All’s Well That Ends Well: An L Film Critic Bids Farewell

08/26/2011 4:02 PM |

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I’ve regularly written about movies since 2003, but since 2004 I did so for The L Magazine (along with the odd assignment on books and baseball) roughly every two weeks, and sometimes with even greater frequency. That made it the longest and most consistent job I’ve held in my life. Crazy.

In any case, I write in the past tense because I likely won’t be contributing much more for The L now that I’ve re-entered academia and traded in publicity packets for Derrida photocopies. I’m going to try to contribute to my favorite NYC mag whenever I find free time, but that might not be often or perhaps at all.

And that saddens me because, in the first place, I won’t be able to say that I write for a film section featuring some of the best critics out there: Mark Asch, Miriam Bale, Dan Callahan, Jesse Hassenger, Nick Pinkerton, Nic Rapold, Andrew Schenker, Henry Stewart, Justin Stewart, Benjamin Sutton. (There is also a veritable battalion of great writers relatively new to the film section—I only name those whom I’ve known the longest). They have all in some way inspired me as friends, colleagues, or both.

In the second place, along with Reverse Shot, The L represents the site—in both senses of the term—that most strongly marked my professional development. I still dread to look back at my first capsule reviews (the very first was for The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, I believe), but suffice it to say that the more I wrote for The L over the years the more I learned about how to write and what it means to be a critic. I’d like to think that all those hours in front of a glowing computer screen allowed me to build upon my thinking and my knowledge in regard to film, criticism, and maybe even life itself.

I hope you’ll indulge the grandiosity of that last statement—films have become an inextricable part of my existence over the last fifteen years or so, a fact attested to by the following very personal list of best film endings I’ve compiled as a possible last article for The L. The idea for such a list came to me out of a deep-rooted suspicion of overly sentimental farewell columns (I’ve likely created one with this introduction anyway) and yet a longing to do something appropriate for what might be my parting salvo. In choosing candidates I thought of what great endings consist of and how they achieve their resonances. They are usually strong, cumulative in effect, perhaps even “epic,” but also mysterious, ambiguous, jarring, unsettling, and eerily reverberating—providing not so much resolution or closure, but deepening and expanding everything that has preceded it. Hopefully this column will perform a similar feat in its own right; at the very least it seeks to discuss and interpret some of the finest endings to have done so for their respective films.

Fellini’s Casanova (1976)

Has anyone in the history of cinema directed as many powerful endings as Federico Fellini? Zampanò looking up at the stars and breaking down in tears as he recalls the dead Gelsomina’s mournful trumpet theme in La Strada; Marcello failing to communicate with the angelic girl across a windy shore after an all-night reverie in La dolce vita; Guido gathering together the cast of characters of his life—past and present, real and fictional—for a dance around a circus ring in 8 1/2; Encolpio speaking in voiceover about sailing for lands unknown but getting cut off mid-sentence and transforming back into an ancient Roman fresco in Fellini Satyricon.

In the rarely seen or discussed Fellini’s Casanova, the Maestro constructs his most powerful finale of all, a haunting, elliptical (no Fellini film ever really ends) testament to the pathetic failure of phallocentric narcissism. Staying true to the facts of Giacomo Casanova’s life while filtering them through the dark prism of his patented expressionistic distanciation, Fellini depicts the famous 18th-century man of letters’ endless parade of sexual conquests as an unfulfilling compulsion developing from a sycophantic relationship to authority and non-existent spiritual center.

At the end of his life and at the end of the film Casanova is a has-been, treated more like a common household servant or court jester while in the employ of the Czech Count Waldstein than the nobleman he still believes himself to be. Aged in body yet remaining an emotional juvenile, Casanova conjures one last dream-fantasy of oblivious bliss, recalling himself at the height of his youth and powers in a desolate, iced-over plaza covered in the shadows of midnight as the images from his past materialize and disappear like apparitions: the giant head of an icon that had failed to emerge from the water during the Venice carnival of the film’s opening scene; an anonymous group of women tittering and running away from their eternal pursuer; the pope, previously the recipient of Casanova’s pathetic avalanche of ring-kisses during a meeting between the two phonies; and, most significantly, Isabella, the waxy automaton that Casanova had once bedded in the greatest sexual encounter of his life.

The other figures point Casanova toward the lifelike doll, the only woman who can perfectly mirror his soullessness. They dance. Perhaps taking a page from George Bernard Shaw and his Don Juan in Hell, Fellini has set Casanova not in the Europe of the 1700s but in the fiery furnaces of his antihero’s vapidity; thus one of the culminating shots is an extreme close-up of the older, still-fantasizing Casanova’s eyes, nearly satanic in their emptiness—Fellini once said he cast Donald Sutherland in the lead role because he possessed “the eyes of a masturbator.” The dance resumes as Casanova and his beloved slowly spin in place like mechanical toys. The greatest lover in the world has earned his eternal reward, locked in a metronomic embrace with his own ego, revolving into the frozen void of his own existential death.

