Happy ever after

“The miracle of the cinema is how rarely the convention of the happy ending is broken. The bigger miracle is that the convention of the ending is never broken at all.” – Zadie Smith

I’m not sure where writer Zadie Smith (The Autograph Man) is going with the second part of her assertion. Surely it’s not all that surprising that most films we see tend to conclude rather than simply stop. Finish rather than break off mid-sentence, or mid-scene.

But she is certainly right in her contention that the majority of the films produced, particularly studio films, end happily ever after.

There’s even a name for it: A Hollywood ending. As opposed to, say, a Bollywood ending, where cast members are inclined to break out into a final elaborate song-and-dance sequence, or an English “kitchen sink” drama finish, where the camera might pan from a grim housing estate to an ash-grey sky.

In a Hollywood ending, boy and girl from opposite sides of the tracks, who might not even have liked each other at first, end up together, in love. The racecar driver and the fetching brain surgeon (Days of Thunder, Tony Scott, 1990). The baker and the accountant (Moonstruck, Norman Jewison, 1987). The kickboxer and the class brain (Say Anything, Cameron Crowe, 1989).

In Hollywood endings differences are straightened out, crimes solved, villains (psychopaths, aliens, etc.) apprehended or eliminated.

Wrongs are righted, epiphanies experienced, virginity lost, championships won.

Sometimes there are casualties en route to the happy denouement. Sacrifices are made for the greater good. For mankind.

If for instance, as in Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998), an asteroid is hurtling towards Earth and something goes wrong (something always goes wrong) when a crack team of drillers ventures forth to obliterate it, then someone – Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis) perhaps – has to stay behind to set off the bomb by hand.

If anything, here is the Hollywood ending writ large. Tears, laughter and joy (sob) tempered – nay, enriched – by loss. Cue Aerosmith with a big corporate power ballad and our heroes returning to the waiting arms of their loving ladies.

Change the spaceship to a special vehicle made from Unobtainium and the asteroid to puzzling meteorological problems and you’ve got The Core (Jon Amiel, 2003).

In Hollywood scriptwriting manuals, a killer ending features as a key component.

A spectacular film can fail the audience in the last 10 minutes. Yet a decent conclusion – not easy to write and even more difficult to film – can make viewers forgive a lot in an otherwise so-so film.

In Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) Charlie Kaufman (Nic Cage), seeks advice from screenwriting guru Robert McKee (Brian Cox) when he experiences enormous difficulty turning Susan Orlean’s work of non-fiction, The Orchid Thief, into a workable script.

The advice?

“Wow them with the ending, and make your characters change.”

This is what Kaufman, who has written himself into the script, proceeds to do, providing a final implausible and incongruous reel that includes sex, drugs, guns and alligators. It’s the ultimate spoof on silly, inappropriate Hollywood endings.

Is it a miracle, though, that the practice of happy endings has become a standard part of the mainstream movie formula?

The high brass of studios now presides over companies that are part of massive multinational, multimedia, multi-industry conglomerations. These studio heads are answerable to not only a board, but also a raft of shareholders.

It’s little wonder that in a sphere that revolves through the domains of both art and commerce, it’s the latter category that seems to more frequently influence the manner in which films are made.

The bottom line is the bottom line in the film business. That’s why risks are so seldom taken when vast budgets are at stake. It’s why so many films adhere to a cookie cutter formula, including the fairy-tale ending.

There are, of course, some exceptions to the happy ending rule. Made for TV “disease of the week” films generally are not likely to end well.

Historical dramas such as Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995) or Malcolm X (Spike Lee, 1992) usually play out with a certain fidelity to the facts as they are popularly known.

And the middle films of trilogies are known for being a touch darker than the other instalments.

Consider, for instance, that in both The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) and Matrix Reloaded (Larry {now Lana} and Andy {now Lilly} Wachowski, 2003) our heroes are out for the count, and the bad guys seemingly on top, poised for victory.

It’s interesting that films such as Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974), The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), are so different to most contemporary films.Lately I’ve been returning to a few films made in what many consider to be the highpoint of creative studio filmmaking, the 1970s.

The pacing is slower, scenes are longer, the editing is less intrusive, characters are more fleshed out, stories are more complex. Also, the soundtracks are more evocative, and none of the four have what could be construed as standard plots, or indeed endings.

Why?

Some critics have suggested that America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and the exposure of government shenanigans in the Watergate scandal made audiences cynical of previously respected institutions. Film watchers were open to art that explored themes of corruption, betrayal and power.

Yet conflicts are taking place now as much as ever, and most of the films that show in multiplexes are pretty much made to standard specs.

Perhaps, in the intervening 40 years, governments acting improperly, dastardly or deceitfully has simply become standard operating practice.

