On The Ups And Downs Of Hollywood's Parting Shots

All that ends in movies does not necessarily end well. Narrative films must, by definition, have an ending (nonnarrative films don't— they just end), and yet endings remain the ultimate gauntlet for visual storytellers. Nothing else

is as contentious, or crucial, or susceptible to meltdown. Endings always have the potential of orgasm, death, jackpot, or at least the second shoe dramatically falling, but they're very rarely as electrifying as beginnings, just as they aren't in love affairs or meals. If every narrative is a question, a propulsive dilemma whose own fluid drama intends to be entrancing in and of itself and for the length of its journey, then the ending is its answer, the final puzzle piece, the end of the line without which the train passage, however provocative, would have been meaningless. Every ending represents a restless pact a movie makes with its audience, promising that our time spent in the darkness is spent getting somewhere worthwhile. (Even if an ending is not a narrative's raison d'être, it should feel as if it is.) Needless to say, this unspoken pact isn't worth the paper it isn't printed on, and film narratives are often so complex and ambiguous, and just as often so banal and suppliant, that vital conclusions are as rare as two-pound pearls.

How should a movie end? With an ironic face-slap, a heartwarming wrap-up, a dangling anti-ending, a preposterous triumph, an existential retreat into shadows, a throat-clogging shock, a winking suggestion of a sequel, a the-end-or-is-it rally cry, a hug, a chuckle, a desolate emptiness? It depends on your perspective. A kind of temporal consciousness we enthusiastically share in, a movie's experience conditions us as it unspools to expect the ending it seems destined for, and the first of a million options is whether to satisfy that conditioning or betray it. (Then there's always the satisfying betrayal and the betraying satisfaction, and so on. How would you categorize the climax of, say, Thelma & Louise?) An ending can justify a film's sallow ordinariness, or booby-trap its achievements. It can also stand alone, like the pioneering micromovie, borrowed by Martin Scorsese for GoodFellas, that winds up 1903's The Great Train Robbery, in which one of the dead bandits reappears out of the story's context and shoots the viewer down in cold blood.

Thelma & Louise's cliff-hanger
Mark Gagnon
Thelma & Louise's cliff-hanger

In a sense, inevitable as they are, endings are almost always miscarriages of narrative pleasure, concluding and neatly labeling what has been up to that point mysterious, realistic, chaotic, or seductive. Consider how many evocative horror films have been squandered on explanatory climaxes. What's more, in the Spielberg epoch when movie stories are forced to snowball like stock values toward their climaxes, the dubious elation of the finale rarely measures up. It could be said that a filmmaker's choice of ending indicates a narrative philosophy— Spielberg and Capra are fascistic idealists, Hitchcock and Lang are Kierkegaardian dread-and-freedom nihilists, Antonioni is an agnostic libertarian, Peckinpah a Darwinian individualist. But the principles of resolution often override an auteur's instincts, and an ending is often the least original or interesting aspect of a film; everyone, I'm sure, has a mental docket of endings that have failed their films. (Mine: M, The Scarlet Empress, Mouchette, Portrait of Jennie, Eraserhead, Diner, The Right Stuff, etc., and that's not including the infamous, tacked-on studio endings of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Magnificent Ambersons, Detour, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.) On top of that, endings have little half-life; see them once, and whatever beguiling ferocity they first had is all but gone.

Critics, like the rest of humanity, cannot readily discuss movie endings without becoming pariahs; good or bad, a movie climax is ours to discover after investing ourselves in the story's hopes and fears, and watching the film after the ending has been disclosed is like watching a taped ballgame after someone has told you the final score. American movies are spoilt by revealed endings in a way that is unique; consider how unaffected the more distinctively native French, Japanese, and Russian films (say, Pierrot le Fou, Tokyo Story, and Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) would be by having their conclusions divulged. America is, after all, a culture obsessed with profit, results, and destination, and you can tell by our film endings that we value the experience of movie watching only insofar as it propels us in a coherent and efficient manner toward a better world, a fateful comeuppance, or an everlasting embrace.

Nothing in American movies is quite as conservative as their endings, but American endings haven't always been the same, and the blood, sweat, and tears of a movie ending in this country are prefigured as much by the thrust of the film's story as they are by the cultural climate of that movie's moment. You'd be more or less correct in assuming that cinematic narrative was from its beginnings saturated in what Henry James called "that time-honoured bread-sauce of the happy ending," having inherited Victorian sensibilities directly from theater, vaudeville, and fiction. But Victorian aesthetics, down to their Elizabethan ancestral line, were too dramatic, too luridly moralistic to be satisfied with climactic anodynes. (That'd be more of a Reagan-era phenomenon.) Early moviegoing was for many an alternative to church, and so, pandering to middle-class guilt even before an American middle class properly coalesced, moviemakers conveniently strived to replicate the crash-and-burn scenarios of the Gospels. Sermon-heavy or not, tragic endings were still part of the narrative vocabulary deep into the '40s; it's startling to realize now how many popular movies of the era (Dark Victory, Camille, Captains Courageous, The Public Enemy, Waterloo Bridge, Angels With Dirty Faces, etc.) ended with the hero or heroine's gasping last exit. (Biopics, like adapted classics, are exempt from consideration, ending as they often do with predetermined death scenes. Still, when else but in the '30s did biopic subjects— Louis Pasteur, Émile Zola, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, etc.— commonly live on happily after the credits roll?) Such was the blithe confluence of melancholy and uplift that a climactic death could betoken a happy ending (Peter Ibbetson, Wuthering Heights) and a peaceful resolution could be read as a downer (Shanghai Express, These Three).

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