I’d like to inaugurate the new beginning of the year and my blog with a piece about endings. What follows is a new direction for me, but one that is continuous with my earlier readings of photographs. This year I will post short, essay-like reviews of films –some recent, some less so–that come out of my teaching, writing, and thinking about texts and images.
And now, the endings….
Endings are tricky in all sequential arts. Time doesn’t stop, but the artwork must, and it must stop without feeling random. A satisfying ending should emerge from what already happened, but also extend it somewhere new. Even more than beginnings, endings point in two directions, though the signpost into the future is more of an ellipsis, a … that trails off “into the sunset.” It’s a precarious balancing act and the last three films I saw failed at it in one way or the other.
The ending of Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) neither stays consistent with its own logic nor reveals anything new. With great visual elan, the film blurs the line between dreaming and waking, creating dreamscapes that are at least as compelling and vividly rendered as the “reality” they displace. Every scene asks you to consider and reconsider which is which, and most of them force you to reverse your first assumption. And yet the film ends with a conventional return to the very reality it made us question. The hero goes home, his family and nationality are reinstated, and the world is stable again. The spinning token, the last image before the credits roll, is deliberately ambiguous: will it fall? Will it keep spinning? This was the hero’s method of orienting himself in the dreams within dreams, but the ambiguity is just a coy device. We see the token start to topple at the very last second. Nolan has tipped his hand: this is real and order is restored just in time for us to leave the theater. It’s a safe ending pretending to be adventurous.
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) plays with the border between reality and fantasy too, but in a darker, more complicated way. As the ballerina heroine prepares for her role in Swan Lake the “black swan” within her self takes over the “white swan” she has shown to the world. The film, then, is about the relationship between art and reality, or better yet, between the dancer and the dance. This is heady territory and Aronofsky tackles it imaginatively and boldly. As the ballerina dissolves into her character, her performance improves and she is shown reaching a creative peak that eluded her before. Here is the film’s “message,” to be crass: that great art requires great risks and sacrifices. Aronofsky is too smart and creative to suggest that risk means quitting a job or sacrifice means breaking up with a lover. He insists on the necessity of psychic struggle as the source of creativity. But then, this whole complex metaphor becomes quite literal at the end of the film. The sacrifice becomes stereotypical and the film slavishly follows the plot outlines of its ballet source instead of remaining true to its own idea. It’s disappointing.
True Grit (Coen brothers, 2010) borrows the framing device of its literary source,
the novel by Charles Portis. It begins with a character’s voiceover looking back on the events and, by golly, it will end with it too. While this structure has some advantages—it creates an organic whole, for example—it also creates problems at the end. Once the compelling central action is finished, do we care about the characters’ later lives? I didn’t. The tacked on “twenty years later” ending felt forced and irrelevant when the story was so complex in its own right. The ending pulls back from that complexity and misunderstands what was so absorbing about the film itself: the tension between a changing land and the fixed moral compass points exhibited by these characters. To show the characters themselves changing over time, counterintuitively, is beside the point. The ending disrupted and diffused the film’s clear focus.
Despite the disappointing ending, True Grit was the most satisfying film of these three. All of them were visually breathtaking in different ways and all had gripping stories. But True Grit was the most successful at creating its own whole, complicated world, visually and psychologically. As I begin this new thread and write about endings, I’m reminded of Martin Scorsese interviewing Robbie Robertson at the beginning of The Last Waltz. Robertson said that The Band called their final concert the “Last Waltz” because it was “the beginning of the end of the beginning of the beginning.” Scorsese opened his film with The Band’s encore. It’s a good place to end.