The Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles’s traditionally blue-collar South Bay connects San Pedro on the West side to Terminal Island and Long Beach on the East. The area is well-represented in motion pictures—Jimmy Dunn’s sailor Jimmy Harrigan and company run amok there during shore leave in Raoul Walsh’s 1933 Sailor’s Luck, while Fritz Lang’s 1952 Clash by Night transposed the action of Clifford Odets’s stage play from Staten Island to San Pedro.
As for the Vincent Thomas Bridge, the kicker of a recent Associated Press news item informs me that it “has been used in many Hollywood productions, among them Charlie’s Angels, Gone in 60 Seconds, and The Fast and the Furious.” The first time I drove over it, however, in the midst of a rather lurid orange and fuchsia sunset, the shock of recognition was immediate—“It’s the To Live and Die in L.A. bridge!”
The Vincent Thomas Bridge was in the news, of course, because this last Sunday, the 19th of August, at approximately 12:30 PM, director Tony Scott pulled his Toyota Prius over on the shoulder of the bridge, scaled an 8-to-10 foot fence—not bad for a 68 year-old—and jumped nearly 200 feet to his death. Like most people, I reacted with shock at this news. Tony Scott driving a Prius?
A bit of testimonial from brother, Ridley, about the early days of Tony’s career in moving pictures:
“Tony had wanted to do documentaries at first. I told him, ‘Don’t go to the BBC, come to me first.’ I knew that he had a fondness for cars, so I told him, ‘Come work with me and within a year you’ll have a Ferrari.’ And he did.”
“No more Tony Scott movies. Tragic day.” read a widely-circulated Tweet by Ron Howard in wake of the news of the plunge—not exactly “Now he belongs to the ages,” but these are diminished times. I am however inclined to think that, rather than something shared by multiplex consumers the world over, the tragedy is the private property of Scott’s family, specifically his 12-year old twin sons, now without a father.
A leaked item suggesting that Mr. Scott had inoperable brain cancer was quashed by his family—though rumors along those lines have continued to circulate—leaving only speculation as to his motives. Without wishing to disrespect the departed, it seems unlikely that the body of work that Tony Scott left behind is of the sort that can be parsed for a key to unlock the Scott Melancholia, that in this case the divide between public product and private pain is, pardon my saying, not easily bridged. The highly-visible lunch hour timing suggests that, anyways, Mr. Scott’s showman’s instincts were undiminished to the end.
This being big news, The Los Angeles Times wasted no time in publishing a tie-in piece, “Five Famous Directors Who Committed Suicide.” The round-up consisted of the usual suspects, including W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke, the easygoing, workmanlike director of four William Powell-Myrna Loy Thin Man movies who, at 53, cured health problems exacerbated by anti-medicine Christian Science bull-headedness with self-slaughter. Also on hand were Bell, Book and Candle’s Richard Quine (likewise ailing), and Brit expat James Whale, the Frankenstein director whose swimming pool drowning suggests the Hollywood ending of Sir Francis Hinsley in Evelyn Waugh’s 1948 “Anglo-American Tragedy,” The Loved One.
Per the dictates of the Biz, for every successful suicide production, there’s another flop. Busby Berkeley, who fucked his way down many a chorus line, never really cared for any woman but mother, and unsuccessfully attempted to follow hot on her heels to the grave in the late ‘40s. Philippe Garrel first failed to off himself after the collapse of revolutionary solidarity in May of ’68, then to overdose alongside his beloved Nico, and has since built a filmography out of his attendant regret. An acolyte of Robert Bresson in so much else, the screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, fond of spinning yarns about his many drunken gun-in-mouth nights, followed his master’s fascination with the self-destructive death-drive throughout his career. (For further thoughts on Bresson and suicide, about the only two things I do think about during the average week, I’ll direct you to Bombast #39.)
Schrader never filmed his proposed biopic of Hank Williams, Sr., whose attenuated career was nothing if not an extended suicide by means of self-neglect and self-abuse, but one of Schrader’s greatest directorial accomplishments was 1985’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, which starred the great Ken Ogata as Yukio Mishima, the Japanese novelist who elevated self-slaughter to the level of performance art when he committed ritual seppuku after a doomed-to-failure attempt to set off a political coup.
Mishima’s death was spectacular, but hardly exceptional. I don’t know if it is possible to overstate the extraordinary frequency of suicides among Japanese men of letters, having taken the likes of Osamu Dazai, Yasunari Kawabata, Takeo Arishima, and Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, whose short story, Rashomon, was famously adapted by Akira Kurosawa in 1950. Incidentally, Kurosawa’s brother, Heigo, was a popular benshi (narrator for silent films) who, when left unemployed by the coming of sound cinema, committed suicide in 1933 at age 27. A career later, Kurosawa attempted to follow suit by slitting his wrists and throat in 1971, but he survived the attempt. Jūzō Itami was not so lucky (unlucky?), although still today many will tell you that he was assisted in his dive off of a Tokyo office building by the same yakuza who were incensed enough by Itami’s depiction of them in his 1992 satire Minbo no Onna to slash and scar the director’s face.
