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Art and the Specter of 911

How can popular culture deal with tragedies such as 9/11 where nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the space of time equivalent to watching a feature film without once show the carnage?  One way is to deal with it indirectly, rather than facing it head-one.

Art, like terrorism, often works by stealth and subterfuge, sneaking up and overwhelming our feelings before we even realize it’s is happening.

That’s was the strategy in James Marsh’s 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” It’s a movie that has nothing to do with September 11, and yet has everything to do with it.

“Man on Wire” recounts the real-life story of a  French tightrope artist, Philippe Petit, who walked on a high wire between the Twin Towers for  45 minutes on Aug. 7, 1974, with  crowds gazing   from the streets below.

Skillfully mixing archival film with staged reenactments, the movie opens with a subtle teaser, subtly managing our emotions to make us think we are watching foreign terrorists preparing to wreak deadly havoc on Manhattan’s twin towers., an image that still haunts and can still overwhelm our senses before we realize what’s really happening.

What we see a very innocent Petit unknowingly using many of the same methods of surveillance and self-disguise that the Sept. 11 hijackers would do 27 years later.

The difference between  the nuanced indirection of “Man on Wire” with other film about 911, such as  Paul  Greengrass’ respectful but one-dimensional film “United 93”, depicting the passengers who took  control of one of the hijacked planes and crashed it in rural Pennsylvania, the two films attack the emotions in different ways.

Although the Sept. 11 is never mentioned in “Man on Wire” it’s the ghost that haunts the film, turning a common documentary into a true “Ghost Story”.