Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Bridge

Watched, last night, companied, The Bridge , a documentary which captures some of the 24 suicide jumpers who took their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004. Through interviews with friends and family of the jumpers, and with the one survivor, the film brings its viewers uncomfortably close not just to the moment of suicide, but to the web of human connections involved: the passer-by passing by, a stranger taking photographs, the last phone calls, the left behind.

Comments on the film on imdb address the ethical issues in making the film, the question of its success as a documentary, the validity of its suggestion that mental illness plays in suicide, the social narratives created about suicide in Western society, and so on. What struck me about both the film, and the discussions it seems to have generated, is the need for those left behind to have an opinion: not just to bear witness to the end of life but to become a part of the story, perhaps because the act of suicide attempts to end a narrative, often but not always one that has repeated itself too many times before.

The Golden Gate bridge - any bridge - is a desire for connection, for connectivity. We will not be prevented from reaching what is visible to us but separate from us, the bridge insists. Lucy Blakstad's book Bridge: The Architecture of Connection offers a visual and textual consideration not just of how bridges connect, but also how they can sever, and its this idea that lingers most for me after the film. The film The Bridge raises the question of why the Golden Gate is the most popular place for suicide in the world, and the friends of jumpers identify a drama or romanticism that might explain why their loved ones sought the GOlden Gate. One mother describes the bridge as "calling" her son, as "magnet-like." While a single reason for the Golden Gate's appeal must elude us, just as a single explanation for the when, how, and why of suicide must, if we are to avoid simplistic understandings of the complex and variously emotional and rational decision to end one's life, that the Golden Gate is a bridge matters.

The choice of the Golden Gate, often during the light of day, seems to allow the jumpers an accessible means of suicide which is also public, witnessed, verifiable. It aligns anonymity - everyone seems a stranger - and identity - the jumper must be noticed. The bridge offers a possibility of connection, of interacting with people, even as the jumper literally moves away from and out of the possibility of connection, into a quick, unreversible descent. The jumper has always started to cross the bridge and not completed the journey, or resisted the idea that there was a journey to complete. A different definition of "the other side" operates: a religious conviction, sometimes, or the refusal to accept the social murmur that better things await elsewhere. We have built bridges in the expectation that people will want to cross over them, that there must be worth getting to from here. The jumpers from the Golden Gate are a flurry of activity often too fast for the viewer to catch, the camera to capture; they pause the activity of crossing, force us to stop and wonder. Without the camera, this would have gone unremarked by all but a few.

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