds.  Rules and regulations are designed to keep us all on the road so that things can be hidden from us—so another class of insurgent aristocrats can rule over mankind.   That is why in France, Petit wasn’t so celebrated, because they loved their rules and regulations.  They may push the limit in different social ways, but the intellectual ways that Americans do are unique to the continent of North America as established by the Revolution of 1776.  Breaking the law is sometimes a good thing in America—so long as you win.

That message is distinctly different everywhere else in the world.  Rules matter and the people who make the rules must be revered as gods on earth.  In America that notion is laughed at—and that is why Philippe Petit was so embraced by New York after his amazing feat.  He had given meaning to those two steel towers and enemies of America—both foreign and domestic wanted to put an end to that meaning.  So they attacked them for what they represented to all the Petits of the world who looked to America with hope.  The attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11 2001 was not just a shot at American capitalism, but to those who looked at them in pictures and dreamed similar dreams of freedom, anarchy, and spontaneous authenticity.  It wasn’t the buildings themselves they wanted to destroy so much as it was the freedoms they represented.  If Petit had not launched them with bold insurrection to the rules of humanity—they wouldn’t have had the same meaning.  For them to take their place in history properly—Petit needed to have his walk across them.

I was deeply touched by The Walk.  It touched on something that I believe in with extraordinary passion.  I can relate to Philippe Petit and I have to thank Robert Zemeckis for telling such an amazingly simple story with all the complexity of its troubadour origins—which is actually what gave birth to America in the first place from the first daring Europeans who put a zest for life ahead of the orthodox against the church and state.  Even though many had forgotten consciously what the World Trade Center had come to mean to a new generation, because of The Walk, the spirit of that endeavor has been captured and had defined them properly—and it is that spirit the terrorists attacked.

Conspiracies abound as to who was responsible for the destruction of the World Trade Center.  Donald Trump as a New Yorker and a builder of large buildings obviously is still very angry about their downfall—likely for the reasons I just articulated—even though it’s hard to put a finger on it.  The world needs more Philippe Petits and when those towers went down it wasn’t just lives lost that made everyone so sad.  It was the good memories of what they meant to the New York skyline and how they were launched to the public in such a grandiose way.  All that was erased forever and what was left was not just ruins, but an intentional jab at all the potential Philippe Petits of the world contemplating the fulfillment of their dreams.  The message from those treacherous insurgents was—yield your individuality to the deities and laws of the world.  Do not follow your individual passions as Philippe Petit did.   The direction we moved to as a country after 9/11 did exactly what the terrorists wanted.  Try telling a TSA agent you intend to walk across some building in America.  They’d panic and put the entire airport on lockdown just for saying it.  We gave up our free loving troubadour spirit to embrace the safety that only rules can provide to evoke upon us to stay on the paved roads.  CLICK HERE TO LEARN ABOUT THE TROUBADOURS.  That was the greatest crime of all.  For me the most beautiful scene in The Walk was when Petit was going through immigration with all his equipment and he honestly told the border agent what he planned to do.  It was so extraordinary that the man waved him through not with suspicion but almost with a dare to see if the kid would actually do it attitude.  That is America, and that is what we need to get back.

Maybe if Donald Trump is elected president he’ll nominate Philippe Petit as a VP—because he’s still alive.  I can’t think of anybody who is more American than that Frenchman.  That is a guy I understand!

Rich “Cliffhanger” Hoffman


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