Man on Wire. James Marsh, director. Feature documentary w/Philippe Petit, Annie Alix, Jean-Louis Blondeau, Jean-Francois Heckel. Music: Michael Nyman
Baghead. Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass, co- directors, writers and producers. Starring: Steve Zissis (Chad), Greta Gerwig (Michelle), Ross Patridge (Matt), Elise Muller (Catherine), Jett Garner
Man on Wire
One of the most colourful stories of 1974 was French aerialist Philippe Petit’s 45-minute walk across the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. A daredevil whose stunts recall the wonderfully nervy feats of Houdini, Petit’s high wire act astounded the world, completing a hat trick of great performances that included a walk across the top of Paris’ acclaimed Notre Dame Cathedral and a daring stroll over the beautifully designed bridge in Sydney, Australia. Petit’s astounding acts of courage stirred people living in a more optimistic time, when mankind had recently walked on the moon and possibilities for humanity seemed endless.
Nearly 35 years later in a far different time, documentary director and New York native James Marsh has made a poetic and exciting film about Petit’s literal walks of fame. Man on Wire is a near-perfect example of documentary craft, seamlessly combining archival video and film footage and still photographs, reenactments of unrecorded moments and contemporary interviews with Petit and his main cohorts, girlfriend Annie Alix, long-time Parisian pals Jean-Louis Blondeau and Jean-Francois Heckel and a handful of American and Australian co-conspirators.
Make no mistake about it: 1974 may have been a more innocent time but the Watergate scandal had recently taken place. Americans, in particular, were already operating with levels of security that far exceeded the cautionary measures in Paris and Sydney. Marsh has the wit to devise Man on Wire as “a heist movie,” concentrating on the immense planning that took place in order for Petit to make his quite illegal walk across the Towers.
Teams of two brought a load of tools and equipment to the top of both towers. They had to hide themselves and their tools as security guards patrolled the rooftops of both buildings into the early part of the evening. It was only with great fortitude and luck that Petit and his team were able to shoot the high wire across the buildings and set it up with enough tautness for Petit’s act to occur.
Though it’s structured like a thriller, Man on Wire does capture the poetic impulse behind Petit’s work. In the tradition of performance art worldwide, Petit’s comrades documented his time walking—almost—on air with a video and still camera. The footage shows the unearthly, ethereal scene: a man poised in flight high above Manhattan, almost in the clouds. The eerie, gorgeous scene is played out to the accompaniment of the evocative music of Michael Nyman’s “La traversée de Paris” and, in one case the stunning guitar work of Peter Green’s early ‘70s hit “Albatross.”
Man on Wire comes festooned with awards, including the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and Audience Awards at Sundance, the prestigious Full Frame Documentary Festival, Edinburgh and Los Angeles. This is one documentary that deserves to do well at the box-office: it tells a wonderful story and allows us to make the inevitable connection between this harmless breach of security and the far more frightful fate of the Towers three decades later.
A low-budget film about relationships dressed up to look like a satire on slasher movies, Baghead is an attempt by indie filmmakers the Duplass Brothers to enter mainstream cinema. Mark and Jay Duplass wrote, produced and directed this follow-up film to their festival hit, The Puffy Chair. Both works feature digital camerawork, minimal sets and unknown actors in leading roles.
A recipe for disaster? Of course—but the brothers exhibit just enough talent in their writing and direction of actors to keep one interested. The duo are considered to be top figures in the “mumblecore” wave of American indies—and for good reason. Their films are simultaneously self-indulgent and well structured, forcing the audience to put with the occasional silly scene or bad acting because the stories are relatively interesting and easy to watch.
Baghead could have been shot in northern Ontario instead of California—the setting would have been perfect. A quartet of under-employed movie extras go to a cottage in the woods to write their own mumblecore feature. Good looking Matt and his ex-girlfriend Catherine are joined by the funny, talented but out-of-shape Chad and his latest muse, Michelle. Catherine wants Matt back but the younger, attractive Michelle fancies him, too. But Chad, of course, also wants Michelle, even though, in a devastating scene, she tells him that he’s “my best friend and maybe my brother.”
This ill-matched foursome can’t figure out a plot—though the notion of a bagheaded serial killer is mentioned humorously. But when Michelle sees a guy with a bag head in her room when she was hoping to have a midnight tryst with Matt, all hell breaks lose. The awkwardness and tension between the four supposed friends is well evoked by the Brothers.
As tension builds about the true identity of Baghead, the film goes slightly off the rails, trying to be a thriller and a character study at the same time. Genre expectations are fulfilled as Baghead does arrive on the scene. Or does he?
Baghead plays too many games. But the Duplass Brothers may achieve what they want—to make well-financed Hollywood films.