by Adam-Troy Castro
You will find the scene in the biopic written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, directed by Tim Burton, starring Johnny Depp, a movie not science fiction that nevertheless embraces subject matter of great interest to the fans of science fiction, Ed Wood, based on the life and career of the legendary awful movie director of the same name. It is the end of the movie. Ed, who has struggled all along to attain the financial backing to make his terrible movies, has just attended the gala premiere of his magnum opus, Plan Nine From Outer Space, enjoyed the improbably enthused audience reaction, and proposed to his girlfriend; as we hit the fade-out, they’re about to drive to Las Vegas for the occasion.
What a happy ending! It gives you everything you could possibly want as a denoument: Ed’s professional vindication, the greatest triumph of his checkered career, a sad but celebratory declaration on celluloid of the admiration he felt for his friend and hero Bela Lugosi, and a romantic assurance that he had found the woman who would remain devoted to him for the rest of his life. You could hardly ask for any more that doesn’t include the acquisition of a little golden man at the next year’s Oscar ceremony. For anyone who has sat through the prior two hours, it’s a feel-good moment, one that successfully keeps the glow burning throughout the multiple text epilogues advising us how each and every person in Ed Wood’s crowd ended up.
It is therefore easy to miss what the movie does in fact acknowledge during one of those text crawls: that Ed Wood’s big night was not a “happy ending,” as we would like to understand the term, but a momentary taste of success, prior to a long and miserable decline. Yes, Kathy O’Hara did marry Ed Wood and take care of him for the rest of his life, but he was never to know what we call success in the movie business. For him, getting movies made would only get harder and harder. He would drift into nudie pictures and then, when he could no longer get the backing, pornographic novels written at poverty word rates. He would sink deeper and deeper into a pit of alcoholism, would become more and more emotionally unstable, and would live with Kathy in increasing penury, dying just before his movies were rediscovered as camp classics that would turn him into a cult figure.
Long after the work of Ed Wood became beloved in its own strange way, I met Conrad Brooks, a Wood confidante who appeared in several of those movies, and asked him what Wood would have thought of lasting fame where his movies were sought-after by audiences who desired only to jeer at them. He told me that Wood would have been truly delighted. I have no problem believing that. Certainly, Brooks appeared to enjoy his own low level of fame; he was proud of having been in those films, and nostalgic toward the days when he and the old gang worked on them. But this was a backhanded honor that Wood himself was never to know. Truthfully: he died a pickled man, frustrated by failure, and if we think about the great love story told by the movie we can only speculate on just how unpleasant the later acts of that love story might have been, at least in intervals, in the increasingly shabby homes that the couple found themselves relegated to, not many years after their shared brush with z-list stardom. I’m certainly not claiming, sans evidence, that they weren’t a genuine love match. I’m saying that life gets complicated and that the complications dilute the simplicity of the wishful phrase, “Happily ever after.”
What the movie does, frankly, is fade out at the last moment that can be construed, however falsely, as a Happy Ending.
And that leads us to our first point:
This happens to be true of every Happy Ending ever written.
Stories are life passages. They are all about key moments in the lives of their characters, and sometimes they deal with temporary crises of the sort that once resolved have nothing to do with how successful at life their protagonists are later. The issue at stake may be as simple as, “Will Billy win the big game?” or “Will Lassie be able to communicate via barking the critical message that Timmy has stumbled into the well again?” Happy endings, in such cases, are simple acknowledgements that the problem of the day has been resolved; to wit, in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Steve Martin gets home to his family in time for Thanksgiving Dinner, with a new friend in tow, and never mind that for all we know he loses his advertising job a year later and loses everything.
The fact is, and this is morbid but true, but in life all happy endings are temporary. Leading Man and Leading Lady may sail past the fadeout in a loving clinch, and even if their life together is blessed, they can — if lucky — look forward to the day when she gets winded climbing a set of stairs and he has this pain in his lower back that never goes away and they both start getting forgetful and eventually move into Senior Living, while their children watch them decline. Assume that they enjoy miraculous health well into their nineties, on the homestead where they celebrate their vitality by riding horses together as they head toward the century mark, until they both drop dead in tandem without ever being aware that they didn’t have to make plans for dinner, and even then, even then, the very nature of human existence puts that happy clinch in the category of the temporary.
Nothing proves this any more than a story that ends happily, but prompts a sequel; and certainly, nothing proves this any more than a story that ends happily but prompts multiple sequels. Rocky ended with a triumphant surge of pure joy, as the self-styled Italian Stallion proves himself in the ring, becomes a hero to his neighborhood, and wins the love of his beloved. Then in order to earn another happy ending the sequel must make them miserable. So fine, they have money problems, she almost dies giving birth, and he must re-enter the ring despite all medical advice. Happier Ending! He’s the champ now! But here comes another sequel, and whoa, he must be rendered miserable again; so he gets beaten in the ring and his trainer dies and another inevitable happy ending is earned so that the next sequel is inevitably driven to render himself miserable once more.
There have now been seven movies with Rocky Balboa in them, and to know how false a promise the first happy ending was, in all real-world terms, you just have to look at the life the long-in-the-tooth Rocky Balboa of Creed (2015) knows and compare it to the fadeout of the first Rocky. He’s a widower, a man who’s buried his closest friends, a man who knew wealth but has lost it, a man who makes his living telling and re-telling the stories of his old triumphs. A man who by this point in his life has become as intimately acquainted with sadness as he ever was with joy.
This is actually quite realistic, for a series so built on wish fulfillment.
