Teaching The Bridge

Ned Schantz

 

“I imagine the supreme cinematic perversion would be the projection of an execution backward like those comic newsreels in which the diver jumps up from the water back onto his diving board.” – André Bazin[1]

 

The Bridge is a 2005 documentary by Eric Steel about people who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Inspired by Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker article[2], Steel decided to film the bridge throughout 2004. His resulting documentary combines moments from this footage with a range of interviews that establish a humane perspective. Focusing on friends and family of jumpers as well as one survivor, the interviews convey remarkable thoughtfulness and compassion. But as much as these people have to teach, the critical pedagogical questions remain with how the film integrates its other footage. What can we learn from watching people jump off the Golden Gate Bridge? Or from watching others being saved?[3] What does it mean to adopt the viewing position in which bridge pedestrians become “candidates,” to use one crew member’s term, and in which the relief of seeing people not jump blurs into the guiltiest of structural disappointments? What even to make of the contrasts among recorded splashes, either the result of inanimate objects dropped with careless fascination, or that of another human being turned falling object? As this short description must already make evident, The Bridge is among the rare films for which the question whether to teach it tends to overwhelm the question of how that might be gone about.

I have myself taught The Bridge once, in the winter of 2010, in a graduate seminar called “Film Thinks Itself” at McGill University in Montreal. Serving a double audience of a small core of serious film students plus a majority of talented non-specialists, I planned to teach films that framed problems of the medium with special intensity. When I stood back to assess the state of Film Studies at the time, death was in the air, and particularly interesting was the new work in this direction of feminist scholars who had been important in my own education. Selected for this class were chapters from Vivian Sobchack’s Carnal Pleasures, Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time, and Laura Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second, all of which have much useful to say on the subject of film and death.[4] To help think about The Bridge, I assigned Sobchack’s “Inscribing Ethical Space: Ten Propositions on Death, Representation, and Documentary,” Doane’s “Dead Time, or the Concept of the Event,” as well as Bazin’s short essay “Death Every Afternoon,” from which I’ve taken my epigraph. These turned out to be powerful lenses, and indeed my memory of the day is of one of the best discussions of the semester. I can’t reconstruct it, but I can report how what I learned coalesces into a critique of the film. And it is ultimately in these terms, more than as a study of suicide, that I think a case for teaching The Bridge would be made. The film has the potential to provoke an unusually demanding exercise in critical thinking. What is impossible to assess is the extent to which, even in the best of circumstances, the critical faculties will prevail over a range of unwanted responses, at the bottom of which lies the specter of copycat jumping.

The critique begins with the profound moral hazard run by the filmmakers staking out the bridge, a hazard to which Sobchack’s formulations immediately speak. Among her six kinds of gazes—five ethical, one dubious—with which cameras confront the sight of real death, the crew of The Bridge clearly employ the dubious professional gaze “always in the service of two masters,” “journalism” and “humanitarianism,” the one that demands a record and the one that demands intervention.[5] Given their distance on the bridge’s respective shores, the filmmakers’ power of intervention was reduced to keeping the bridge patrol on speed dial. Within this arrangement, one camera operator’s response to realizing suddenly that someone was jumping captures the divided allegiance of the professional gaze perfectly: “I’m trying to get to the record button, trying to get on the phone—all at once.” Indeed, one outcome, by no means negligible, is that the filmmakers almost certainly made life-saving phone calls during 2004, though this is not discussed in the film itself. Moreover, much of their own compassion and thoughtfulness comes through in the supplemental film included on the DVD, as they explain what it was like to watch people in various stages of distress. But the very fact that so much reassurance appears elsewhere, relegated to paratextual supplements, suggests that for this project, ethics register more as an afterthought than as the primary interest.

For what greatly extends the moral hazard is the film’s participation in the beckoning call of the bridge.[6] It is not clear how the bridge could be filmed so as not to transmit this force, but it is clear that Steel doesn’t much try. His intermittent music and time-lapse photography only add to the mystique. There is the further problem—very difficult to rule out completely—that word of the project could have gotten out and added to the lure during filming in 2004, planting the idea for jumpers to cast themselves in a new kind of snuff film. At the same time, Tad Friend reports a fact that mitigates the worst paranoia: apparently when local media stopped reporting jumps, the death toll failed to decrease, so perhaps the draw is not one of fame.[7] Still, the bridge’s very iconicity is obviously inseparable from media, a matter of countless circulating images. The fact that media causality will always remain tricky should never be confused with the idea that it’s nonexistent.

