January 6, 2013

Movie: Directors struggle to find 'The end'

Even with Oscar nominees, movie goers seem more and more to be leaving the theater confused and/or frustrated.

By STEVEN ZEITCHIK, McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

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The climactic scenes of “Life of Pi” and many other contemporary films reflect directors trying to surprise audiences that have already seen almost every conceivable ending.

20th Century Fox

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The climactic scenes of “Lincoln” and many other contemporary films reflect directors trying to surprise audiences that have already seen almost every conceivable ending.

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Who should we blame for this drop-off? Pity, first, the poor director working in the modern era. Go for the happy and you're accused of the saccharine. Go for the ambiguous and they'll throw tomatoes at you. As an audience, we've seen almost every conceivable ending, so directors try urgently, desperately to surprise.

Technology has made it harder too. An ending is instant fodder for a snarky tweet -- after all, it is what's freshest in our minds when the phones go back on. There is neither time nor space for an ending to ferment into a classic. (If "Citizen Kane" came out today, it could well spawn the trending topics -- Rosebud and StupidEndings -- and be out of theaters within weeks.)

The mechanics of Hollywood also contribute to the problem.

"We now develop so many movie ideas based on pitches," said Ben Affleck, director of "Argo" and "The Town." "And the thing about a pitch is that it does a pretty good job figuring out the first and second acts, but no one ever sits down and works out the third act."

Meanwhile, when the films are eventually made, studios test and test some more, so that an ending might well be chosen by a random assortment of people who happened to have a few hours free at the mall.

Sometimes the messiness is intentional. Filmmakers want their movie to be like life, and for most of us, life just kind of keeps meandering along. "I wanted it to be a slice of life," said "This Is 40" director Judd Apatow when asked why his movie seems to keep jumping around to different possible endings. "And life is very random and nonlinear."

The biggest tentpoles, devised in a petri dish by the biggest studios, have their own problems: They are forced to satisfy an ever more demanding teenage audience with bigger spectacle, which is why the building-jumping showdown at the end of "The Amazing Spider-Man" feels longer than the entire history of Marvel Comics.

But why is it so hard for virtue-laden movies with Oscar-winning directors to exit cleanly? There was only one way to put this issue to bed: to ask the people responsible.

Tom Hooper was first up. "I pride myself on endings because I think it's the most important thing," he said.

But if it's so important, why are there so many false finishes in "Les Miserables"? "The challenge with films that end with the hero dying is that it can leave you really hopeless, and so we had to transcend the tragedy of his death and turn it into something positive."

Next, Steven Spielberg. Asked about the prevailing feeling that he should have wrapped "Lincoln" at an earlier moment, he didn't concede the point. In fact, he said he didn't struggle with the ending as much as he did other issues. "The great challenge was not how the story would end but what it would cover," he said. "Tony (Kushner's) original draft was 550 pages."

As for Jackson's wish to see the shooter, Spielberg had an explanation. "We just knew we wouldn't show the assassination, because it would sensationalize the story. It would have suddenly focused the movie on the shooter, not the president."

Finally, Ang Lee. He said he knew the idea of pulling the rug out with an it-was-all-a-metaphor twist was tricky. "It's very hard, because you asked people not to believe what you just told them," he said.

So does it surprise or bother him that there's a backlash? "Well, Asia in particular loved the ending. It's more about the journey itself there," said Lee, offering an intriguing cultural hypothesis. "We probably don't feel this way as much in America."

"Life of Pi" is a big hit in China, so perhaps Lee is on to something. Perhaps we'd all feel differently about its conclusion if we were to travel to Beijing to watch it there.

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

The climactic scenes of “Les Miserables” and many other contemporary films reflect directors trying to surprise audiences that have already seen almost every conceivable ending.


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