Monday, 26 July 2010

On endings

One of the things I like with the Bourne-series is that it has a wholeness to it, it's a round circle, visually. It begins, in the first film The Bourne Identity (2002), with the body of Jason Bourne floating in water and it ends, in the third film The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), with the body of Jason Bourne floating in water. The first time it signals his appearance, the last time it signals his disappearance. (And the fact that it ends thus makes the idea whether or not to make a fourth film so wrong, at least artistically. But it seems now that neither Matt Damon nor Paul Greengrass want to continue.)

This is one way of ending a film, buy repeating the beginning, albeit with a difference. This is by the way often how Hasse Ekman ends his films.

The reason I'm writing about endings is that David Bordwell brought it up as a topic at the already mentioned SCSMI conference in Roanoke. The question was how do we know that a film is ending? He told about a young girl he was watching Snow White (1937) with, and in the last scene she shouted "More!", even before it was actually over and the words "The End" were seen. Bordwell's question was "How did she know the film was over?".

I'm not going to go deep in the cognitive science part of the question, but it's interesting to note that there are different ways to end a film, and I think that it would be possible to list a set number of endings, let's say 10, and that almost all films will have an ending that is related to one of these 10. And in order to answer the question, we need to look at these different types of endings and see if they all signal clearly that this is indeed "the end", as does Snow White. It would also be interesting to interpret the various types of endings and see what they tell us about the films and/or the filmmakers philosophical and ideological outlook.

I haven't done enough research on this so I'm not in a position to list all possible endings, but I can give some examples. We've established two ending patterns already in this blog post, the, let's call it, "circular ending", which links the first and the last scene, and the, let's call it the "classical ending" from Snow White. (If you haven't seen the following films and don't want to know how they end, then read carefully...)

A third pattern are the more "modernist" ending, where the films often doesn't really have an ending, but just fades out in a critical moment, or, as in the end of Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962), shows a series of shots of empty streets and buildings. The endings of many films by Howard Hawks also have these "modernist" endings. The Big Sleep (1946), arguably Hawks's most narratively daring film, ends with Marlowe and Vivian Rutledge (Bogart and Bacall) waiting together in a darkened room for the police to arrive, and neither they nor we know what's going to happen when the police does arrive.

A fourth ending is the sudden and abrupt one, which even when we've seen it might leave us dangling. "What? That's it?" Like The Candidate (1972), the brilliant political drama with Robert Redford as a candidate for the senate. He runs, not to win, because nobody expects him to, but for more let's say political reasons. But in the end he does win after all, and he leaves the celebration and goes in to his dressing room. An aide follows him, and the candidate turns to him and says "What do we do now?". "The End".

It's clear already that sometimes endings are easy to spot, sometimes they're not. I just watched the second film in the Lord of the Ring-series, The Two Towers (2002) and there were several times I thought the end was near, due to the use of music, dialogue and editing patterns, but it didn't come. It's importance here that what I was expecting wasn't a definitive ending, but just a fadeout, because I knew it was only the second instalment in a trilogy, and the end of a film which is to be followed by another film continuing the story, is usually done in yet another different way. A fadeout I eventually got, but only after a much longer time then I'd thought. It's difficult to explain in a few words what I mean by the special "the end is near"-feeling, but it's likely that you've already experienced the effect. See also the second (or fifth if you like) Star Wars-film The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for the same thing.

So, the research around endings will continue, but first a side note.

At Dave Kehr's blog there was a debate last week about "spoiler alerts" and whether or not it's OK to reveal the endings in comments and reviews. Jonathan Rosenbaum has also written on the subject. For some, the very idea that people don't want to know the ending before having seen the film was somehow almost offensive. Those that do not want to know the ending, it was said, are apparently not interested in style and atmosphere, but somehow shallow and should be ridiculed. But that's just arrogant if you ask me. Most people do after all enjoy watching the story unfold, and being surprised and amused by it, and there's of course nothing wrong with that. It doesn't mean that they're not interested in anything else. It's only common decency to warn (or ask permission) before revealing how a film ends.

One of the arguments was that there's to much emphasis on plot and story in film criticism and reviewing, and very little attention is paid to style. This is something I very much agree with, and something I find annoying. As I've said before, the story and the plot is only one part of the film, perhaps half of it, and not talking about the rest is just lazy. Cinematography, music, art direction, editing and so on needs to be given its dues as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment