Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Endings--and Moral Intuitions.

What's a "satisfying" movie ending?

Of course, it depends on whom you talk to.
  • The happy ending is the most famous kind--but I think it's intriguing that almost every movie ending has some element of loss. Even Luke, who kind of saves the universe, loses his beloved mentor!
  • Sometimes Hollywood folk talk about "up" endings, "down" endings and "mixed" endings. (I think "up" and "down" are abbreviations for "upbeat" and "downbeat.")
One person's "perfect" ending is another's "wrong" ending.

But everyone can point to certain movies and say "for me, that is the perfect ending."

This ending can be described in various ways: "satisfying" is one.

The word "satisfying" is interesting. "Satisfying" what?

If we borrowed some Freudian terms, we could say that an ending satisfied the id, the superego, or the ego.
  • The id is the source of wishes, so the wishful happy ending satisfies the id: dreams come true, the protagonist gets what she wants.
  • The superego is our internal guardian of morality and rules, our sense of what's right and ideal. So when the guilty are punished and the bad rewarded, then the superego is satisfied.
  • If, by some neat trick, that also fulfills the protagonist's wishes, well that's some clever handiwork.
  • The ego is the compromiser: the ego negotiates the conflicting demands of the id and the superego. So the "mixed" ending which acknowledges reality and yet satisfies some of our wishes, that would be an ending satisfying to the ego.
This is a little different than up, down and mixed endings--because the moral dimension comes in.

The interaction between our moral intuitions and our cinematic pleasures is fascinating and under-discussed.

I blogged earlier about Norman Friedman's narrative theories. Friedman has the most complex moral vocabulary for thinking about how stories progress and end.

Friedman acknowledges that the audience has sheerly narrative expectations and also moral wishes.

On a sheerly narrative level, if a character buys a gun and practices shooting, we can expect he might fire at something besides a target.
  • If someone buys chocolates and flowers, we can expect he's going on a date.
But this is irrespective of whether these actions are good or bad, and whether we'd like them or not.

Expectations about events we'd like to see, Friedman calls "hopes," and expectations about events we don't want to see, he calls "fears."

And all these can be separate and complexly combined--like colors.
  • Thus we might watch a charming person prepare to do horrible things to someone stupid and doltish, and even if these things are wrong, we might not mind too much, and we might even enjoy it.
Thus the audience's pleasure in the progress of a story, including the ending, has layers of complexity in the moral judgments the audience makes and the kinds of pleasure they might like.

And my take on what Friedman is talking about would be: it's not about doing it the right way or getting the audience to feel x or y, it's often about asking the audience to explore their feelings.
The sophisticated writer says, in effect:
"So you like this person. Well how do you feel about him when he does this? Well how about now? Now do you like him? Okay, then he's punished--does that make you happy?"
Friedman's take on tragedy fits here.
  • A complex and admirable person makes a mistake that an ordinary person would not; he is then punished out of all proportion for that mistake, at great length, but rightly, so that we feel a mix of admiration, sympathy and despair.
  • Hamlet is smart and funny, but he's hung about his father's death in a way that goes out of all proportion. Then he all kinds of other terrible things happen on top of that--his father's death was murder, he has to set that right, his friends plot against him, his girlfriend goes nuts and kills herself--until he finally rights the wrongs but also dies trying.
Talk about complex moral intuitions!

Billy Wilder's films are among my favorites, and Wilder has a particular complex of moral intuitions and pleasures he favors.
  • Often a charming and admirable heel does stuff he shouldn't, and we both hope he'll get away with it and also enjoy seeing him punished. He then might well in the end get far more punishment than he deserves (Sunset Blvd.), or he might, through luck and pluck, finally get something good from life (The Apartment).
  • Thus, in Sunset Blvd., Joe Gillis is not a nice guy, but he's funny and charming. He suffers from lack of work, then he takes advantage of a batty old lady (not so nice), takes the old lady's money, becomes her boytoy, then steals his friend's girl. When he finally does something good and decides to leave the whole mess, the old broad kills him! He's punished just when he does something upright. (Ain't it always the way!)
To wrap up, stories can progress by playing upon the audience's wishes, hopes and fears for the audience, but also our moral intuitions about what's good and bad, upright and detestable, solid and lousy.

Good writers play these feelings like a violin--and they make "happy," "unhappy," "upbeat" and "downbeat" pretty much beside the point.

--E. R. O'Neill

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