Talking Movies

June 14, 2012

How Endings Start

The lyrics of a Metric song set me considering exactly what a movie needs to do so that you can’t leave early because you need to know how it ends.
 
I’ve only walked out of two films in the cinema, and both of those were because I had to be somewhere else urgently. Oddly enough, both of them were also films that were so out of whack with the three act structure that I didn’t feel I was going to miss a revelation by leaving early. Perhaps the devotion to the three act structure which I’ve rampaged against previously on this blog is down to that notion – that if you start with a beginning, move on to a middle, and finish with an ending, most of the audience will feel unable to leave before the end because they’ll have been sufficiently hooked by the narrative structure to need to follow it to its logical conclusion, even if they don’t like the film, indeed, especially if they don’t like the film.
 
I have given up on two acclaimed films after 100 or so minutes because of a complete lack of interest, despite their three act structure. The meme-monster Downfall I found to be tedious beyond repair because every 10 minutes seemed, like a variation on a musical theme, to bring a scene in which the paranoid Hitler ranted about whoever had ‘betrayed’ him this time “Of all the people who could have betrayed me at this moment in time, INSERT NAME would have been the last I would have expected.” The English Patient saw me switch off during the scene where Willem Dafoe had his thumbs cut off, as I realised that not only did I not care what happened to any of the characters, but that nothing that happened next could recompense me for the boredom of getting that far.
 
I’m not sure why I didn’t respond to these films, which some good friends adore, but the simple fact is that they failed to hook me. So, what is the hook? I think the hook of a movie might be usefully compared to the cold open of a TV show. An episode of CSI or Criminal Minds can often force me to watch it, almost against my will, by hooking my interest with a bizarre cold open – my mind shouts not to change channels because it wants to know how such an odd crime could have been committed and by whom. The great opening of a TV show is not that dissimilar to the first 10 pages of a movie script which is tasked with introducing a world, some likeable characters, and how that world is now going to change.


Of course the simplest way in a movie to hook the viewer is a trick still used quite often on TV shows of starting with an outrageously high-stakes or simply baffling scene, and then flashing ‘2 days previously’ as the episode builds to that conclusion. A trick inherited from the noir movies of the 1940s. Think 1948’s classic suspense The Big Clock which begins with Ray Milland on a window-ledge of his own building trying to evade capture and narrating the question the audience is asking, ‘How did I get here?’ Safe’s previously discussed opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual noirish hook but it was still devoted to presenting an overly dramatic high-stakes scenario so that after some mucking about in time we mutter like a 1940s cinemagoer ‘Ah, this is where we came in’.
 
But if presenting a snippet of the ending at the beginning (almost an ironic anticipation of Godard’s dictum about a movie needing a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order) is the surest way to hook the audience to want to know the ending it must be admitted that some films are so disastrous that they can be enjoyed anyway you care to. I for instance have never seen the first or last hour of Pearl Harbour, but I have repeatedly laughed myself sick at the absurdist hour of CGI bombast in the middle where Tom Sizemore fires at attacking Japanese planes with a shotgun and someone sincerely yells “I think WWII just started”. Likewise I’ve long since reduced The Matrix Reloaded to a number of de-contextualised action sequences with no Frenchmen or Architects anywhere.
 
As the Prophet Chuck on Supernatural said “Endings are hard”, but hooking the audience so they care enough to want to know the awesome/atrocious ending is an equally dark art.

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