Burn After Reading (2008)

Aside for A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading contains my favorite film ending of recent years. I chose it for this list not only because it’s dark, hilarious, and completely unexpected—in it most of the movie’s narrative loose ends aren’t shown but only described in a discussed CIA case report—but also because it displays the understated wit of a pair of siblings known more for their verbal gymnastics.

My viewing relationship to the Coen Brothers’ films has been relatively tumultuous. It started with coup de foudre: Fargo, Barton Fink, and, of course, The Big Lebowski were all sacred texts during my high school years, each a thin ray of weird and profound playfulness breaking through a forest of bland Hollywood crap. That love started to fade with O Brother, Where Art Thou and the initiation of a fallow period—aside for The Man Who Wasn’t There—that brought out the hammier and hokier tendencies in the Coens’ work. (I’ve begun to reconsider this phase—look for an upcoming piece in Reverse Shot by yours truly on the hidden complexities of The Ladykillers). But starting with No Country For Old Men they went on a roll that lasted until the disappointingly safe True Grit. Burn After Reading and A Serious Man constitute their strongest one-two punch of bitterly black satires on American ethics.

Before its brilliant epilogue, Burn leaves the viewer with a “clusterfuck” of catastrophes that befall a sordid cast of greedy, vain, egomaniacal, moronic, duplicitous, skeazy, and emotionally crippled denizens of Washington D.C. (excepting poor, unrequited Richard Jenkins) who somehow become connected through the missing files of a former disgruntled CIA analyst’s memoirs. The humor in the coda hinges on the unrepentant amorality of J.K. Simmons’ CIA superior, who only wants the madness put into motion by the missing files ended. When David Rasche’s sputtering officer reports the grim news that an agent was forced to shoot the analyst, Simmons pauses for a moment of reflection and then responds, “Good. Great. Is he dead?” The frustrated grimace that steals across his face after Rasche explains the analyst is merely lying in a coma is absolutely priceless. Following further details of inanity and insanity perpetrated by me-first ingrates, the final dialogue of the movie says everything about 21st-century America (especially its opaque, myopic federal government) without an ounce of self-righteous finger-wagging:

“Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Yeah.”
“What do we learn, Palmer?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learn not to do it again.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Fucked if I know what we did.”
“Yes, sir. It’s hard to say.”
“Jesus fucking Christ.”

Spies (1928)

Fittingly, in writing about a film centered on duplicity, I’m going to cheat. Just a few months ago I wrote for Fandor about Fritz Lang’s underappreciated Spies, and I don’t know how to evoke or interpret any better the strange and frantic ending of that film any better or differently than I did then.

First, however, some background. Anyone serious about movies knows that Lang cemented his directorial legend relatively early in his career with late-silent era films like Metropolis and early sound era films like M. Spies comes in the middle of these masterpieces, and gets lost between them—it doesn’t culminate a stylistic period (German Expressionism) like the former and doesn’t innovate the brand new cinematic technology at its disposal like the latter.

But it accomplishes more on its own thrillingly gonzo terms. Like Metropolis and M, Spies bursts with a paranoia concerning the anonymity and structures of power that govern the sprawling modern city. Yet it is also a Boys’ Life depiction of secret agent derring-do, with silly gadgets and disguises aiding undercover police and the criminal mastermind, Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), they aim to bring down. The film’s ending perfectly melds these two tones, with Haghi surrounded by officers while putting on a public performance as his clown alter ego, Nemo (to round out the triumvirate, Haghi also fronts as a bank president). Here’s what I previously wrote about this one-of-a-kind ending:

It is within the chaotic, sprawling, amorphous city that a man of many faces and miniscule scruples like Haghi can prosper. Though the villain’s machinations are eventually thwarted and order restored, it’s more than significant that Haghi goes out on his own terms. Dressing up as a clown and hamming it up in front of an audience of swells whom he seeks to hold in his power, Haghi shoots himself (suicide instead of capture is a frequent motif in the film) and yells “Curtain!” to a rousing ovation. Thus Spies concludes on a fantastically ironic note. In a world where political and social warfare is conducted as an elaborate farce of false identities and masked allegiances, even death must ultimately become a “keep ‘em laughing” performance. For the naïve, decadent, and unassuming populace, it’s just another evening’s entertainment.

Pierrot le fou (1965)

Jean-Luc Godard represents a thunderclap along the landscape of my personal discovery of cinema. Whenever I recall my first time encountering Band of Outsiders, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, and Pierrot le fou as part of a retrospective the George Eastman House put on at the tail end of 2000 in honor of the director’s seventieth birthday, the very specific feelings—usually of an anything-is-possible passion coupled with a sustained melancholy I had never seen adequately evoked on film before—that accompanied those revelatory screenings immediately overtake my physical being.

