The Universal Notebook: No Hollywood endings

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My favorite movie is “Hannah and Her Sisters” by Woody Allen. I love the New York atmosphere, the actors and the characters they portray, the realistic storylines and Woody Allen’s gallows humor. There is something comforting about the way Woody’s Mickey overcomes his existential dread and how auteur Allen wraps things up neatly in the end.

Lately I have seen a series of otherwise fine films with disappointing endings. It’s as though screenwriters and directors have forgotten how to tie up loose ends and bring a story to a conclusion.

Of course we know how World War II ended, but in addition to a totally fictional pivotal scene in “The Darkest Hour,” in which London subway riders inspire Winston Churchill to fight to the end, the otherwise compelling biopic ends with captions. Director Joe Wright obviously wanted to end with Churchill’s rousing “We will fight on the beaches” speech, so he just stopped there and explained what happened in the end with text rather than images.

We also know how the Pentagon Papers drama ended, but “The Post,” too, has an unsatisfying ending, foreshadowing the even more compelling role the Washington Post played in Watergate and relying on the audience to know the rest.

I enjoyed both “The Florida Project” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” but neither film reaches anything like a resolution. The former just flies off in a flight of Disney World fancy after the gritty realism of the narrative; the latter cops out entirely, as though director Martin McDonagh were reluctant for his movie to become a revenge flick. The audience wants justice in the end, and “Three Billboards” does not deliver it.

My two favorite films of the year – and my picks for next month’s Academy Awards – were “Lady Bird” and “The Shape of Water.” Hated the ending to “Lady Bird.” Loved the ending to “The Shape of Water.” Greta Gerwig’s mother-daughter film has an implied ending in which the willful daughter simply leaves a phone message for her mother that suggests things may eventually work out.

“Really!? That’s it?” That’s the reaction I had at the end of all of these movies.

Guillermo Del Toro, however, got it right in “The Shape of Water.” This dark girl-gets-fish fable has a Hollywood ending precisely because it is a fantasy. The director is free to bring characters back to life and let people breathe underwater because there are no constraints of realism.

Maybe I’ve been sensitive to endings lately because at 68 I am making preparations for retirement, developing an investment strategy, getting a will in order, making arrangements for health insurance, long-term care and lugubrious stuff like that.

Then, too, as I wrote in a column last August (“The Universal Notebook: You look like you just lost your best friend”), one of my best friends died last summer. Chris’s death came as a shock to his family and friends because it was so unexpected. He had things to do, plans he had made. He wasn’t even quite ready to retire. Now the loose ends of his life will never be tied up. They don’t even know the cause of death, for heaven’s sake. Chris is gone and we’re all left dangling here.

That’s the way I felt sitting in darkened theaters as credits rolled on most of these movies – left hanging. Unsatisfied. Troubled. Perplexed.

I guess I’m old-fashioned. I like Hollywood endings. I prefer a movie that follows the classical rhythm of tragedy – purpose, passion, perception. The hero starts out with a purpose, pursues it with passion and ultimately comes to a perception, an epiphany that then may give him or her a new purpose in life to pursue with new passion in Act Two.

Art does not have to imitate life. It is free to be so much more. Properly structured, a film or play can provide catharsis, revelation, moral instruction, and even, to use that much over-used term, closure. The revelation of a lot of good films these days seems to be that nothing is revealed. The artist doesn’t know anything you don’t know. Movies just end. Life just ends. We all leave unfinished business.

Really!? That’s it?

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

  • Ted Markow

    “Really!? That’s it?”


    P.S. Going to see that Shape of Water soon. I’ll see what that’s all about…or isn’t.
    P.P.S. And sometimes, it’s just about great acting and directing…an increasing rarity.

  • Queenie42

    Movies! One of my three great passions; books and politics being the other two.
    My dad was an actor, director and worked in New York, then summer stock in Vermont, where I was born then started his own theater group, The Penny Players in the opera house in Norway, Maine in the 1950s. I learned a lot from him about acting and how to look for the great acting and directing in a play or movie.
    I have been studying film for about 35 years. I really don’t know how I veered off into British film. I was blown away by the acting of Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud and others and began to collect books about them and movies starring British actors and actresses in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.
    My favorite film is a quirky story called “A Canterbury Tale” (1944) by Powell & Pressburger. A couple of other favorites are “Saloon Bar” (1940) and “Quiet Weekend”.(1946) They show an England that I have always been homesick for. A way of life that is sadly gone.
    Just like the audiences back in those days, I also watch movies for entertainment. A chance to shrug off the reality of difficult times and the fulfillment of seeing Justice or Happiness at the end. I rarely find this from modern films.
    Last Sunday I turned 76. Hard to get around anymore so I don’t go to movies in a theater. I watch everything on my PC or on a television that will play discs from any region. It is not hooked up to cable and we have not watched tv for about 15 years. The commercials are unbearable. So I will probably wait until “The Post” comes out on DVD. I love Ben Bradlee and Kay Graham and have most of their books or books about them.
    If you like old movies there is a great free site called free-classic-movies dot com. A guy named Jimbo Berkey runs it and has all public domain movies from almost any era you like. Have plenty of popcorn, a comfy place to sit and enjoy!
    Thanks, Mr. Beem for this column.
    And, as always, Resist.

    • EdBeem

      Great comment. I’ll check out the British films. Thanks.

    • poppypapa

      How about movies (“films”) for Eddie’s white trash Americans?

      • EdBeem

        I, Tonya?

  • Max Millard

    Good summation of films worth seeing, without giving too much away about the endings. But I was surprised to read that you are preparing for retirement. What are you retiring from? I don’t recall from any of your columns that you were holding any job apart from writing your column. If you are, it would be interesting to hear what kind of work a 68-year-old would be doing to make a living. I hope that you don’t consider your column as work, and that you will continue it as long as you can see the keypad on your computer.

    • EdBeem

      I’ll keep writing til they pry the pencil from my etc, etc. It’s just that fewer and fewer publications pay me for them. I guess it’s time to complete that novel I have been working on since 1976.

  • Queenie42

    Slightly off topic, but speaking of video, movies, etc…………
    If you do nothing today, go to Daily Kos and watch Rob Reiner’s interview with James Clapper and John Brennan in a Daily Kos Diary. Then, in the same diary, watch Morgan Freeman’s (one of my favorite American actors) short video. Then, share these videos on Facebook, with friends, family, everyone.

  • Ted Markow

    The three movies you mentioned, in order of my recommendation:
    1. The Post. I actually started getting a tension headache – it was that well crafted and acted!
    2. The Darkest Hour. Again, superb writing and acting. Yes, we were left hanging, but if we were paying attention in History class…
    3. The Shape of Water. Well written and acted…but there was something a little fishy about it (pun shamelessly intended). Tho, Sally Hawkins was aces!

    I don’t know, I may have to rearrange the list…