Spoiler Alert! The End of Film Endings

The ambiguous ending in film endings these days is stabilized, in part, by the knowledge that you’re being denied a better ending.

The most popular films of 2011 were each part of a larger machinery: Transformers, Pirates, Cars, Hangovers, Missions, Twilights and Hogwarts. In the case of the boy-wizard, at least, there was finally a sense of closure. Except for the continuation of the franchise in the release of special edition DVDs and when the first installment premieres again, someday, in 3D. Until then, fans can always pilgrimage to Potter Land at Universal Studios Orlando to keep the action going. Remakes, sequels and re-releases assure the persistence of the story. It never ends. It doesn’t have to.

Strangely, the non-ending is also the feature of two disparate genres: the soap opera and the art cinema. In the case of soaps, their modus operandi is to drag it out, over decades if need be (à la General Hospital, first aired in 1963 and still running). The slow, tedious unlocking of narrative events, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, never fully resolves. By the time Roman’s bandages are unwound, revealing underneath, a totally new character played by a different actor, logic gives way to more attuned responses. Coherence is irrelevant. Plots matched the ritual boredom and irrational tedium of viewer’s lives. The ideal audience, imagined as stay-at-home housewives, was glued to the TV while ironing their husbands’ white collars. Now such women are creatures of myth.

The increase in the popularity of the contemporary film franchise corresponds with the death of soap operas. One Life to Live and All My Children are now “over”, and Soapnet, the cable channel committed to airing soaps 24/7, continues only under threat of extinction. Soap operas, and the American dreamy lifestyle that sustained them, are dying out. The impulse that drove the serial re-emerges in new cycles of webisodes and remakes. Audiences still respond to the promise of stable answers to questions like, “What’s going to happen?” and that edict that keeps them glued to a screen in the first place: “How does it end?”

The art cinema, in general, honors the non-ending, the refusal to offer or allow closure to its audience. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) features one of cinema’s famous ambiguous endings. The film follows 13-year-old Antoine, rejected by his indifferent parents, after he cuts class, engages in minor hijinks, and eventually, gets arrested, mistaken by cops for a real thug. The audience identifies with Antoine’s struggles and cheers when he finally escapes juvie and runs away.

The film’s final sequence is technically brilliant. A series of long takes track beside Antoine as he runs along a fence on a country road—finally on the outside of an enclosure, one of many that previously entrapped him. The next long take shows Antoine arrive at the ocean he has always longed to see. The shot pans along the expanse of seashore and then catches Antoine as he approaches the beach. In the final triumphant shot, Antoine jogs across the sand into the water. Shallow waves wash his feet. He turns and faces the camera. The shot freezes and then zooms into a close-up on the boy’s face, his stare direct.

The ending pulls the audience out of complacency and forces it to consider Antoine’s fate as the uneasy sense of “What now?” lingers. Though the hero reaches the shore, any further success or emancipation remains unlikely. The camera’s final zoom, a movement that closes in on the frozen image of Antoine’s face, signals another enclosure in a film filled with shots of Antoine stuck and framed in cells of one sort or another. Truffaut’s film, like many others of the French New Wave movement, revels in the ambiguous or unresolved ending, a contrast that references the happy endings of Hollywood genre films, even as it defies their template.

The art cinema makes its bones by working in opposition to mainstream recognizable formula. Such cinemas often refer to the dominant form that they seek to defy. The ambiguous ending is stabilized, in part, by the knowledge that you’re being denied a better one.

At this point, the ambiguous ending is such a staple of the opposition that it has become cliché. Five prominent indie films of 2011 each employ the ambiguous ending, that denial of closure that seems less and less radical each time I view it. Sean Durkin’s acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, esteemed for its eerie cuts between present and past, depicts its heroine’s post-traumatic stress due to time spent with a sex cult who dwell on a farm that seems vaguely idyllic until they murder a man and shoot at kittens.

