Friday, April 27, 2007

All’s Well: A List of Great Movie Endings

I came up with what I think is a superb final image for a script I’m working on, but Herr Direktor thinks otherwise. So I’m thinking about endings. Why are some endings so perfect. and others not so much? Here’s my endings theory: Good endings feel like an Inevitable Surprise. Bad endings are either too inevitable (you saw it coming, so it’s a letdown), too surprising (you feel tricked)—or perhaps I should say, surprising in the wrong way—or else they just try too hard and you can feel the strings being yanked on, and you resent it. Inevitable Surprise. Surely someone has said this before. But I’m claiming it as my pet theory. And I need a pet theory, now that we’ve given up on guinea pigs.

Inevitability implies that the ending is prepared for. Because movies run the storytelling gamut, a “happy ending” is only occasionally inevitable. Among my favorite movie endings, only a handful are what anyone might describe as happy. As I thought of endings to add to my list, each seemed to fall into one of four categories:

1. Uplifting
2. Chilling
3. Bittersweet/Ambivalent/Poetic/Melancholy/Mysterious
4. Perfect Bummers

So. Let’s get the UPLIFTERS out of the way:

1. Cinema Paradiso: Just one of the greatest endings ever. If the middle section of the film weren’t weakened by a lame actor playing Our Hero, this would be one of my top ten movies of all time.

2. A Room With A View: Love triumphs over Edwardian repression. Yay!

3. The Game: Michael Douglas is only good at playing arrogant pricks, but this role at least gives him some interesting psychological texture. It’s great to watch him get broken down to his real humanity. As iffy as the ending is in terms of what seems realistically possible, it’s completely satisfying, inspiring, even funny. It's Finchery.

4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: This would have been in the Bittersweet/etc. category if Charlie Kaufman’s original ending had survived. He says that when Joel and Clementine decide to give it another go, the original ending makes it clear that they’ve done this (erasing their memories of each other and then trying again) not just once before, but over and over. I have to say, I like it better that they’re not stuck in an endless loop. A little more hope.

5. High Fidelity: It’s a real feel-gooder, after all that narcissistic dithering and getting dumped and failing to grow up. It should be a cardinal rule of filmmaking: If an upbeat ending is called for, just get Jack Black to sing Marvin Gaye.

Honorable-mention Uplifters:

The 40-Year-Old-Virgin: Let the sunshine in!
Napoleon Dynamite: Both endings qualify.
Flirting With Disaster: One of my fave movies from start to finish.

Next category: great CHILLERS:

1. Seven: Yikes, what’s in the box, we know what’s in the box, aaaaaaaah, jeez....

2. Easy Rider: This could as easily be in the Perfect Bummer category. But it seems to resonate with all the disappointment of post-‘60s America, taking on a big chill. (Hmmm, does The Big Chill have a good ending? I can’t remember.)

3. The Godfather: Ooooh, look at Pacino through that doorway, becoming The Godfather. Look at Diane Keaton absorb the fact that her life is FUCKED. Look at them shut the door in her face... Oooooh.

4. Apocalypse Now: The horror.

5. Dr. Strangelove: Weird, how a movie this funny, and a song so light and sunny, can feel like a megatonny of grim, chilly-willy ice-cubes down your back.

Honorable-mention Chillers:

Sunset Boulevard: Maybe “creepy” is a better word for this one.
Silence of the Lambs: It’d be chillier if we didn’t actually want Lecter to kill the guy. It’s more Chiltoning than chilling. But still.

Next category: Bittersweet/Poetic/Ambivalent/Melancholy/Mysterious

1. Days of Heaven: My favorite film of all time. Mind-blowingly beautiful, utterly sad.

2. A Map of the Human Heart: Transcendent, yet melancholy. Yet glorious.

3. 2001: A Space Odyssey: What the hell does it all mean? I don’t even care.

4. Children of Men: Too heavily symbolic, maybe? Nah. God, I love this movie. I just got the DVD and watched it again. Splendid extra features about the production.

5. Witness: Nothing like star-crossed lovers for the bittersweet. As Our Hero is leaving, he passes his romantic rival coming the other way and his brake lights go on, just for a moment. Perfect.

6. Local Hero: This used to be on my Top Ten list for movies, period. I wonder if it still is? Anyway, a great ending, with that lovely twinge of yearning.

