Close Scene Analysis: Man on Wire

In 2008, James Marsh’s Man on Wire took the festival circuit by storm winning the Special Jury Award and Audience Award at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and then capturing the Jury Prize and Audience Award in the World Cinema: Documentary category at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. A few months later, it took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 81st Academy Awards. Man on Wire chronicles Philippe Petit’s wire-walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in August of 1974. Constructed like a classic heist film and utilizing interviews, blow-by-blow re-creation and re-enactments as well as archival footage even including Super 8 footage from Petit’s personal camera, Man on Wire transcends the label of documentary. With this strong underlying narrative, Man on Wire comes to a head during a fantastic climax scene that mixes together still photographs, interviews and archival footage to simultaneously tell parallel stories and leave the audience in awe.

A still-photo of Petit

In order to comprehend how this scene serves the filmmakers goals, it’s important to first examine what the filmmaker’s goals are. Given that the film is not advocating a social cause, the goal reverts to telling a great story. Marsh sets out to tell a story about a man, but more importantly about an attitude towards life that refuses to acknowledge limits and boundaries and to tell it a nostalgic way as opposed to sentimental. Marsh wants to introduce the audience to a world where anything is possible and uses the film as his medium. With the prevalent theme of the consequences of human relationships, Marsh crafts parallel stories that trigger excitement, suspense and sweaty palms for the audience.

To fully understand the scene in question, its vital to briefly put the scene in context within the larger story. Up until this point, Marsh chronicled Philippe Petit, a French wirewalker and street performer who had previously performed a high-wire walk between the towers of the Notre Dame in Paris as well as between two pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia. Having seen a picture of the Twin Towers in a magazine, Petit became obsessed with wire walking between them and begins to plan his strategy, which included numerous trips to New York. Following a tumultuous build-up, Petit and his crew finally set up the wire, which leads to this scene.

A still photograph of Philippe Petit, as seen in Man on Wire

The scene begins with a still photograph of Petit’s first step out onto the wire, accompanied by the sounds of nature and Petit’s voiceover, “death is very close.” The frame remains on the still photograph for a long time, which becomes a theme throughout and we slowly zoom out to gain perspective of a small man against the massive backdrop of the building. While Marsh is not present in the movie, you could still tell his stance towards Petit is one of awe and marvel. He keeps the still frames of Petit on the screen for what most would consider far too long to give the audience the feel that something is happening and we need to pay close attention. No live footage of his walk exists and while re-enactment worked in other times of the movie, in this instance it would seem unsatisfactory so the montage of still images seemed to be the way to go. The photographs helped to capture how ephemeral this moment was and how dream like it was and watching it, it almost conjures up visions of some sort of miracle.

The score also complements the scene perfectly as the gentle piano seems both menacing but jubilant, evoking either a foreboding feeling or a triumphant feeling. Marsh effortlessly mixes in an interview with Petit as he recalls his experience and then an interview with his companion who set up the cable. The companion breaks into tears and it is now apparent that Marsh successfully transmitted a classic story of a hero going on an impossible quest with all the setbacks and impediments along the way and succeeding nonetheless. The still frames continue and he includes a shot from the ground of a microscopic Petit in between the two towers and slowly zooms in. It was a perfect juxtaposition between Petit’s idealist artistry and the towers, which represented the financial and capitalist center of the world.

One in a series of still photographs that Marsh employs so sucessfully

One of Marsh’s goals was to not romanticize the event but rather tell stories from many different perspectives and use the overlapping accounts and parallel stories to make the story dynamic. The editing here really lends itself to that as we now move on to an interview of his then-girlfriend who was at the base of towers as she recalls her experience. The amazement in her voice helps illustrate how incredible this moment was. We revert back to still photographs while still hearing her interview and now Marsh edits in a still photo of people at the base of the towers looking up in wonderment and then another interview from a different companion so he presents the audience with 4 distinct accounts from that day.

The score becomes more intense and Marsh zooms out on one of the still photographs and the audience sees in the corner a pair of Port Authority policemen watching Petit from the roof. Marsh edits in archival footage of the media interviewing Charles Daniels, one of the policemen who witnessed Petit. Marsh wanted to tell a story, one that is part of New York City folklore but wanted to give an honest all-encompassing tale of the event and he succeeded admirably. By effortlessly splicing present-day interviews, complementary sound editing, still photographs and archival footage, Marsh not only presents 5 distinct accounts of the events that transpired that day, he makes the audience feel present at an event that occurred over 30 years prior with no live footage available and does it in such a way that there is massive poetic undertones.

