Man on Wire – James Marsh – UK 2008 Doc

Man on Wire – James Marsh – UK 2008 Doc

adrin neatrour writes: Fiction passing for fact or fact passing as fiction?
Man on Wire – James Marsh – UK 2008  Doc (with dramatic reconstructions)
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 16 August 08;  Ticket:  £6-80

Fiction passing for fact or fact passing as fiction?

Marsh’s Man on Wire (MoW) is interesting in that it poses heuristic questions concerning the nature of the documentary tag.  Of course it isn’t the first film to sell itself on its documentary status but leave open issues pertaining to the validity of its claims to be factive.  MoW opens up the debate as to what constitutes a documentary film?  After viewing MoW with its archly crafted dramatic story and  finessed style I was left asking if it had any more claim to documentary status than films like Dam Busters or The Great Escape. 

Like the Dam Busters and The Great Escape, MoW  is about an Event.  It is event filmed as a pure discrete occurrence which is set in a time stream that comprises a deeply mythologised past and closed off future.  Marsh apparently got the idea to make a film about Philippe Petit’s (PP) epic wire walk across  the Twin Towers of WTC, after hearing PP on Desert Island Discs.  (Desert Island Discs is a staid BBC radio show, a vehicle that allows celebrities to select the music they’d take with them to a desert isle.)  Marsh in putting together MoW has in many ways modelled the film on the Desert Island Disc ethos.  Celebrities on DiD are interviewed in an uncomplicated manner, and unchallenged are allowed to be ‘celebrities’.   Likewise  MoW  permits PP to present his take on the Event, his heroics undisturbed by any awkward questions.  MoW celebrates the crossing as an event preserved in aspic drawing an iconic and decontextualised image of Petit, decontaminated from the forces of life and time.  The  film is constructed so as to present a unidimensional and consistent picture of PP.  PP is given a concentrated form as pure heroic image.  Like John Wayne, Bogart or those propaganda biographies of Stalin.  And yet life itself is never like this.  Even in MoW, with its carefully composed and edited contributions from friends companions and colleagues, there is a discernible darker shadow that lurks behind PP.

The Event, the wire walk, is transposed into a sort of mythological Great Time by allowing PP to present the crossing as a occurrence that was destined to happen from  his earliest days.   Destiny and the hero.  It is a common feature of myth that the subject is preordained to achieve their fame by signs that can be read in their childhood.  By the child shall you know the man (or woman).  Hercules is an obvious example but people like Houdini were also quick to claim childhood provenance. MoW encompasses time within the heroic fold of destiny. In an early sequence we see PP, as a boy at the dentist reading in a magazine about the proposal to build the Twin Towers.,  PP claims to have been imaginatively fired by what he read on that day, and at that moment somehow knew that these proposed gargantuan structures would one day play a defining role in his life.

And yet right from its opening, MoW seems to need to distort unwelcome facts and to bend them to the film’s project of mythologizing PP.  The sequence at the dentist appears to be falsely presented.   According to WikiPedia, PP read the article on a visit to the dentist in 1968 when he was about 19 years old, an adolescent (PP was born 13 August 1948) .  In the film’s reconstruction PP is represented as being a boy, certainly not an adolescent. This type of misrepresentation is grist to the mill for Hollywood film biopic vehicles that claim to be a dramas; but for a movie vehicle claiming to be a documentary it simply poses the question as to what terms and conditions are in play in regard to the validity of the product?  And what is the relationship of the validity of the material in a film to its claim for documentary status?  And how the intentions (as they reveal themselves on screen) of the film maker relate to the claim to documentary status?  The answer of course may be that like the wire they are highly elastic and that, for instance  misrepresentation of fact is no bar at all to documentary status. All that matters is that you intend to make a film and claim that it is documentary: either as a marketing ploy or because you believe it to be so.   
 Marsh uses much of the first part of the film creating the myth of PP.  PP’s childhood is structured as a hallowed pathway leading to the Event.  In re-constructed sequences we see soft focus recreations of PP learning to walk the wire and evidencing the necessary personal philosophy, firmness of purpose and purity of intention that will be necessary to meet the demands and strictures of the Event.  The key to the nature of the film is Marsh’s decision to represent PP as a mythic image.  The consequence of this decision is to decontextualise PP and construct his persona strictly according to the needs of the Film.  

MoW tells nothing of PP’s past, his family parents or geography.  All these are subsumed into the halo effect of the Event.  PP emerges from nowhere, stands alone and proceeds through the success of Event into a future that is nowhere.   Marsh exploits  PP  as a celebrity frozen in celestial space and time, like the figures in the great constellations of the night sky.   We are not informed in any certain manner about how PP earned his living.  We see ( in reconstruction) that he busked the streets in Paris with his act: but did he make enough from this to fund the Twin Towers walk?  His financial affairs about which there are legitimate questions of interest are left unprobed.  PP is a figment of the celebrity heavens and nothing sordid or earthbound, the money or the rent, is permitted to sully him.   We see PP, throughout the film interviewed in 2007, 33 years after the Great Event.  We find him frozen in time, defined only by this one action, the Event.  Nothing has changed, we have the same folksy quasi superman philosophy, a man who has learned to wear his media mask with ease.   As if he were a prisoner of the Event, and 33 years have passed in this prison.  PP has grown older ( more slowly than some), but nothing else seems to have happened.  

