Endings, Happy and Sad

The end is near! At least when you watch a movie, the ending is never more than a few hours away. But what kind of ending? The general rule of thumb is that Hollywood movies have happy endings, because that’s what people want, while serious films have sad endings, because life is like that (or perhaps because it proves that they’re serious).

I can’t talk about endings without giving some away. So I’ll warn you now that this little essay has spoilers for Holes, Boogie Nights, and House of Sand and Fog. I don’t believe that these spoilers would harm your enjoyment of these films. But if the prospect of finding out what happens makes you uncomfortable, click here.

Some Hollywood endings are appallingly happy. Holes, an otherwise very good movie for preteens, is one of the worst. It’s not enough that the hero and his best friend are released from the juvenile work camp. They also find a fortune in buried treasure. And the evil sadists running the camp are arrested. And a 100-year-old drought ends. And all the kids who are still in prison dance with joy. And the hero’s father makes a second fortune with his crazy invention. And the best friend’s long-lost mother turns up. And–¦well, you get the idea. My daughter, who has read the book the movie was based on, assures me that the original ending is happy without getting ridiculous.

But sad endings can be just as forced. Consider House of Sand and Fog. In the real world, that whole dreadful situation would probably have worked out okay. And by the end of the second act, it looked as if the two antagonists would join forces to sue City Hall. But a happy ending would have felt wrong, like a sellout, so the writers threw in a crazy policeman to make sure that everyone ends up either dead or ruined.

The problem isn’t happy endings or sad endings; it’s endings. They’re a necessary part of the story-telling process, but in real life, they’re as artificial as a fade-out. A wedding is not an ending; it’s a beginning. Even death, definitely one person’s ending, leaves a whole lot of supporting characters around to figure out new story lines.

That’s why the best endings balance, like life, between joy and tragedy. They might leave the main characters feeling good, but without suggesting that that’s a permanent state. Boogie Nights has a great ending, and I’m not talking about the famous close-up. The protagonist has returned to his artificial family and the work that brought him fame and fortune. For the moment, everyone is pleased. But you know that more tragedy and heartbreak await.

Okay. If you got to this paragraph by clicking a link instead of reading, you’re unspoiled. How’s that for a happy ending? Some of the films below end happily, as well.

Noteworthy: Rock N Roll Horror Show, 1751 Social Club, Friday night, 8:00. It seems a little late for Halloween, but any season is right for an SF IndieFest benefit. The evening includes a screening of the 1962 Hammer flick Kiss of the Vampire, followed by live performances by two bands, Stolen Babies and The Graves Brothers Deluxe. I haven’t seen the movie or heard the bands, but Hammer’s horror movies from that era are seldom a complete loss, the cover is only $5, and it’s all for a good cause.

Recommended: The Hidden Fortress, Balboa, Friday and Saturday. Akira Kurosawa showed astonishing range within the samurai genre (as well as outside the genre). Seven Samurai is an epic drama with fully-developed characters and realistically unpredictable violence; Yojimbo is a black comedy; Throne of Blood is stylized Shakespeare. The Hidden Fortress is just plain fun–a rousing, suspenseful, and entertaining romp. It was also his first widescreen film, and contains two comic peasants (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who were the inspiration for R2D2 and C3PO. As part of its Samurai series, the Balboa is showing The Hidden Fortress on a double-bill with Three Outlaw Samurai.

Recommended: Ushpizin, Balboa, opening Friday. Shuli Rand was a successful actor before he found religion. Now an ultra-orthodox Jew, he wrote and starred in Ushpizin (Guests), a sweet and religious fable set during the seven-day festival of Sukkot. Rand and his real-life wife, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand (who never acted before but damn near steals the movie) play a couple so poor they can’t even celebrate the holiday. But good luck brings them everything they need, including guests in the form of two escaped convicts with questionable intensions. In Rand’s world view, good luck is a gift from God, misfortune is a test, and everything will work out if you pray hard enough and treat other people with sufficient patience and generosity. On a double-bill with Ballet Russes.

Recommended: Reds, Rafael, Sunday, 1:00. You have to hand it to Warren Beatty (and to Paramount); it took guts to make an expensive, three-hour, romantic, historical epic about early American Communists. Reds is a story of political and sexual idealism, of free love and Russian revolution, and of deep betrayal. It’s a sad, thoughtful, and intelligent film. Representative Lynn Woolsey will introduce Reds as part of the Rafael’s Reel Politics series.

Recommended: Yojimbo, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15; also at the Balboa, Thursday and next Friday. A masterless samurai (always the best for story-telling purposes) wanders into a small town torn apart by two gangs fighting a brutal turf war. Disgusted by everyone, our hero (who else but Toshiro Mifune) uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Allegedly inspired by Dashiell Hammett’s novel Red Harvest, it was remade twice as Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing. The Parkway is showing Yojimbo free for Audience Appreciation Night, and the Balboa is presenting it on a double-bill with Samurai Rebellion as part of its Samurai festival.

 Noteworthy: Auntie Mame, Castro, Wednesday. Some movies require an “Almost Recommended– icon. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s stage play (based on Patrick Dennis’ novel) is a wonder–”a comic celebration of a free spirit who lived life to the fullest. The movie version follows the play almost word-for-word, and preserves Rosalind Russell’s great performance, but Morton DaCosta’s stage-bound direction traps the story inside its theatrical origins. And the usually dependable screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (Singin’ in the Rain, The Bandwagon) failed to find a way around the restrictions of 1958 Hollywood censorship. Let’s face it, if you can’t say “bastard– or “sons of bitches,– you don’t have Auntie Mame.