My favorite movie is “Hannah and Her Sisters” by Woody Allen. I love the New York atmosphere, the actors and the characters they portray, the realistic storylines and Woody Allen’s gallows humor. There is something comforting about the way Woody’s Mickey overcomes his existential dread and how auteur Allen wraps things up neatly in the end.
Lately I have seen a series of otherwise fine films with disappointing endings. It’s as though screenwriters and directors have forgotten how to tie up loose ends and bring a story to a conclusion.
Of course we know how World War II ended, but in addition to a totally fictional pivotal scene in “The Darkest Hour,” in which London subway riders inspire Winston Churchill to fight to the end, the otherwise compelling biopic ends with captions. Director Joe Wright obviously wanted to end with Churchill’s rousing “We will fight on the beaches” speech, so he just stopped there and explained what happened in the end with text rather than images.
We also know how the Pentagon Papers drama ended, but “The Post,” too, has an unsatisfying ending, foreshadowing the even more compelling role the Washington Post played in Watergate and relying on the audience to know the rest.
I enjoyed both “The Florida Project” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but neither film reaches anything like a resolution. The former just flies off in a flight of Disney World fancy after the gritty realism of the narrative; the latter cops out entirely, as though director Martin McDonagh were reluctant for his movie to become a revenge flick. The audience wants justice in the end, and “Three Billboards” does not deliver it.
My two favorite films of the year – and my picks for next month’s Academy Awards – were “Lady Bird” and “The Shape of Water.” Hated the ending to “Lady Bird.” Loved the ending to “The Shape of Water.” Greta Gerwig’s mother-daughter film has an implied ending in which the willful daughter simply leaves a phone message for her mother that suggests things may eventually work out.
“Really!? That’s it?” That’s the reaction I had at the end of all of these movies.
Guillermo Del Toro, however, got it right in “The Shape of Water.” This dark girl-gets-fish fable has a Hollywood ending precisely because it is a fantasy. The director is free to bring characters back to life and let people breathe underwater because there are no constraints of realism.
Maybe I’ve been sensitive to endings lately because at 68 I am making preparations for retirement, developing an investment strategy, getting a will in order, making arrangements for health insurance, long-term care and lugubrious stuff like that.
Then, too, as I wrote in a column last August (“The Universal Notebook: You look like you just lost your best friend”), one of my best friends died last summer. Chris’s death came as a shock to his family and friends because it was so unexpected. He had things to do, plans he had made. He wasn’t even quite ready to retire. Now the loose ends of his life will never be tied up. They don’t even know the cause of death, for heaven’s sake. Chris is gone and we’re all left dangling here.
That’s the way I felt sitting in darkened theaters as credits rolled on most of these movies – left hanging. Unsatisfied. Troubled. Perplexed.
I guess I’m old-fashioned. I like Hollywood endings. I prefer a movie that follows the classical rhythm of tragedy – purpose, passion, perception. The hero starts out with a purpose, pursues it with passion and ultimately comes to a perception, an epiphany that then may give him or her a new purpose in life to pursue with new passion in Act Two.
Art does not have to imitate life. It is free to be so much more. Properly structured, a film or play can provide catharsis, revelation, moral instruction, and even, to use that much over-used term, closure. The revelation of a lot of good films these days seems to be that nothing is revealed. The artist doesn’t know anything you don’t know. Movies just end. Life just ends. We all leave unfinished business.
Really!? That’s it?
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.