Open-Ended Movies: For better or worse?

The world of cinema is constantly manipulated by ever changing trends.  Ultimately, the actions and opinions of a few, very powerful  people end up affecting what global audiences see on screen for years to come, for better or for worse.  For example, in very broad terms, the sixties witnessed the first unabashed portrayals of sex and violence, the seventies saw the introduction of low budget youth productions following the success of Easy Rider, as well as the introduction of the summer blockbuster; the eighties witnessed a strong affiliation with teen angst movies as well as the dawning of sequels, the nineties saw the rise of CGI, and the noughties saw the ugly re-emergence of 3D films and the era of the franchise.

Like all trends in life, these examples are best exemplified by a select few, only to be transformed to tedium when infinite rip offs and poor imitations flood the market.  So what, then, is the next trend for contemporary cinema?  While it may not seem overly prevalent, particularly as the idea long outdates the invention of the camera, the open-ended movie seems to be cropping up with increasing regularity.  In the last few years alone, InceptionThe WrestlerShameDriveTake ShelterBlack SwanRampartSyecdoche, NewYorkLike CrazyA Serious Man and Martha Marcy May Marlene have propelled ambiguous endings into the foreground.  These movies, though not all perfect examples of the art, are all stand alone productions, so the presence of an open-ending is purely for artistic reasons.

Other recent efforts such as PrometheusThe Dark Knight Rises, or seemingly any horror movie or young adult book adaptation, are left with gaping wounds of endings simply because there is money to be made from numerous sequels and prequels.  The likelihood of going to see a comic-book adaptation, for example, and witnessing a closed ending are minimal, at best.  It doesn’t make good business sense.  In contrast to the aforementioned films, these open endings are not artistic in nature, they are merely dictated by a yearning for profit.  True, the films themselves aren’t pretending to worthy of an artistic label to begin with, but they are still deploying the same mechanism, so they are still contributing to the trend.

So, is this trend to be embraced, or shunned before it can take root?

When deployed with a deft, skilled touch, the open-ended movie can create a sense of aura about a film, even a classic legacy.  If the trend increases, however, these films will become even more frequent, and their quality will diminish even further.  Of the aforementioned movies, Inception and A Serious Man are fine examples of an open ended movie.  They aren’t supposed to be universally loved, nor completely understood, at least initially.  But they have been discussed and dissected by viewers for hours, days, afterwards, and that in itself proves that a piece of art is having the desired effect.  Does the top stop spinning inInception?  It’s an unanswerable question, no one knows, and yet it’s been debated infinitely.  The culmination of A Serious Man sees a number of pressing issues, both big and small, rise to a head, just as a tornado hits town.  But what happens beyond this?  What does it mean?  There is no answer; it’s left to the audience to decide.

Therein lies the crux of the open-ended debate; the audience is required to work, and not every member of a cinema audience is happy to do so.  For some, being a part of a movie, being able to contribute a part of yourself to a completed vision of a film is a liberating experience, for others, the comfort and ease of a complete, totally unambiguous ending is equally as fulfilling.

Of course, there are good and bad examples, but cinema history proves that some of the greatest endings to date have been open-ended.  One of the finest, and most enduring, of endings comes in City Lights, where Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, now even more desolate and lost than ever, comes face to face with the now flourishing woman whose eyesight he helped to restore, but only by ruining himself.  She can now see him for all that he is, yet he is her saviour.  “You can see now?” asks the Tramp, to which she replies, “Yes, now I can see.”  The Tramp’s face is illuminated with a hopeful smile, but shadowed with a childlike biting of his finger.  The scene simply fades out, and the movie is over with no known resolution, yet it is utterly compelling and wrought with emotion.

The denouement of The Graduate is a small masterpiece in itself, depicting the rush and excitement in the sudden realisation of love and the anxiety to grasp it before it escapes you.  So when Dustin Hoffman’s Ben successfully steals Katharine Ross’ Elaine away from her wedding, and after they board a passing bus and take their seats brimming with joy and adrenaline, all seems well.  But when the chase is over, and reality sets in, their faces suddenly flit from happiness to an uncertain grimness.  This is how the movie leaves them, and the audience; uncertain of their love, and their future.

Woody Allen’s Manhattan also offers an open finale involving two people in love.  Isaac, the desperate middle aged man riddled with regret attempts to claw back his young, beautiful ex-lover, Tracy before she jets off to London for six months to chase her dream.  He actively tries to talk her out of going, telling her the trip will change her for the worse and that he might not like her when she gets back.  When confronted with his fear, Tracy simply says, “you have to have a little faith in people.”  Woody Allen’s smiling, albeit pondering, face is the last we see before a cutaway to the Manhattan skyline, leaving the future at the whims of the audience.

Other honourable mentions go to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which leaves you unsure of the year, your name and if you have any family members while leaving you a stunned, awed mess clawing and scrambling for answers; The Thing (1982), ends with MacReady and Childs sitting in a burning, arctic wasteland, both beset with paranoia about the other man being an alien, to which MacReady simply suggests, “why don’t we just wait here for a little while, see what happens”; and, of course, The Italian Job (1969), in which a prostrate Michael Caine affirms, “hang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea…er…er…”  A literal unanswered cliffhanger, it leaves audience angered and awed in equal measure, and that in itself is rather fantastic.

These ending aren’t complete in a literal sense, but artistically they are perfect.  Any attempts to add definitive closure to their tale would make them immeasurably weaker.  They are the pinnacle of skilled storytelling.  Perhaps the worry is more a concern for the growing weakness of contemporary cinema, and the waning of such skills.  Further examples of perfect, ambiguous endings such as In BrugesBefore Sunset,Lost In Translation and There Will Be Blood are all still recent enough offerings that show that the art is still thriving, but for everyone of these there is a Golden Compass, a Jumper, a Jonah Hex, a John Carter or aPrince Of Persia; films made with such a focus for future development that the actual movie being made appears to have been neglected to such a degree that the end result was simply abandoned.

If open-ended movies become a trend, it is only the audience who suffers.  There will always be fine examples of the ambiguous ending, that much is assured, but continued attempts at using the technique as a mask for poor writing, or such a blatant attempt at creating all conquering franchises so patently focused on fleecing the audiences is a dangerous tactic.  With cinema satisfaction at a dangerous low, it is unwise to gamble so openly with such ambiguous offerings.