Ars Terminus

Fault me on my Latin if you must, what I’m going to talk about here is movie endings. I even found a nice pretentious Henry Wadsworth Longfellow quote for the purpose, and that’s in good ol’ English, so if it’s grammatically incorrect take it up with him:

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”

The other night I had the superlative pleasure of viewing Hobo with a Shotgun. I won’t be reviewing it here, as I’m sure others of the panel of experts have their plans to do just that, but when I say one of the best parts of the film was the ending, I am not being backhanded and snarky. The story lasted exactly as long as it needed to last, and no more.

In thinking about it, I have come to realize that almost all of my favorite movies share this quality. The end credits can arrive with a bang, or a whimper, but they arrive exactly when they are meant to. If I’ve particularly enjoyed a film that I’m seeing for the first time, and I reach that point where both intellectually and instinctively I feel it’s time to go to black, I will be silently praying for the director to have felt the same. If they don’t meet my expectations, then it’s a rare case that I still induct what I’ve seen in to my personal all time greats list.

Some examples:

Jaws, my absolute favorite movie. The shark dies, Hooper resurfaces and Quint’s fate is related with an exchange of two words, then the survivors are shown paddling back to land on a makeshift raft (and if you pay close attention to the credits, you’ll actually see them making landfall). John Williams’s score throughout this sequence also stays gentle, lyrical, and uplifting, finally letting you relax in perfect catharsis after a runtime of tension and terror.

– Speaking of John Williams, the original, unmodified Star Wars trilogy, plus Raiders of the Lost Ark, are triumphs not only in how they end but in their perfect musical segues to the heroic crash of the credits sequence. Even in the case of Empire Strikes Back and Raiders, where the stories end on darker “notes”, things are deftly manipulated so that the shift is natural rather than jarring. Empire needs that final scene in the medical frigate to show the thread of hope that still exists, with the declaration to find Han, and the pullback to show the rebels still have a rather sizeable fleet. Raiders has one of the most brilliant endcaps ever where the Lost Ark is hidden away by the U.S. Government, in perhaps one of the only instances I can remember that the U.S. Government in a film made a damn good decision. Indy can call them “bureaucratic fools” all he wants, but we just got through a whole movie with a recurring, rather gory theme of “The Ark is not to be Fucked With”. Best to just symbolically rebury it.

– Se7en is a movie that ends in a tragic way for its protagonists. The soul-crushed Mills is hauled away in a police car, his life a ruin, and there’s nothing more really to say… except for Somerset’s quote of Hemingway that shows his intended perseverence in the face of even the level of horror and madness he (and we) have been subjected to: “‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

– Unforgiven could have ended with William Munny shooting Little Bill, or with his ride into the darkness and thunder after promising deadly retribution on Big Whiskey should they stray from his commandments. But it doesn’t, because Unforgiven is a movie about the people and the mundane details behind the legends. So instead, it quietly tells you that William Munny returned to his farm, but later moved on, possibly to prosper in dry goods, and caps off by ending as it began with a discussion of the unsolved mystery behind the love of a man and a woman, a woman who “had married a known thief and murderer, a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition.” Fade to black. Or perhaps, more appropriately, a darkened gray.

– And last but not least for this blog: Ghostbusters. A few last, choice one-liners are uttered, Peck is justly covered in a shower of marshmallow goo, Peter and Dana are together, then Zeddemore just yells “I LOVE THIS TOWN!” and it’s party time in the streets of New York as everyone rocks out to the theme song.

If you want to share any of your own favorite cinematic examples in the comments, feel free. The fine art of ending. I wish I had achieved it for this blog…

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About Clint

Clint Wolf is an opinionated nerd, who writes a comic (Zombie Ranch) about cowboys who wrangle zombies. We didn't claim he made sense. http://cwolf.zxq.net/
This entry was posted in Armchair Philosophy, Projected Pixels and Emulsion and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Ars Terminus

  1. Louis says:

    I always liked Gymkata’s ending, in that it’s the embodiment of Seinfeld’s “Yada yada yada” in film denouement form.

  2. Justin says:

    For endings, you can’t beat The Thing and Lost Boys.

    • Clint says:

      The Thing was actually on my original list of examples, but I shamefully forgot. Then I figured, “Instead of an edit, I’ll let Justin bring it up”. I agree, I can’t think of any better way that movie could have ended.

      I’ll add Inception to the list as well, for similar reasons of not being afraid to leave the audience in a state of uncertainty.

  3. Andrew says:

    Can any ending really beat Casablanca? I think not.

  4. Andrew says:

    It’s a Wonderful Life is up there as well. Of course both are utter classics. The American President resolves pretty nicely as well.

  5. Duane says:

    …I would actually argue that the fine and timely ending is not a rare commodity, but rather a lost art.

    I blame in reverse order: Spielberg. The blockbuster movie effect. The “twist ending.”

  6. Clint says:

    Just being a blockbuster movie doesn’t necessarily disqualify something for me, as you probably noticed from me listing several Spielberg-involved early blockbusters.

    The twist ending bit is almost uniformly terrible, though, and in that I include the “It’s not over!” shit that runs rampant through the horror genre. You stick an ominous second fin in at the end of Jaws, or an alien screech (and wet pulpy sounds) at the end of The Thing, and you would completely ruin them.

    For God’s sake, I understand people want to milk franchises, but by this point I think we know Freddy’s coming back no matter what. You don’t need to keep showing it just for a cheap final shock. People have come to expect it so much I don’t think it even counts as a twist anymore.

  7. Andrew says:

    What do you to with the end of the huge epic? I’m particularly thinking of the LOTR trilogy and that long resolution sequence. In fairness, I didn’t have a problem with it until Frodo was boarding the boat. Then the longing glances between him and Sam got too long. I’m also thinking of the Harry Potter series, in which the ending seemed rushed and the epilogue somewhat unsatisfying. I’ll be curious to see how that play on the screen.

    • Clint says:

      Return of the Jedi’s ending (original release) is the only epic I can vouch for. Everyone’s together and happy (even the dead guys), big celebration, fireworks… and no, George, you don’t need to show the rest of the galaxy celebrating, too, we got it.

      Return of the King’s endingsszzzzzz…. sorry, what were we talking about?

  8. Andrew says:

    ROTJ, I agree. Lucas has the problem of such a large vision that he really wants to showcase it using the latest technology, hench the new move to give the original trilogy the 3d treatment. Ironically, galaxy celebrating thing probably would not have happened that way. If you look at the “expanded universe”, the war went on for years before the Empire gave up.
    The funny part is that a comparable scene would work just fine in the last Potter movie. I compare the two because I think they both tell relatively compact stories in a very rich and detailed world, and they both have similar story mechanics.
    Hmmm…there’s a post in there somewhere.
    Return of the King, I didn’t mind resolving Frodo’s experience and signaling the end of the myth with the elves sailing away. I just think they overdid it by a bit.

  9. Clint says:

    It’s a timing issue. I could liken it to the art of telling an effective joke in a comic strip. End too early, or too late, and the impact is lessened. RotK may have been staying true to Tolkien by having all the denoument, but the audience around me was groaning by the third fade-out fake-out. That’s not the impression you want people leaving the epic with.

  10. Bryn says:

    I’m a little late to this, but I’m catching up on my back-reading.

    Although there are actually a lot of movies I love for their endings, one of my favorites is Fight Club, and that final line from Edward Nortan to Helena Bonham Carter:

    “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”

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