Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How Much Are Happy Endings?

Happy endings are presumed to belong to the realm of fantasy. In real life, after all, even a thumping electoral victory is generally more a first act than a last; what ensues, much too often, is disappointment, broken promises and even murmurs of a recall. When the believer, in any faith, tells us that the reward for bloody sacrifice is eternal joy, the nonbeliever is often tempted to think that the believer is merely trying to justify the ways of God to man. On earth at least, the end of life is death.

America, though, is the spiritual home of new beginnings, which may be why it has always had a soft spot, a special gift, for happy endings. We speak brightly of ''closure,'' as if the most difficult things in life could be wrapped up as neatly as a gift package; we speak of people ''passing on,'' as if the end of life were just a passing phase. America, in fact, could almost be defined as the place that chose not to root itself in the tragic cycles of the Greeks and others from the Old World (even Shakespeare, after all, in his early comedy ''Love's Labour's Lost,'' ensures that we leave the theater with the memory of a sudden death uppermost in our minds, and the central courting couples failing to pair off as comic convention decrees).

Similar link: Atwood Happy Endings

Maybe that's why so much of the world has always looked to Hollywood, America's official dream factory, for the provision of happy endings and to coach us in the special logic of the happy clinch under the closing credits. When the happy ending is spiked with just a little sadness or uncertainty (as in ''Casablanca'' or ''Gone With the Wind''), we can convince ourselves that we are being served an even more grown-up fairy tale, in which romance has been seasoned with a pinch of realism.

In recent times, however, Hollywood has been reneging on its side of the deal more and more. Look to this year's Academy Award hopefuls, and you'll see that almost every film asserts its seriousness by shying away from easy conclusions. ''Cold Mountain,'' like the book on which it is based and like the Civil War it brings to life, offers us a happy ending and then snatches it away. ''The Last Samurai,'' which likewise rises out of the ambiguous rubble of the Civil War, announces its elegiac intent in its title and leaves us to figure out which will die first, the memory of Kurosawa or the movie. Sofia Coppola's beguiling ''Lost in Translation'' owes much of its allure to the fact that we can tell, almost from its beginning, that it will serve up no ending, happy or otherwise; the end of the world, Bill Murray's expression tells us, will come not with a bang or even with a whimper but with a shrug. Apocalypse Never, you could say.

This refusal of the final curtain first became visible to me when David Fincher's ''Seven'' took a scalding look at a lightless Manhattan in which it found only grisly bodies and remnants of the Seven Deadlies. Brad Pitt was left talking of Dante while Morgan Freeman looked up ''sin'' in the local library. Yet even the unrelenting and scabrous nihilism of the movie didn't prepare us for a climax in which Pitt, the innocent, is reunited with his sweet love, Gwyneth Paltrow, in only the most gruesome way. A little later, John Sayles's typically wonderful and typically uncompromising ''Limbo'' moved even the seasoned cineastes of Cannes to boo by ending abruptly in media res (as if to show that that's how most days end). Then came ''In the Bedroom,'' based on Andre Dubus's story ''Killings,'' which gave us a resolution that left us more unsettled than if nothing had been resolved. Now arrives ''House of Sand and Fog,'' based on a novel by his son Andre Dubus III, which goes beyond even the harrowing events of the book to pile needless death upon needless death.

The terminus ad quem of all these remorseless treatments is the film that really stands out among this year's somber epics, ''Mystic River.'' As laconic in his directing as in his acting, Clint Eastwood unveils a grimy Boston street from which there's clearly no escape (every time we see a car pulling away from it, we know that nothing good is waiting at the other end of the ride). Revenge, the film reminds us, is the death of closure. Bad deeds, even in this most devoutly Catholic of environments, can be answered by only more bad deeds. When ''Mystic River'' presents us with a stunning climax, there's still no relief in sight. A father realizes he has killed a lifelong friend for nothing. A wife rejoices in the killing. A cop acknowledges there's no end to crime. And the little boy whose father has done everything he can to protect him from the brutal cycles of the streets comes to look as stony and beaten as his dad. The jaunty parade with which the film concludes is a brilliant mockery of even the thought of happy endings.

It's possible, taking all these in at once (and making room for the darkly Anglo-Saxon ''Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King''), to surmise that America is moving more toward the ambiguity of the world at large, not least because, as ''House of Sand and Fog'' shows, America is made up more and more of the world at large. It's possible that some of the complacency of the boom years, and the too-earnest belief in love and peace and understanding that came before, have been put aside. (When ''The Quiet American'' was first made, 46 years ago, the titular American was depicted as an innocent and played by the war hero Audie Murphy.) It's even possible that Hollywood movies are offering less of an escape from reality, sometimes, than a penetration of it, like the films we used to think were the domain of ''sophisticated'' foreigners.

But whatever the reasons, it's hard not to notice that even as our official makers of fantasy are giving up on happy endings, our politicians are serving up the promise of them as if they were going out of style. Ever since Ronald Reagan came to office, conventional wisdom has had it that politics itself is a species of show business, all lighting and angles and delivering your lines with a hopeful punch. But none of this takes in the fact that show business itself is moving in the opposite direction. Clint Eastwood, onetime mayor, gives us Aeschylus in blue-collar Boston, while Arnold Schwarzenegger, newly elected immigrant governor, offers triumphal solutions in the shade of the Hollywood sign. This leap-year month is the first time in memory when the Academy Awards fall fast on the heels of the early primaries. As we watch the two in quick succession, we may wonder whether it's now Hollywood that is teaching Washington a lesson or two in realism, and in the implausibility of any ending being truly happy for everyone.

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