Even if we were to take the most generous view of what Steel achieves—that he demystifies the bridge, that he educates viewers about suicide—that would ignore the simple fact that to distribute this footage was to surrender all control of its use, and that his most careful work is easily undone. It is in this vein that my Bazin epigraph feels both apposite and wildly obsolete, since “supreme cinematic perversion” is now available to any viewer simply by clicking rewind. It can hardly matter that our example joins diving with death, and that these are self-executions. Perhaps inevitably, there are YouTube compilations of the jumping footage, and this is where Doane’s concept of “dead time” as the byproduct of eventfulness helps frame the basic critical problem, if with dark irony. It captures the sheer waiting involved in watching the bridge—far greater for the crew of course than for viewers—in terms that capture the morbidity of the whole enterprise. In other words, with the exceptions of the rescues, the footage gets divided between dead time and death time. As always, YouTubers just want to skip the wait.

But perhaps the most startling discovery of teaching The Bridge is that it has a star. The first jumper the film discusses is a man named Gene Sprague; his story, and the footage of him at the bridge, pervade and structure the film. This stardom draws partly on accidental circumstances: the filmmakers quickly spotted Gene, and he lingered relatively long on the bridge, so there is more footage of him than of other jumpers. One of the effects of his positioning is to skew our temporal relationship to the filming. In most respects that relationship in The Bridge is the usual one: time is either compressed or “real,” which is to say that the time of the filming either exceeds or equals that of the viewing. But with Gene, time implicitly dilates as his story gets stretched across the film. For viewers, it is as if he spends nearly the entire ninety-four minute movie on the bridge, his suspended state the condition of our suspense. In this respect, unwanted movie emotions interfere with whatever else we might better be feeling. Here the big mistake would be a false symmetry, the idea that the relief when our suspense is finally over could somehow usefully mirror any relief Gene might have felt as his end approached, merely for both being species of emotional release.

But the most challenging aspect of Gene’s stardom does not derive from any accident, but from his having delivered the most spectacular suicide. When Gene finally did decide to jump, he first stood on top of the rail, as if 243 feet weren’t quite high enough, and then simply leaned backward. As a purely physical act, it is at once grander and more elegant, far more apiece with the romance of the bridge, than the typical jump. The other jumpers tend to convey an inwardness that seems truly lost. To see their unceremonious and devastatingly perfunctory jumps feels deeply violating. Gene’s jump is performative and makes us collaborators in his theater of death. As his friend puts it, “maybe he just wanted to fly one time.” Oddly, I am not entirely unwilling to acquiesce. Were the film Gene’s alone, I might be more inclined to grant him his prerogatives—not just to end his misery, which does seem to have been profound, but to do something different, to in some sense control, own, stage-manage, and stylize his death, having understood that death could even be a genre. Otherwise, it seems only in fiction where we remember that the manner of death may occasionally supercede its postponement, and that there might be other attitudes to cultivate besides abject terror. One need think no further than Gus’s end in Breaking Bad, which features an epically improbable last stagger, to see how we might ask if a death is worthy as well as if it’s early.

But I doubt it’s an accident that I’ve wandered into such hyper-masculine territory in following this line of thought. The theatrical resources of self-dramatization remain as gendered for death as they do for the rest of life, and we have to consider whether the film conspires with Gene in a version of what Adam Frank has called “that manipulative role played by distressed straight masculinity.”[8] The larger story of the bridge seems to confirm a gender difference. Jumping in general skewed male at about a 3 to 1 ratio in 2004[9], and the one woman we watch extensively on the bridge presents a very different scenario. In her case, a male tourist photographed her on a ledge over the rail. These shots appear as stills in the film, before the documentary camera takes over to watch him pull her back. It is a compelling episode and thoughtfully told, a story of how a gaze goes from touristic to interventionist. But it ceases significantly to be about her. Most upsetting to realize is that the structure of the film could render her rescue a disappointment because she doesn’t jump, and a failure on her part because she doesn’t carry off a stylized dance with death, doesn’t rise to the occasion offered by the Golden Gate Bridge.

