Frenchman Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, and when he came down (in police handcuffs), American reporters pressed close to ask why, why, why. The question, of course, was absurd. A third of a century on, it still gets Petit going: “Very American finger-snapping … I did somezing magnificent and mysterious and I got a ‘why,’ and ze beauty of eet is zat I don’t have a ‘why.’” James Marsh’s rollicking documentary Man on Wire asks not Why? but How the hell? Marsh chooses to tell Petit’s story in the form of a heist picture, part talking heads, part period footage of Petit honing his balance, part Mission: Impossible reenactments of the day and night and day in which the team made it up to the 104th floor with shackles and wires, hiding under tarps from security guards. Those reenactments—usually realism-busters in this sort of doc—are transparently fake but edited with such urgency that they snap right into place. They’re bridges to the main event, the “coup” (as Petit calls it), the hero’s dance from rooftop to rooftop (balance, demi-plié, fouetté) above the great nothingness—and all of it captured on film. “Death ees very close,” Petit narrates. It’s a relief that he’s telling his own story and we’re not stuck with Werner Herzog ruminating on the Wire of Life and the rebel who went splat.
The Wire is Life, though. There’s a girlfriend involved, Annie Allix, who says of Petit, “Each day is like a work of art to him.” This is his manifesto: Seize the space, fill the void, defy society’s soul-killing laws, define yourself through action. Very existentialist, very inspiring, unless you happen to be driving under the Sydney Harbor Bridge when you see a lunatic up high and hit the brakes and someone crashes into you from behind, or something heavy lands on your car roof with a sickening thud and you die. But prudish objections fade. There’s a long shot of Petit on that bridge in which you can’t see the wire, and it’s the damnedest thing: He looks like he’s walking on the air. There’s another shot of him suspended between the towers of Notre Dame: Inside, priests are prostrating themselves before the altar, unaware that there’s a man above them swaying on a tiny wire and juggling. We must learn to take our miracles where we find them.
It goes without saying—and, happily, Man on Wire doesn’t say it—that all this happened in a more naïve time, that today the notion of foreigners with fake I.D.’s slipping past security guards into the Twin Towers has a different meaning. So does the prospect of falling from the sky. The most miraculous thing about Man on Wire is not the physical feat itself, 1,350 feet above the ground, but that as you watch it, the era gone, the World Trade Center gone, the movie feels as if it’s in the present tense. That nutty existentialist acrobat pulled it off. For an instant, he froze time.
What a world it would be if people got as fervent about Man on Wire (that’s a real guy up there!) as they do about The Dark Knight (that isn’t!). Or even one-tenth as fervent. Entertaining, mind-opening docs open every month—this year’s crop includes Taxi to the Dark Side, Operation Homecoming, and Full Battle Rattle—but none has broken through to a wide audience. Now comes the latest winner, Margaret Brown’s penetrating The Order of Myths. Brown explores a potentially enraging subject—rigidly upheld racial segregation in the country’s oldest Mardi Gras celebration, in Mobile, Alabama—but her touch is so unforced and her gaze so open that no one is bruised. The situation is heartbreaking, the people … inured. Set. Following rituals passed down from evil times, too timid or unimaginative or, maybe, although it’s well below the surface these days, racist to challenge them. You just don’t know.
Brown grew up in Mobile, but she doesn’t put herself in the movie and doesn’t tip us off to any insider knowledge until the very last—brilliant, rug-pulling—interview. She takes an anthropological view; she studies the rituals, the props, the antebellum hand-sewn gowns with their long trains, the diamonds and the moon-pies. There’s a white parade and a black parade, a white king and queen and a black king and queen. It’s that way, the whites say, because the blacks want it that way. It’s such a good time. The skinny blond white queen comes from an old family; one of its patriarchs defied the law and brought in Mobile’s last slave ship. But she seems nice. Liberalism is in the air, la la. For the first time, the black king and queen attend the white king and queen’s investiture, and audience members pat themselves on the back for their enthusiastic reception. It brings a tear to your eye. And then the whites go upstairs to the ball and the black king and queen show themselves out.