7. Oh, yeah. Casablanca.

I feel like there should be a dozen more in this category. A few Honorable Mentions:

Big Bad Love: Actually ineligible for ranking due to conflict of interest. But I like it.

Raising Arizona: One of the best last lines in movies.

The Graduate: A very influential movie. If it had never been made, how would the next one have ended?

Say Anything: Ding!

Next category: PERFECT BUMMERS

1. Citizen Kane: The whole movie is a perfect bummer, really. The ending just gives it a wistful twist. I mean, a twistful wist.

2. Thelma & Louise: By the time they actually go over the edge, it’s no longer a complete surprise. But it’s just enough of one to balance out the inevitability.

3. Memento: I’m trying to think of another ending that forced me to watch the movie again. I know there’s another obvious one, but this is a prime example of the effect, because the ending of the movie is actually the beginning of the story. You only understand what you’ve seen when the ending/beginning clicks in.

4. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Coming out of the theater, I was still elated by the movie as a whole, so the bummer-ish ending wasn’t a letdown. It still seems like a great, if disenchanting, surprise. Yet inevitable.

5. The Wizard of Oz: I’m sure some people find it heartwarming or uplifting, but I think “The next time I go searching for my heart’s desire, I won’t go any further than my own backyard” is one of the saddest lines ever delivered by a teenager. Especially in Kansas.

OK, and here are a couple of great endings that probably deserve their own category. Maybe we should just call it EASY TO SPOIL. These are endings that may be inevitable, but mainly, they’re surprising. One answers a question we really needed to have answered, and the other comes out of nowhere to hit us upside the head:

The Usual Suspects: I watched this again on cable recently and got bored. But the ending was still great. It’s the editing that does it, really.

The Sixth Sense: Oh, this is the other ending that made me go back to see the movie a second time. But after the second time, I need never watch it again.

What else should go on this list? Since my categories derived from films I love, I wonder if I’m missing a whole category. I’m sure I’ve missed some movies. Make me slap my forehead in inevitable surprise.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

To the left, to the left

Why do the arts lean leftward, politically? Back when I was more of an ideologue, I just figured: the arts are good, so naturally, artists tend to be on the side of good, and that's the left side, of course. You get older, things get less black & white, and you begin to wonder. Why do most writers, musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, dancers, performers in general, tend to be progressives rather than conservatives? The place of art, at least in modern culture, has often been at odds with repressive powers that be (hence the image of Trotsky's pals Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, godparents of this post). Why do contemporary American artists who express opinions about politics and current events almost unanimously deplore the current administration's policies?

First, what's left and what's right? I'm saying that the extreme left end of the political spectrum is anarchy; the extreme right is a police state. More toward the center, liberalism favors equality and social freedom; conservatism favors hierarchy and social order (and the free reign of capital). Is the most balanced view simply moderate, down the middle? I don't think so, because power and wealth tend to reinforce each other, concentrating in institutional elites, so the right’s laissez-faire attitude toward power and capital is only balanced out by moving farther leftward, constraining the abuse of that power. If you have a big fat bossy kid on a seesaw, it’ll take several kids on the other side to get him off the ground. Or you could lengthen that side of the lever away from the fulcrum in the middle and place one underfed lefty on the seat.

Do the assumptions behind my first two paragraphs really hold up?

1) I think so. The arts do lean left. A cursory survey suggests that it’s overwhelmingly disproportionate, and going deeper just amplifies that, exceptions proving the rule. For every Ezra Pound defending Mussolini, a hundred poets from Whitman to Neruda to Szymborska spend their lives writing in the other direction. For every John Milius reactionary fantasy there are scads of films celebrating liberal values or satirizing the fecklessness of the powerful. For every Ron Silver strutting and fretting on behalf of the Iraq war, five hundred other actors run lines of leftist dialogue against it. And among musicians, well, the left claims pretty much everybody but Toby Keith and his ilk. Rock & roll is about rebellion, so you don’t get much right-wing apologia in popular music, other than country & western.