Martha presents with strange symptoms once she returns to her family (a sister and brother-in-law) and their calming lake house. The film suggests that traumatic memory invades the present—effectively ending any promise of peace. Martha sees a cult member watching her from across the lake—or is it a cult member? Identity is purposefully ambiguous. Presumably, the same man follows Martha and her family—driving behind them on the highway. Martha glances back at her potential stalker, then looks forward. The film ends.

Not that Durkin should provide Martha with a happy ending: a boyfriend, a great job in the city, some amazing apartment. Or a different kind of resolution. Perhaps a trial where her cult tormentors are convicted due to her brave testimony. Sister and brother-in-law sit in the courtroom, teary-eyed and supportive. The film’s title itself suggests multiple potentials, but the film’s ending falls flat. We get it. She’s traumatized. Memory is corrupt. Her identity is fractured, etc. The abrupt cut to black does not shock or befuddle.

Like Crazy, directed by Drake Doremus, was a Sundance favorite, promising to renew the tired romance genre. It works in opposition to something like Going the Distance, the Drew Barrymore rom-com that tackles the long distance relationship. In Like Crazy, Jacob and Anna fall in love, but find themselves indefinitely separated across continents due to a fiasco involving lapsed visas. Even their “let’s just get married” solution does not resolve the issue as the film explores the bureaucratic “red tape” of contemporary love. We observe frequent montages of the two in love, in bed, in yearning.

Like Crazy achieves a sense of distance as it pulls the two further and further apart in space and time. The film employs time-lapse photography, which condenses and rushes time as it simultaneously depicts its lengthy passing. Though Jacob and Anna each seek other lovers, they are caught in a nostalgic trap, longing for the euphoria of their first months. The film closes with the ambiguous ending.

The visa snafu resolves and British Anna flies back to her American husband. They go to his apartment. They take a shower. They seem like they are just not that in to each other and the film ends. We get it. Though they stand nude and close to one another, the distance has become too great. The ending forces the audience to face “reality” in opposition to the dopey resolutions of traditional rom-coms. Yet the refusal to conform to the mainstream happy ending still feels like a cop-out – like a reel automatically cuts out 90 minutes in.

In Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (the title seems to reference the abrupt ending) the conclusion may have been dictated by budget. The film is a brilliant revision of the American Western that uses mumblecore aesthetics (the dialogue, often literally, is mumbled). Meek’s Cutoff provides a strident revision of the frontier myth and becomes particularly interesting in its treatment of race. In most westerns, Indians are empty stereotypes, and their massacre fortifies the whiteness and masculinity of the hero usually played by John Wayne or the type.

In Meek’s Cutoff, the single Indian allows an alternate meaning to emerge. The white characters become guileless and simple, even unethical and meek, anti-heroic in his presence. The film moves toward conclusion after the band of white travelers, astray on a hapless wagon train, have lost most supplies and mutinied from their leader. They come to a great tree—half-dead, half-alive, and the Indian, previously their prisoner, walks alone ahead of the small band. The group considers their next move, whether or not to follow. The film ends with a series of shots that alternate between Emily, the main frontier woman, her face framed by the branches of the tree, and her point-of-view shots of the Indian, first looking back, and then walking away, free in the open frontier. The film fades out on the image of the Indian.

The production ran out of money and completed the controversial ending on a shoestring. In an interview on the Rumpus.net, screenwriter John Raymond responds to the negative audience reaction to the film’s abrupt end (Caitlin Colford, 29 April 2011). Raymond argues that, “concluding on a note of incompletion and unknowing always just struck me as appropriate.” He calls Meek’s Cutoff a “genuine art film”, referencing this genre’s disinterest in “tidy closure”. It may be tidier than he thinks.

Emily’s gaze, by literally following the Indian, suggests the group’s choice. The framing, from within thick branches, suggests her own narrow-mindedness and lack of vision. The story is also based on real events. Some settlers made it out West, others died. That is what happened. The film’s “art” status lay not in resistance to tidy closure, but in its reworking of frontier myths and racial stereotypes.

