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On Being Open to Open-Ended Endings

On Being Open to Open-Ended Endings

I decided to make a list of my favourite films and write a short movie review for each of them.

Note: If you want to see a stunning example of the open-ended ending, view “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Wow, what an ending. A mother wailing uncontrollably  and a Gestapo father with horror and remorse written all over his face.

I watched it again today. The Chinese Botanist’s Daughter. I don’t know why I am drawn to this subtitled Chinese production filmed in Vietnam. It always leaves me sad and wanting a resolution where love prevails, unjustness is vanquished, and cultural intolerance is overcome.  But none of this happens. All that we have in the end is an unjust trial, execution, and ashes dumped on a lake.

All of the elements of tragedy linger on. I suppose you could make a case that the forbidden love between Ming and An goes on forever as their ashes mingle on the water, but they are dead. Evil wins. Their demise ultimately means nothing. The film even had to be shot in northern Vietnam instead of China because of a staunch official stance against homosexuality.

In the end, no mission was accomplished. Love does not prevail. No goal met. Death itself is an ultimate finality, but what does it accomplish? Nothing changes; except, perhaps, one thing: the moviegoer. We shall see why the open-ended ending makes this possible.

When the priestly ceremony of scattering the ashes plays out and the curtain falls, one’s mind is racing. Searching. Maybe this; or maybe that. Writers Sijie Dai and Nadine Perront create an open-endedness that carries the story beyond the watery grave. How will the seemingly meaningless deaths of two innocents make a difference? In other words, everyone that walks out of the theater attaches their own dénouement – French for “untying” or “unknotting”

Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) writes that there are two story forms – two branches to the end of the Hero’s Journey.

1. The more conventional way of ending a story, greatly preferred in Western culture, especially in American movies, is the circular form. Here there is a sense of closure and completion.

2.  The other, more popular in European and Asian movies, is open-ended.

In the open-ended form, the story goes on after the story is told.  This forms leaves an audience thinking, sometimes angry, or arguing at the coffee shop. It doesn’t leave the viewer comfortable, but it does leave them wanting more. A great entertainer once said, “It’s better to leave them wanting more, than to leave them wanting less.”

American writers are taught, for the most part, that one should avoid making the audience angry.  They won’t forgive you if you do this or that. We want them to like us. But, is an “I hated that ending” response such a bad thing? An obvious example of an open-ended ending that generated a plethora of opinions, some favorable and some not, was Cast Away.  It leaves Tom Hanks at a crossroad. We don’t know why he chooses the direction he takes, or where it leads. Naturally everyone wanted Tom and Helen Hunt to somehow fall into each other’s arms for eternity, but it doesn’t happen. William Broyles, Jr. and Robert Zemeckis shunned the circular route, and left the road to somewhere in the audience’s imagination.

I just finished “The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy. In short it’s about a guy who goes to the movies at key moments in his life. He speaks of the adventurous life as a search. “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something.” Not to be onto something is to be in despair. He sees this process in the movies, but alas, the adventure is often killed when the search is wrapped up nicely and tightly.

The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks time he is so sunk into everydayness that he might just as well be dead (underlining is mine).

Planet of the Apes, with it’s shocking twist at the end, has really no ending at all, which for this movie was the best of all endings. “Damn them, damn them all to hell” is the end. So where do we go from there? In the end, Charlton Heston loses.  His old civilization is hopelessly lost. Everything is lost. Our protagonist returns to nowhere, devoid of the infamous elixir to be shared with his old world. Society learns nothing. Nothing is changed. But, just maybe…

Joseph Campbell in his “Myths to Live By,” arrives at a profound conclusion regarding mythology and modern societies. The new mythology is the old in its “subjective sense” and is renewed in terms not of the past or projected future, but the now. The new mythology is internalized. Rather than the tradition of egos fighting for a place on the surface of our planet we have a waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves with no horizons. In other words “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” returns to a thousand possibilities – without a packaged, predictable, formulaic ending. In Cast Away Tom Hanks doesn’t cross the threshold and return to his old world, a master of two worlds. The threshold lies beyond an invisible horizon.

Scarlett O’Hara leaves us hanging and wondering about tomorrow. She’s going to think of a way to get Rhett back – tomorrow. She’ll think of it all tomorrow. The ending is internalized, invisible, and without horizons.  That, as much as anything else, accounts for the immortality of Mitchell’s story. In the movie, however, the studio just couldn’t stand it. So, a bailout is provided with Max Steiner’s swelling music designed to leave us feeling good rather than feeling sorry. Exclamation points over our heads, not question marks as we leave the theater. As a matter of fact Vogler holds that a story can end in only four ways: with a period, an exclamation point, a question mark, or an ellipsis (everything just trails off vaguely).

The open-ended ending would – excuse my sacrilege –leave Jesus hanging on the cross. Or would have Moses standing on a mountain looking over at the Promised Land.  Will he/they get it right this time? Curtain.

A trick used in Hollywood for softening (or Americanizing) the open-ended ending is to tidy things up with a nice epilogue. In this ending the viewer in projected into the future and shown that everything works out fine. “A League of Their Own” jumps ahead to an ending in which the 60ish members of the team are reunited and everything is hunky-dory; especially between Dottie and Kit.  Can you imagine the outcry if Penny Marshall would have called it a “wrap” after Kit scores the winning run when she knocks the ball out of Dottie’s hands at home plate? After all, that was the setup all along. Kit lives in Dottie’s shadow. A showdown. Kit emerges from the shadow by the unlikely defeat of her sister.

It of course should not be overplayed, but as a writer or director it would greatly improve the quality of film in the U.S. if more of the local gentry would not be afraid of being open to the open-ended ending.