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VERY FIRST PERSON

{The End Game}

A Lot of Movies Stink. A Lot close with Cinematic Group Hugs. Coincidence?

September 10, 2000|JIM ZARROLI | National Public Radio correspondent Jim Zarroli is based in New York. This is his first story for the magazine

And for me, the worst thing about today's movies, by far, are the endings.

Too many recent films end in a swoon of manufactured good feeling. Filmmakers lay on the fake feelings with a garden shovel. It's no longer enough for the boy to end up getting the girl. He has to get the corporate job and the corner office as well. Any hint of disease, death or conflict must be pushed into the background.

Hollywood took Susanna Kaysen's spare, searching memoir of her stint in a private mental hospital, "Girl, Interrupted," and gave it a life-affirming ending, in which the departing main character (Winona Ryder) walks around relentlessly hugging everybody in sight. She even makes up with the horrid Lisa (Angelina Jolie), a fellow patient who has threatened her with a syringe, driven another woman to suicide and then stolen money out of the corpse's pocket. Hey, no hard feelings. "You're going to get out of here, and you're going to come see me," she assures Lisa, teary-eyed. It may be the first mental-hospital-slumber-party in movie history.

Likewise, the three sisters in "Hanging Up" spend two hours sloshing around in a familial pit of resentment and rivalries. Then they resolve everything with a teary confrontation scene and a family flour fight.

Again and again, Hollywood raises serious issues in films and then cops out with a false promise that everything can work out, even if doing so contradicts the spirit and meaning of everything that came before it.

This tendency to end movies in a Procrustean bed of synthetic uplift simply ruins a lot of films for me. You're supposed to leave such movies wrapped in a gauze of warm feelings. All I want to do is run for the exit. When movie characters act in ways so at odds with human behavior, it's like seeing game-show contestants squeal over the chance to win a set of steak knives: I feel disengaged from what I'm seeing, and embarrassed for the people on screen.

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NONE OF THIS IS NEW, OF COURSE. HAPPY ENDINGS HAVE ALWAYS been Hollywood's preferred way of doing business. That's part of what makes it Hollywood. Let Europe be preoccupied with war and death. American movies are in the optimism and hope trade.

And when no hope is available, Hollywood is all too happy to engineer it. MGM once made a movie in which Anna Karenina, played by Greta Garbo, decides not to throw herself under the train. Instead she goes home and is reunited with Vronsky after her husband dies. None of that tedious Slavic brooding over fate and duty for her. Paramount's 1932 version of "A Farewell to Arms" went a step further by offering theater owners two endings to choose from. In one, the heroine dies in childbirth (as she does in the Hemingway novel). In the other, she survives.

Movie history is replete with cases of sunny endings being grafted on to material deemed too dark or ironic. Take the 1928 silent film "The Wind," directed by Victor Seastrom. It's a haunting story about a young woman (Lillian Gish) driven mad by an unhappy marriage and the monochromatic bleakness of life in a prairie homestead. One day a visitor tries to rape her, and she shoots him. Because she believes her husband will suspect her of infidelity, she buries the body in a nearby field. It looks like she's gotten away with it--until she realizes the corpse is being unearthed by the relentless prairie wind. It's a metaphor for the slow unraveling of her sanity.

Not exactly "Singin' in the Rain." After studio executives saw it, they forced Seastrom to add a scene in which husband and wife reconcile and vow to fight the odds against them. When I saw the movie a few years ago and the scene came on, the theater audience burst into laughter. As for Seastrom, he left Hollywood a short time later and never worked in U.S. films again.

But the all-time silliest example of a changed ending has to be the 1964 film version of Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit." In the play, a wealthy woman returns to the village where she was raised and offers everybody a fortune on one condition: They must kill the man who seduced her as a young girl. At first the villagers indignantly refuse, but gradually they begin to convince themselves that perhaps, as good citizens, they have an obligation to consider the request, and in the end they lynch the man.

In the film, the story is much the same, except that when it comes time for the killing, the woman (played by Ingrid Bergman) intervenes. I didn't really want you to murder him, she tells the villagers. I was just trying to show how greedy you all are.

Why this kind of thing happens is no mystery: Hollywood has long believed happy endings sell better. "Movies are an escape, and people want to leave the theater feeling uplifted, rather than on a down note," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which monitors box-office performance.

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