When I am feeling particularly loopy, I will cast aside my usual cynicism, lapse into romantic ecstasy, and flirt with the notion that suicide is, above all, life’s most revolutionary act. Ignoring the pain, brutality, and murderous impulse channeled inward, I see it not as a final howl against that too brief candle, but rather a bold, rational move of the utmost importance; a statement of power where one is able — and willing — to select the exact moment of one’s exit. In a world where most of what we do is at the behest of another, what other choice is there but the time and manner of death? It bucks not only the idea that life is to be endured and let go only when the body gives out, but it brings strength and desire back into a civilization made soft by centuries of sterile sentimentality. But such musings are better left for fables and storybooks, after all, for in reality — a cold, cruel reality made readily apparent by Eric Steel’s fascinating documentary The Bridge — suicide is not at all a chin-up, eyes to the horizon deed of derring-do. Instead, it is borne of — and motivated by — one of two inescapable afflictions: severe, clinical mental illness, or a punishing, near pathological narcissism. In either case, it is a task best left to brains ingesting their last gasps of sanity.
While perhaps disappointing to those expecting a skillfully edited montage of bodies breaking apart on the waves while power chords drift and moan, The Bridge is much more than a voyeuristic death rattle. The images of human beings jumping from San Francisco’s famed Golden Gate Bridge are undeniably wrenching, but this is not exploitation. We watch because we must; these stories, told by friends and loved ones after the sad events have taken place, need that final act to lend credence to the words of the survivors. Their anger, sadness, and sense of betrayal deserve the big leap, for what other cruel reminder could suffice to let us know that for that brief moment, a monstrous selfishness won out over the feelings of others? One’s death is one’s own to be sure, as we’re the ones who have to experience it, but to watch these people — men and women, young and old alike — pace, pause, reflect, and finally jump, could only lock down the understanding that suicide is vanity’s last gift to the world; a final kiss of hoped-for infamy that will force civilization, even an extremely small portion of it, to never be able to forget. Why else would anyone commit suicide in this manner?
And that is, of course, the key question that is never really answered, although the statistics provide a clue all by themselves. While Mr. Steel filmed the bridge from afar during 2004, a startling 24 people jumped to their deaths, making it the most popular landmark in the world for suicides. With an untold number of ways one could end one’s life, to make the trek to this spot demonstrates that the allure of joining an exclusive “club” helps ease the horrific transition into shark food. Perhaps there is something moderately courteous about not leaving a roomful of brain matter and skull fragments to be mopped up by a sobbing relative, but given the high level of traffic for Golden Gate and the inevitable gawkers present, this is little more than a show; a high dive for strangers that would warrant applause in a less fatal context. Take Gene, for example, one of several ghosts we follow throughout the film. His long black hair whipping in the wind, and rebel jacket betraying a painfully self-conscious pose, he walks up and down the bridge as if lost in thought, and if we didn’t know better, we might think he was waiting for the cavalry to arrive and take him home. Could he be expecting someone to show up for moral support? Why not walk up, tip your cap, and take your leave? Sure, it’s a frightening proposition to take but four seconds to become a shattered shell adrift at sea, but if an end is what one truly seeks, certitude would surely follow.
Instead, many of the people we watch on the bridge take much longer than is necessary to complete their task. Others do not, but for those who seem to expect at least an interruption or two, it might be said that while they do die after all, the result is less an end to the madness than the fulfillment of a sense of obligation gone too far. After all, Gene was known to discuss his impending death over and over again, as if unable to hold anything else in his mind, which is obviously a sign that it was attention, not eternal rest, that he sought. Who else but an unchecked, needy child would force everyone in his vicinity to share his demented fantasies of self-slaughter? Discussion invites inquiries, which validate an otherwise pathetic existence. The truly courageous plan in silence, attempt it once, and succeed, leaving loved ones in utter shock and disbelief. Even though self-absorption still wins out, it is somehow less indulgent, given that they never left the door open for an alternative. It’s why the Columbine killers hold our fascination (and perverse admiration): unlike every other wannabe school madman, they let nothing slip, carried out their business, and included themselves among the dead. Everyone else wants to get caught, or is simply after an appalling dance with fame, however brief. No, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold simply wanted to kill their fellow school chums, not have mommy and daddy drive up begging for their tearful surrender.
The film also includes testimony from a survivor, as impossible as it seems that there could even be such a person. This young man, Kevin, is — expectedly — bipolar, and one day decides to end his life, though again, it goes untold as to why he selected the bridge. We fill in the blanks, of course. Kevin’s tale is all-too-typical in that he’s unable to fight off the demons of despair, but he achieves the status of legend by actually living beyond the jump. One second after leaving the ledge, he decides that he wants to live (almost certainly because of the quite permanent, and painful, fate awaiting him), forcing him to adopt a tight, legs-first pose that avoids the usual “splatter”. He is forced down a great distance, shattering numerous bones in the process, but while several organs were damaged, his heart remained untouched, and so he lived to tell the tale. Sure, he rapidly goes from mythical to maniacal in the time it takes for him to claim that a nearby seal was God himself, apparently floating by for an impromptu rescue, but his words have the same effect of hearing about plane crash survivors and the like. He should be dead, but isn’t, so now but two futures await him (and us): endless rounds of chats and lectures on the miracle of life, or an immediate return to taking everything for granted, reducing an unforeseen second chance to a permanently indented bean bag and marathon rounds of Xbox.
One of the film’s saving graces is its insistence on displaying the bridge in all of its aching glory; proving again that even the most intoxicating spots on earth house untold tragedy. The deaths, then, are an ironic contrast to the glorious fog, sea air, and stirring landscapes that seem to argue for life’s continuation, regardless of the problems awaiting us. On such days as these, it cries, how could you even think of wiping away your tomorrows? And so the fascination with this very site, for I imagine most of us continue to have a back alley view of suicide, believing that it always takes place in dirty, dank apartments or decaying streets; places without sunlight, blue skies, or the sounds of laughter and joy. Vanity aside, then, perhaps one can feel amused by the fact that there are those among us so contemptuous of conformity that they would violate beauty itself with violence and death. And hell, even Gene — poor, poor Gene of a thousand unsubtle reminders — added a dash of pizzazz to the proceedings, as his dive had all the markings of an Olympic champion. Sure, he’s playing to the crowd, but he seems to get away with it because in life, his somber, sullen manner seemed incapable of such spontaneity. Perhaps that last, cruel dive into the surf, touched with the rock star’s flair for the dramatic, was his way of finally breaking free. I’m not sure a memorable death is enough to wipe clean the slate of a mediocre life, but who am I to begrudge the effort?