The climactic scene of Man on Wire is one of the more memorable scenes in recent documentary history. Combining a flawless use of still photographs, a fabulous score and perfectly edited archival footage, Marsh is able to recount these iconic moments from multiple perspectives. The scene comes together perfectly as he seamlessly blends the content and beautifully serves his goals. It is the perfect conclusion to a free-flowing story that built excitement, suspense and anticipation and like Marsh wanted, makes the audience feel like anything is possible.

Movie of the Day: Undefeated

A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to see the documentary Undefeated. Chronicling the underdog story of the Manassas High School’s football team in North Memphis, Undefeated appeared on the public radar at South by Southwest Festival where it caught the attention of Harvey Weinstein who closed a reported 7-figure deal for the distribution and remake rights. Undefeated was also very well received at the Toronto Film Festival.

Filmmakers T.J. Martin, Left, and Dan Lindsay

Undefeated is directed by Dan Lindsay, 33 and T.J. Martin, 32. Neither had extensive experience prior and they met in 2008 while making Last Cup: Road to the World Series of Beer Pong, which Lindsay directed and Martin edited.  While the film sounds juvenile, it is actually very well reviewed and is a story about a beer pong champion who has to grow up but is desperately clinging on to his past. That was Lindsay’s first full-length film while Martin had previously directed a film A Day in the Hype of America, which was about Y2K. Reading interviews, it was quite apparent that neither Lindsay nor Martin expected the film to receive as much publicity as it did.

Undefeated is the story of the 2009 season of the Manassas Tiger football team. Historically a very weak program, Lindsay and Martin follow as the Tigers seek to end their 110-year stretch without a playoff win. Manassas is almost all African-America and the majority of the players come from impoverished backgrounds.

Bill Courtney

There are four principal characters who Martin & Lindsay chronicle. The character that receives the most attention is Bill Courtney, a former high school football coach and current lumber salesman who began volunteering at Manassas as the head football coach in 2003. There were three players who received most of the attention. O.C. Brown, raised by his sister and his grandmother, was the most talented of the players. With a chance to play college football, Martin & Lindsay document O.C.’s struggle to qualify academically and his quest to improve his ACT score. O.C.’s story is actually what drew Martin and Lindsay to Manassas. Needing the help of a tutor, O.C. lived with an assistant coach during the week in a more affluent part of town because no tutors would travel to his neighborhood and one of their producers had seen a story of O.C. and his double life and presented it to them. It was only when they met Bill Courtney that they decided to broaden the scope of the film. Montrail, or “Money” as he was called, lost his father at a young age. Very intelligent, “Money” damages his ligaments and we watch as he attempts to recover in time to play his last game. The final spotlighted player is Chavis. Having returned to high school after 15 months at a juvenile penitentiary, Martin and Lindsay paint a portrait of a very angry troubled young man and take us through his transformation to a mature young adult.

O.C. Brown

Undefeated struck me as resembling a Hollywood feature film more so than a documentary and it is very easy to forget that you are watching a documentary. As evidenced by the trailer, Undefeated featured very quick cuts. To shoot the film, Martin & Lindsay rented an apartment in Memphis for nine months and shot intensely for about four or five months. Over the course of those four or five months, they shot over 500 hours worth of footage. That’s an insane amount of footage, over 3 weeks worth and a shooting ration of 250:1. They rented an apartment in Memphis for 9 months, came to school everyday and even shot things they knew they wouldn’t include in the movie like a school talent show to gain the trust of the kids and to show a commitment to them that they were there to tell their story honestly and truthfully. This strategy pays dividends and as a result, the kids act so natural and camera because they were so used to its presence. Undefeated features two different kinds of styles. The first is an “observational” style where Lindsay and Martin take on a “fly-on-the-wall” persona and the camera is not acknowledged. The other style is type of implied interview scene where an individual is speaking to the camera as if they were answering questions but you never hear the questions asked.

