A personal diary keeping people abreast of what I am working on writing-wise.

Saturday, November 20, 2004


I've been contemplating the idea of endings, lately. In a sense, when an audience enters into a story, they are putting their trust in the storyteller to take them somewhere. Whatever we are subjected to at the start is going to have some kind of payoff in the end, so even if we don't know where we are going, we have faith that it's all going to make sense.

Which is not a cry for pat endings, where everything is tied up. I am all for ambiguity, and I have said of myself, many times, that I prefer to end my stories at the moment before the "final" ending. I usually express it thus: I like to end on the inhale, and not wait for the exhale. It's a technique I took from Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, where the book ends as its main character answers the phone. He has been mute up until this point, but the phone acts as a wake-up call, and he speaks for the first time, the cap to a long ordeal. I think this is fine, because Kosinki's goal--the goal I share--is to make sure that all that precedes that wake-up call creates the map that leads to it. I may want you to choose what's next, but I have hopefully given you the proper information to make that choice; my movement towards the inhalation was purposeful. And the final moment isn't accidental or random, it's what the rest of the story supports.

It's when we think that the storyteller lost that sense of purpose, or is trying to sidestep having to answer all the questions he's posed, that we feel cheated. A lot of these thoughts are based on debates I've had with Christopher McQuain over some of Brian DePalma's films. DePalma often falls back on the hoary cliché of "It was all a dream," which to me feels like a tremendous cheat. Rather than do the work to get out of the situation he has created, he opts for an easy exit; on the other hand, Christopher sees the final destination in such a case as far less important than the thrill of the ride. That is a valid argument in something as deliberately lurid as, say, Femme Fatale, but I don't find it at all acceptable in something like the recent film Birth. In Birth, Nicole Kidman plays a woman who has been mourning her dead husband for several years, and when she finally is ready to move on with her life, he returns in the form of a grade schooler. The director and writers (it took three of them to end up with negative results) approach the subject very seriously, raising questions about boundaries in romantic relationships and the nature of madness. Rather than actually give us any real answers, they throw a twist into the last act that gets all of the characters out of the big mess they are in. They then play the game of, "But have they really gotten out?" Except it strikes me as cursory rather than intentional. I felt like by heaping on all sorts of stylistic brushstrokes, they thought I would be dazzled and never see that the film went nowhere. They had demanded a lot of me throughout a very moody, slowly paced film, so it's unfair that they didn't demand as much of themselves as the creators.

These issues were all brought up again upon viewing Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, a film about two sisters who are forced to live parallel but disparate lives, stuck in the quagmire of sexual adolescence. At the end of the film, a sudden and random act of violence changes everything, and then the film is over. Obviously, in real life, people who are victims of crime are victims of a random act. They never saw it coming, and their whole lives do end up hinging on the occurrence; however, is such a thing permissible in the world of story, where nothing is random, where every act contributes to a finite whole? Charlie winning the trip to the chocolate factory in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory isn't random, but expected: we know that's why he's the character that has been chosen for examination. But what if instead of it happening at the beginning of the story, it happens at the end? After 90 minutes of watching Charlie and his family struggle with poverty and illness, Charlie wins the lottery and their lives are saved. Would we not call such an ending pat?

So, why should it be any different with something like Fat Girl, where the filmmaker has chosen to fulfill some of her main character's desires and push her in a different direction, the direction the rest of her life will take, but rather than let the events take that course naturally, throws a roadside killer into the mix? Was his bursting through the windshield that far a cry from someone waking up in bed, screaming, drenched in cold sweat? It wouldn't be fair to say Breillat doesn't at least telegraph it a little. As soon as the family pulled onto the highway, I was waiting for something bad to happen, so she clearly did something to create a sense of dread (though what she did escapes me, almost like she relied on a filmic unconscious trained to believe something will go wrong in the final third). So, why do I feel like the older sister in Fat Girl, a victim of some foreign lothario, who swore he'd love me forever, only to leave me alone in the despair of broken promises? Or should I give Breillat more credit, that maybe that's what she meant all along?

Current Soundtrack: Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, "Breathless/There She Goes..." CDS; Nirvana, With the Lights Out, disc 1

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[to leave comments, click on the time-stamp below, then scroll down on the new page] – All text (c) 2004 Jamie S. Rich


neal s said...

I can't relate to this because, as you know, everything I write has a really tidy ending.

All kidding aside, damn good points made. I was actually toying with the idea of making this week's Utility Player a kind of treatise on Story, dealing with some similar themes.

wallflower said...

I didn't mind the ending of Birth, as it seemed to me the answer was, "Of course!" I think it's a response to our desire for grasp at straws, and to movies in which fantasy is too easy.

Fat Girl's ending however actually offended me, something not even Hollow Man could do! ;) It wasn't what happened to the younger sister - i could see that. Except the context was outrageous. It turned a decent story about self-loathing (etc.) into a national news headline. It's like the climax in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, when, just before the assuault on the castle, they all get arrested by the local police. Something that would've have made more sense to me would be her facing her fate alone, perhaps on a trip to the washroom. Breillat intended to shock us, but at the cost of throwing out most of the movie we'd just seen. Sure it happens, but what was the point?

Jamie S. Rich said...

BIRTH, I think had a bit more of an ending beyond the twist, though, Wallflower. While there was some logic to the twist, I think rather than deal with the fallout of it, the filmmakers took its "shocking" nature as an easy escape. Kidman's reaction was pretty immediate, even though big emotional issues had been dredged up; it made for the resulting bout of madness to be hollow for me.