The End: why is it so hard to get the ending right?March 1st, 2012 | Posted by in Movie Reviews
standard launching point for many a story, or a segué into a flashback, is some variation on the phrase “Let’s start at the beginning.” But today we’re going to begin at the end.
The ending of a movie is arguably the most important part. It’s the moment when everything that’s gone before is gathered, resolved, and handed over to the audience, a complete package for you to take with you as you leave the theater. My favorite kind of ending is the kind where the package is left a little open, or at least unwrapped, for me to ponder and interpret for myself. Movies that leave you with a question, rather than an answer. But a lot of films attempt to gather all the narrative threads spun out in the telling and tie them up in a neat bow, handing the audience something that is complete and whole, with no further thought necessary.
The problem with this kind of ending is that it’s entirely artificial: it has no counterpart in real life. Real life has no endings. Well, I take that back—at least long enough to define my terms. When I say “life,” in this context, I mean the zoomed-out view: the collective experience of humanity on this planet. You could zoom out even further, to include all life, but for now let’s limit ourselves to the human experience. From that viewpoint, endings are a human invention; a literary device. Things happened before you got here, and will continue after you’re gone.
Zooming in now, life is actually full of endings. In fact, as a species we seem to have an obsession with the end of things. A thing’s end is often its most salient feature, the focal point of how we think about it. Millions of people tune in every week to watch aspiring young singers struggle toward an anticipated endpoint: when there is one left standing, the season—which progresses along a path strewn with endings, as each aspirant is eliminated—will end. Most of us have come across the wild-eyed streetcorner prophet whose entire understanding of the universe he lives in is embodied in the idea of its end. We debate eternally which should take precedence in the field of human endeavor: means or end.
We obsess on split ends. Dead end. End times. End game. We define the ground we stand on by where it ends. Where the ocean meets the shore: land’s end. The entire nation, as politically divided as it can be, can come together in a cohesive swell of anticipation and passion for the end of a television series, a series whose entire reason for being rested upon this anticipation of what would be revealed at the end. Our very nature as a nation—as a species!—changed with the end of WWII and the atomic bomb: suddenly life on Earth itself had a conceivable end.
The role of traditional media has always been to break life up into manageable chunks; to impose on the messy realities of life a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. The animating principle of books, movies, even newspapers, is the story: a narrative whole.
Social media explodes the myth of the applied ending and provides us with a new model: a narrative that continues even when we’re through with it. With facebook, twitter, and the various other organs of social media, we come upon stories already in progress. We can even participate in other narratives, if we do more than observe without joining in. With every like and follow we’re asserting ourselves as storytellers, and not just the vast, faceless audience sitting in the dark.
So, more and more, we experience our media exposure like we’re stepping into a running stream, rather than consuming discrete narrative packages. Will social media bring about the end of the ending? It will almost certainly, at least, affect our cultural, universal expectation of the pat conclusion to every story we are told, by movies or books or news media. Consider computer games: traditionally, the route a player took to the endpoint of a game varied from player to player, as player participation affected the “narrative” of the game. But the finish line was the same for everyone. Currently, however, there’s an increasing trend toward open-ended games, where player participation affects not just the journey, but the destination.
Because the narrative ending is little more than a literary trope, with no antecedent in real life, it’s the most difficult thing for a filmmaker to get right. So many movies get so close, hit all the right notes, and then blow the whole production with a bad ending. (Yes, Saving Private Ryan, I’m looking at you.)
If the art of the ending is a fading art, let us consider these masterpieces of the form. My list of greatest endings ran to about 20 titles, but here are my a handful of my favorites. (Needless to say, beyond this point there be spoilers.)
The most powerful ending in cinema remains, for me, the moment when the Blind Girl in City Lights (1931), arguably Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece, recognizes the Little Tramp, by touching his hand, as the “rich” man who paid for the operation that restored her sight. No matter how many times I watch this movie, that moment, when we read her realization in her face, punches me in the gut. Goose-pimples, neck hairs, tears—every single time.
Just as timeless, and just as powerful, is the ending of John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a cynical Confederate veteran for whom the Civil War will never be over. In the final scene, he is returning from a quest of several years’ duration. He’s been searching for his niece, who was taken as a child by raiding Indians. Ethan’s general misanthropy finds expression mostly in an unbending hatred of Native Americans, and so he considers his niece to be unsalvageable: she’s no longer white, in his eyes, and thus he sees as his journey’s end the duty he has to kill her. But the reality of that moment takes him by surprise; he raises her in his arms in preparation, we imagine, for dashing her head on the stony ground, but lowers her to his breast in an embrace instead. And so he returns her to the arms of her family, who fold around her in a protective welcoming, shutting Ethan out. The hatred that fueled his search also renders him unwelcome, and so he turns to walk away. He continues walking as the screen fades to black, and the credits roll. One of the most iconic scenes in American movies, and one which Christopher Nolan pays homage to in the ending of The Dark Knight, as Batman recedes into the night: the hero who’s hunted even as he watches and protects.
In Jim Jarmusch’s postmodern Western Dead Man, Johnny Depp plays a man named William Blake who has traveled across the entire breadth of the US by train, from the East Coast to the West, sitting upright for the duration of a journey which likely took most of a week. He receives a bullet wound so close to his heart that there is no possible remedy, and his journey toward a new life acquires a new destination: that of his own death. A new friend, a Native American named Nobody, helps him on his way, and as a final act of friendship prepares a funereal boat for Blake and pushes him out into the ocean, to complete his westward journey in the same way the sun does every day.
At the end of Warren Beatty’s 1998 film Bulworth, the assassination attempt that Senator Bulworth has been anticipating since he set it in motion himself as an elaborate suicide/insurance scheme has apparently come to fruition. Up to that moment, the knowledge that he was going to die at any moment had freed him, as a politician, from worrying about the consequences of speaking his mind and sticking to his principles, corporate interests be damned. The final scenes play out like this: Bulworth, riding a wave of popularity inspired by his unprecendented political honesty, is shot—not by the assassin he hired, but by a lobbyist for the insurance industry. He’s rushed to the hospital, but before we learn if he is dead or alive the credits roll. Many people found this ending unsatisfying. But I think it was a brave and powerful choice. Consider the alternatives: if the movie ended with the senator’s death, the message would be one of defeatism: honesty silenced by greed. Or, if we’d been left with a conventional happy ending, the cliché final scene with wellwishers bearing balloons gathered around a brightly lit hospital bed, we’d leave the theater with a story whose end was neatly packaged and wrapped, no further thought required. But Beatty nudges each member of the audience to come up with their own answer to the question he leaves us with. (Note: I was unable to find a clip of this scene online.)
Celebrate the artful ending by checking out these examples from the IndieFlix library. (No spoilers here: you’ll have to watch for yourself.)
There are many, many more films that I’d add myself if I had the time or believed you had the patience. Please use the comments section to add your idea of a great movie ending to this post.NOTES:
- The great German filmmaker Douglas Sirk left Hollywood, he told one interviewer, because of what he called the “tyranny” of the happy ending: “These happy endings all express the weak and sly promise that the world is not rotten and out of joint but meaningful and ultimately in excellent condition.”↩