Marsh has made a film according to the old rules:  you tell the audience what is going to happen: they see it happen; and then they are told it has happened.  MoW is like the classic film of the man slipping on the banana skin.  Marsh has carefully stylised MoW to give it a contemporary feel.  He exploits the convention of tastefully filming the respondents with high key lighting against black or greatly dimmed settings to decontextualise their inputs. The interviewees feel like people playing themselves, taking on pre-agreed roles  in describing the Event. It feels as if they have been well rehearsed (or possibly edited by Marsh) in the course of their responses.  They only exist in relation to the Event not in relation to PP the man. They avoid or are edited by Marsh, so that it appears they avoid, really talking about PP as a person rather than as the projection of the film.  Two of the respondents – the ex girl friend Annie and Jean- Louis, intimate some deeper psychic reservations and ambiguities that caused them to disassociate themselves from PP.  But they remain covert, guarded intimations that are not allowed to disturb the polished reflective surface of  PP the celebrity. It feels like we are experiencing the careful construction of a lie, the filmic reduction of life to myth.

 Marsh appears very confident about the film he wants to make.  However there are odd signs of a latent insecurity.  The use of date and time intertitles.  These titles, which are typically used to lend a spurious authenticity to dramatic reconstructions may appear either as title cards or superimpositions informing the viewer, for instance, that a particular establishment shot represents:  New York –   4th January 1974 –  09:21.  This technique is now so hack and incorporated into spoof and mockumentaries it is often avoided.  In particular what should be avoided is specificity in relation to the minute hand of time.  But Marsh uses this device on a couple of occasions in reconstructing the Twin Towers preparations.  On both occasions it was unnecessary since minute by minute planning was not the order of the day (as it might be in a heist).  

Another sign of Marsh’s insecurity with the material is his decision to reconstruct the sex scene as a mock humorous silent movie. The humour in the sequence being reinforced by shooting (or editing) at 18 fps and projecting at 25 fps creating out of the action, funny jerky movements.  What happened is that after the sky walk the conquering hero PP was propositioned by a young woman – nymph(ette). In terms of Marsh’s mythic recasting of PP this is perfect.  All earthly women desire the seed of the hero.  PP as the hero gets his lay.  But there are indications in the interviews that this tryst was a turning point: a time when everything changed and old relations fell apart. Instead of celebrating the success with his friends and supporters he went and fucked a strange woman.  A God-Hero can do as he pleases.  Perhaps it was the final straw, the final act of arrogance perpetrated on his team by PP.  PP is allowed to get away with explaining what happened with a shrug of the shoulders.  This is his privilege.  But Marsh takes things a step further.  In filming the sequence as an opera bouffe,  he reduces it to a silent comedy.  In pandering to the viewer’s prurience MoW effectively minimalises the importance of what happened in personal terms and effectively folds the seduction and sex scene into the mythic.  A filmic act of displacement.

The film often seems to fall short creatively. For instance, the score is undemanding and emotionally honed to induce in the audience a certain compliance with PP’s iconic status.  The music at one point seems to me indicative of creative bankruptcy when Marsh for the film’s highlight, the Event, the Walk Between the Towers chooses to regale us with Satie’s Gymnopedie ( the usual one that is all the adverts and all the films) .   To exploit such an overworked piece of music belies either insecurity or lack of imagination. But that’s show business folks!

Man on Wire (MoW) celebrates an extraordinary event with a very ordinary film, a sort of standardised glossy re-enactment and recapitulation of the event that asks no questions and gets no answers in an exercise in stylistic misdirection.  Ultimately it is not in principle distinguishable from a regular biopic such as Reach for the Sky or Bonnie and Clyde.  All the news that fits, all the material the fits the film.

Of course MoW has been very popular, popular because it is built on an extraordinary event which the public want to believe in.   People enjoy believing the myth and Marsh has made a popular film fictionalising  the situation surrounding the Event, fashioning of the Event a feature film of crass simplicity and little integrity.  I might conclude that it falls into a category of degraded documentaries.  However I think MoW raises deeper questions about our confidence in our abilities to discriminate.  The category or even genre of documentary panders to the conceit that we can tell the real from the fake and fact from fiction.  In the world of endless manipulation of image and information our facilities are increasingly unable to make these distinctions.  But the sake of our self esteem and self image we cling to the idea embedded in the word ‘documentary’ as a sort of protective shibboleth.
adrin neatrour

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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