Suitably, the ka-boom endings of the '60s and '70s are our wildest (heading the list: Planet of the Apes, Night of the Living Dead, Bonnie & Clyde, Chinatown, Sorcerer, Martin, The Conversation, Wise Blood). Like the New Wavers, American filmmakers were revving on a chaotic naturalism that demanded the obliteration of golden-age happy/sad endings, just as neither Vietnam nor the Nixon administration nor the Civil Rights movement had a discernibly tidy climax in store for them. The great, searching American anti-ending had its Elvis year in 1974, and those despairing cliff-hangers look even more astonishing today, particularly when you gaze at them over the stagnant moat of the '80s, when the revolutionary, expanded-brainpan cast of '70s film receded into reactionary juvenilia.
For the Reagan '80s and to a large degree the Clinton '90s are distinguished by an atavistic retreat into the happy endings, if not quite the rampant crucifixions, of the '50s. Popular movies no longer dare depress moviegoers laying out six or eight or 10 dollars just to get in the door; uplift, for some reason, is at an even higher premium in the last 15 years than it was during the Depression. Even the sinking of the Titanic, which is by most lights a rather unhappy ending, has been given a wax coating of romantic dross. The hostile, haunted grit of '40s noir is certainly beyond us. Case in point: the otherwise mature and cruel remake of Kiss of Death, which spinelessly trades the climactic shot-in-the-back sacrifice of Victor Mature for David Caruso Hardy Boyishly tape- recording the corrupt DA. A few terminal-ward movies notwithstanding, contemporary movies are as phobic about death as children's books, and most moneymakers, from Star Wars to Lethal Weapon 4, end victoriously by granting, genielike, their characters every wish and by attempting to feed us untroubled joy.
One suspects that the millennium, the largest ending in our lifetime, will despite being the harbinger of so much bad news bring only the maniacal rictus of idealized goodness in Hollywood. Isn't that what movies are for? We know better, whether we like it or not, and have known at least since 1946, when down-and-out conman Tyrone Power glowered up at the carny offering him work as a geek and hissed, "Mister, I was made for it." Knowing the truth and wanting it to linger in our skulls on our way out of the theater are related impulses barely on speaking terms. Was the 20th century our Age of Contrived Uplift, or is it a curse cinema will take to its grave?
One of five articles in our Film supplement.
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