by Jon N. Hall 11/22/15
I used to have an occasional drink at Kelly’s saloon in Kansas City, and there was this municipal judge, a former marine, who would sit at my table while he drank brewski and smoked his pipe. The old boy looked a bit like C. Aubrey Smith, the British character actor who played in the 1939 version of The Four Feathers. One day the judge confessed to me that he didn’t go to the cinema because he didn’t like being “manipulated.”
I was nonplussed; isn’t that the whole idea? What was he afraid of? Perhaps he also eschewed music, because it might make him, you know, feel something. As I recall, the judge may have seen Master and Commander (2003), due to his having read the Patrick O’Brian novels. That would be a good exception to his rule of not attending the cinema, but I didn’t ask him to explain his reasoning.
In any event, my judicial drinking partner reminds me of Leo Tolstoy’s theory in his 1897 book What Is Art? You can download it for free in various formats here, (I chose the PDF format). Critics nowadays don’t hold the book’s ideas in high esteem. Leo’s main idea is that art involves the deliberate evocation of feeling: the artist tries to manipulate us. Therefore, if you don’t like being manipulated, perhaps you don’t like art. (Art? Art who?)
Several years ago I exchanged a few emails with David Horowitz, progenitor of FrontPageMag and the namesake of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. I can’t find the dang email, but I mentioned to him that I’d just screened the Coen Bros. latest, No Country for Old Men, based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Horowitz wrote back that he had just finished reading McCarthy’s The Road, and that he thought the ending was all wrong.
I won’t say what Horowitz thought the ending should entail, as you may not have read The Road, which you should, regardless of the ending. In any event, I found Horowitz’s criticism refreshing. It seemed to be a look at the mechanics of a work of art, and whether it works. One might call it “practical criticism” had that term not already been taken. Anyway, what I’m going to do now is consider a few movie endings that I think “work.” So fasten your seat belts.
One very effective (and affecting) ending is in Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979). Isaac, played by Woody, is trying to dissuade his girlfriend Tracy from hopping on a plane and going to England to study. Tracy assures Isaac that they can resume their relationship when she returns: “Six months isn’t so long. Not everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.” We hear the sweet strains of the solo violin in Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Woody’s disappointed face slowly breaks into a smile as the music crescendos, and then as the rhapsody’s main theme is restated we see three shots of the Manhattan skyline, after which the credits roll. I think this is a wonderful ending, even the introduction of the credits is moving: a black screen with “Directed by Woody Allen” superimposed. Mariel Hemmingway is winsome as Tracy. At YouTube, you can watch the Woodman’s terrific ending; here’s the last minute and a half and the entire 5:28-minute clip in case you’re a purist or a hardcore cineaste.
One device some auteurs use in their endings is a montage of what’s gone before. Woody used this device to great effect in the ending of Annie Hall (1977). Go ahead and watch the last two minutes to see if I’m crazy or not. What adds to this montage is Diane Keaton’s (Annie’s) singing of “Seems Like Old Times.” (Diane Keaton’s birth name was Diane Hall; maybe we’re related.)
Another effective use of montage in an ending was in Simon Wincer’s Lonesome Dove (1989). Some may object that it’s not cinema; it’s TV, and commercial TV at that. But I think it’s one of the great westerns, so I include it. A young newspaper reporter tries to get Captain Call to talk to him: “They say you’re a man of vision.” We then see a montage of what’s gone before, while Basil Poledouris’s wonderful score undergirds the fleeting images. Finally Call responds: “A man of vision, you say. Yeah. Helluva vision.” He then walks off into the sunset.
Watch Dove’s powerful ending, (it’s prepositioned at the 1:25:00 point of the video). The ending in the film corresponds to a point several pages before the end of Larry McMurtry’s epic novel. The film’s ending is more powerful, in my opinion, but McMurtry may have written it, as he was one of the screenwriters. (Hey, I just learned that Basil Poledouris was born in Kansas, City. Damn!)
On TCM I recently screened an old flick that I don’t believe I’d ever seen: Agnès Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962). The story concerns a young Parisian woman, an up and coming pop songstress, who has just learned that she may have cancer. The film follows her for two hours as she waits for the results of the tests. She’s worried sick. In the park, she meets a young soldier about to ship out for Algeria, and he accompanies her to the hospital to learn the results of the tests. They’re sitting on a bench outside the hospital when a car stops in front of them driven by her doctor. The doctor informs her that the tests were positive, but her prognosis is good, and after two months of chemo she should be as right as rain. The doctor drives off. Cleo and the soldier then begin walking, exchanging glances. Cleo says: “I think my fear is gone. I think I’m happy.” They continue walking, then stop and face each other, we hear three chords, and the film ends.
Cleo’s ending is unusual. Are Cleo and the soldier whom she’s just met in love? Have they glimpsed something eternal? And why the heck can’t I find a video of this enigmatic ending? Though I’ve failed in that, I have found something else that might mollify your wrath. In the film Cleo sings, and it’s the actual voice of actress Corinne Marchand singing Michel Legrand’s “Sans toi”; i.e. “Without you.” I’ve found a video of Marchand performing the song. Marchand shows herself to be a sensitive interpreter, with a helluva fine natural voice. She seems to have cut some records. Marchand was also, to use the parlance of our times, quite a “looker.”
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah, cinema endings. One of the most “apt” endings ever is that in Hitchcock’s masterpiece Vertigo (1958). Our protagonist, “Scottie” Ferguson, catches a nasty case of vertigo in the opening scene and in the final scene he is standing on a parapet, cured of his affliction — but at what price? One could provide a video of this ending, but I shan’t, as Vertigo is something of a “mystery” and we wouldn’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t screened it. Vertigo is regarded by some as the greatest film ever.
If I had to decide which movie has the most powerful ending, I think I’d choose Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988). This gorgeous ending consists of a movie director screening a “movie,” a movie that is an extended montage of sinful scenes, scenes of men and women kissing, scenes that the parish priest had censored and had ordered cut out of the movies about to play at the town’s only movie theatre, scenes that have been saved by Alfredo (the projectionist at the theatre) which he has spliced together for Salvatore, the director watching the movie. Alfredo is sending kisses from the grave to his beloved protégé.
All the spliced clips in this moving montage are in black-and- white, and most are scratched or grainy. What makes this ending so powerful is Morricone’s wonderful score. Tornatore’s inspired ending seems a love letter to the art of cinema.
But there’s something more to consider about this ending: there are two versions of the film. Read this short explanation of the versions written by Roger Ebert in 2002. IMDb also briefly addresses the alternate versions. I’ve only seen the theatrical version and because its ending is so perfect, I’m afraid of viewing the longer version. But this short synopsis of the extra footage in the “extended cut” leads me to believe that the endings in both versions are the same, (they better be). YouTube has a high-quality transfer of Tornatore’s masterful ending for your delectation.
Here’s the deal, cowboys and cowgirls, I just realized that I can’t even begin to do justice to the subject of movie endings, especially in the space allowed. You’ve got your alternate endings, multiple endings, unresolved endings, cliffhangers, endings that don’t “work,” etc. Hell’s bells, I can’t even outline a general theory of movie endings, except maybe that every movie must have one. Maybe there are no hard and fast rules for endings. I suppose an ending can be anything a director wants it to be. But I will offer this: Endings are pretty dang important, as the ending is the last chance a filmmaker has to “manipulate” us into feeling whatever he or she wants us to feel and to make us come blinking out of a darkened theatre thinking that we’ve just had one “helluva vision.”
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (831 views)