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"The Bridge": Legends of the Fall


This is the end.

"The Bridge," Eric Steel's chilling masterpiece exploring the yawning chasm between life and death, between the steel suspension of the Golden Gate Bridge and the cold hard surface of the water below in San Francisco Bay, is now available on DVD. It's a film that goes deeper into that void of despair and self-obliteration than any film I've ever seen. I wrote about it several times in 2006:

A movie that takes suicide seriously, and considers the pain of the person who wishes to die as well as the anguish and guilt of the survivors, is a rarity. Over and over, survivors say they don't understand why someone they knew and loved wanted to cease to exist; but a surprising number admit the agony that would drive someone to suicide is beyond their imagination. They have to accept, and respect, that it was real.

A father says: "Some people say the body is a temple. He thought his body was a cage, a prison. In his mind, he knew he was loved, that he had everything and could do anything. And yet he felt trapped, and that was the only way he could get free." "The Bridge" makes the unthinkable, taboo subject of suicide real in honest and realistic ways that maybe even those who have never considered it can understand. The mother of a jumper recalls it took someone else to finally get her to realize: "It's not about you. It has nothing to do with you." That may be as hard for some to get their heads around as the suicide itself. Suicide is the ultimate solipsistic act; it's not about anyone else.

The few, mostly superficial discussions of suicide we have in our culture (30,000+ in the U.S. in an average year; only about 25 or so off the Golden Gate, which is nevertheless the world's leading suicide destination), tend to objectify the suicidal person and concentrate on prevention and grief and downplaying the reality out of fear that others may be encouraged to try it. Copycat incidents are real, but peer pressure is not one of the leading causes of suicide -- particularly off the Golden Gate Bridge. It takes a certain kind of personality to choose such a dramatic, public exit, and the bridge is already famous as a suicide spot.

From my review in the Chicago Sun-Times:

It's an awesome sight from up there, the wind and dizzying height halting your breath as you gaze across the strait. The sun makes silver ripples on the churning blue-green water and the horizon glows blindingly bright at the time of day when the sky and the sea converge. The cliffs, crinkled with shadows, form a paradisiacal gateway. And then, in the periphery, there's a tiny momentary rupture in the mythical postcard landscape. A small white splash flickers in the water. And in the great bright cacophony of the scene, Icarus disappears beneath the surface.

That's a description of Peter Breughel's painting, "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus," and William Carlos Williams' poem by the same name, intermingling with images from Eric Steel's "The Bridge," a film about 24 deaths and one survivor in a year in the life of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. "The Bridge" consciously invokes Brueghel, and after I'd watched the movie and looked up the painting again, hundreds of images of the Golden Gate from "The Bridge" (and my memory) came rushing back to me, as though projected at high speed over Breughel's canvas. Each small white splash, of course, marks the end of a life. [...]

Witnessing the last few moments of these people's existence, I thought of Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries, which have followed the contours of a handful of lives for 49 years now, revisiting them at seven-year intervals. "The Bridge" views human life from the other end of the spectrum -- showing the end, and then working back from there.

And because these jumpers chose such an open and public way to end their lives, I have no ethical problem with what the cameras observe; amateur photographers often catch the same sights inadvertently. One survivor tells of being interrupted by a German tourist who asked him to take her picture, just as he was preparing to jump.

Looking this closely and intently into suicide, you almost fear too much empathy, the way you dread the vertigo that accompanies acrophobia: What you're afraid of is not so much that you might fall, but that impulse within you that wants to eliminate the yawning tension between you and the surface below....

"The Bridge" is brave and unflinching, unshakably haunting and deeply mysterious. I doubt I'll forget it until the day I die.

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