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Man on Borrowed Piano Wire

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Man on Borrowed Piano Wire

A couple of weeks ago I went to a press screening of James Marsh’s Man on Wire. I’d heard a lot of good things about the British doc, and indeed it has a fascinating subject in recounting the early career of French aerialist/conceptual artist Philippe Petit, especially his daring walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974.

But watching the film was not a happy experience. Try as I might to concentrate on its narrative, I couldn’t. After 45 minutes I walked out.

The reason for my discomfort was simple: The movie’s soundtrack contains frequent borrowings from the Michael Nyman scores of well-known Peter Greenaway films (as well as couple of other Nyman tracks, including one from Jane Campion’s The Piano).

This, for me, totally destroyed the experience of watching Marsh’s film. I would be trying to follow the story when, every three or four minutes, that familiar music would blare out and my mind would be whipsawed back to the images and moods of The Draughtsman’s Contract, Drowning By Numbers, A Zed & Two Noughts or another film. Eventually I realized this distraction would continue throughout, so I left.

Understand that I’m not a major Peter Greenaway fan, though I liked some of his earlier films quite a bit. Nor do I have preternatural recall for the soundtracks of movies I last saw a quarter-century ago. I have a few dozen soundtrack CDs at home, though, and a Michael Nyman collection is one I listen to from time to time.

Still, while admitting that few viewers may find Man on Wire jarring in the way I did, I would suggest that, as a precedent, the practice described here is eminently worthy of debate: As far as I can recall, this is the first, nominally serious movie to come along with a soundtrack that has been plundered not just from other movies, but from movies once celebrated for their distinctive collaboration between composer and director.

I’m not saying that ripping off the scores of famous films and using them to amp up the action in a doc aiming for a certain adrenaline charge is tantamount to slicing Michelangelo’s images off of the Sistine Chapel’s walls and inserting them into a Calvin Klein ad in Times Square. But the intermeshing of sound, image, theme and music in those Greenaway-Nyman collaborations comprised an aesthetic unity, one that earned a place in the history of the art. You would think critics would want to defend that kind of achievement from poachers, just as you hope other filmmakers would respect it.

How did such a dubious innovation occur in the first place? This is just a guess, but I would hazard that Marsh’s explanation might go something like this: “Well, we were using the Nyman tracks as temp music during the editing, and we got so attached to them that we decided to look into the possibility of licensing them.”

If so, then the next question is: Which is greater, the filmmaker’s laziness or his contempt for his audience?

Unquestionably, purloining one’s score from other, more artistically serious movies is taking the easy (and sleazy) way out. Most filmmakers use pre-existing music during the editing process, then set about the task of having a composer fit the film’s themes and images with their own score. Not Marsh.

And contempt for the audience’s intelligence is implicit in the assumption that viewers either have no memory of past cinematic achievements or don’t care when they are traduced.

Does Nyman not care? I assume he owns his own publishing rights, just as I assume his primary motivation in renting out the tunes would have been monetary. Does he now assume his reputation is secure, or was the money worth more to him than the reputation? Would he plead extenuating circumstances—piles of child support payments, a couple of messy and costly divorces?

Or could it be the real messy divorce was with Greenaway? Did the two part under a dark and acrimonious cloud, making this rude sundering of their common artistic property part of a revenge plot worthy of a film by, say, Peter Greenaway?

Prurient speculation aside, it’s clear that the makers and sponsors of Man on Wire aren’t eager to broadcast their peculiar use of Nyman’s catalogue. Given its novelty, you might think Marsh would be inclined to explain his decisions regarding the soundtrack. But the press notes simply identify Nyman as the film’s composer and say that he “has provided stunningly original scores for many great feature films” (though not Man on Wire!). Nowhere is it mentioned that Nyman composed nary an original note for Marsh’s film.

Perhaps the reason the provenance of the film’s score is not clearly identified or explained is roughly the same as the answer to this question: Why do the movie’s press notes (and I assume, its credits) identify its casting director but not the actors that person cast?

Yes, Man on Wire is one of the increasing number of documentaries that rely on actors and “reenactments” to tell their stories. Indeed, that reliance is heavy enough to make one wonder how many minutes of staged footage a film now must contain before it is no longer considered a documentary. (A friend remarked that the most amazing thing about Man on Wire is that the team that staged the tightrope walk between the twin towers mounted this elaborate performance-art operation, but didn’t bring cameras!)

A few weeks back, Errol Morris posted a blog on the New York Times website defending the use of reenactments, a piece centered on a long explanation of a famous reenactment he mounted in The Thin Blue Line. Like most of the people who responded to Morris, I think reenactments are sometimes justified, and the passage he chose from his own work is indeed a prime example of a staged scene that’s eminently defensible.

But what we’re discussing here—in terms of music, reenactments and similar issues—is not a matter of ethical-aesthetic absolutes but of what my friend Armond White might call a “slippery slope.” One can agree with the reenactment in The Thin Blue Line, but find the same technique used in far more dubious ways in subsequent Morris films including the recent Standard Operating Procedure.

The problem with such practices is that they’re like crutches for filmmakers; once adopted, they’re hard to cast away. And once they become generally accepted, the easy solutions they offer become not only difficult to refuse but almost de rigeur. Thus we’re now seeing reenactments in documentaries that really don’t need them. Consider Tina Mascara and Guido Santi’s Chris & Don, about the relationship of poet Christopher Isherwood and his much younger boyfriend, Don Bachardy. While this generally excellent doc is doubly blessed in having both the engaging on-screen narration of Bachardy and copious 16mm footage from the early days of his affair with Isherwood, the filmmakers still elect to have actors portray the two men’s first clinch.

Why? Not because it’s necessary. Surely it isn’t. The film would be fine (and perhaps better off) without it. But the practice has become so common that, in all too many quarters currently, it’s presumed to be expected.

I think we know the primary reason this situation has changed so noticeably in recent years: television. TV is the primary sponsor of most documentaries nowadays, and the practices of television “reality” and entertainment shows, together with the constant pressure for ratings, have increasingly eroded many of nonfiction filmmaking’s traditional standards and aesthetic restraints.

Man on Wire comes to us under the auspices of the BBC and the Discovery Channel. Its breathless editing (and no doubt, Nyman’s music) has led some to compare it—favorably!—to a bank heist film. It has been hailed as “hugely entertaining.”

This, it seems, is where documentaries are headed all too rapidly. It’s not just a plus that one might be considered hugely entertaining; they all must be so. The mandates of entertainment trump everything else. Any considerations of art, or of the cinematic past, are to be ignored, parodied or, if possible, cannibalized. No apologies or explanations are necessary.

Godfrey Cheshire is a film critic for The Independent Weekly and a filmmaker whose feature, Moving Midway, opens nationally on September 12th.