Disturbing as they are, so far all of these points could be folded into the case for teaching the film, insofar as the critique seems accessible and important. But I remain haunted by doubts that exceed the bounds of the film. On general grounds, a student approached me after the course was over to suggest that, in darkest Canada, February might not be the time to show such a film, as it is also the peak month for suicide. Never have I felt more stupid for having spent many years in nearly season-less California. More specifically, I retain a vivid memory from the screening, involving a student who was less than fully engaged with the course. He arrived late, just as the first jump occurred on screen. Something about his simple, serious “whoa” brought home in a flash the way the stakes had changed. This was a film for which the term impact could be more than a dead metaphor. I would later learn that he was troubled, though not his diagnosis. He did not remain in the class, and I have heard nothing about him since. To some extent my uncertainty about the student’s future epitomizes the uncertainty of all teaching, as students disperse forever from class to make of it what they will. But I can’t pretend that some materials aren’t more dangerous than others, and some students more vulnerable.

Indeed the risks of teaching film are not entirely borne by the students, as it turned out that the most certain effect of watching The Bridge was on me. I developed a case of what I think of as “the third kind of vertigo”—not a disorder of the inner ear, and not even a fear of falling, but an obsessive fear that one will hurl oneself from a high place. For me the dread became site specific, attached to a particular bridge in my neighborhood. Entirely lacking in grandeur, it spans the freeway between my home and my Metro station, and, short of resorting to elaborate rerouting, has to be crossed every time I go to work. For several years this fear of jumping persisted, but it never felt like mine. Missing was the desire for death that I imagine defines the truly suicidal. Moreover, I experienced this urge as a specifically athletic impulse, a drive to hurdle that if not ignorant of the consequences remained in strange defiance of them: for a moment, at least, this body would soar. And it is hard not to wonder whether an obsession with jumping is not partly bound up in a more generally cinematic set of symptoms. Was this not-me that wanted to jump dissociable from the virtual shades that co-opt my sensorium in every movie? Was it not equally born of a motionless viewing body’s supreme frustration? All of which makes me wonder whether all film teachers instill something like this contradictory split—this impotently powerful embodiment—regardless of what films we assign in our courses. We teach every student’s not-me to fly. But the dialogue with this not-me, and the form of this flight, depend greatly on the kinds of bodies engaged with this instruction, and as teachers we enter this exchange with imperfect information.

For me, all of these thoughts, even the unwelcome ones, seem like a lot to have gained from teaching The Bridge, but I don’t know if I will risk it again.

 

 

Ned Schantz is Associate Professor of English at McGill University. He is the author of Gossip, Letters, Phones: The Scandal of Female Networks in Film and Literature, and his essays on film have appeared in Senses Of Cinema, Criticism, Camera Obscura, and Film Quarterly.

 

 

Notes

[1] Bazin, André, “Death Every Afternoon,” trans. Mark A. Cohen, in Realist Film Theory and Cinema, ed. Ian Aitken (New York: Palgrave, 2006), 31.

[2] “Jumpers” The New Yorker. October 13, 2003. Web. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/10/13/jumpers.

[3] One crew member speaks of witnessing these two kinds of events as balancing each other out. All quotations from the filmmakers are from the DVD extra “A Short Feature on the Making of The Bridge.”

[4] The full citations are Vivian Sobchack, Carnal Pleasures. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 2002); Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second. (London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2006).

[5] Sobchack, 254.

[6] I would argue that this drawing power is already visible in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Madeleine’s short jump into the bay (with the bridge looming above) and her fall(s) from the mission tower barely displacing a then-unfilmable definitive fall from the bridge.

[7] Friend, “Jumpers.”

[8] “Medium Poe,” Criticism 48:2 (Spring 2006): 149-174, quotation on 149.

[9] I’ve derived this ratio from the film’s own list of jumpers at the end.

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