Friday, November 13, 2009

Well-Resolved Movie Endings: An Ambiguity Intervention


There's been some talk of ambiguous endings over at CollegeHumor and Cinematical. The CollegeHumor video is good fun... the Cinematical article? Probably a bit divisive, since writer Jette criticizes the iconic open-ended conclusions of some truly canonical films. I mean, I know as well as the next guy... unless you're a Tai Chi master, sitting through 2001 is going to require some patience. However, if you're meditating along with 3 hours of Kubrick, or puzzling over all the cryptic cynicism of No Country for Old Men, or especially (and this one simply baffles me) going along with all the absurdity of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, then your mind should probably be a little loose and pliable by the end of the movie... enough that you can accept some unanswered questions.

Or maybe we're thinking about this backwards. Maybe it's not that they're inflicting ambiguity upon us (as Jette seems to assume) -- maybe we need to look at resolution itself, that polished up, nicely-packaged cereal box prize that comes with every popcorn flick, every childrens' movie, and everything involving Ron Howard. You know what that nugget is, and why studios are so intent on writing it into their pictures? It's because it's an addiction, and they need to keep feeding it to us so we keep the taste in our mouths.

Resolution as an addiction: here's the rationale. A widely-abused drug, generally speaking, is a way of evoking or enhancing something that we occasionally get anyway, just by being human... brain chemicals like dopamine, or stimulation of reward centers, or what have you. The drug is just something that's manufactured artificially, made to trigger those little pleasure-spots.

Now, in real life, there's something else we're always looking for... meaning, fairness, and resolution. Those things are surprisingly scarce in the real world, where things like cynicism, illogicality, and uncertainty are pretty much rampant. So most movies are filled with artifically-produced nuggets of meaning, like "good" and "evil," "karma," "justice," and "retribution." It's not that these things don't exist in real life... it's just that they're not very plentiful, and it sure feels good to get an extra hit once every week or two.

Addiction is just what happens when we condition ourselves to have more of these things than is naturally available. And "annoyance" is what results when we're looking for that weekly fix, and we end up with this movie where things are left up-in-the-air... a movie that pursues some less obvious intention, perhaps offering some sort of slower-acting analytical or thematic payoff, but that doesn't put out the goods we're always looking for.

When I see a truly unresolved movie... The Last Wave, or Blowup, or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind... I get a pang of frustration at first. I didn't get to see anyone get rewarded, or punished, or targeted by divine justice. So it's a lot like real life, except maybe with better dialogue. However, once I have time to start reflecting on a film, I end up with this gradual-onset positive feeling, like you might get from successfully resisting a dependency, and feeling its grip on you loosen slightly.

I end up feeling like maybe there's stuff that's as messy and uncertain and pedestrian as the things that happen to me every day, but that it's still worth paying attention to, and even telling a story about.

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