2) Maybe. I first started thinking about this when my freshman-year political science prof put communism on the left end of a spectrum and fascism on the right. It doesn't make sense. Communism is an economic construct, and in real life, it’s turned out to be state-run capitalism. If the spectrum is a truly political one, I think it goes from absolute freedom, which doesn’t really exist, to absolute order, which ditto (though not for lack of trying). It makes more sense to have governments like Stalin’s, Mao’s, Hitler’s, and Pinochet's on the same end of the spectrum. So the brief flirtations American artists have had with communism have always been more about reacting to fascist right-wing tendencies in the U.S. than embracing the Party line. Artists who got blacklisted in the ‘50s ended up nearly as disenchanted with communism as they were with McCarthyism.

Maybe there’s a reverse angle on this, looking at why people on the left tend to support and defend artistic freedom (and government-funded grants for artists, art programs, museums, etc.), while people on the right tend to try to rein in artistic freedom and place limits on expression and the public forums for it, dismantling the NEA while they’re at it. The left certainly has embraced minorities in a way that the right has not, and artists themselves are a minority. Minorities are disproportionately represented in the arts, especially music.... My mind is starting to fritz out. I can’t keep these ideas framed to look at them straight on.

Maybe I’m suggesting that artists are more interested in self-expression than in submitting to authority, a naturally progressive mindset. Is the need to submit to authority conversely stronger in conservatives? I haven’t really addressed what draws someone to the right. In America, often as not, it seems to be either a single issue (say, abortion) or a cluster of such issues coded as “family values,” tied to a conservative Christian belief system (hence, James Dobson up there, damning me to hell). The most vocal advocates for this POV are almost always vocal critics of artistic expression, busily banning books, decrying obscenity in film and song lyrics, etc. When left-leaning politicians reach for conservative votes, it’s usually in this parent-friendly way, demanding warning labels and ratings and cultural crash pants. Conservatives support all these limits, especially where sex is concerned.

That may be it right there. Artists are sex maniacs (or at least like to depict it and talk about it out in the open)--and the left is more sex-friendly, less repressed? Could this alone be the key to the whole question? Freud might say so. But I think Jung would demur. Jung (who was NOT, as Tom Cruise asserts, some big Nazi) would probably say that creativity is linked to the Shadow, and then go back to screwing his patient. And I say, but Herr Doktor, what does it mean if I dream of Susan Sontag launching fireworks from her crotch into the skies over Paris? Which I did. Last night.

Maybe it’s this simple: Artists are aesthetes, and there’s more beauty in progressive politics. Is there? How can I defend that? Start with what makes something beautiful: balance and strangeness. The balance comes from paradox, irony, making opposites one. The strangeness, which keeps something beautiful from being merely pretty, is the unique stamp of the artist’s personality. Does the left have better balance, more uniqueness? Maybe it better balances individual rights with the needs of the collective. And maybe it’s more tolerant of the kind of eccentricity and diversity that make uniqueness possible.

My brain is a swarm of hornets. I leave it to you to explain it all to me.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Another Great Married Couple

I refer, of course, to that rare union of quality and television.

Remember a few seasons back, when Carmela had a talk with Tony, trying to get him to set up a trust or a will, something to put her mind at ease, vis-a-vis "if something happens to you"? When Tony resisted, Carm got tough, reminding him that “everything comes to an end.” Alas, it’s true.

We’re now in the final act of, arguably, the greatest TV series ever. I’d argue it’s better than any Mafia movie, besides the first two Godfather films--and I’m including "Good Fellas." Fine, argue. But as to my initial arguable claim, what arguments are there, really?

Has there ever been a better-written series? (Some say “The West Wing,” forgetting that almost everyone in that White House talks exactly like everyone else. Some say "The Simpsons," and they may have a point. And some writers say “Deadwood,” but can’t say why, other than to quote wonderful lines of iambic pentameter, which don’t explain the show’s occasional dullness). The writing on The Sopranos, raw, refined, comic, tragic, simple, complex, specific, sweeping, daring, restrained, timeless and utterly of its time, is as good as it gets. (I should add, I love "Deadwood," and if they'd cast Calamity Jane better, she'd be one of the greatest characters anywhere, anytime, but the actress isn't up to the role). Speaking of which...

Has there ever been a better-acted series? (Some say “Homicide: Life On The Streets,” but where’s the range? Some say “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and I say, make up your mind. And some say “Prime Suspect,” which I haven’t watched enough to say anything about, except that even at 60, Helen Mirren is hot.) If TV and film are about singular moments and over-all arc, where has a wider range of actors been given so many great moments to play and played them so well? Where have we seen such character-driven story arcs in TV, such a complex, unflinching portrayal of flawed humanity? Have any two actors ever created a more convincing married couple? (Some say “Mad About You” . . . oh, never mind.)

