“I think of the smoke, the cars and clouds, the quiet, the river, often…”
—Leonard Gontarek, “Thirty-Seven Photos from the Bridge”
I don’t often enter contests or film festivals. I’m happy to plug away working on short documentaries and experimenting with new ways to create filmpoems. But I was alerted to the Big Bridges exhibition by my weekly Sunday afternoon Moving Poems digital digest, and at the time I was in Florida. According to the submission guidelines, there was about a month to submit an entirely new piece, never seen online before, to address the nature of our deficient bridges and infrastructure. I had a personal connection to the subject matter, and the Motionpoems and Weisman Art Museum (WAM) collaboration with artists, poets, architects, engineers and filmmakers piqued my interest. There was also a healthy cash prize associated. I thought, why not?
With little time to spare, I started looking for bridges in Naples, Florida, where most were new, though I found some good shadows and water movement to shoot during my time there. However, the main reason I wanted to work on the project was because a bridge within walking distance from my home is noticeably crumbling. In fact, living at the New Jersey shore, I’ve seen quite a few old bridges in dire need of replacement, damaged by years of rampaging weather and salt water.
As citizens we often take our bridge and infrastructure needs for granted. In the tri-state New York metro area there are many structurally deficient bridges, as we are in a major hub where consumer products are transported through the Interstate 95 corridor, on rail and by ship. The daily traffic on our roads and bridges is mind-boggling. My local bridge, built in 1939, is over 75 years old. It connects several small communities, and according to Transport for America, 13,618 cars travel over it every day. Surely when it was designed, engineers didn’t anticipate that type of usage and impact. The bridge makes a beautiful arc through the widest part of the river and gracefully curves between several historical homes. It has a movable deck (span) controlled by US Coast Guard employees which allows sailboats and larger yachts to pass.
I worry every time I drive over the bridge. It has been closed off and on over the past five years and is clearly structurally deficient, as the New Jersey Department of Transportation records and news articles document. What I observed and captured under the bridge is consistent with data and reports. According to a bridge repair log from 2008 to 2010, the repair costs were $1.3 million, and every year they’ve been steadily repairing the bridge, which has probably added up to between five and ten million dollars. A local newspaper recently reported a rough cost estimate of replacement at over $100 million. The county’s entire budget is $488 million. Additionally, there are citizens who are arguing for the same exact type of bridge and don’t want a taller one, and New Jersey has a Transportation Trust Fund that is basically bankrupt. This means that money needs to come from the federal government with approval from Congress. I’m afraid either these bridges will be closed altogether causing traffic havoc, or they will fail and lives will be lost. Solutions seem to be in short supply.
The good news is that the Big Bridges exhibition takes on an ambitious and difficult conversation that should be in the forefront of our local and national concerns. The Weisman Art Museum and Motionpoems collaboration began with a poetry contest judged by Poetry Society of America Executive Director, Alice Quinn. There were five overall winners with three chosen for filmmaker adaptation, including Ann Hudson’s “Elegy with a Train in It,” Jessica Jacobs’ “Bicycle Love Poem” and Leonard Gontarek’s “Thirty-Seven Photos from the Bridge.” Instead of reading the winning poems first, I decided the project should begin with my journey to the bridges and then match a winning poem with what I observed and documented. I shot the bridges as if they were people: intimately and from every vantage point except using aerial footage. (Patrick Siegrist, one of the filmpoetry judges, shot incredible drone footage for the Weisman/Target Studio Collaboration Exhibit, Big Bridges: An Aerial Tour.)
Shooting over several weeks, I went into stealth mode to document every detail of four bridges, and it wasn’t until I went out to film that I fully appreciated the beauty and wide span of the bridge near my home. In the final edit I tossed out all pedestrians and used additional footage shot in Paris and Belgium a few years ago. Nearly all my bridges were filmed from below where I found them to be dark and eerie with the sounds of cars above whizzing and droning by on their way to myriad destinations.
I had an unusual moment when shooting a newer bridge. While staring through the viewfinder, I was surprised to serendipitously film two small packages tossed off the side of the bridge, where one made its way to me at the bank below. As it came closer I noticed it was a plastic-wrapped WAWA hamburger carton. At the time I thought the carefully wrapped carton seemed odd because if someone is going to toss garbage, it would seem to have been already eaten and messy. But, I didn’t take it out of the water to inspect it. That very scene still stays fresh in my mind. The experience resonated with Leonard Gontarek’s poem: “…There is a lot of isolation and silence in our world. Birds land nowhere. Say that. Code it in. Let it play…” I specifically placed a plop-sound effect to punctuate what I felt Gontarek was alluding to.
“A little darkness and violet sticks to the river…” I still wonder what was inside that package, but metaphorically the scene represents the seedy and mysterious side of life—the underbelly—which may serve as a safe haven from harsh societal conditions. Possibly a dry place in the rain for homeless, or youth looking for a secret hiding space for drinking or drugs and to get away from everyday life. While bridges are connectors between two shores, often we have blinders on by not considering what else goes on underneath those dark, dank and lonely places. Confronting these ideas brings a deeper level of meaning, not just as structural failings, but overall societal deficiencies which go denied and disregarded. I chose a repetitious clip of a vibrant highlighted arc to depict a flash of this idea—the spirit of the ‘other’ we often don’t let ourselves see.
The submission guidelines stated that filmmakers had the option to rename the poem with the number of stanzas used, and my film is entitled Fourteen Photos from the Bridge. The film used nearly all non-sync sound with a music mix, and for narration, the voice of poet (and Motionpoems director) Todd Boss, whose intonation, weight and measure became important to emote the overall audio/visual integration.
I was surprised and elated in early September when I heard from Patrick Siegrist, WAM Artist in Residence, with the news about my winning submission. I was flown to Minneapolis, all expenses paid by the museum, for a September 30th exhibition screening date. Myself and another winning filmmaker, Sam Hoiland, and two runners-up were hosted in a WAM gallery with public networking after the screening. Craig Amundsen, Target Studio Director and Public Art Curator at WAM stated they received hundreds of submissions, and introduced Todd Boss of Motionpoems and Patrick Siegrist of City Visions, who each spoke briefly to explain the idea behind the Big Bridges poetry and film contest and exhibition.
It was an honor and a privilege to have my filmpoetry hosted at the magnificent Weisman Art Museum, designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry on the banks of the Mississippi River alongside such 20th-century artists as Marsden Hartley, Charles Biederman, Georgia O’Keefe and Louise Nevelson. I’m grateful to the judges, WAM staff, Motionpoems, the artists, poets and guests who I met during the evening and will forever hold the memory of my time in Minneapolis for the Big Bridges exhibition close to my heart. While I started out saying I tend not to enter contests or film festivals, I have to admit, it’s a great opportunity to collaborate and learn about those who share the same ideals and values about society, culture and the making of art and poetry, all in an effort to find new ways for collective dialogue and ultimately solutions to our nation’s most important problems.