Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cliffhangers aren't cowardice (but catharsis can be)

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and Robert Iler in the series finale of HBO's The Sopranos.

A few days ago, historian Andrew Roberts wrote an absolutely confounding piece for the Daily Beast calling for an end to unresolved movie endings. (The piece can be found here, but be warned; there are spoilers for The Grey, Rampart, Footnote and The Italian Job, among others). Roberts begins his article by calling unresolved endings "a curious malaise born of cultural decadence," and ends it by accusing those cavalier, amoral directors who film movies with cliffhanger endings of "sheer directorial moral cowardice" in their apparent quest to deny the good people of the moviegoing public "the catharsis they've paid their $13 to experience."

First of all, who the fuck is charging $13 for movie tickets?! I thought my local theater was gouging me with $11 tickets, but apparently it could actually be worse if I, like Roberts, lived in London. It's enough to make me want to move back to Utah, where ticket prices are hanging out around $8.50 (which, of course, I thought was totally unreasonable when I lived there. Times change.)

More importantly, however, Roberts' claim that directors who choose to end their films without resolving the plot are moral cowards is wrong-headed. He claims that endings that are unresolved are "shortchanging the moviegoing public, which has the perfect right to see good behavior rewarded and bad behavior punished." For good measure, he adds that "all the great filmmakers of the past" understood and respected this supposed audience "right" to a happy ending.

Besides ignoring the filmmaker's right to shoot whatever he damn well pleases, the author reveals his real argument here. It's not only unresolved endings that have his panties in a twist, but endings that do not allow good to triumph over evil. Roberts isn't arguing against a particular type of narrative device, but against a "literally demoralized, postmodernist view of the world" in which film directors revel in amorality and their poor audiences are left starved for an unchallenging, pre-packaged, easy-to-swallow ending. He wants to return to the same idealized, sepia-tinted past the Republican presidential candidates are always yammering on about, while tactfully ignoring the fact that their idyll of Americana was also a world of racial discrimination, sexism and homophobia.

Because that's what Roberts, with his "kids these days" rhetoric and his conscious opposition of demoralized postmodernism and the "great filmmakers of the past" is doing. He's couching a social argument in aesthetic terms, indulging in some grumpy-old-man bitching about the state of the world and pretending his complaint is with the movies. And in doing so, he glosses over several very important truths that undermine his argument.

For one thing, there are many "great filmmakers of the past" who didn't provide the type of cathartic endings that Roberts so misses. His claims are almost perfect echoes of the review that Bosley Crowther published of Bonnie and Clyde over forty years ago, in which he took director Arthur Penn and producer Warren Beatty to task for treating "the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cutups in Thoroughly Modern Millie." Bonnie and Clyde, by the way, is generally considered one of the most ambitious, revolutionary and, yes, greatest American films, while Thoroughly Modern Millie is a museum piece.

Another truth that Roberts glibly elides is the fact that, despite his conviction that unresolved endings are an epidemic, he mentions only four recent films that leave the viewer guessing: The Grey, Rampart, Footnote, and A Separation. Of these four films, The Grey is the only one of the bunch out in wide release; Rampart is a tiny indie, and Footnote and A Separation are both foreign films that are probably not even playing in your local art house. It's hard to take Roberts seriously when he ends his piece by claiming that cliffhanger endings have become cliche, given that these four films have probably been seen by less than five percent of the audience of even a mid-sized, traditionally cathartic blockbuster.

But the deepest underlying problem with Roberts' argument is his assertion that refusing to provide the audience with a black-and-white, good vs. evil, cathartic ending is "moral cowardice." He criticizes the "we-are-all-guilty" mentality of moral ambiguity, of challenging the audience to look at its own complicity, of daring the audience to identify with a villain and to accept that, in art as in life, there is no such thing as pure good or pure evil.

This type of filmmaking, however, strikes me as the opposite of cowardly. It takes courage and conviction to depict an immoral character who doesn't get his comeuppance, as David Chase did in the finale of The Sopranos; or to look at a society collapsing under its own weight and refuse to offer a solution, as David Simon's The Wire did; or to simply push past a moment of catharsis, and watch a couples' happy ending sour as they realize that they haven't thought it through, as Mike Nichols did with the closing shot of The Graduate.

There are so many great, unresolved endings in film, television and literature that The AV Club provided a whole Inventory of them a few weeks back. While reading that inventory - which included two of the best movies of recent years, Inception and A Serious Man, as well as one of my favorite books, The Crying of Lot 49 - it became clear that the reason these endings were so powerful was the fact that they were unresolved. Catharsis can certainly be memorable and powerful as well, but these films, TV series and books stick in your mind because they force you into a confrontation with your own expectations. They don't let you experience that moment of relief, but instead haunt you with their indecision.

That doesn't sound like cowardice to me. It sounds like truth.

No comments:

Post a Comment