January 5th, 2005
|jake_camp||10:37 am - Endings are Catharsis|
By Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Drama Critic:
Endings are catharsis: They give meaning to what comes before, and change us from the way we were.
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Endings are a catharsis. They give meaning to what comes before, and change us from the way we were.
- Steven Winn, Chronicle Arts and Culture Critic
Saturday, January 1, 2005
When I was a junior in high school, our English teacher showed the class a film called "The World, the Flesh and the Devil." Or rather, I should say, he showed us most of it. Fifteen minutes before the credits, Mr. LeFever turned off the projector and told us to get out our binders.
The assignment was to write an ending for the film. The story, set in New York City after a devastating nuclear war, turned on three survivors. After the woman (Inger Stevens) chose a black man (Harry Belafonte) over his white rival (Mel Ferrer), presumably to replenish the species, a deadly manhunt through the vacant streets of Manhattan ensued. At the peak of suspense, the screen at Springfield High went blank. If students can riot and still remain in their seats, that's about what happened.
As it turns out, the ending of "World," a 1959 Cold War artifact, is something of a letdown (the three stars wind up strolling off into the Atomic Age sunset together). But none of us knew that at the time. And in that pre- video store era, we weren't about to find out. In an inspired twist to his stunt, Mr. LeFever refused to show us the last 15 minutes of the film, even after our assignments had been handed in. He rewound the last reel and put it back in its canister for return.
Whatever else this high school exercise was meant to do, it drove home some important truths about endings that all of us, even children, know intuitively. Endings, by their nature, are exquisitely torturous. We're all psychologically primed to crave resolving climaxes, and simultaneously inclined to doubt, mistrust, reject and even fear them.
Catharsis -- in drama or a therapist's office -- is both. Aristotle called it recognition and reversal. Theater audiences, readers, music lovers and filmgoers feel it in their bones, their flesh, their communal DNA.
Endings define and disappoint, gratify and frustrate. They confer meaning and confirm the structure of what's come before -- in a movie, a sonata, a work of fiction. But they also kill off pleasure, snap us out of the dream and clamp down order on experience that we, as citizens of the modern world, believe to be open-ended, ambiguous and unresolved. It's a delicious paradox.
Fairy tales, adventure films, mystery stories and Mozart symphonies all gain velocity by pointing us at one ending, toying with our biology of anticipation and racing off toward some new false conclusion and then another and another before finishing themselves off. "We enjoy, it seems, teasing our tensions," writes Barbara Herrnstein Smith in "Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End," "deferring the immediate fulfillment of our appetites and expectations."
The box office hit "National Treasure" is a little more than a series of false cadences, one door in the plot opening into another and another until we finally reach the treasure room. We see it all coming and recognize how we're being handled. But we're also hardwired for this stuff, and every Hollywood director knows it.
Patently artificial as they may be, fictional endings behave in satisfying ways that events in real life often stubbornly refuse to. Deaths, divorces and assorted other partings happen -- suddenly (or sometimes far too late), messily, incoherently. Even innocently arithmetic endings often remain opaque. The last day of the year comes whether we're ready to make sense of it or not. We bully ourselves into musing retrospection and halfhearted resolutions, inventing a story to fit the end.
A great artistic ending, by contrast, is both startling and inevitable, mysteriously certain. It clarifies even as it complicates, crystallizes and expands. Think of the snow that falls across Dublin in James Joyce's short story "The Dead," or the ravishing last scene of "Der Rosenkavalier." Think of Rosebud in "Citizen Kane" or "Ode to Joy," that exultant crown of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
"The finale of 'Tristan,' " says Robert Cole, director of Cal Performances, without a pause. "It's the ultimate ending." His explanation touches on the opera's subject matter, on its synthesis of Wagner's score and settles, finally, on the ineffably glorious orchestration of the final chord.
For David Thomson, author of the New Biographical Dictionary of Film, the last image of John Wayne in "The Searchers" comes to mind. The shot of Wayne silhouetted in the doorway, deciding whether he might stay or must move on, telescopes the film's action to a single moment. "Extraordinary," says Thomson, his voice hushed. "When he walks away and that door closes, we know this man is an endless wanderer, doomed to never live indoors."
"The good ending dismisses us with a touch of ceremony and throws a backward light of significance over the story just read," wrote John Updike in his introduction to "The Best American Short Stories 1984." "It makes it, as they say, or unmakes it. A weak beginning is forgettable, but the end of a story bulks in the reader's mind like the giant foot in a foreshortened photograph."
For actress Nancy Shelby, a charter member of the Word for Word troupe, a performance has worked if she hears an audience let out that collective sigh - - of completion, of wonder -- before the applause begins. "I'm not sure people even realize they're doing it," she says. "When it happens, you know you've taken them on the journey and delivered them somewhere else."
We all have our well-stocked private libraries of treasured endings, and plenty of exasperating ones as well. Who hasn't felt that total-body shiver as the lights fade on a play's beautifully made last scene or when a piano concerto races toward its triumphant exclamation point? And who hasn't fumed, like a spurned lover, over some book or film that defied our yearnings? I hated the ending: It may be the single thing that gets said more than anything else about works of art.
Endings once seemed a more straightforward matter than they do now. Shakespeare rounded off his sonnets with rhyming couplets and his comedies with a comforting final speech or song. Victorian novelists married off their heroines. Composers sent their listeners off with a resounding resolution from dominant to tonic chord.
