The Bridge

The Bridge

For as long as I can remember I’ve kind of taken it for granted that there was a good chance that the mode of my death would be suicide. I’ve thought about suicide quite a bit during certain periods of my life. And even beyond how it relates to me personally, the issue itself has always been of at least moderate interest to me.

The Bridge is a documentary about people who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. As noted in the movie, it is the single most common site in the world for suicide. Twenty-four people died jumping from the bridge the year the movie was filmed.

The movie consists primarily of interviews with family and friends of these people, and witnesses who happened to be on the scene at the time.

It avoids the overreliance on “talking heads” by including a lot of visuals of the bridge itself. Indeed, there are even a handful of shots of people jumping. They’re from a distance with a shaky camera and typically the camera fails in its efforts to follow the person all the way down to the water, so it’s not like it’s all that graphic. Still, it’s real people committing suicide, which will no doubt disturb some viewers.

(I read later that the filmmaker got those shots by setting up multiple cameras and shooting the bridge through all the daylight hours for an entire year. Evidently this raised considerable controversy about the ethics of the filmmaking process.)

But other than the very rare shot of someone actually jumping (or in one case being pulled off the ledge by someone intervening), it’s just lots and lots and lots of shots of the bridge. Pedestrians on the bridge, long shots of the bridge, the water beneath the bridge, shots of the area taken from the bridge, the bridge partially obscured by fog, etc., etc.

For my tastes there’s really a lot more of that than is needed. I don’t have as much of an aversion to “talking heads” interviews as I take it most people do; I’d just as soon have seen more of the people being interviewed rather than just hearing them.

Indeed, I’ll go beyond that and say the whole hook with the bridge itself didn’t matter much to me. Maybe 5% of the substance of the interviews is specifically about the bridge—e.g., why would a person choose this particular suicide method over others?—but 95% would have fit in a film about suicide in general.

And that’s really where the value of The Bridge is anyway, for me. The bridge part was mildly interesting—and no doubt the footage of the jumpers is attention grabbing—but I liked the film quite a lot as a film about suicide.

In thinking about it, I believe one of the things that appeals to me about the interviews is the lack of spin. I’m so used to people saying what they’re “supposed” to say, or what’s in their self-interest to say, or what their job requires them to say, and so on, that it’s just refreshing to see real people speaking from the heart.

And about something important. I mean, I’m sure people speak sincerely all the time about how late the mall stays open, or what pop song they like or dislike, or what happened on American Idol last night, or whatever, but you don’t often see people digging deep and trying to get their mind around something as important as suicide, and articulating as best they can their thoughts and feelings about it.

Granted there’s a certain amount of delusional stuff—“She’s in a better place now” and the like—but mostly it’s people trying to be as frank and honest as they can.

That’s the kind of thing I strive for in a lot of my interview-based films—getting real people to wrestle with difficult important issues in a sincere way that can help them and the viewer gain a little deeper understanding.

I felt like the movie had a welcome non-judgmental feel to it. It didn’t feel preachy or manipulative to me (or exploitative, for that matter). It felt instead like an effort to get people to think and talk about suicide, to explore and maybe reexamine their own opinions and feelings in their own way.

As I watched this movie, parts of it spoke to me more than others, not because those parts were necessarily “better,” but more because of how they happened to connect with my own beliefs and values and where I am in life.

For example, I’m interested in why people choose suicide in the first place. But when it turns out to be garden variety mental illness stuff—debilitating, painful depression that they’d do anything to end, schizophrenic-style “voices in the head” or a completely Looney Tunes worldview—that doesn’t connect with me so much because that’s just not how I experience life, and so it’s not something I can really understand or see as directly relevant to my own potential suicide.

Whereas I perked up immediately when one of the interviewees said of one of the suicides something along the lines of “So-and-so was very idealistic in a lot of ways, and I think he eventually just got tired of dealing with the gap between what is and what should be and he figured ‘Why bother?’” Because I can more easily see myself in a position at least vaguely like that.

Or I was quite impressed with the people who accepted a loved one’s decision to commit suicide, one even saying that “he’s an adult,” so there’s a limit to what he considers it justified to do to try to stop him.

In contrast, one woman said the lesson she learned from a friend’s suicide is that next time she won’t be squeamish about embarrassing someone or overriding their will, and will have them forcibly institutionalized or whatever it takes to keep them alive.

