Gate, Bridge, but Golden?

December 20th, 2008 § 0 comments

If San Francisco is an iconic and beloved city that defines the west coast to outsiders, then the Golden Gate Bridge is more an iconic symbol of California than the grizzly bear prowling the state flag. Like Highway 1 and the coastline it winds along, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of California’s greatest attractions. I have driven on, walked across, and taken a boat tour under, that bridge.

The 2006 documentary, The Bridge, aesthetically resembles countless postcards of the Golden Gate, and the surrounding areas it connects together. It feels as though it were filmed from every geographic point from which the looming red gate can be seen, and it captures, much like a living object, its different personalities. We see the Golden Gate from above, below, and behind surrounding parks. Time-lapse photography allows its appearance to change in seconds as fog rolls in and out of the bay, clouds linger or pass across the highest suspension points, as rare San Francisco mornings of bright blue push yesterdays clutter from the sky. Quoting an article from the New Yorker entitled “Jumpers,” on which the film was based, “there is a fatal grandeur to the place.”

Despite the appearance, at times, of a typically celebratory representation of the enormous landmark, the film is one of chilling facts and haunting stories. Perhaps it is only residents who realize that “more people choose to end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than anywhere else in the world.” The opening scenes of the documentary, filmed over the course of a year, are more intriguing than the interviews taken with friends, survivors, and witnesses, as they create a link between everyone who visits the bridge and those who leap from it. Though the filmmakers must have searched for the likely signs of “jumpers,” it captures as well people who pause for a long while, looking down into the depths below, watching the water and the boats pass under; why do we all look down? There is certainly a fascination to the height, the suspension, the rocking sensation of the bridge as it sways ever so slightly in the strong bay winds. Tourists, we realize through the zoom of another’s grainy footage, pause the same as those who pause and throw a leg over. It is interesting to realize there are as many reasons to visit the bridge, as there are ways to behave on it—many people jump on the railings, if only to have their picture taken.

Falling into the category of disturbing films, The Bridge is a very disturbing film, but in unexpected ways. It questions the kind of violence, if suicide can really be called that, we are used to digesting visually through movies. Though the interviews are heartbreaking, the jumping itself is a gesture that arouses a kind of desperate beauty, horror, shock, and disbelief from its viewers. While we seem to adore “reality” shows such as CSI and others that consistently feature the gruesome murder of lovely young women, The Bridge offers such a different kind horror, self-inflicted death, it is surprising to find it so—it is, after all, such a simple gesture, one without violence as we know, believe, and enjoy it. Saying action movies are not “real” does not excuse our enjoyment and arousal over, say, a James Bond flick, but the difference in reaction questions the gap between the cinematic realities—a smirk in the former, a gasp in the latter. No matter how many times you see it—the lingering gaze, the leg thrown over the side, the release, the tumbling fall, the catastrophic splash—and know what is coming, the moment still leaves you with that gut-wrenching falling sensation.

The films plot provokes outrage from most people who hear about it, they don’t want to see it, and can’t imagine why anyone who does not harbor a morbid fixation would want to either. Of all the atrocities that take place in a day, the miserable leaping to a release hardly seems the most horrible. The filmmakers are implicated also, why would someone be interested enough to film, and not prevent, suicide attempts? It is interesting to note that over half of San Francisco residents are against the building of a suicide rail for the Bridge, perhaps because it would mare its loveliness. It is this kind of contradiction the film is interested in, exploring the darker consequences of having such a cultural icon. It is certainly not simply because it is a practical location to leap toward death that so many people wander the “chord” of the Golden Gate. The moral implications reminded me of learning that a favorite poet was a fascist, or that a favorite photographer was really a wealthy, misogynistic, drunk—I like the poems and photographs all the same, but I simply cannot see them in quite the same manner.

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