The Man Who Walked Between the Towers
(September 30, 2006)
I'm writing about this film not only because I thought it was one of the best I saw at the Ottawa festival, but also because I think the film is a metaphor for Mike Sporn's career and what animation needs to be.
The film is based on a book by Mordicai Gerstein, which is based on a factual event. Philippe Petit was an aerialist who managed to string a cable between the towers of the World Trade Center and walk across the gap, eluding police on the tops of both towers until he decided his experience was complete and gave himself up.
Our impression of the towers was changed forever on September 11, 2001, but the truth is that the buildings were never loved all that much by New Yorkers. Architecturally they were boring, with none of the style of the Empire State building, the Chrysler building, Rockefeller Center or the Flatiron building. Until the towers became a target, Petit's walk was perhaps the most notable thing about them. Where New Yorkers just saw two overly large rectangular boxes, Petit saw the potential for art.
The relationship between art and life is a theme that runs through several of Michael Sporn's films. It's perhaps strongest in Abel's Island, a personal favorite, where art becomes a way of dealing with loss and loneliness. In The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, it's about transforming the mundane into the extraordinary. Petit's walk not only satisfies his own artistic needs, his achievement captures the imagination of everyone on the ground.
While the film is obviously rooted in true events, it also functions on other levels. The towers are the two poles of commercialism and self-expression. Commercialism at its most extreme is the soulless pursuit of money. Self-expression at its most extreme is self-indulgence. Neither, at their extremes, satisfies an audience. The sweet spot is between the poles, though the path is precarious. Those standing at each pole attempt to validate their position by trying to capture those in the middle. The tightrope walker is assailed from all sides, but is at peace if he can maintain his balance.
Michael Sporn has been doing his balancing act for many years. He's never been considered commercial enough to rate a major budget or get a feature financed because he's interested in real, rather than superficial, emotion. He values narrative, pacing, characterization and acting too much to be embraced by the experimentalists. He manages to suspend himself between them, satisfying himself and his audience at the same time. Having known Mike for over 30 years, I know that maintaining his studio while doing meaningful work hasn't been easy. Defying gravity never is.
But what other choice does he have? And the rest of us have to recognize when our pockets are being picked or when the conversation is really a monologue. The more we do and the more we act on it, the easier it will be for those on the highwire to keep their balance.