Friday, 6 September 2019

The status quo of happy endings

It is axiomatic that corporate-sponsored and produced media tends to be affirmative and rarely if ever challenges the status quo. The majority of Hollywood films end happily, for example. (p. 269)
Lee Grieveson's new book Cinema and the Wealth of Nations: Media, Capital, and the Liberal World System (2018) is beautifully written, deeply researched (at least judging by the endnotes) and with a clear purpose. It has some obvious weaknesses though. While it is not about fiction feature films, it does on occasion refer to such films, and the quote above is an example of the way in which it does so. All of what is said in the quote can be questioned but I want to dwell on status quo and happy endings for now, as Grieveson is not making an original observation in the quote but only repeating a common cliché.

That the majority of Hollywood films ends happily is not something that has been researched and proved. Grieveson does not provide a reference or source for his statement, not even David Bordwell's widely circulated figure of some 60% of films having conventional happy endings in "classical" Hollywood. But there is no comprehensive research. For all anyone knows maybe 53,7% of all Hollywood films end unhappily.

Part of the problem is that what constitutes a happy ending is not an exact science but to some extent a subjective feeling. If a romantic comedy ends with two lovers united and happy, and there are no complications or issues left to deal with for any of the characters in the film, then it might be considered a straightforward happy ending. But such endings are not the norm for all Hollywood films.

Side Street (Anthony Mann 1950)

And what has it got to do with "the status quo", an amusingly vague concept? In Grieveson's context it probably means "the liberal-capitalist economic system" but what is the relation to affirmative and happy endings? If a film ends with a glorious rebellion that finally ends capitalism as we know it, and our heroes survive and prosper in the new economic system, I suppose Grieveson would call this a happy ending. Which status quo would it support?

Consider a film about a woman training for a marathon and in the end she manages to complete the race. Why would this in any way have any bearing on any status quo? A film about a child who loses her stuffed tiger in the beginning and is then happily reunited with it again in the end, would this by default implicitly argue that the only economic system possible is the one we currently have?

Those were hypothetical films so let us consider The Apartment (Billy Wilder 1960) instead. It ends happily for Baxter and Fran; the last shot is of their new-found happiness. But they find their happiness by breaking with the status quo, i.e. the rat race of corporate America. One interpretation of the film is that within the capitalist structure men and, especially, women are exchangeable commodities and for love to stand a chance you have to leave that structure, even if it means quitting your job. Is this not an ending that challenges the status quo yet is also happy, at least superficially? Another, especially beautiful, example is All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk 1955). Examples like this are not hard to come by. Another thing one could consider are films about gay/lesbian characters. Historically speaking such films often ended unhappily, frequently with suicide, but when they do end happily it is because of a defiance against some status quo, i.e. the opposite of Grieveson's belief. It is possible, like in The Children's Hour (William Wyler 1961), that a Queer film ends with a suicide but is still in defiance, but I think that is rarer.

Making these arguments and mentioning these titles feels unnecessary however. The content of the opening quote are not real arguments but thought-clichés that have been perpetuated for decades. I do not understand why they are taken seriously. But the way Grieveson makes the arguments, tossed out as if they were well-established facts that we all know to be true, proves how ingrained and prevalent they are, despite their vacuousness.

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What Bordwell says in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985): "It is significant that of one hundred randomly sampled Hollywood films, over sixty ended with a display of the united romantic couple - the cliché happy ending, often with a 'clinch' - and many more could be said the end happily." (p. 159)

One hundred films might sound like a lot but considering the period he covers is 43 years (1917-1960), when a single year could produce over 500 films, it is a small figure; only about 2.3 films per year. It does not tell us much and nothing is said about what kind of films they are, or how representative they might be.

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