Bridge, The (2006)Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/14/07 10:29:56
You may have heard about “The Bridge.” It’s the documentary that shows real footage of people leaping to their death off the Golden Gate Bridge. Yes, you really see people die. And yes, it really is little more than a snuff film clumsily dressed up as an art house flick.Filmed over the course of a year, director Eric Steel and his crew of photographers camped out on both ends of the bay, turned their lenses toward the bridge’s pedestrian walkway, and waited. It has been revealed that the crew would call the bridge patrol and the Coast Guard after witnessing a suicide, and it has also been revealed that this same crew was trained on how to spot a potential jumper. They would follow suspicious people with their cameras, sometimes for a very long time, and one has to ask: at what point should these people have made their calls, you know, before the jump? How many lives could they have saved? When does journalistic neutrality cross the line into moral vulgarity? (Steel insists he and his crew saved several lives by calling 911 early. It’s obvious, however, that they did not do this every time. How do you decide which ones deserve a call, and which ones would make for great video?)
In a recent discussion of the film, fellow critic Chris Parry mentioned that the movie also never makes a case for (or, for that matter, against) the installment of a protective barrier around the walkway. It’s an excellent point. Steel makes much of how the bridge is the most popular location for suicides on the planet (24 in 2004 alone, and that’s not counting the ones talked down), but not once does he attempt to interview anyone who works for the government, or bridge management, or law enforcement - anybody that would offer any perspective on efforts to prevent further deaths, or why such efforts have been avoided for decades. Steel has said elsewhere that while the film was inspired by an article on the fence debate, he had no interest in that angle for his movie itself.
Why not? How strong could such a morbid fascination be that Steel couldn’t be bothered to discuss anything else about his title structure? Why include comments like the one from a witness who was told by the local police that jumps happen “all the time,” but not attempt to contact the very authorities that must deal with such things with disturbing frequency?
Steel’s intent, it seems, is to tighten the focus of his film, to shut out any secondary concerns, such as fence debate and Coast Guard perspective. He has his attention-getting footage, and through this, he has interviews with family and friends of those who died on camera, along with the occasional witness. This is admittedly strong stuff, but of course it would be. It is loved ones talking about those they only recently lost. Emotions run high, and for good reason.
These interviews attempt to provide a closer study of the act of suicide. Causes are evaluated and argued (although, shamefully, never by any mental health care professionals, except the ones that used to know the victims - and even then, their clinical opinions are cut out in favor of personal memories of when they saw someone last). Suicide is a taboo subject, as proven by the brother of one victim, who still refuses to admit his sister killed herself. Steel aims to bring such talk out in the open, to deconstruct its roots and to come to grips with the cold, angry reality of one choosing to end his/her own life.
A common thread in these interviews is a sense of hopelessness, not of the victim, but of those they left behind. Most of the family members and close friends talk of how they not only expected their loved one to commit suicide, but they also came to accept it before it happened. One woman told her friend that her only concern is that he say goodbye before he jumps; another made no effort to find his son once it became clear he was missing, figuring if he was still alive when he was found, it would only delay the inevitable. The message, I suppose, is that offering someone help is a waste of time, so why bother? The ones that did try to help only wound up with a lot of guilt, and who’d want that?
There’s a cold detachment to the whole enterprise. The film is strangely shallow in its handling of its interviewees. Steel seems to not care about their feelings; only their anecdotes matter. When one interviewee explains how one victim never found out that he just received a job offer - the movie reveals this not with deep sorrow, but with a perverted interest in the ironic. When Steel brings in a jump survivor for a lengthy recount of how he changed his life around after (literally) hitting bottom, it feels more out of obligation than for anything else. By including the survivor, Steel can look like he’s trying to do some good, when he really doesn’t care about the guy’s emotional turnaround. He just wants to hear about what the drop felt like.
The film is so disgustingly shallow, in fact, that if you took out the jumper footage altogether, you’d have a whole lot of nothing. Nobody behind the scenes cares about offering warm remembrances of the dead, and it shows. Steel needs that footage to get attention. It’s all he has. Argue all you want about the filmmaker’s hopes that by putting such ugly images on screen, he dares us to confront death up close. I don’t buy it. It’s a gimmick, and a vulgar one at that. There’s nothing to confront, really; the footage is so far removed from the actual event, and the final result is a body vanishing into the vast blue, that it’s too possible to have this footage never feel as real as it should. Worse, Steel shows so many jumps over the course of the movie that we run the risk of becoming desensitized to actual death. Or, when the cameras linger on pedestrians, it begs us to ask which one will become the jumper. It’s a sick game.
(I also wonder about the honesty of the footage. In at least one shot, probably more, a “splash” sound was dubbed in during post-production. Classy.)
The most curious part of the entire film involves one jumper who is shown nervously pacing on the walkway throughout the movie. We know he will eventually jump, as we are also treated to many post-suicide interviews with friends. But the movie saves his jump until the finale. (Filmed impeccably from two angles, too.) What this means, then, that the photographers watched him for at least five minutes (probably a lot more), did absolutely nothing, raced to find out who he was once he finally supplied them with a money shot, tracked down his friends, and got them on film.
What do you say, as a friend of the deceased, to the very people who watched him die yet did nothing? In this movie, you apparently show no anger and just tell your side of things.Is Steel honoring the dead, by letting their stories be told? Or is he grossly using them for his own purposes? With no attempt to make “The Bridge” anything more than “check out this awesome snuff footage, and by the way, I guess you can listen to these people for a while,” it’s most definitely the latter. It’s unflinching, sure, but that’s only because it’s made of stone.
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