Wednesday, July 04, 2007

About Suffering They Were Right, The Old Masters

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus by Pieter Brueghel
Icarus's legs are just barely showing. They are in the bottom half of the painting, sticking up out of the water .
The Golden Gate Bridge

On the evening of July 2, I watched a powerful film, The Bridge. It is a documentary about the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge and its allure to people contemplating suicide. The film, made by Eric Steel, was inspired by a 2003 New Yorker article called "Jumpers" by Tad Friend.

The most disturbing , and the most controversial, aspect of the film is that you witness actual suicides as they take place. Steel was able to capture nearly all the suicides that took place in 2004 by setting up cameras and letting them run. Steel then interviewed friends and family members of people who jumped. What emerges is a story about intense pain and desperation, people who felt they were somehow on the outside of life. What also emerges is a story about the rest of us who really don't want to know about such things because they bring us pain.

I haven't been able to shake the memory of the film and several ideas keep rising to the surface as being important to me. One idea concerns the creative process, a topic I've written about on the blog before. But as I sit here, trying to write this entry, I find that I can't yet be dispassionate enough to write what I want and need to write about creativity. I'm still haunted by the images in the film, the people, many of them young, who jumped from that bridge. I can't shake the thought that I witnessed their last act. One of them was a young man named Gene. I keep seeing him in my mind's eye, walking up and down the railing, his long black hair flying in the wind, waiting, searching, for the right moment to jump.

This, of course, is Eric Steel's intent: I'm not supposed to be able to shake the images. I'm supposed to be disturbed.

Watching, I thought of W.H. Auden's poem:

Musee des Beaux Arts W.H. Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters; how well, they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening

a window or just walking dully along;

How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.


Of course Steel wants me to think of Auden's poem. The imagery is all there. The suggestion is there several times that suffering takes place all around us. Yet we don't notice because we have "somewhere to get to." We sail "calmly on."

After watching the film, I ran across this comment online by Graham Leggat: The heartrending truths in Auden and Brueghel's works—that people suffer largely unnoticed while the rest of the world goes about its business—are brought literally and painfully home in Eric Steel's The Bridge, a documentary exploration of the mythic beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, the most popular suicide destination in the world, and the unfortunate souls drawn by its siren call.

So, it is very clear, Auden's poem is at the heart of The Bridge.

I just can't yet write about this film in the way I would like. I like the film very much, but there's much to digest, so I'll be thinking on it a while.


ggw07 said...

Landscape With The Fall of Icarus
by William Carlos Williams

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

Another version!

ggw07 said...

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

But we must remember- the other side of the coin! Gretchen

GreenishLady said...

It must be a hard thing to watch that, and to know you have seen the last moments of those people. I admire your effort to process it and say something about it.

emmapeelDallas said...


I have wanted to see that film since I accidentally turned to an interview with the producer on talk radio as I drove to work one morning this spring. For 3 years, I volunteered as a hotline counselor at the Suicide & Crisis Center here in Dallas, and as part of my training to do that, I learned a little about Edwin Shneidman, who studied people who'd survived jumping off the Golden Gate bridge in the 1950's and 60's. It seems impossible that anyone could survive, but some do. Shneidman asked each of them the same question: what were they thinking on the way down, and all of them said the same thing, that they wished they were still on the rail. The producer of the movie interviewed a survivor by phone, and I got goosebumps when that young man, who is bipolar, said exactly said the same thing: that he wished he were still on the rail. I've wanted to see the movie since I heard about it, but so far, I can't find it in Dallas. Most people want to look away from suffering, not to help...helping is messy, always, but life is messy and I try to remember that. I'll look forward to reading more of what you think about this film.


Erin said...

This film sounds like something that would haunt me. I'm interested in it, but I'm afraid the images would stick with me forever. Which I guess is the point. Theresa, I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this.

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken


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