The 2008 film Man on Wire helped canonize performance artist Philippe Petit‘s marvelous feat of walking on a wire between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Petit’s act had become a cherished yet distant memory for many New Yorkers, but the film, which went on to win the Oscar, really placed Petit’s daring walk in the cultural-historical firmament — especially poignant in the post-9/11 era.
Petit himself had been doing fine in the intervening years between 1974 and 2008. He had been committed to his artistic craft (after taking a short detour to work for the Ringling Brothers’ Circus). Among other performances, he did a celebrated walk on a wire connected to the Eiffel Tower in 1989, and had written several books. Petit became an artist-in-residence, which he still is today, at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.
But what happened with all of the fanfare and fame after Man on Wire? “It didn’t at all change my life,” Petit says over the phone from his home in upstate New York. “I continued to be an artist who struggles for his vision.”
Which is not to say that he didn’t get to have some fun. Petit was tickled to have met Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and other stars. He helped market and promote Man on Wire for more than a year, traveling to Asia and Europe, until, he says, “I thought, ‘This film doesn’t need my help any more.’ It was exciting, but I was being asked the same questions over and over.”
Petit concedes that the film opened some doors, but mostly to various people who made grand proposals that haven’t materialized. “I never have the finances,” Petit says of the necessary resources to put together another one of his performances. He has not done what he calls an “official” wire walk since the release of the film.
Instead, he continues to lecture, and has finished a book about how he was able to build a barn using only 18th century tools. (Hey, the guy has skills.) Not that he is pooh-poohing the film. “It’s good for an artist to get some encouragement. The life of an artist is mostly denial and no art. The world doesn’t need art, it seems.” Indeed, he does have plenty under his sleeve. Petit will be teaching wire walking to a lucky few in Brooklyn this summer. And he says he is planning another major performance in New York City in 2011.
Oh, and he has an idea for a documentary: a filmmaker could follow him around the world, and film Petit performing as a street juggler in little villages in China, Russia and other far-off places. Any interested directors out there? You could call it, Man After Wire.