Maybe now audiences predominantly seek escapism in the cinema, not engagement.

You could argue that there are a few unhappy ends in more modern Hollywood films such as The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) or Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002). While critically acclaimed, neither was very popular with mass audiences.

Yet even a popular film from the 1970s such as Rocky (John Avildsen, 1976) does not depict the punchy eponymous champ winning the bout and holding aloft the title belt, as it almost certainly would if made today.

Could there be something fundamental and inherent within us that needs happy endings in our texts, to fuel our optimism? To keep us going.I read recently there are certain things that are hardwired into us as humans to ensure the survival of the race. For instance, and this could well be apocryphal, female brains are hardwired so that their pupils dilate involuntarily at the sight of babies.

I asked my friend Clare O’Farrell, a lecturer in Cultural Studies at the Queensland University of Technology, whether she thought the concept of the happy ending was something influenced by cultural factors.

Clare wrote back and said there’s a whole discussion in France about the Hollywood happy ending.

In fact, the words for happy end in French are “la happy end”, which indicates how alien it is to the culture.

“In French film of the 30s, 40s and 50s the convention was a tragic end,” Clare explains. “And in some films I have seen this is just as arbitrary as the Hollywood happy end. A film I really like with Erich von Stroheim called Macao Gaming Hell – has a warplane bomb the hero and heroine out of the water in their boat just as they have discovered their love for each other. That’s it – the end!

“The concept of the happy end is definitely both a cultural and historical thing. I’ve noticed the French idea of the perfect romance is when people die so that the perfection of the short moment can be preserved – such intensity cannot survive the attrition of the everyday.

“The Hollywood end is marriage and happily ever after, which in my view reflects the USA’s history of pioneers and the utter reliance on socially isolated family groups. It’s the pioneer idea of paradise – the eternal middle-class family with the white picket fence who take up arms to kill anybody who poses a threat to the family.

“There is also the American ideology of ‘making it’, always winning, the land of opportunity and success, and leaving behind the old unhappy decadent European ways.”

Clare also pointed me to an article by Edgar Morin called “La Happy End”, which unfortunately was in French.

Basically, Clare explained he argues that the all-pervasive happy end in contemporary times breaks with an age-old tradition that dates back to Greek tragedies and includes Elizabethan drama and the novels of Balzac, Stendhal and Zola.

Evans wanted a happy ending while Polanski insisted that this would rob the film of all its meaning. Polanski prevailed.Another European, Roman Polanski, argued with producer Robert Evans over the end of Chinatown.

Perhaps film conclusions in the 1970s were affected by the influence of the European narrative traditions and ways of seeing as much as what was happening in the geo-political sphere.

Several of the defining studio films of the 70s, like Chinatown or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, were directed by Europeans.

Others were helmed by the first wave of film school graduates such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who were greatly influenced by European films of the 50s and 60s.

The films of the French New Wave, like their progenitors from pre-war times, often concluded in an ambiguous or decidedly downbeat manner.

By the end of the 1970s, however, it seems that the trend for films to potentially have audiences leaving the cinema melancholy, or even contemplative, had all but evaporated.

As the 1980s progressed, the decade became increasingly to be associated both with materialism and American cultural imperialism.

Having put the disgrace of Nixon well behind and elected gung-ho Ronald Reagan to office, it was poor form, for the most part, to be disenchanted with such a kick-ass president.

As a young B-grade studio film actor, Reagan had helped institutionalise a particular form of Hollywood end: the classic weepy.

In the 1950s he’d starred in Knute Rockne All-American. (Lloyd Bacon, 1940). The plot concerned a champion sportsman George Gipp, who, knowing he was not long for this world, extolled his teammates to “win just one for the Gipper” when their backs were against the wall.

With Reagan in the Whitehouse at the height of the Cold War, it was Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone who were blowing or clubbing celluloid commies and/or nefarious types away at an astonishing rate.

Luke Skywalker et al were meanwhile dispatching Imperial scum.

In a variety of guises Harrison Ford took care of business. A range of humourously mismatched (young/old, black/white, dog/man) teams solved crimes and dealt summarily with wrongdoers.

Thus a template was born and nearly without exception involved a “happy” ending.

These successful films spawned franchises.

Increasingly, mainstream Hollywood fare became less bohemian, less experimental, and with more sophisticated special effects, costlier.

Marketing campaigns for films required enormous budgets and often involved synergistic tie-ins with fast food and merchandising.

By the start of the 1990s Hollywood studios could no longer afford to take major gambles with “the product”.

Hence the standard three-act formula, and the remorseless quest for safe, sure-fire hits: remakes, comic book and computer game adaptations, sequels.

