The Bridge

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I think most people, whether they want to admit it or not, have a grim fascination with death. Part of that is because it’s one thing we’ll experience but never see (our own death), but it’s also because it’s become such a taboo in Western culture. The news is full of death, and movies are too, but when it comes to real life stories the final moment is nearly always denied us. And in the rare instance that we do see it, it’s usually in the abstract – a bomb blowing up, a building crashing to the ground or a jet plane exploding. Even during 9/11, when news reports were full of images of planes going into the towers and the towers collapsing, it wasn’t often that we saw the jumpers. Death is more palatable when it’s kept at arms length – when it’s in our faces we become uncomfortable.

The power of The Bridge is that it makes us look at these people. It makes us witness their final moments. We get to see what it’s like when a human being takes its own life. Now whether this moment is sacred and whether it shouldn’t be filmed is kind of a thorny issue. Yes people’s final moments should be respected and yes it should be private, but these are anything but private acts. These jumpers take their lives in full view of the public, unconcerned with how their acts may affect the people who witness them. Therefore I feel less inclined to defend their right to privacy.

And anyway, I don’t think anyone could watch this film and view it as exploitative. Yes, it shows people jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge (the most popular suicide spot in the world) and yes it doesn’t shy away from showing someone’s final moments, but the film never views these people as curiosities. We’re not asked to be titillated. Instead we get to hear their stories, and through the voices of their friends and family we get to hear why they did what they did.

The main thread of the film is a story concerning a guy named Gene. Intercut with the other stories we get to see him wander back on forth on the bridge and slowly we hear more about his life. Born to a single mother, and heavily dependant on her, she eventually dies of cancer, apparently not putting up much of a fight. From the film you get the feeling that this relationship is the only thing that anchored Gene. When she’s gone he’s cut loose and finds himself adrift. In response he tries to find love in other places – mainly the internet. But eventually it becomes too much and he finds himself at the bridge. All through the film we see him wander back and forth. Who knows what he’s thinking. But with long hair, a leather jacket and a spring in his step, he looks more like a rock star than a potential suicide victim. And who’s to say that these final moments are his lowest. They could possibly be his best. Maybe he’s being liberated from living a joyless life. And the way he leaps into the Bay, by standing on the support, stretching his arms out and falling backwards into the water, suggests that this might be an act of ecstasy rather than despair. With this one act, all of his problems are over.

However, there’s a flipside to this. In the film we hear from one man who, remarkably enough, survived the fall. We hear his confession and he admits that the second his arm left the support and he began to fall, he realised he wanted to live. How many people feel this way? How many people realise that life is worth living only at the final moment? We’ll never know the answer, but this man is certainly not the only one.

But it’s quite remarkable what a draw the Golden Gate is. Watching the film, you’d think everyone in San Francisco knows someone who leapt into the Bay. And indeed, suicides happen there all the time. In the span of one year 24 people killed themselves. Why it’s so popular isn’t that difficult to understand. Beyond simple factors like the fact that the bridge is tall, the currents are dangerous and that access is easy, the bridge and the surrounding environment is also staggeringly beautiful. Therefore the bridge kind of serves as a bridge between life and death. One easy jump and you’re taken into the next life (if you believe that kind of thing). It looks so enticing.

And if the film has a fault it’s that it perhaps romanticises the bridge too much (although how you could make a film about the Golden Gate and not do that, I don’t know). It makes the bridge look so beautiful that it makes you wonder why more people don’t end their lives there. Here’s a place, whether shrouded in fog or lit up by bright skies, that looks like a piece of heaven. It’s almost too perfect.

But to illustrate how commonplace suicides at the bridge are, there are a couple of times when we see the bridge from afar and then suddenly see a small splash in the water. Someone else has ended their life. Yet the world around them keeps moving. In the grand scheme it doesn’t matter much. However, in the small scheme it matters a great deal. One of Gene’s friends says that his death hurt him a great deal; he feels betrayed. Another feels relieved. But then in another story we see a man prevent a woman from jumping. Through the film we’re asked how much we can do to prevent our loved ones from harming themselves (in reality we can’t do that much) but here one man takes the opportunity to save someone else. Now whether the woman will use this second chance to make something out of her life or whether her agony is just being prolonged is anyone’s guess, but it’s nice to know that there are people out there that won’t remain passive. Everyone has the right to take their own life (it’s not a sin), but at the same time, who wants to live in a world where we don’t do anything to stop it?

However, you could point to the filmmakers and ask why they did nothing to stop the jumpers. But then who’s to know whether someone is admiring the view or if they’re thinking of jumping? The film shows that in most cases the final moment is over in a flash. But regardless of whether the filmmakers did enough to stop these people, The Bridge is an unflinching look at a difficult subject. It has no answers but it allows us to look at these victims as people. They’re no longer faceless. And maybe that’s enough for us to give a second thought to others.

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