Martin, Lindsay, and producer Rich Middlemas accept the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature

As mentioned previously, Undefeated was very critically acclaimed. It currently has a 94% rating on RottenTomatoes with 65 positive reviews to 4 negative reviews and an 88% audience rating. Undefeated also won the Academy Away for best documentary feature in what was considered a bit of an upset. Some of the negative reviews contended that Martin and Lindsay focused on football too much instead of delving further into the compelling personal stories although they claim that was far from their original intention but once they began shooting, the drama was too much to ignore.

Montrail

Given that the film didn’t circle around a social problem, deciphering the filmmaker’s goals is rather difficult. While it was a narrative, the filmmakers definitely tried to inspire conversations about race and class and the relation of them. We wanted a celebratory narrative in a community that often times would never have it,” Lindsay say of their original intentions for the film. “Hopefully we could show the potential in a place where a lot of people think there isn’t any potential, but never shy away from the reality, so that a conversation can happen.”

Chavis Daniels

Martin says that he wanted people to appreciate and value the opportunities that he’s had in my own life but he never set out to make an issues-based film or have an agenda. Really though, the main goal was to share a narrative, to give people an experience and make them get lost in the movie. I think they were rather successful in these goals. The story does not seem like a documentary and it’s easy to get lost in. While I’m not sure it elicits conversations for me, it certainly made me think about class and race relations.

In conclusion, I really quite enjoyed Undefeated. While I believe some of the critics were justified, Martin and Lindsay struck an impressive balance between sport and personal tale. While on the surface it seems like its about football, it chronicles the lives of three adolescents on the cusp of manhood as well as the unlikely relationships they form with their coach. It eventually builds into a coming of age film of a different type. Martin and Lindsay were concerned because when you hear the description of the film it is easy to say, “well I’ve heard that before,” but they took a story that sounds familiar and turned into a riveting, fresh experience.

Movie of the Day: The Thin Blue Line

This past week, I had the chance to watch Errol Morris’s 1988 classic documentary The Thin Blue Line, not to be confused with Terrence Malick’s war epic The Thin Red Line. The name refers to the police, being the thin blue line separating society from anarchy and is a re-work from a line from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy.” The film is critically acclaimed; In 2008, Variety called the film “the most political work of cinema in the last 20 years,” the Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry and it was named the #2 documentary to see before you die by Current TV, only behind Steve James’s 1994 timeless film Hoop Dreams.

The Thin Blue Line is a number of recent movies I’ve seen that transcends the label of documentary with the help of a very strong underlying narrative. The Thin Blue Line, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s Undefeated and James Marsh’s Man On Wire are all documentaries that have the ability to make you forget that you are watching a documentary, with the latter two winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The Thin Blue Line chronicled the story of Randall Dale Adams, a Texas man sentenced to life in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

The story utilizes interviews, re-enactments and an interesting use of archival footage including newspaper clippings and courtroom portraits. Morris used re-enactments built carefully from witnesses’ statements at a time when they were still considered fresh and the film is often credited as the birth of modern crime-scene reenactments that are now commonplace in Cold Case Files and numerous other program on TruTV and the like.

Using the Interrotron, Morris is able to obtain startlingly personal, unsettling and revealing interviews

In the interviews, Morris uses a revolutionary device called an interrotron as pictured, which is similar to a teleprompter but uses a two-way mirror to project each persons face. As such, instead of staring into a blank lens, the interviewee is looking directly at a human face, which allows for eye contact through the use of video screens. As mentioned prior, the story has a strong underlying narrative and comes to a head in a climactic final scene, which is a poignant case of accidental genius. During one of the subject’s chilling confession, Morris’s camera had malfunctioned so all he had at his disposal was the audio of the interview. Morris decided to use the audio in the film while the viewer is subjected to an extreme close-up of a tape recorder. Without a face to match the voice, you can’t help but truly listen to the words, making the effect all the more powerful.

While Morris tells the story from a number of perspectives, it is certainly clear that this isn’t an unbiased account of the events. Morris went in with an agenda and expertly edited the footage to frame a number of the characters in a negative light. The Thin Blue Line is a true testament to the power of documentary filmmaking as less than a year after the film’s release, Randall Adams case was reviewed and he was subsequently released from prison. The Thin Blue Line was a fabulous documentary, a different kind of murder mystery and is highly recommended.

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