Has any actor more truly lived in front of the camera as a character than James Gandolfini as Tony? The other day, my brother said, “It’s the single greatest sustained creation of a character in the history of television—and that includes Lucy.” I think he means Lucille Ball’s character, not the one in the “Peanuts” specials. Tony looms. Think about someone else playing the role. My sense of the match is, no matter who it was—Brando, DeNiro, Pacino, or freakin’ Orson Welles—it would have been a lesser show. Who else could bring the mix of rage, self-loathing, wit, sexual threat, contempt, wonder, helplessness, bitterness, regret, self-delusion, inertia . . . about a dozen notes at once? Who could play any better the tenderness, sheepish deceit, and brutality of a Mafia dad swerving from a college trip with his daughter to hunt down an informer and choke him to death? What actor has ever been better suited to a role? Gandolfini looms.

I have to say, Edie Falco gives him a run for his money. Carmela has more going on than Tony does, really—a rich interior life coming through that veneer of brittle materialism in every move Edie makes, every expression on her face, every inflection of her voice. It's an absolutely unique character, and you never doubt her for a minute. Even the occasional weak moments from the kid actors end up playing fine in the family scenes, because the structure is Tony and Carmela. He’s the lot and the basement, and she’s pretty much the rest of the house.

Which is not to say that everyone else is mere set decoration. There have always been amazing supporting roles on The Sopranos. Off the top of my head: Livia, Uncle Junior, Christopher, Adriana, Big Pussy, Hesh, Tony’s cousin Tony, Richie, Janice, Ralph, Rosalie, Artie and Charmaine, Gloria, Bobby, Johnny Sack, Phil, Vito. And of course, Dr. Melfi. Even Silvio and Paulie, who seem less than human sometimes, have had great moments.

What great moments will season seven reveal? How does it end? I’ve heard there are bulletin boards devoted to this kind of speculation, but I refuse to check them out. If anyone’s going to spoil it for me, I will. Or, to quote my darling spousette, “If there’s anything I can’t stand, it’s myself.”

Already, it’s a new level of unapologetic venality in the first episode. Astounding dialogue in the lake house scenes, the way Tony plunders psyches with little digs, insults, suggestions, marching orders. And the writers, unfettered by the usual TV writer cramps, open the season with a backward leap of imagination, bringing back a scene from a couple of seasons ago and putting a new twist on it.

A.J. will figure big, if the writers complete the arc of the show and one of its central ideas. What the son does with what he’s given by his parents is an unavoidable theme. It seems entirely possible that A.J. could get whacked. He could also inherit the family business, a la Michael Corleone, especially with Christopher getting sidelined.

Somebody in Tony’s family is getting whacked, that much is sure. Christopher would be a prime choice, maybe served up by Tony himself, the way things are going. A nastier surprise could be Meadow, vulnerable and easy to track down in California. Is that too G3?

The weapons charge has been set up to be Tony’s downfall, assuming he’s not killed in the all-out war that’s brewing with Phil and the New York family. Killed, I don't think. But behind bars? I can see it.

What of Carmela? If the writers fulfill the promise of her character, she has to get closer to her moral center, doesn’t she? We may revisit that soul-searching, and there could be consequences from that. Could she be the one who gets whacked? Oooh, the ultimate whackee. That would cut way deeper than anyone else’s death, even Tony’s.

Jeez, imagine Tony behind bars, mourning Carmela, still trying to run the show from inside, dealing with his kids. A sad ruin of a bruin of a man, who brought it all on himself, simply by Not Doing The Inner Work His Shrink Told Him To Do.

What else could happen? Personally, I’d like to see a little more of Italy, including that walking phallus-with-a-ponytail, Furio, and the female Don played by (ahhhh) Sofia Milos. Or another of Tony’s fantasies, perhaps starring Maria Grazia Cucinotta...but I digress. I don’t see us getting out of town after this first episode. Things are contracting, not expanding. There’s no breathing room for Italy.

And obviously, there’s no happy ending possible in a show like this. One of its great moral lessons (I’m not saying it’s a unique or original lesson, but the way it’s delivered is all that and more) is that what goes around, comes around. I can feel it coming around. And I’ll be sorry to see it go.