Audiences have not always hung on endings as avidly as we do or probed their significance. In the 18th and 19th centuries, says Nicholas McGegan, music director of Philharmonia Baroque, "people clapped at bits they liked and clapped between movements." The extended climaxes of Beethoven's Third and Fifth symphonies were "intended to whip the audience into a froth and get them applauding before the music was through." Baroque composers often treated endings as perfunctory and formulaic.
"There may be a certain arrogance on our part," notes McGegan, "to treat works as integrated wholes, with these purposeful endings, when they weren't necessarily seen that way at the time."
Be that as it may, artists have probably always struggled with endings, adding codas, epilogues and postscripts or dodging the matter altogether by setting up sequels. When Shakespeare harshly punishes Malvolio at the end of "Twelfth Night" or divides the couples by means of an offstage death in the last act of "Love's Labour's Lost," he sends a complicating cloud into otherwise sunny skies. Beethoven agonized mightily over his endings, rewriting many of them. He strongly considered replacing the choral "Ode to Joy" with an instrumental last moment of the Ninth Symphony.
By leaving it in place, says McGegan, symphonists who followed had a formidable model of endings to match. "It screwed up Brahms terribly. Mahler's solution was to write great big slow movements or great big choral movements."
Endings took on a special cast in the 20th century, when world wars and the specter of nuclear holocaust gave finality a darker shade. Every ending, however distant, held the seeds of ultimate destruction. Beckett spun out an infinite, unresolved slow fade in "Waiting for Godot." Charles Ives composed his "Unanswered Question." Joyce spooled the last line of "Finnegans Wake" to the first, as if to evade the essential anxiety of beginnings and ends. Endings became provisional, fraught and charged with deeper meanings.
Frank Kermode, in his 1965 book "The Sense of an Ending," sees the conclusions of "Othello," "Macbeth" and "King Lear" as a kind of obligatory punctuation, "human periods in an eternal world." In her study "Equivocal Endings in Classic American Novels," Joyce Rowe calls the ending of a good story "a mixed blessing." Even as it completes a narrative arc, "an ending, like its real life counterpart, also entails a sense of loss, of emptiness -- a little death, as it were."
In the poignantly comic last scene of "Le Grand Macabre," the Gyorgi Ligeti opera mounted this year by the San Francisco Opera, the characters onstage, who have just watched Death make his exit on an airplane stairway, fight off the slowly falling curtain and demand more time with us inside their deflating fictional bubble.
Something similar happens in the transporting final minutes of "Angels in America," when the long-suffering protagonist, Prior Walter, addresses the audience directly for the first time in the seven-hour stretch of Tony Kushner's two-play epic. "More life," Prior says, as he and the other characters we've come to love are about to depart. The audiences feels deeply, thrillingly torn, wanting the AIDS survivor Prior to stay, to live more and thrive, yet knowing that the show -- even this extravagantly long one -- must end and that Prior and the others will soon leave the stage.
And at the same time -- in a theater, a concert hall, reading Wordsworth or Robert Lowell alone -- we also sense that art stands outside time, that its endings, unlike ours, are immortal. All endings, in a way, remind us of the finality of our own. Art lifts us toward that realization and frees us from it, if only fleetingly, as well.
Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of the California Shakespeare Festival, recalls such a moment with 3-D clarity. It came in the final scene of the Royal Shakespeare Company's classic adaptation of Charles Dickens' "Nicholas Nickleby," "with everyone singing a minor-key version of a Christmas carol, the couples all moving upstage and the poor lame Smike downstage crumpled up. And as the lovers and families reunite, Nicholas finds his way downstage, watched by his sister Kate. At the culmination of the singing, he swoops Smike up in his arms."
Anyone who saw that magnificent show will see it again in Moscone's loving, eternally present-tense description, an ending that won't stop ending for all who shared it. Moscone will take a crack at fashioning it on his own terns, next summer, when he co-directs (with Sean Daniels) "Nicholas Nickleby" at his Orinda theater.
Thomson believes that film endings are inherently wrenching. "One of the reasons I think movies are often reluctant to end," he says, "is that we're so reluctant for them to end. It's not just the story, but the complete sensory immersion of the form that's so compelling and absorbing. Because the audience is encouraged to participate on the level of fantasy rather than on an intellectual level, there's always this sense that the story might linger on. It's no wonder sequels are so prevalent."
"Catharsis is hard," says Tony Taccone, artistic director of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. "That's what you're driving for, a sense of genuineness in resolution. But it's so rare to really experience it, that sense of fulfillment and release into something that feels both revelatory and true."
Taccone muses on two play endings, years apart, at Berkeley Rep. Both, as it happens, involved water cues. In this season's "Eurydice," he says, a stream of water was added during previews to clarify and articulate the final scene. In his own production of "Life During Wartime," Taccone admits, a big wall of water was "just a way to get out of Dodge and minimize our losses."
Endings, he continues, "may be a kind of misnomer" in the arts. "They're an ending in time, a marking of how the artist views the world at that moment, " he says. And, he might have added, of how the audience feels as well.
When snow falls over the spectators at the end of the new stage version of "White Christmas," the response -- of grateful, wondering astonishment -- is probably more than the show has really earned. But longing is a big part of endings. We all want to be carried away, touched and changed, even as we doubt that's how things may actually turn out.
In a lovely poem about failing to record the end of a movie on her VCR, Mona Van Duyn laments: " 'I can't bear it! I have to see how it comes out!'/ For what is story if not relief from pain/ of the inconclusive, from dread of the meaningless?" The poem ends with a wishful vow to follow "past vacancies of darkness" and in doing so, "to find the end of the story."
E-mail Steven Winn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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©2005 San Francisco Chronicle