It’s not that Rocky’s lived a miserable or empty existence, all along, or even that he has no further reason to find continuing satisfaction in his existence.
It’s that even the happiest endings have limited half-lives.
That’s Point One.
Point Two is that as the stakes get raised, the falsity of any simplistic happy ending is brought into sharp relief.
Let’s talk about two movies with life-or-death consequences, that both have what we can loosely call happy endings. They have a lot in common in that they’re both disaster movies.
The Poseidon Adventure (1972) ends with the rescue of the last remaining members of a group that has been winnowed down quite a bit by the casualties taken along the way. They cheer, they exult, because they lived. But then their cheers fall silent, as they remember the ones they’ve lost; Ernest Borgnine’s Rogo even looks over his shoulder, at the room where his wife — according to him, the only woman who ever loved him — fell to her death in flames. When next he looks at the promise of a blue sky, he is weeping, processing both his relief at his survival and his knowledge that it has come to a terrible cost.
Compare this to San Andreas (2015), in which a family is reunited following an earthquake that has laid waste to much of the West Coast, and submerged San Francisco in particular beneath a tsunami of skyscraper height; you would think that among their celebratory relief to be back together again and their patriotic vow to rebuild would be some shell-shocked emotional exhaustion from the knowledge that, conservatively, many hundreds of thousands maybe millions of people must have died prior to what would inevitably become the greatest refugee crisis in American history, but what you really get is a surging, triumphant orchestra with little emotional resonance to what has just happened.
In short, San Andreas functions as vivid illustration that happy endings can be distancing, that they can do terrible damage to the sense all stories need that they matter.
Forty years later, the chief epiphany I have, remembering Star Wars as it looked before or after before it got the subtitle A New Hope, is that the last scene shows us everybody happily getting medals and even R2-D2 showing up with all the tarnish wiped off, and that Princess Leia is among those in a simply spiffy mood when she had just seen her home planet wiped out in an act of horrifying genocide just a couple of days earlier. I make the movie the poster child for any film where, as in San Andreas, characters are capable of cheering and pumping their fists for having survived the deaths of millions; and if you think I’m making too much of this, ask yourself whether any Hiroshima survivors threw parties and yelled whoo, after escaping the burning wreckage.
Many movies have such endings shaped by focus groups, which confirm that audiences are more likely to praise and return to films that leave them feeling good, even if that good feeling requires an active dismissal of everything that came before. Indeed, some audiences have been so trained to reject endings of any nuance that they reject any films that fade out with any degree of uncertainty, or acknowledgement that some issues may remain unresolved. But your humble reviewer is not a member of a focus group and he must therefore tell you that unhappy endings, or uncertain endings, or even endings that only promise the possibility of happiness, often make for better movies than those that close in such empty celebration.
Let’s talk about love stories, in general. In classic films, we have Charlie Chaplin, whose Little Tramp is often left walking into an uncertain future; we do not know whether he will suffer or thrive, but we know that he is unbowed, and ready to face what happens next, and that is enough. We have the splendid ending of one particular Chaplin film, City Lights (1931), one of the best final moments any movie has ever had; it doesn’t conclude with the girl agreeing to love his character forever, but does end with her seeing him, really seeing him, a shabby homeless man, for the first time, and with his hopeful expression as he waits to see what she will do with this knowledge. We have the ending of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), in which Jack Lemmon declares his love for the troubled woman he’s been caring for and her answer is not “I love you, too,” but something else, “Shut up and deal,” as she takes out a deck of cards. Do they end up together? I’d like to think so. So would anybody who’s seen the film. But how much better is that ending, than a simple affirmation and clinch? Isn’t it better to be unsure? To provide complexity closer to what we get in life and allow for the rest of the story to continue unfolding in the viewer’s head, after the fade-out? And there we get to Point Three.
Science fiction movies are often mass-appeal movies, which means that we don’t always get such ambiguity, such lingering invitation to wonder, but they can be great when we do, which is why I reserve special praise for one recent excellence, Her (2013), the one about a man’s great romance with an artificial intelligence. In the end, she breaks up with him, and he is left on a rooftop, contemplating the dawn with a woman who has been one of his best friends and closest confidantes. There is clear chemistry between them, the certain implication that they might now end up together. But it’s left open. We certainly don’t get the ending we would have gotten from filmmakers relying on focus groups, him declaring that he should have realized that he loved her all along, her saying, oh, I’ve been waiting for you to say that, I love you too, and a long lingering kiss followed by a bouncy pop song. We get the sense of a new story starting, that might or might not go in the direction we want it to go. There is therefore no sense that the tale is hermetically sealed in itself, a thing capped by a Happy Ending that wraps everything up until there’s nothing left to think about. It acknowledges that life is a process and it gives us room to contemplate the movie’s questions, and it’s therefore richer on an emotional level than the kind of happy ending where everybody gets medals or showered in money or the permanent adoration of their love object.
Science fiction, which is about raising questions, is made for such endings, but in film, at least, too rarely gets them, in large part because so many science fiction films are spectacles geared toward saving the world, in which the resolution depends on either managing that trick, or not. Either the world is saved with much death and destruction, which is a happy ending, or it is destroyed with more death and destruction, which is a happy ending of another sort as long as the special effects are good (the reason San Andreas, stupid as it was, was fun to watch).
But when you get that ambiguous, not-quite-happy ending, the one that still leaves you wondering?
Honestly, that’s when you have something.
That’s when you have the story that lingers.
In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.