' Cinema Romantico: A Brief Rumination on a Strange 4th of July

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

A Brief Rumination on a Strange 4th of July

There are innumerable beautiful images in “Man on Wire”(2008), James Marsh’s documentary recounting of Philippe Petit’s wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center, seeing as how numerous photographs, black & white and color, exist of the storied event. One image, however, that is just as incisive, though a bit less picturesque, is one that Marsh dreamed up, capturing it in one of his documentarian re-enactments, conjuring up a moment that existed in a way he thinks it might have gone down. The scene in question arrives early, with re-enactors as the principals involved in the wire walk, shrouded in darkness that I suppose obscures their actual identity but also, intentionally or unintentionally, underscores the images that Marsh puts on a small television set in the background. Those images are President Richard Nixon at a press conference intoning that he did not obstruct justice. After all, Petit walked the wire on August 7, 1974; President Nixon resigned the office of the Presidency on August 8, 1974.


“Man on Wire”, mind you, is not a political film, not even a little bit. The eventual destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 is not mentioned, not even hinted at, and this lone image of Nixon at the very beginning is all we get, shown and then never followed up on. Still, it’s a choice; Marsh chose to put that image there. And because he did, it cannot simply be glossed over. It’s not that Marsh, who is British, is getting in a dig at Tricky Dick or casting dispersions on the complete spectrum of politicians, contrasting their enervating machinations against the spirited accomplishments of artists. No, this (Nixon) is simply the backdrop to that (Petit’s wire walk). And by never broaching the President’s legal troubles again, we are merely meant to remember that they are ongoing even as the wire walk is going on.

I’ve been thinking about these images a lot lately. America is currently in throes of its President once again being under investigation, or about to be, though it may be a witch hunt, though Nixon called his own investigation a witch hunt, and so who knows, though I do know how uncertain and terrifying this all feels, making it difficult to concentrate on anything that isn’t the sensation the republic may be disintegrating all around us. And though it is not something to turn a blind eye to, it is also not something to let prevent everything else, not that everything else needs to be a direct response to our overwhelming governmental ails. Petit’s response could have been that, and when American reporters are seen in “Man on Wire” asking him “why” he did what he did, you can sense their desire for him to place his wire walk in a social context. He can hardly stand the question, dismissing it as inherently “American”, which is true.

Why? Because. He did what he did. And we all have to keep doing what we do.

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