The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautiful, most perfect large objects ever made by humans. I lived in San Francisco for five years, and I never got tired of seeing it, or crossing it, in a car or on foot. Every picture of the bridge is a postcard; it doesn’t have any bad angles. It spends half its time shrouded in fog, partially visible, and it’s just as beautiful then. It’s beautiful in the sunshine and in the rain, in daytime or night. And since it opened in 1937 about 1300 people have jumped off of it. (They stopped counting, officially, in 1995, as the number approached 1000, thinking some poor soul would want to become the 1000th. But the average is one jumper every 15 days. Very few of them survive.) It is literally the suicide capital of the world.
Twenty-four jumped in 2004, and most of them were captured on film by Eric Steel and his dedicated crew of camera operators, who were out there at all daylight hours when the bridge was visible at all, scanning back and forth with long lenses, trying to spot the jumpers. He was there under false pretenses, having told the Golden Gate National Recreation Area officials he was shooting a documentary about the beauty of the bridge. Actually, this was only a partial lie, as he did do that; this film shows the old orange lady in all her glory, in one of the most spectacular settings in the world. Steel explains that, if it became known that he was out there to film suicides, it might actually attract more jumpers because of the well-known notoriety effect … which, it seems to me, is one of the reasons some people decide to off themselves there in the first place. And of course the GGNRA people had to know that if a crew spent a year out there filming, they were certain to catch some jumpers. A bit more problematic to me is that Steel didn’t inform the friends and family he interviewed that he had footage of their loved ones’ last moments of life. That is the bulk of the film, the loved ones left behind trying to make sense of what their son/daughter/friend/sister had done. Most seemed resigned by now. It wasn’t like it was a surprise to any of them, these jumpers were people who had been talking about suicide for years, who had made attempts before, who were off their meds or just generally hopeless. A few of the interviewees seemed at peace with it. One friend was really pissed off.How could you do this to me? Steel claims that afterward, when he revealed his secret to these people, they were all okay with it. Who knows? I would have been okay with it, I think.
Many ethical questions arise, of course, and I find that I’m okay with most of them that concern the actual filming. The camera operators all had the bridge patrol and the Coast Guard on speed dial, and would call when they knew someone was about to jump, and several lives were saved that way. But this is a documentary that you could easily make several other documentaries about, and the DVD includes a short one, where the camera people talk about what it was like, how it affected them. As you would expect, none of them were untouched, and all said the things they saw would stay with them for the rest of their lives. In a way, I guess it was like being a combat photographer. You see awful things, you record them, and you get up the next day and do it again.
You could also compare it to a wildlife photographer, who sets up in a place that might be miserably uncomfortable for a long period of time in hopes of catching a certain animal behavior.
But in other ways it’s not like either of those things. It’s a lot tougher. Such as, you can’t sit there and hope for the behavior you’re looking for … and yet, how could you not? I mean, it is what you’re looking for, right? In a nature documentary you sit and sit and sit, and suddenly there’s two minutes of action with a group of lions pulling down a baby elephant, and it may make you sick, but the prime directive is Don’t Interfere. Let nature take its course. This weighed heavily on the camera operators. When humans are involved, you have to interfere, if you can.
There’s another tough one, too: When do you call? Somebody throws a leg over the rail. That’s when you definitely call the bridge patrol … but plenty of idiotic jokers throw a leg over the rail, some even get up and stand on it, so a friend can take a picture, yuk, yuk, yuk. How many times can you cry wolf? And before that, what are the signs? All the camera people talk about body language, but in the end they’re all in the dark. They follow somebody walking back and forth for half an hour, thumb poised on the speed dial, and then he simply walks away. And another guy who made three calls on his cell phone, laughing, suddenly set the phone down, takes off his sunglasses, and he’s over, he’s leaning, he’s falling, he’s gone. So quick no one on the bridge itself even saw it, and the Coast Guard never found the body … so did I really see what I thought I saw? Yeah, there it is, on camera.
A lot of your reaction to this film will depend on your attitude toward suicide. Most of us have come around to the idea of voluntary suicide for people in intractable pain. I’m sure in favor of it; I may need it myself, someday, and I’ll get it, with or without the help of a doctor. But what about intractable mental pain? Many believe that most suicides are cries for help. I don’t know. I know that plenty of attempts are gestures like that. Usually these people leave themselves an out, do it in a manner where they’re likely to be discovered and stopped. Lots of these bridge jumpers stand on the ledge below the rail for quite a while before being able to take the leap. Are they waiting for help? We even see one very dramatic rescue of a woman, pulled back from the brink by a photographer. And one survivor is interviewed, the only person who can report what it’s like to take that last step. He says that the instant it was too late to turn back, it came to him in a flash: “I don’t want to do this!!!!” The very definition of an oh, shit moment, huh? He twisted around, landed feet first, and broke his back. A good argument for trying to stop these people, right? But that was only his reaction. Watching some of these people go, in particular the last one who went off backwards and made absolutely no struggling movements … this dude was committed, I really believe that. And I say, let him go. There is such a thing as unendurable mental pain, and there is a right to end your life when you reach that point.
Over the years there have been many attempts to erect a suicide barrier on the bridge. I’ve always been against it, and after seeing this I still am, just as strongly as ever. It would be ugly, and I don’t think you fuck with perfect beauty. Most San Franciscans agree with me, so far. Let the poor battered souls, the ones with malfunctioning chemicals in their brains, the tired, the defeated … let them come, and for four seconds enjoy a moment of perfect release.