“Four seconds was the longest wait”

by Greg Call

I see the Golden Gate Bridge almost every single day, but I see it differently now than I did a few years ago. In October 2003, the month I moved to the Bay Area, I read an article in the New Yorker that discussed the Golden Gate bridge’s relentless attraction of the suicidal. Because Golden Gate Bridge jumpers are not reported by the media, it was mildly shocking to learn of the sheer numbers of suicides that occur there, year after year. I wondered Who? How? And most fundamentally, Why?

In January 2004, an amateur filmmaker in Manhattan named Eric Steel read the same New Yorker article I read, and then flew out to California to explore these questions. He got a permit (under somewhat questionable pretenses), and set up wide angle cameras facing the the Bridge to film during daylight hours. He also enlisted shooters to man a handheld outfitted with a powerful telephoto lens and film folks — tourists, mostly — crossing the Bridge day in and day out. Over the course of the year, 24 people jumped off the Bridge, and Steel’s cameras caught most of them. For many, all that was recorded was a wide angle shot showing a blur of a body and a splash. Others, however, are shown walking along the Bridge, like all the other tourists, then approaching the four foot guardrail, casually hopping over it to the ledge on the other side, and jumping into oblivion, 225 feet below.

Steel’s documentary based on the footage, entitled The Bridge, is haunting, quite literally. There are images that I don’t think will be erased from my mind for a long time. But this isn’t Faces Of Death. We learn of the individuals whose demise we’ve witnessed. We hear from their families and friends; we read their suicide notes.This may all sound morbidly voyeuristic, but Steel generally does a good job avoiding the overwrought and maudlin (though one audio effect is a notable exception here).

In the press materials, Steel takes moral cover from his inevitable detractors by saying he is trying to start a dialogue about a suicide barrier (a perennial non-starter in San Francisco). But I don’t think he needs an alibi. First, Steel and his camera operators did make calls to law enforcement when they saw someone who looked like they were going to jump, and thereby prevented several suicides (some of which are also caught on tape). The jumpers shown were either not observably suicidal, or simply acted too fast. At a recent screening, Steel talks about the difficulty of prevention: “From the first day when we were watching, there were so many people that made us concerned. We couldn’t hear them talk, we weren’t experts at deciphering body language. We saw hundreds of people crying, we saw dozens of people pulling their hair and mumbling to themselves. Those people never jumped. The first person I saw jump was in jogging clothes. He had run out onto the bridge and was laughing on his cellphone. He hung up his phone, took off his sunglasses and jumped in a matter of seconds. It was impossible to tell when it was actually going to happen.”

Second, and more importantly, the footage is used in the service of an ultimately empathetic and humane film. There is no slow-motion or torturous replays. There are no teasing buildups or gratuitous schocks. Suicide, even in this spectacular setting, is not romanticized. Steel simply shows us one year in the life of an impossibly attractive suicide magnet, and the back stories of those that chose to end their lives there.

* * *
The Bridge opens today in SF, LA, and NYC. Here’s the official website that lists other openings.

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17 thoughts on ““Four seconds was the longest wait”

  1. I’m really interested to see this film, though I have my doubts that it will actually come to a theater near me.

    The New York Times had a sneering review of it, calling it a snuff film. But I don’t think we do anyone any favors when we pretend suicide doesn’t exist.

  2. I saw a thing on tv about the bridge and suicides, sounds similar, maybe the tv show used some of his film? They also interviewed people who survived jumping (very few) and mentioned that the ones who survived hit the water feet first. That way, your feet/legs take the brunt of the impact.

    If I remember correctly, all the survivors said as soon as they jumped they regretted it.

  3. By the way, the title of the review comes from the Sleater-Kinney song, “Jumpers,” which was also inspired by the New Yorker article:

    Lonely as a cloud
    In the Golden State
    “The coldest winter I ever saw
    Was the summer that I spent…”

    The only substance is the fog
    And it hides all that has gone wrong
    Can’t see a thing
    Inside the maze

    There is a bridge adored and famed
    The Golden spine of engineering
    Whose back is heavy
    With my weight

    Be still this old heart
    Be still this old skin
    Drink you last drink
    Sin your last sin
    Sing your last song
    About the beginning
    Sing your song loud
    So the people can hear
    Be still this sad day
    Be still this sad year
    Hope your last hope
    Fear your last fear
    You’re not the only one

    My falling shape will draw a line
    Between the blue of sea and sky
    I’m not a bird
    I’m not a plane

    I took a taxi to the Gate
    I will not go to school again
    Four seconds was
    The longest wait

  4. Susan: The film interviews the one survivor from 2004. Young kid, very unstable. He saw his survival as divine intervention, via a very friendly seal. And he does mention regrets once he was airborne.