Of course, re-watching Godard makes for even more powerful experiences, and the film that always “gets me”—no matter how many times I go back to it—is Pierrot le fou. What makes Pierrot so brilliant is the way its anarchic goofiness somehow perfectly complements its deep romantic eschatology. But while Godard has always had a penchant for endings in which his heroes and heroines meet absurd and arbitrary deaths, by far the funniest and most tragic—the funniest for being the most tragic and the most tragic for being the funniest—occurs in Pierrot, where our titular protagonist (also called Ferdinand, and played by the inimitable Jean-Paul Belmondo) offs himself by painting his countenance a Lego-block blue and then wrapping two enormous rolls of yellow and red dynamite around his head: suicide as pop art. Being a man of contemplation and not action, Pierrot/Ferdinand second-guesses even this grand finale, changing his mind at the last second and futilely attempting to stamp out a rapidly shortening fuse. Pure existential slapstick, made especially poignant by the classic Rimbaud lines spoken in voiceover by P/F and also dead femme fatale Marianne (Anna Karina) as Godard’s camera pans from the explosion to the glimmering Mediterranean: “It is recovered!/What? Eternity./It is the sea gone with the sun.”

Slacker (1991)

All the endings listed thus far could be fairly classified as “bleak.” What better way to, yes, end on a high note then to pick an optimistic finale—though also an unusual (and qualified: the closing credits that succeed it are accompanied by the Butthole Surfers’ “Strangers Die Every Day”) one—from Slacker, the first film with which I really fell in love. And not in the way I fell in love with films pre-adolescence, when I usually responded to the more, shall we say, “theme park qualities” of my objects of affection. Instead, Slacker spoke to me—literally. Comprised largely of monologues from a motley cast of self-absorbed conspiracy buffs, Quixotic soap box revolutionaries, bullshitting elderly anarchists, drunk Smurf theorists, and paranoid late-show junkies, this was a movie that magnificently refracted what I saw as the multifarious nature of my own budding, eccentric, rambling self.

I’ve probably never been, and never will be, the brilliant found object many of the friends and acquaintances Richard Linklater cast for his debut feature turned out to be, but I do feel that at this point I’m as much of an authority on cinema as that weird skinny woman in Slacker is on Madonna pap smears, and I can say from having watched it upwards of several dozen times that for all its ranting and raving Slacker is a far more visual film than it’s often given credit for. The low-budget production is deservedly revered for capturing Austin in all its pre-SXSW charm, but nowhere is Linklater’s way with images better exemplified than in its glorious conclusion. A young woman emerges from the house where she spent a presumably unfulfilling one-night stand and walks down a street, passing an old man speaking his observations into a cassette recorder. “When young, we mourn for one woman—as we grow old, for women in general,” we first catch him saying in wistful response. His last words are, “The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely. Only later will it clarify itself and become coherent.” Such optimism is soon opposed and drowned out by a madman driving by in a car, announcing a “free weapons giveaway program” to “solve all these goddamn problems,” listing a ridiculous catalogue of tools of destruction (“Catapults throwin’ rocks an’ shit, blowin’ up undercover shit”) through the speaker system inside his vehicle in order to persuade the awakening citizenry. Doom wins the day.

But then a convertible full of young, college-aged pleasure-seekers pulls up alongside the lunatic. The last minutes of the film are seen through the rapidly cut, color-warping footage these kids shoot on super-8 cameras; the last shot of all is a whirling chaos of motion as a camera is launched from the hands of a carefree reveler standing on a rocky cliff overlooking the city. After all the frustrated, futile, and often faux philosophy of Slacker’s previous hour and a half—in which each briefly encountered character vies to impose his or her reality on our consciousness, whether by humble introspection (the old man) or violent hysterics (the madman in the car)—a camera liberated from human control acts as a metaphor for, and allows us to participate in, “giving ourselves to life completely.” The feeling generated is one of both weightless joy and dread of the unknown, which really amount to the same thing in, yes, the end.

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4 Comment

  • Bye Michael! Thanks for everything, and don’t be a stranger…

  • “I still dread to look back at my first capsule reviews…”

    Don’t be so hard on yourself:

    http://www.thelmagazine.com/newyork/saving…

  • What a rad article to go out on! I’ve been reading your criticism since before I was writing for the L and it’s going to be strange not getting to read your take on things as often! Hopefully you’ll still be able to drop in. Best of luck! I’m sure we haven’t read the last of you.

  • May an unemployed person with one of those very expensive degrees you’ll be partly responsible for conferring by ditching this noble pursuit for academia submit the following as his application to replace you as a cinema writer (the very field of his useless degree) or simply for an editorial gig: This is a fine take on the farewell article but for a usage of “then” that should be “than” in the second sentence of the “Slacker” section. This mistake aside (which, again, I should stress would never slightly sully an otherwise fine article on my watch) I’d like to add that I, too, have always enjoyed the free-wheeling, anarchic finale to Linklater’s debut, an idea more clearly expressed wordlessly than all the theory-drunk volumes of dialogue that preceded it.