There is a school of thought that turns its collective nose up at happy endings.Is a happy end – a Hollywood end – a copout? Is it, as Adaptation’s Robert McKee suggests, a facile and formulaic way to impress an audience? Is it a method of giving us what we want and sending us on our way out of the multiplexes so that we continue being happy little consumers?

Vladimir Nabokov wrote in PNIN: “There are people – amongst whom I would include myself – who detest happy endings.”

The implication is that somehow a happy ending is lowbrow, that its lack of verisimilitude is unliterary, unintellectual even.

There is an argument that a happy ending lack edge.

Certainly that was the case mounted by Quentin Tarantino during the production of True Romance (Tony Scott, 1993).

Tarantino, who wrote the script but didn’t direct, wanted the film to conclude with its hero, Clarence (Christian Slater) being gunned down in a sanguinary hail of bullets.

Scott’s preference (and no doubt the studio’s as well) was for something a little more upbeat.

Indeed, the final scenes of the film are of an eye-patch-wearing Clarence frolicking on the beach with his young son. Voiceover is provided by his new bride Alabama (Patricia Arquette). Not only has he survived the cross-country flight from scary gangster Vincenzo Coccotti (Christopher Walken), a good and fulfilling life ahead is a possibility.

It’s the classic feel-good finish. But is it a cliché?

Scott’s argument was that so often in lovers-on-the-lam movies such as Breathless (Jean-Luc Goddard 1965), the convention is for the hero to meet his (usually it’s a he) maker before the credits role. Tarantino’s preference would have in fact meant adhering to a well-worn, even hoary, generic convention.

By allowing Clarence to live, Scott has actually defied expectation and provided something of an unusual denouement for the genre: an upbeat one.

“I have nothing against happy endings as such,” he replied via email. “Happy is just as valid as unhappy. Unhappy endings can also be cliché, trite; ‘bleak’ and ‘dark’ do not necessarily mean more serious, more authentic.I asked film critic Adrian Martin his thoughts about Hollywood endings.

“What I really dislike is what I call the ‘unearned happy ending’ – where the grounds for the happiness have not really been prepared, where it feels imposed, contrived, strictly obligatory.”

But Martin also pointed out the theory of the positive “unhappy happy ending”, which is ironic and suggests the opposite of what it literally shows. The melodramas of Douglas Sirk are an example of this.

“I believe every film should be given the ‘first shot/last shot’ test,” Martin said. “Does it start well, does it end well?

“The problem with many contemporary films (especially Australian ones) is that they do not end with a bang, they ‘dribble out’: the kind of ending where people embrace or frolic or walk away into the city crowd, as the camera soars into the sky and a song plays: usually simply a cue that says to the average moviegoer: OK, the film’s over, now you can head for the back door of the cinema! These are often ‘coda’ endings (‘six months later…’), the scourge of modern cinema.”

Here I have to admit a guilty fondness for this form of conclusion, but can certainly see Martin’s point. Consider, for instance the conclusion of Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2001), an otherwise engaging film that has a tacked on “sometime later” conclusion described by one magazine as one of the 50 cheesiest of all time.

“I like DEFINITE endings that are either thrilling or ‘visionary’, where the film builds to a revelation or a definite moment of closure,” Martin said.

“Iranian cinema is brilliant at endings: look at (Abbas) Kiarostami classics like Through the Olive Trees (Abbas Kiarostami, 1994), or the freeze-frame smile that ends Once Upon a Time in America (Leone, 1984).

As Martin sees it, endings are all about how film makers “handle” the spectator in his or her passage from the film back out into reality, and modern commercial films try to make that transition too smooth, easy, indistinct, and non-demanding.

Says Martin: “I like an ending that implicitly says: OK, you have been within the special fantasy that is cinema, bang, the lights are now up, now you have to work out what there is to take with you into the street, into your life!”

When I think about the kinds of film endings I like, there’s certainly a place for the happy conclusion. I didn’t want to see Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) jump into a vat of molten metal at the end of Aliens 3 (David Fincher, 1992).

Dinner Rush (Bob Giraldi 2000) is one of those movies where the last 30 minutes does much to overcome some lapses in the first part of the film.

A good balance is when an ending can match the tone of the rest of the film and still surprise, confront, or at least leave me thinking.

I’ve come to really dislike the “and then I woke up” end of films such as Vanilla Sky (Cameron Crowe, 2001), or films that just don’t know when to end, such as Artificial Intelligence: AI (Steven Spielberg, 2001).

Most of the time I prefer to see movies with other people, and I am fond of the kinds of films where the ending can prompt discussion about the fate of the protagonists well after the credits roll.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) is a classic example.

It’s the type of ending that is really another kind of beginning.

 

This article first appeared in issue 35 of Australian Screen Education.

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