Before I go any further and at risk of being redundant, I should tell you that this whole post is about Film endings. Film endings are, by nature, SPOILER RIDDEN. If you haven’t seen the films that I quote, you may want to watch them before continuing on.
I was watching the 1989 thriller, Leviathan. It has a great cast (Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Meg Foster, Hector Elizondo, Daniel Stern) and for the first hour it’s a well shot, intriguing, claustrophobic thriller set at the bottom of the ocean. I’m really intrigued by the film for it’s great camera work, it’s well developed characters and it’s creepy gooey Thing (1981) like visual effects. It’s also an example of Peter Weller whose over-the-top acting style is really entertaining and perfect for a film about undersea miners who are going a bit stir crazy after a long deployment at the bottom of the ocean.
Then this happens:
What the shit?
Everything goes to shit and the last half hour turns into a 1950s monster movie where a man in a suit wanders around trying to kill the remaining crew. What the hell happened?
What it comes down to is that, endings are incredibly hard to write. I know, I’ve read plenty of screenplays and have written about a half-dozen of my own. Coming up with an excellent idea for an ending can inspire me to write an entire screenplay to go along with it. It’s also the scene that takes the longest to “crack.” Here’s how films used to end.
Dorothy the protagonist defeats the wicked witch and learns she had the power to return to (black and white) Kansas and does so. It’s easy to see why the Hollywood Ending was the preferred conclusion to hundreds of films made in the Golden Age of Hollywood. It’s easy to tie up all the loose ends and always have the good guy win. But we, are fickle and the more movies you (the viewer) watches, the more adept you become at figuring out what is going to happen. So this happened:
I wanted to put the Bonnie and Clyde Shootout, but this’ll have to do…
The ending, along with all of American cinema was thrown through a loop around 1960. Large studio films with predictable studio endings weren’t been seen by young people (16-25), coincidentally one of the first generations to grow up with Cinema as a staple of their lives. Meanwhile, young filmmakers begin making their first films, drawing on influences from here (Ford, Welles, and Wilder) and abroad (Hitchcock, Felini, Kurosawa, Bergman, et al) making some of the classic American films from the 1960s and 1970s. Now as a reader you may be thinking, thank you for the history lesson what does this have to do with endings? Endings become shocking, unexpected, and remarkable. These filmmakers set the bar higher and higher and every filmmaker since has had to reach that bar and it’s not an easy thing to do.
As an audience member, I find two things nearly intolerable, the first is the surprise ending that comes out of nowhere (which I’ll get to in a later post) and the second and most frequent — a bad ending that ruins the movie. The bad ending is usually separated into the unbelievable, the predicted, and the meh. The ending of Leviathan above falls into the unbelievable category. Often times these unbelievable endings are just filmmakers trying as hard as they can to be unexpected, which I can’t fault them for. At least they’re trying. I’m fine with watching a 1950′s monster movies, but Leviathan, if you had just given me some clue that this thriller would have devolved into a maniacal chase between humans and humanoid hybrid monster I wouldn’t have been so frustrated with you.
The expected ending is just lazy writing, or writing that contains too much foreshadowing. As a viewer you have to expect those especially now that films go into production without completed scripts. Films are being rushed into production or are pressured to be filmed quickly. Film is a collaborative medium, and unfortunately too many people are given creative control or rarely, too much creative control given to one person.
I’m sorry this post has been a downer. Now you’re going to expect all the films you see in the future to have terrible endings and that’s just not true. What it comes down to is that yo (the viewer) are the consumer and have all the power. Do research on the films you see. Sites like metacritic.com and rottentomatoes.com help you with aggregates of criticism. You have to be an active participant in your cinema if you want to see the best films out there.
The other thing Harrison and I can’t stress enough is to watch Foreign and Independent Cinema. If you want to see something original and or innovative, there is no better place to do it. The best part about Cinema today is that we don’t have to leave our houses to see them. Check your On Demand listing or iTunes. I just saw this tiny little film called Another Earth. It was an amazing piece of cinema that I would recommend to you. It has a little bit of a twist ending that you don’t see coming. It was shot on a shoestring budget and it’s biggest star is William Mapother, of Lost fame. It’s my favorite film of 2011 and shows how great collaboration can be.
I leave you with this. One of the most talked about endings in recent memory. Yes it’s the final 5 minutes of the final episode of the Sopranos. It’s amazing because it culminates in a moment that builds suspense and leaves us with no definitive answer. This technique of letting our minds do the work of writing the ending no writer can write a better ending than us (the viewer). Is it lazy? Maybe, but it works.