Jeff Nichol’s fabulous apocalyptic thriller, Take Shelter, presents surreal skies and chilling domestic tableaus. A working-class man has a series of prophetic nightmares and believes he is succumbing to the mental illness that struck his mother at a similar age. Curtis’s wife, Sam, senses his descent into madness along with the audience. In one scene, he confronts his community, gathered at a social event in a church basement. He screams, “There is a storm coming like nothing you have ever seen!” A storm does come and he entrenches his wife and child in his recently built, below ground shelter. When they emerge, they observe a few downed trees. All is fine. Until the film’s conclusion.

In comes the real storm. Strange cyclones out at sea. Orange rain. The same stuff from one of Curtis’ dreams. In the final sequence, Curtis holds their young daughter as his wife gazes at the terrible incoming weather out on the apocalyptic frontier. “Sam,” he says and she utters, “Okay.” The screen goes black. We hear one of those thunderclap sound effects that often punctuate Vincent Price narrations, a choice that alters the ending’s tone. It’s really not ambiguous, though it tries to play as such. We find out in the final seconds: it wasn’t a dream! Curtis was right.

But we’re not allowed to stay. As with Like Crazy, we don’t get to witness the conversations between couples so often absent in contemporary film. Conversations that do not necessarily resolve, but that give the audience the option of listening in to something vital. As mumblecore runs its course, post-multiplicities, post-fracture, post-post, will clear, untangled dialogue finally become on trend?

In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, which is about another earth that has floated up alongside our current one, young Rhoda drives drunk and crashes into a family whose car waits at a stoplight, killing a pregnant woman and young child. Rhoda does some jail time and then pursues the husband who survived. They fall in love and she must reveal that she is the driver who killed his family. Understandably, he’s crazy pissed. Meanwhile, Rhoda has won a space flight up to the Other Earth—a mirror of this world. She sacrifices it to the man so he can now visit his other, possibly alive family. Maybe. What is actually going on up there on the Other Earth?

The film ends with Rhoda, the ex-con who now works as a janitor, coming face-to-face with her own well-dressed doppelganger from the other planet. The other Rhoda steps forward and the film ends. Yes. It signals an abrupt affront to the audience, which is now forced to question its complacency and consider various this and that about identity and theories of the multiverse. Although those ideas are somewhat of the stuff that pot-induced convos are made of: “Dude, what if there was like, another Earth?”

The ending misses the more radical potential of the conversation between the woman and her other self. It doesn’t feel like art. It feels like a copy of another movie ending, of several other movie endings, both artistic and mainstream. It resembles the tendency of the franchise ending to leave it open, to maintain the potential for a sequel.

These days, the most popular film endings seem to always indicate a way to keep on going with their stories. When Bella opens her vampire eyes in the final seconds of Breaking Dawn: Part 1, she looks into the audience’s soul and toward a “closure” that includes midnight showings, product tie-ins, and a guaranteed massive global box office. Everyone already knows what will happen. Imagine if the franchise could end here, with Bella’s red eyes gazing back, and deny the other ending.

Breaking Dawn: Part 1 struck me as a meditation on anorexia—or perhaps the parasitic, unhealthy quality of the franchise itself. As Bella becomes skin and bones, abused by the baby inside her, she represents not only an entire generation starving for substance, but the structure of the franchise system itself; a skeletal base that doesn’t support life, that sucks dry its heroines.

In stories of all types, throughout the centuries, the end is often signaled by a wedding (hence, a new beginning, a continuation of the story). Both Breaking Dawn: Part 1 and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia begin with one. Certainly, Melancholia is an art film, not only because of its arresting, visual beauty. It also offers a reflection on self-destruction as two sisters, Justine (a mess) and Claire (the healthy one) cope with the effects of depression. All the while, another Earth barrels toward this one. Melancholia features the loveliest, most exhilarating (and alienating) conclusion of the last year.

The two sisters sit with a little boy, Claire’s son. They wait, center screen, as the magnificent oncoming planet enlarges at a frightening pace, finally overtaking them. We see the impact as the planets collide. The three characters swallowed as the screen explodes into light and fire.

The film ends. We know what happens. Von Trier wraps it up in a way that we can’t go back. We can never go back. Has providing firm, unambiguous closure now become the more radical ending?