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Borderline: Eric Steel’s “The Bridge”

Borderline: Eric Steel's "The Bridge"

Great clouds of fog often roll over the city of San Francisco and its surroundings, obscuring the city and its dazzling suspension bridges from view across the bay. “The Bridge,” Eric Steel‘s very fine documentary feature debut, opens with a fast-motion shot of the fog as it slowly recedes to reveal the Golden Gate Bridge. For a moment, it seems Steel could have made a whole movie just about this, the beauty and mystery of a place so awe-inspiring and so frequently hidden from view, the perfect marriage of man-made engineering and natural wonder, too often tucked away by conspiracy of geography and weather. What follows are a series of shots overflowing with life, of people biking and walking across the bridge or sailing underneath, and then, unexpectedly, a middle-aged man hops over the railing and plunges to his death. It’s so sudden and unexpected, this suicide in the middle of so much activity, that it’s impossible to prepare oneself, as a viewer, for the shock of seeing it, and then it’s over almost as quickly as it began.

More people kill themselves every year at the Golden Gate Bridge than at any other location in the world. Inspired by a New Yorker article on the subject, Steel set up two cameras to record the bridge during daylight hours for an entire year during 2004. Whenever possible, Steel and his crew would try to intervene to stop suicide attempts before they would happen, but still, over the course of the year, his cameras captured most of the 24 suicides that occurred. Steel has included just a few of those deaths in the film, and they never cease to be jarring and difficult to watch. Suicides often happen in very private places, hidden from view; these very public suicides force us, as spectators, to confront a social reality most of us prefer not to think about, or that we don’t have to think about. It’s truly disturbing to be faced with the reality of suicide in a documentary film, and Steel includes no objective voiceovers or attempts at explanation to somehow make it more palatable.

Instead, Steel supplements his footage with interviews of friends and family members of the suicide victims. They express a range of emotions–empathy, relief, guilt, sadness, anger, denial. Many of the interviews describe years-long or life-long struggles with mental illness. Rachel Marker, the mother of Lisa Smith, recounts her daughter’s three-decade struggle with schizophrenia. The parents of 22-year-old Philip Manikow wonder at their son’s determination to kill himself, despite their best efforts to help and support him in his struggle. Meanwhile, an anonymous friend of Daniel “Ruby” Rubinstein seems to feel responsibility for giving Rubinstein her antidepressants and failing to more actively intervene in his crisis. If the interviews offer no real comfort or explanation, they cast light on the pain and the hopelessness these people must have felt before choosing to end their lives, as well as the devastating consequence that choice has had for the people who loved them. Steel’s film is remarkably adept at empathizing with both perspectives.

Interviewees speculate, time and again, about why their loved ones would choose the bridge as their suicide location. Some believe it’s the romanticism of the place; others see an impulse to belong, in death, to something larger than oneself. And while some argue that the very public nature of the bridge makes it more likely that someone could intervene and stop people’s attempts to kill themselves, others point out that jumping off the bridge is a particularly successful method of suicide.

A scene from Eric Steel’s “The Bridge.” Copyright Rich Waters, courtesy of First Stripe Productions.

But to its credit, “The Bridge” doesn’t linger on the mythology of its subject, and it’s much more concerned with human stories than with finding answers to the question of why people choose the Golden Gate. The bridge functions mostly as a conceit, a simple and direct way of getting at a difficult topic. Steel could easily have made a film about the Golden Gate Bridge phenomenon—whatever it is that makes 20-odd people kill themselves at the Golden Gate Bridge each year. Instead, he’s made a much more difficult, human, and powerful film—focusing on a few people in severe distress and the people they left behind. Each time he returns to an image of the bridge, to punctuate these stories and thread them together, it only becomes more beautiful, sad, and hauntingly enigmatic, a passive observer to the lives of those touched by it.

[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer and a frequent contributor to Publishers Weekly.]

Take 2
By Michael Joshua Rowin

Undoubtedly the following slam-dunk metaphor will be used to review “The Bridge”: “As if balanced on suspension cables, the tension between the public and private spheres of death and mourning holds up Eric Steel’s debut documentary as a monument to the unanswerable mysteries of suicide.” Were that this were so. “The Bridge”—with its austere title, its new-age ambient soundtrack, and the world famous man-made construction taking center stage as its own readymade metaphor—asks, begs, and pleads for the awe and reverence of its audience. But in deciding on an ethically questionable cinematic strategy to shed light on its morbid subject matter, this disappointing film betrays the obscuring self-importance it has inexplicably chosen instead of an honest, respectful approach.

I realize that Steel placed the livelihood of the Golden Gate Bridge jumpers he recorded above the success of his own film, but really, how does the production history of “The Bridge” not accord with the worst shock tactics of desperate filmmakers? An argument can be made that the jumpers also put themselves on display, made their last act borne of inward pain and private hell a very public demonstration of an individual’s willingness to erase his or her own existence. Thus, the logic goes, Steel’s camera becomes the observer/accomplice sought, whether intentionally or unintentionally, by the suicides of “The Bridge.” I would readily concede this point if “The Bridge” weren’t so concerned with unnecessarily complementing these images—so disturbing in their raw, albeit distanced, documentation of the passage of life into death as to be unimpeachably sacred—with picture postcard views of San Francisco, time-lapse photography and washes of vacuous music cues. These cliches—and not the standard objections to the use of such footage—are the unmistakable aesthetic crutches of a filmmaker unscrupulous enough to spice an otherwise unremarkable film with powerful material but still nonetheless too uncourageous to explore its implications.

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes film reviews for L magazine, has written for the Independent, Film Comment, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]

A scene from Eric Steel’s “The Bridge.” Copyright Rich Waters, courtesy of First Stripe Productions.

Take 3
By Jeff Reichert

Swathed in clouds and draped across the San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge is at once a marvel and a folly. In Eric Steel’s “The Bridge” it becomes a symbol of mankind’s desire for ultimate control over our surroundings, something all but absent in the revealed lives of the film’s protagonists, those who have jumped from it to their deaths. Credit to Peter McCandless‘s photography for thoroughly and beautifully interrogating this American icon—the bridge often looks banal when shrunk and flattened onto a postcard or as a background prop for the latest in Hollywood action spectacle. Here it’s rendered with an appropriately lovely gravitas, offering “The Bridge” a chance to operate on a purely visual register that far too few documentaries strive even halfheartedly to attain anymore. Though it’s arguable the extent to which the bridge’s elegance could be photographed poorly by anyone blessed with even a modicum of talent or true interest in the structure, there’s something truly superlative about the way its been captured here.

Steel, fortunately, trusts in the power and versatility of his images, but perhaps not quite enough. Lacing the story and footage of Gene, with his long dark hair and biker attire throughout the film and making his death a kind of climax feels a needless narrative crutch, and one that unfortunately raises some of the ethical questions about filming the dying unawares (no waivers, folks) that the respectful remove of the rest of the movie nicely quashes. “The Bridge” is at its strongest when we’re allowed to lose track of the individual qualities of the dead, when the voices we hear describing tales of discontent, mental illness, and alienation blend into an elegiac chorale. This isn’t some idiotic “portrait of a generation” theme piece, but it’s also not quite lives in miniature detail either. Staking out a middle ground isn’t often the easy path the artistic success, but it’s in these moments of near collectivity where Steel comes closest to finding an answer to the question his movie can’t really ask, but longs to resolve: Why the bridge?

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]

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