In these United States, Ernest Hemingway is a strong contender for our greatest literary suicide. Prone throughout his life to depressive episodes, Hemingway wrote to John Dos Passos describing one: “I felt that gigantic bloody emptiness and nothingness. Like couldn’t ever fuck, fight, write, and was all for death.” The hard fact is that few people excel in their ability to do any of the abovementioned activities after a certain age, and Hemingway was looking at a downhill prospect in 1961. Another diagnosis of Hemingway’s fatal decision, however, comes in this apocryphal quote from James Jones: “The problem with Papa was he always wanted to suck a cock. But when he found the one that fit, it had a double barrel.”
In matters of death imitating art—and following stage direction—it is difficult to top the Russian Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky for style points. Mayakovsky shot himself in 1930 using a prop pistol he’d kept after the 1919 filming of a movie he starred in called Nye dlya Deneg Radivshishya (“Not Born for Money”). The film was based on the 1909 novel Martin Eden, whose eponymous hero commits suicide; the book was written by Jack London, who very possibly may have as well. London, by the way, enjoyed unparalleled fame in Russia in the period immediately before and after the Revolution; here is Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin, in the novel of the same name, unsuccessfully looking for a copy of Martin Eden: “Strange! The vicissitudes of celebrity! In Russia, I remember, everybody—little children, full-grown people, doctors, advocates—everybody read and re-read him. This is not his best book but O.K., O.K., I will take it.” (Interestingly, a visit to Mayakovsky’s imdb entry availed me of the following tidbit: “Vladimir Mayakovsky was the leading Russian Futurist poet of the 20th century who created an entirely new form of Russian poetry loosely resembling such modern day rappers as Eminem and Snoop Dogg.”)
Ahem. If any figure in the film world devised a flamboyant exit that might rival those of Mishima and Mayakovsky, it would certainly be Jean Eustache. Eustache’s claim on cinema history comes in the form of his great 1973 self-exorcism The Mother and the Whore—a film whose pitiless analysis of a triangular relationship in which Eustache was involved prompted the suicide of the real-life analogue of Bernadette Lafont’s “Mother” character, one Catherine Garnier.
“Jump, Narcissus,” reads a piece of bathroom graffiti spied in the film by Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character, the director’s alter-ego, and in due time the Eustache would follow the spirit of that advice. Prematurely middle-aged through a vampiric schedule of dissipation, he put a bullet through his heart on November 5, 1981, while a retrospective of his films ran at IDHEC in Paris.
Eustache had attempted suicide as early as 1957, evidently to escape military service in Algeria, and as a result spent a year in a psychiatric hospital. Following his one great success, he’d gained a reputation as a chronic gambler, enemy of critics, drunkard, and all-around flamboyant wreck. ‘Jack Daniels’ is, tellingly, the credited technical adviser on Mother; in Wim Wenders’s The American Friend, Eustache’s bit part was, naturally, ‘The Man at the Bar.’ In his last months, Eustache had been resting a leg wrecked by a fall in Greece (a suicide attempt or an accident, depending on who you believe) and had become a recluse. The critic Alain Philippon refers to recollections of the director at this time as a secluded, “Mabusian” figure, holed up in his apartment on Run Nollet with his then-state-of-the-art VCR. The writer and filmmaker Jean-Andre Fieschi would discover Eustache’s body; a note on the door allegedly read: “Knock loudly to wake the dead.”
Incidentally, the abovementioned Philippon, a Cahiers du cinema critic who authored the only extant book-length study of Eustache, committed suicide in 1998. A review of Philippon’s collected writings by Olivier Seguret in Liberation some years later quotes none other than Garrel: “The desire for cinema returns us, in final analysis, to stories about fear of the dark, secrets behind the door, pacts in closets, raids on obscure caves…” If we may imagine that Philippon, by following his favorite filmmaker in journeying beyond the door, fell victim to something like a Eustache Curse, I accordingly encourage all of my detractors to write BFI and urge them to accept my proposed BFI Classics volume about Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore so that, hopefully, they won’t have to read me any longer.
One regular reader recently noted a perhaps unhealthy obsession with the departed in this column, which admittedly sometimes reads like a cinephile’s obituary page. I will heretofore try to remember Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that “the Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead,” and dwell no more in gloom. Au revoir, Tony! Strange, the vicissitudes of celebrity!