The Bridge is one of the most controversial, and disturbing films of the past decade. A documentary by Eric Steel that investigates the phenomenon of suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge, dramatically capturing a number of suicides on film. The link below includes the entire film, a service which the director offered as a public service—also presumably an effort to combat accusations of exploitation.
When action director Tony Scott leaped to his death this Sunday from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro at 68, folks speculated (wrongly) that he must have had terminal brain cancer. Some writers took the bizarre approach of suggesting some link between Scott and the Vincent Thomas Bridge itself.
At issue, and more of interest, to me is what impact this story will have on suicide rates.
This 2011 Freakonomics podcast about suicide is remarkably illuminating, dispassionate look at the subject of suicide: http://www.freakonomics.com/2011/08/31/new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-the-suicide-paradox/
It is worth listening to in its entirety—as it is filled with amazing facts about suicide—including this warning about copycats:
COLE:The theory goes that whenever the media runs with a big sensational suicide story, especially if the victim is famous, you can expect a bump in suicide rates. Phillips and company gathered 20 years of suicide data, 1948 to 1967, from The National Center for Health Statistics. Then they combed through back issues of three major newspapers and honed in on front-page suicide reports: the actress Carole Landis. Dan Burros who ran the KKK in New York. Uh... one of the most famous stars in Hollywood history.
[NEWS ANCHOR: One of the most famous stars in Hollywood history is dead at 36. Marilyn Monroe was found dead in bed. ...]
COLE: Of course, this was back before all of the conspiracy theories about how she died. Anyway, in 27 out of 33 cases like this: suicide rates were higher than expected for about two months following the story. So for example, Marilyn Monroe died on August 5, 1962. For the rest of that August, U.S. Suicide rates were 10 percent higher than normal.
The following is the most interesting part of the suicide dilemma: media coverage of suicides inspires copycats:
COLE: In 1983 there was just one jumper in the Viennese subway and that person lived. The next year there were seven suicides by subway in Vienna. And the big Austrian newspapers ran graphic stories about them. 1985, 13 jumpers, 10 deaths, more splashy articles. At the peak, in 1987, there were 11 successful suicide attempts in the Viennese subway and 11 unsuccessful. Though granted, three of those were the same guy. Finally, the Austrian Association of Suicide Prevention told the press to tone it down. It issued a whole series of recommendations: don’t include the word “suicide” in the headline. Don’t print pictures of grieving relatives... Amazingly, the Austrian media listened. The stories were less graphic and they stopped running so many of them.
NIEDERKROTENTHALER: And at the same time the number of suicides and suicide attempts on the Viennese subway decreased by nearly 80%. And, and this is really stunning, the numbers remained relatively low in all the years up until today.
So, the dilemma facing the media is this: how do you cover a story such as this with a degree of moral responsibility?
Which brings me back to The Bridge.
Whether one finds the film morally bankrupt, or a a valuable educational look at the subject of suicide there is little doubt that the film affects viewers with the same impact as Vienna's sensational news coverage, or the publication of Goethe's “The Sorrows of Young Werther."
The first thing that occurred to me when I heard of Scott's death was an episode of "The Good Wife," (Season 3, Episode 16 "After the Fall", the remarkable television series he and brother Ridley produce under their "Scott Free" banner.
Here's the program description from Allison Keene's "Fresh Loaf Televangelist Recap":
I'll start with the Case of the Week, which was overshadowed by much of the other drama last night but still held its own as both comic relief and a dark commentary on art (a weird but interesting juxtaposition). The suicide documentary (whose directer you may recognize as Rudy from "Dexter") is based on a real video call[ed] Golden Gate (sic), which documented suicides off of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Though I haven't personally seen the film, the verdict from those who have seems to be a resounding "that was the most disturbing thing I've ever witnessed." Does it nearly qualify as a snuff film? Lockhart Gardner was not taking the position of whether the films should exist, but rather proving that they did not cause additional suicides, and whether the director was culpable in the death of his subject.
The case fishtailed around until an ending that seemed to put blame on the unfortunate shoulders of the grieving parents who had been a little too stern with their financial punishment for their daughter breaking her promise to keep up a certain GPA. It was unfair and also unexplored - once the firm could point the finger away from their client and get a settlement that required a mere disclaimer and a share in profits to a prevention group, it didn't matter who was harmed from the fallout (or that the telephone at the bridge didn't work and that it takes the police three-quarters of an hour to respond). It's something that Emily Nussbaum brought up in her article - "The Good Wife" is never black and white. Lockhart Gardner is not an altruistic law firm fighting for good. It's a law firm fighting for wins. The ethics aren't always paramount....
We can deduce from this episode of the television that Scott himself was (at the very least) familiar with the film The Bridge. That Scott chose to end his life by leaping from a bridge, irrespective of his motivation, suggests that the documentary (at the very least) influenced his decision.
What remains to be seen is whether, after so much media coverage, we'll see the expected bump in suicide rates as predicted by Dubner and Levitt on the Freakonomics podcast.
Irrespective of what one thinks of the artistic merits of Scott's films—NPR's "All Things Considered" was turned down by multiple critics before Entertainment Weekly senior editor Thom Geier agreed to comment on air about his work—there's no doubt that his work made a significant cultural impact.
Here's one of the best tributes to Scott's Top Gun, a free association monologue from the film Sleep With Me in which Quentin Tarrantino, whose script Scott would direct in True Romance, discusses the film's gay subtext:
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