Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The New Non-Ending Ending

How times change.

Time was, Hollywood movie endings wrapped up pretty much everything pretty neatly.  We had an Ending.
  • The guy got the girl.
  • The bad guys were punished.
  • The good were rewarded and the guilty paid a price.
  • Noble characters erred, sacrificed, suffered and were rewarded.
But I think ambiguous or open-ended endings, even partially open-ended, started appearing in the 1950's--a kind of Weak Ending or Non-Ending.

Certainly Italian neorealism played a role, as those films were much admired for their simpler narrative style with weaker closer.
  • The Bicycle Thief is never found, but a father and son have grown closer and learned how hard life is.
  • Cabiria's problems are not solved, but we feel she will cope, come what may.
  • A little something has happened.
  • Something has been disclosed--exposed through action, reflection, suffering.
  • And life goes on.
Closure in literary and cinematic terms refers to the feeling of resolution, the effect that is created in the reader or audience that the work has ended, that something has changed, some problem has been resolved, something has, in a word, happened.

In the '60's and '70's as even mainstream American cinema grew more and more experimental (largely influenced by European cinema), films might seem to just stop.   It was hard to tell if the movie was over or if the projectionist lost the last reel.  

Nowadays, a weakening of the closure of the movie's ending is more and more visible--but not for avant-garde reasons.

Blame sequels.

It probably all started with John Carpenter's Halloween when Michael Myers got up and started killing again despite having a knitting needle--or was it a coat hanger?--in the eye.

Then Myers was thrown out a window and lay dead.  Until his body vanished--readying us for a sequel.

Maybe John Carpenter didn't have a sequel in mind--just the sense that stories begin and end, but evil is eternal and never dies.

In any case, the Age of the Non-Ending Ending was upon us.

Movies are now likely to come in trilogies, or trio's of trilogies, for strictly commercial rather than artistic reasons.

So audiences are accustomed to Non-Ending Endings--since the first two films need to end but not to End.  

But what's happened is:  movies with full-stop closure--everything wrapped up, all problems solved--now seem false.

So writers with artistic tendencies have reasons to diminish the effect of closure to a minimum:  enough so the audience knows the movie is over, but not so much as to be too movie-ish and old-fashioned.

You can see this in High Fidelity.  The protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend, suffers a lot, has some adventures, finally gets together with her again, when suddenly--boom--he wonders if he should really have a happy ending!  

It's the character wondering this--but it's really the writer, too.

So the protagonist spends another 10 or 15 minutes noodling around, dilating, until, yes, he can accept that, in a sense, the movie is over.  He doesn't say "can this really be how the movie ends?" but that's what it amounts to.

Even earlier, in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the big question was:  will the protagonist finally marry his beloved, when all around are either getting married or dying.  He doesn't--if memory serves--but from the photographs that roll under the credits, we see a long, long relationship, so we feel:  "no, they aren't 'married,' but for all intents and purposes, they're married."

It's little wonder these endings concern relationships, since what academics call "the formation of the heterosexual couple" has been a key mechanism (along with punishment and the resolution of narrative problems) for enforcing or creating closure since the silent era.  (Think:  boy gets girl.)

But The Reader--a four-hanky weepie posing as an art film--struck me as going to a new extreme.  Credit super-smart playwright-craftsman David Hare, who adapted the sensationalistic much-discussed novel.

A young man experiences a lengthy sexual dalliance/initiation at the hands of a cranky, odd older woman.  She disappears from his life, leaving him Irreparably Scarred.  She turns up again later--accused of a Terrible Crime.  (The capital letters belong to the movie, not to me.)  

He anguishes over helping her, fails to do so.  Then years later, he takes an opportunity to try to help her.  This would seem to be the resolution.  He's overcome being hurt and become capable of actively putting himself on the line to help another.

But it's not.  He helps the woman--but he stops short.  So there's a Partial Ending.

Now another crisis appears, and again the protagonist can help the woman or not.  He delays--a classic movie tactic, because without delays movies would last about ten minutes.  So there's a Delayed Ending.  Ultimately (or not quite ultimately) he decides to help her.  

So this is the ending.  Now he's gotten over the hurt and her ignoble status.  He can reach out to another human being.

But for various reasons, his actions are not enough, and he suffers some more!  What we had was another Partial Ending.  

The movie cannot stop raising false hopes of a resolution, dashing those hopes, then inflicting yet more suffering.  It's just that kind of a movie.

The protagonist tries to achieve forgiveness from one person, but that doesn't work.  So an Abortive Ending.

Then finally, the protagonist takes a trip to a Special Place with a Loved One, and he recounts the whole story--and it's recounting the whole story which, very self-consciously for the film, becomes the resolution:  the Ultimate Ending.  The film's telling of the story is itself the resolution to the problem recounted in the film.  

This ending's tricky and nice, but if I'm right, self-consciousness like this means:  the filmmakers are very self-aware about trying to solve a problem and to offer that solution to others.  "Here," they are in effect saying, "this is how you should end a movie."  

The Reader ending with someone telling the story of The Reader is exactly like Four Weddings and a Funeral or High Fidelity dilating over the question of whether a couple should Finally Come Together:  it's these movies' way of saying 'this is how endings need to work.'

In a sense, this is still too pat:  the problem has been solved, just with lots of delays.

But False Endings, Would-Be Endings, Near-Endings, and More Problems are all parts of the New Non-Ending Ending.

Which seems to be with us to stay--for a while.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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