There's an old army joke my parents used to tell me.
A private wanders around the base picking up scraps of paper.
Each time he picks up a scrap of paper, he examines it, says "That's not it," and throws it back down.
- He picks up a bit of old newspaer. "That's not it."
- He picks up a Hershey's wrapper. "That's not it."
- He picks up a mislaid love letter. "That's not it."
People notice this odd behavior, send the private to the company shrink, and the private is determined to be unfit for active duty.
They give the private his discharge, and when he gets the piece of paper, he looks at it and shouts "That's it!"
This is a good pattern to bear in mind when thinking about movie endings.
Endings: Content vs. Form
Lots of ink has been spilled about how to end a movie. Mixed endings are often better than happy endings, as happy endings smack of wish-fulfillment. A good ending is often like that line from the old Rolling Stones song:
You can't always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, you might find
You get what you need.
But such advice concerns the content of the ending, rather than the form. And from the perspective of craft, it is often better to worry about the 'how' rather than the 'what.'
One way of describing the form of the ending is: a good ending arranges all the earlier pieces in the 'right' order. A movie's elements in their final configuration can be describe as a "matrix."
A Movie's Matrix
The word "matrix" has many meanings. A matrix can be an origin, original, template, founding pattern, frame, or factor providing binding unity. Combining these with the specifically mathematical sense, we can think of a matrix as specific elements in a specific configuration.
A matrix is a kind of formula. But the important thing about the formula is not how it comes from somewhere else--old stories, another movie, a genre--but rather how the matrix structures the work itself as a series of configurations terminating in the 'best' configuration. The matrix is the key that provides internal structure. The matrix may be borrowed, but the way it's implemented gives the movie structure and cohesion, and it's the implementation that's a key part of the writer's craft.
So in the joke about the private, the matrix is the soldier holding the 'right' piece of paper.
Everything else relates clearly and strongly to this matrix--and so builds up to it, by way of contrast. The matrix is the 'right' configuration, and the movement of the work--the joke or story or novel or movie--is a kind of permutation or perambulation through the wrong configurations of the same elements until finally the 'right' one is reached.
Indeed, this punch line packs two punches: the moment the soldier finds what he needs is also the moment we find why the soldier acts as he does. The matrix of the joke is also the matrix of the soldier's life.
The Punchline and the Matrix
In a joke the punchline is usually the matrix. But a movie is longer, and the matrix may never be articulated as a line in the script--though it sometimes is.
In The Shop Around the Corner the matrix does become a punchline.
Jimmy Stewart works and fights with Margaret Sullavan, but the two are secretly pen pals--and in love. When Stewart is going to meet his epistolary girlfriend for the first time, a friend who knows the Sullavan character comes along and takes a peek when Jimmy Stewart is too frightened to get his 'first look' at his beloved pen pal.
Stewart: Can you see her?
Stewart: Is she pretty?
friend: Very pretty...She has a little of the coloring of [the Sullavan character].
Stewart: This is a fine time to talk about [her].
friend: If you don't like [the Sullavan character], you won't like this girl.
Indeed, when I saw a screening of the reworked version You've Got Mail, they re-used this line, this was the only line in the whole movie that got a laugh!
'If you don't like X, you won't like y' (where x=y) is the matrix of The Shop Around the Corner.
- Stewart both likes and doesn't like his coworker.
- He hates the woman he sees, loves the woman he can't see.
- Stewart can't recognize the one in the other, doesn't know that the one is also the other.
So this punchline embodies the whole idea of the movie: it present the matrix the whole movie is acting out.
The matrix is more important now than it was in Hollywood's first 50 years.
Film and literary genres have their own patterns. And Hollywood's classical period--roughly the 40 years from silent features until 1948--had no trouble recycling the same genre stories again and again.
But as independent and art cinema emerged as a competition to and an inflence on the mainstream, this kind of matrix became more important. Lacking a story formula, a filmmaker must create her own.
The movie's form then becomes not a repetition of a pre-existing pattern but rather the arranging and re-arranging of elements in the search for a satisfactory configuration. We know the movie has ended when the elements scramble themselves "where they ought to be."
Hence the matrix is important for writers for two reasons.
First, movies that never quite 'gel' may have an unsatisfactory ending, or they may fail to use a matrix pattern to impose order on the work.
More importantly, you may use a pre-existing pattern: every genre film does that. But a pre-existing pattern can easily become a tired formula. And while some even advise using a specific screenplay formula--the hero's journey, which is just another version of Moses, Jesus, Superman, and the Russian folk tale--the ability to create your own original work and to make your story cohere in a satisfying way is a far more valuable skill than the ability to repeat an existing formula.
In short: use a formula, but use it as a matrix, not a template.
About which more another time.
--Edward R. O'Neill