I suspect the latter is the more “accepted” response that will generate the most applause from people, but I find it frankly disturbing. I understand (barely) if you’re talking about a small child or someone with greatly reduced capacity to make decisions for himself or herself, but in almost all cases I’m an extremist when it comes to autonomy. (And I certainly won’t go for the dodge that the very fact that a person would commit suicide constitutes proof of a severe enough mental illness that they have too little capacity or right to exercise autonomy to worry about.)

It makes me think of an absolute nightmare scenario for me if I were considering suicide and chose to confide that to someone. I would hope I would be open to a rational assessment of my decision—as I should be for any decision—but imagine instead the person decides for me that my suicide is unacceptable, and so adopts a “means-end” approach to communicating with me, basically humoring me and stalling me and choosing their platitudes or whatever based solely on their likelihood of keeping me from committing suicide, while surreptitiously summoning the authorities to drag me away to be incarcerated somewhere that I’ll be physically unable to kill myself. And feeling self-righteous and patting himself or herself on the back for successfully tricking me into staying alive.

I’m sure there are some people who at some level would hope for exactly that response, and would be sharing their intentions with the person for just that reason, but to me it’s horrific to even contemplate.

One limitation of the film that occurred to me as I was watching is that this kind of investigation will always be incomplete because you can only talk to friends and family and witnesses, never to the person who actually committed suicide. (You can interview people who say they’re contemplating suicide, or people who unsuccessfully attempt suicide, like by taking too few pills, but people in those categories aren’t necessarily relevantly similar to people who in fact commit suicide.)

But just as I was thinking that, a person is interviewed who jumped from the bridge and survived. Granted that’s an unsuccessful suicide, but only technically. He chose a method that nearly always succeeds, so there’s no reason to separate him from those who do succeed.

So that is interesting, to get his perspective. The most haunting part of his interview is when he states that the instant he hurled himself from the bridge he regretted it and decided he didn’t want to die after all. My guess would be that—leaving aside those who are too crazy or drunk or whatever to be capable of coherent thought—that’s a very common reaction. And what an awful last several seconds of life that would be, wanting to change your mind and knowing it’s too late and you’re going to die.

The lesson there is if you’re going to kill yourself, choose either a method that is reversible (e.g., slit your wrists or take a lot of pills, but have a phone handy so you can call 911 and they’ll have enough time to get to you and save you before you die if you change your mind), or a method that is instantaneous (e.g., shoot yourself through the head, so there is no delay between pulling the trigger and death where you can reconsider your decision).

As I mentioned earlier, this kind of movie overlaps considerably with what I’ve tried to do in some of my interview-based films. So I really like the idea of talking to regular people about the “big questions” of life.

It’s also important to note, though, the limitations of that approach.

Take an issue like God and religious belief. I’m genuinely interested in what regular people think about such a subject, how they came to have those beliefs, etc. And I think my interviews benefit them by getting them to think and talk about these things, and if the interviews make it into a film they benefit the viewers by getting them too to think and talk about these things. So my kind of film has some value, I believe.

On the other hand, I’m also interested in the merits of the issue itself. And while it’s possible I’ll gain some new insight from a “man in the street” interview, really that’s not the most promising source of information and cogent arguments. I’d be a lot better off reading scholarly articles pro and con by theologians, philosophers of religion, etc.

So The Bridge is thought-provoking and it provides a small amount of information or insights about suicide, but really there’s a lot it does not—and by its nature as a documentary to some extent cannot—do. It’s all anecdotal, and the interviewees are a self-selected group of folks willing to talk on camera to a documentarian.

I think it’s valuable for what it is, but if you really want to learn more about what kinds of people commit suicide, what works and what doesn’t work in stopping them, how often those who are coercively prevented from doing so are later thankful they were, how often their loved ones are angry with them for killing themselves, and on and on, a movie like this is only very, very minimally helpful. What you need is sound social science research by people trained to investigate such things. Not that that’s going to be without its problems and fuzziness, but to the extent the information is available at all, that’s where you’d need to go for it.

No doubt The Bridge touched me at a deeper level than the majority of movies I’ve written about so far. But a lot of that is just my pre-existing interest in the issue of suicide. I liked it and I recommend it, but I could see viewers being all over the board on this one. There are grounds for being fascinated, being bored, being offended, and everything in between.

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