Monday, October 23, 2006

Over the edge

The camera alights on the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the world's most photogenic structures. Tourists snap pictures of the San Francisco Harbor. One person, however, paces, clearly agitated. He breaks from the crowd, and leaps--a 225' drop into chilly water with the consistency of th hardest concrete from that height. In four seconds he is down, and gone. Kiteboaders go by. The Bridge Police are called. Just another day.

In 2004, there were 24 suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge. And many of them were captured, on camera, by first-time director and documentarian Eric Steel, whose The Bridge (First Stripe Productions/IFC; opens Oct. 27) is surely the year's most troubling and thought-provoking film. I saw it two months ago and not a day goes by when I don't relive one of its starkly terrifying, and starkly beautiful, images.

The bridge is a magnet for leapers. There is no more inspiring place to end one's life; it has no rivals for suicide attempts. The magnificent structure provides a coda, a final stab at glory and immortality, for the desperate. It is terrifying to watch these lost souls in their descent; and it is also terribly enrapturing. You may wish to turn away, to avert your eyes. It's only human not to want to look. But do look. You understand why someone would wish to end their life in exactly this picturesque way.

You may not understand why city fathers have yet to put a stop to it. I don't get it; I walked the span of the bridge several times when I lived in the bay area and, picture postcards aside, the absence of constraints worried me. It's within their reach to put up suicide barriers, and The Bridge, with its incontrovertible facts, may yet spur action this front. But this is a political issue, which was a focus of "Jumpers," the very fine New Yorker article, by Tad Friend, that inspired Steel to make this film. It is not even addressed within the film itself, which I found a shortcoming. (It is discussed in the press notes.) This should have been a pro-barrier advocacy picture, one that I think would have had a greater galvanizing effect on the legislature (and would have doused discussion that the movie, which does not take a strong editorial stance, perpetuates suicidal ideation by susceptible viewers). How many hundreds of people have died on the bridge? How many more will die if this continues? Is San Francisco worried that by doing something at this late date they will open themselves up to lawsuits for not doing something sooner? So many questions.

Sticking to the film Steel has made, and not the one I wish he had made, it is clear that he has made an advocacy picture, about the stigma attached to suicide. He spoke about this at a Q&A that followed the screening I attended. Friends and family of the deceased speak wrenchingly of their loved ones, lost in a fog of depression before the Golden Gate transfixed their imagination as the last best hope for personal apocalypse. Why did they allow Steel permission to use their death leaps, I asked. He replied that they were grateful to have some record of their passing, some memento, however terrible--particularly when they looked so peaceful in that last moment going over the side.

Lest one think that this is a blissful way to die, or a "respectable snuff film," as Dennis Lim put it in The New York Times, a rare survivor of a Golden Gate suicide plunge, 25-year-old Kevin Hines, talks about his attempt. We hear about his deepening apathy when passers-by ignored his obvious distress--oblivious to his tears a German tourist asked him to take her picture--and his sudden realization that he wanted to live the second he left the guardrail. He hit the water feet first, which saved his vital organs from shattering on impact as he tries, today, to repair his damaged psyche. And the cameras do record a dramatic rescue, much to the anger of the would-be jumper. There is as much life in The Bridge as there is death.

While I may have wanted a different, more activist film, The Bridge is heart-breakingly fine, and goes beyond mere voyeurism. [You can read more about the making of the film at its website.] If only reason would prevail in San Francisco and there were no need to make it at all.

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