  5. The show I saw was sort of about the bridge in general, I think. I remember something about how people are employed full time year-round painting it. By the time they get to one end they have to start over.

  6. I saw something about this on TV sometime and it haunted me, just the little blurb I saw. I know it won’t come out here in Cedar, we don’t get those little shows, I’ll have to look to rent it when it comes out on video.

    What I wonder is how that affected him in the long term. He saw a lot of people die. I don’t think I could keep doing it. Filming day after day, I mean.

  7. From the trailer I think that in spite of the fact there is no slow motion, or replays, there are a number of editing touches that although more artistic, subtle, and fresh are in the same ballpark as those techniques: the use of stills, fuzzing around the subject, the sound effect you mention (I’m assuming the splash in the extreme wide), the sharp cut-away once a woman stands up on the edge of the bridge, all these are designed to generate suspense and/or curiosity.

    The principles are simple and the same: to get the eye to see more, and to get the mind’s eye to want to see more.

    The truth is that this documentary will likely be a profitable venture for the filmmakers. In their choice of subject matter they do capitalize on people’s innate desire to see highly dramatic, sensational footage. In this they are no different from any other documentary filmmakers,the local news, or people who work in reality TV like me, but I think there is definitely a much larger grey area here.

    Although I would definitely withhold judgment until I see the film, (and I’d be very interested in seeing it) I’m not so sure that the filmmakers don’t need that alibi, that justification for freezing, marketing, and distributing images of people dying.

    My reaction was that the trailer portrays suicide at the bridge as a nearly spirtual, nearly transcendent experience, with language referring to it as a crossing over. Once the film receives wide release it would be interesting to see what if any effect it has on the number of suicide attempts at the bridge.

  8. Brian:

    I just looked at the trailer for the first time. The fuzzing around the subject is not in the actual film at all, and there is a very good reason for the stills — which is explained in the film. Also, while the trailer focuses on the “spiritual, nearly transcendent” qualities, as you say, in the actual film those images are juxtaposed with footage of annoyed and bitter friends and relatives that help de-romanticize the images greatly. I do agree, though, that this is in the grey area, as you say. I’d be interested in your thoughts after you see the film.

    I do wonder if this film will lead to even more suicides, and how that should affect our view of the morality of it. If it leads to the installation of a guardrail (which the filmmaker claims is part of his purpose), will it suddenly become morally justified?

    (NB: The person with the long black hair standing on the rail is a man,. Also, you’re right on the sound effect that bothered me.)

  9. Sorry, he looked like a woman to me. As someone who’s participated in using highly dramatic footage of highly emotional moments in order to draw in viewers for one purpose or another I perhaps don’t have much of a leg to stand on, but what I find a little troubling is that in most cases documentary subjects must grant permission for the use of their likeness, etc. Obviously, in this film most of the subjects are deceased, and so they have no say.

    The relationship between filmmaker and subject is always fraught with many ethical pitfalls, and of course, filmmakers aren’t the only storytellers who struggle with these issues, just ask Truman Capote.

    I read in one of the reviews that the stills were taken by a nearby witness who speaks in the film about why he or she took pictures rather than directly intervening. I found the quotes about how viewing events through a lense or viewfinder automatically makes them seem less real to be accurate, particularly if your professional training discourages intervention. Unfortunately, viewing events on a screen, big or small, with ample use of mood-setting music and skillfull editing typically makes them seem less real as well.

  10. how graphic is it? i have a weak stomach and heart and while i’m terribly intrigued and would like to see the film, i’m afraid i’d end up with nightmares. yes, i’m a wuss.

  11. This sounds like a fascinating film. It’s the brutally honest, matter-of-fact, this-is-reality decision to make a film like this that interests me, not to mention the reality of suicide itself. If we can understand suicide better, perhaps we can learn better how to cope with suicide and even prevent it. That someone could one moment be smiling and gabbing away on a cell-phone and the next be jumping to his death … surprising. Obviously some suicides will not be preventable.

  12. In-n-out lover: It depends on what you mean by graphic, and what would give you nightmares. The film shows many people jumping off the bridge. There is no blood or gore or corpses.

  13. Fascinating. Hmmm… ethically troubling…perhaps. But I do want to see it.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I seem to recall the last time I walked accross the bridge (about 2 years ago) there was some safety netting under the railing- nothing that would obstruct the view or change the architecture of the bridge (which I assume is the reason it has not been put up yet?) but just plain black netting about 10-12 feet down… anyone?

    Not that it seems to be helping, if it’s there at all.

  14. Thanks for this, Greg – great review. I also read the New Yorker article and was looking forward to the movie, didn’t realize it had come out this weekend. Sean and I are going to try to go see it tonight.

    Wendy

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