“The Bridge”–thoughts on suicide

A few years ago, after much deliberation about whether or not I wanted to, I watched a movie called “The Bridge.” I decided to watch it a second time because, as the saying goes, I knew the movie hadn’t changed but I wanted to see if I had. Rather than write about it, I’m going to repost what I wrote after watching it the first time.

“The Bridge”—thoughts on suicide.

Two weeks ago, I watched “The Bridge.” This filmmaker, after reading an article about the frequency of people jumping off The Golden Gate Bridge, spent a year filming people on the bridge with a team of cameramen. They filmed from far off, focusing on people who were alone and looked suspicious, and captured several people jumping off on film. I have been carrying the viewing of this movie around since, and haven’t felt ready to think about it until today.

Albert Camus wrote that there is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. He wrote: “Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.”

Rather bleak taken out of context, but I think Camus and the existentialists in general get kind of a bad rap. They are thought of as hating life. I used to give out copies of The Stranger the way some people hand out business cards. I have considered it the best book I’ve ever read, since I read it almost ten years ago, now. Others have found it depressing. I think it captures a moment, what I call an existential epiphany, where existence reveals itself as temporary and pointless but also wonderful. I’ve had these moments, meaningful sex has given them to me, friendship has given them to me, writing has probably given me the most. Life isn’t easy. It can be painful, it can be boring, but I would gladly live forever from one of these moments to the next. That makes me exactly lucky.

The people in “The Bridge” without exception suffered from severe mental illness. (In the movie, scenes from the bridge were interspersed with interviews with the families of the deceased.) They weren’t feeling sorry for themselves or upset about losing a girl or boyfriend, they were suffering emotional pain that must have constantly been lurking in their lives when it didn’t have them in its grip. I have a friend who wrote a poem about suicide, and in her critique group, a girl complained that committing suicide was a selfish thing to do to your loved ones. My friend argued back that it was just as selfish for their loved ones to not let them leave. I think that is a beautiful expression of empathy. It almost makes me cry every time I think of it, and I thought of that a lot during this movie.

There were parents who had lost their son. This kid had told his dad when he was 15 that he wanted to kill himself, and his dad said, let’s get you to a hospital. This kid spent the next twenty years in and out of hospitals suffering with mental illness. Finally his dad told him, “Call us first.” They were letting this tortured man free if he decided that was what he wanted. How courageous to ask for that phone call.

Courage was the theme of the movie for me. As I watched these people climb out onto the ledge, stare down, and jump, I thought of them as courageous people. Not for jumping—though you can bet that would take courage—but for lasting as long as they did, for trying so hard to live. The incredibleness of humanity is the impression watching this movie finally left me with. It was an affirmation of life. Each of us has this staggering choice: to leave or stay. Every day we choose to stay. What could be more life affirming than denying suicide? I think that is what Camus meant.

I don’t know if anyone reading this will be curious about the movie. It didn’t sound like anything I’d want to watch, but it was carefully done, and I highly recommend it. But be sure and watch the making of. I do think the filmmakers made a mistake by not including themselves in the movie. Until I saw what emotions watching these deaths caused in the cameramen, until I learned that they had phones and called to get help to people as soon as they saw them climbing out (and actually saved some people) the movie didn’t feel complete.

***Update, after this movie came out plans began to get a suicide guard up on the bridge. Unfortunately that hasn’t moved past the planning stage. Given the cost of recovering the bodies of the two or three people who jump every month, on average, nothing could be more cost effective than a guard, but it’s part of the stigma of suicide that people continue to argue against a guard for aesthetic reasons.

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