June 12, 2007

Inconclusive endings.

Unless you're really spoiler averse about "The Sopranos," I think you can read this. You probably already know that the ending of "The Sopranos" left us questioning what happens next. We're going to debate endlessly -- and write innumerable blog posts -- about what we think happened after the screen went black. This is a classic type of ending, so let's try to think of some other examples. I know this risks all sorts of spoilers, but we've got to be able to talk about the way narratives end, and we can't wait until everyone has seen and read everything. In the comments to the "Sopranos/gender difference" post, PWS srote:
I agree with those who state the ending is leaving space for the viewer. I think this is a characteristic of great art; some room for the consumer of the art.

Remember the end of Lost in Translation when Bill Murray's character says something to Johanson at the end and the audience never finds out what it is?
That made me think of the ending to "The Graduate." After what seems to be the ending, when Benjamin sweeps Elaine out of her own wedding, things drag out. They catch a bus, all giddy, and take the big seat in the back. We stay with them a long time, long enough to lose the thrill of the escape and start to doubt whether they're going to be very happy, long enough to set us up for a big conversation after we get out of the theater about whether it's going to be much good at all.

So let's have some more examples. And let's try to define some distinctions. Some movies end inconclusively to leave room for a sequel. (This type of movie can have a real, solid tie-up-all-the-loose-threads ending, followed by a coda that introduces new material for the sequel, as is done quite amusingly in "Back to the Future.") And some movies just have botched endings. An inconclusive ending is risky because many viewers will decide that it is just a bad ending -- they didn't know how to end it or they didn't know how to make the ending clear.

These days, they test commercial movies and redo the ending if people aren't satisfied enough. I think one of the reasons movies have gotten worse in the last 8 years is that endings are being tweaked to satisfy lazy, emotionally needy audiences. But I still think the inconclusive ending is a classic narrative strategy. The classic classic example is the story "The Lady or the Tiger."
The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door - the lady, or the tiger?
After thinking of that, I checked out the Wikipedia entry for the story, and -- things get updated so quickly these days -- found this:
In "The Sopranos" series finale ... [spoilers deleted] ...

A classic "The Lady, or the Tiger?" ending.

39 comments:

Susan said...

A satisfying and conclusive ending leaving no possibility for a sequel: Thelma and Louise.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

When it comes to classic movie endings who can forget"Clue"?

I always wondered why that format wasn't copied more often, like, say "Pirates of the Caribean 1". One ending, as we know it, another where Jack runs off with the girl instead of the ship, and a third where he actually hangs.

Which ending satifies you the most? Pick that ending when you watch the DVD.

Specifically on the Sopranos (I have never seen a minute of the show) ending; I have heard three endings were filmed. Is it possible the end was not attached to the rest of the episode through a technical glitch, creating the black screen ending, and now the producers are claiming this ending as intended art?

Invisible Man said...

I loved the ambiguous ending to "Children of Men" though I'm biased because I think that its maybe the best movie that I've seen this decade. Again on the gender thing, my girlfriend hated the ending on the boat.

Piggybacking off of the Lost in Translation reference, Bill Murray's better follow up to that movie "Broken Flowers" had the kind of open ending that I didn't like. He spends the movie looking for his son, runs into a kid who might be his son, and then doesn't even really bother to ask if it is his son. I loved the movie overall, but the ending could have been much better.

MadisonMan said...

The Lady or the Tiger on-line.

I like the ending of My Fair Lady. Does Eliza fetch the slippers or tell him to stuff it?

Simon said...

Skilled composers can make a suspended cadence work, and skilled writers can make a cliffhanger ending in a movie or a TV show work. The trouble is that the cliffhanger ending is often used of a kin with the deus ex machina: the writer has boxed themselves in and can no better think of a satisfying conclusion than can the viewer.

In the context of the Sopranos ending, I have to suspect the latter. I think Amba's suggestion that it was an artistic way to make the point that you don't necessarily see death coming, and so it went blank because if you're shot in the head, it would just all stop, is inventive and makes some sense in the context of the show, but reaches a little.

The classic example I'd cite where a movie pulled it off with aplomb was the original Italian Job.

CS said...

It'd be easier to see the ending as a near-miss if the series had shown any ongoing dramatic or even narrative direction after about Season Two. Commercial success seems to have lured Chase past the limits of his dramatic abilities. Hey, we all should have such problems.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Gone With the Wind left us with a hopeful Scarlett saying "tomorrow is another day." [The optimists know she got Rhett.]

Chris said...

[i] Is it possible the end was not attached to the rest of the episode through a technical glitch, creating the black screen ending, and now the producers are claiming this ending as intended art? [/i]

No.

MrBuddwing said...

I had the pleasure recently of seeing the classic French film "The Earrings of Madame De ..." And while I didn't swoon and proclaim it the best movie of all time like Andrew Sarris did, I enjoyed it very much. I was especially impressed by the somewhat ambiguous ending - it was apparent what was going to happen, but that Max Ophuls didn't see the need to spell it out for us really heightened the experience, IMHO.

Peter Palladas said...

A classic "The Lady, or the Tiger?" ending.

Well now, is it? In that tale two options are equally probable until the moment when one is chosen, at which point probability collapses into certainty.

Neither option is desirable from the Princess's perspective, though if I were the Lover I know where my future would lie and it wouldn't be with the cat!

The matter here though is not the beneficence of the outcome, but the endurance of uncertainty and the preservation of probability.

Not that I've picked up any spoilers mind you, but the 'screen goes black' ending is merely the sound of no door opening.

A satisfying and conclusive ending leaving no possibility for a sequel: Thelma and Louise.

Hey now, did you see the car hit the deck with them in it? No Ma'am you didn't. They're out there somewhere. If Sherlock Holmes can return from the Reisenbach Falls then so can those two.

And what about 'Blade Runner'? Dekard - replicant or not? He was. I know this.

As for 'The Graduate' I'm afraid that as a growing boy I never made it to the end of the film. Got as far as Anne Bancroft peeling off her stockings for the first time and for some reason the screen went black. (Koo-koo-ka-choo, Mrs. Robinson....)

blake said...

Invisible Man--

I do not get the lavish praise heaped on Children of Men at all. I mean, it's a competently done post-apocalyptic thriller, but it's also a poorly imagined scenario which uses every post-apocalyptic cliché in the book (without hint of recognition or irony).

I mean, seriously, if you're going to imagine a world without children, you could at least think through what that would mean about the value of youth. (I'll give you a hint: They wouldn't be running around as street urchins.)

I'll give them a "bye" on the whole "There's a famine so people are rushing to England." (Somehow I doubt that in the event of global famine anyone's going to England but, hey, it's a nice place to shoot a movie.)

hdhouse said...

Alternative ending explation:

Tony set himself up to be murdered. He knew the other boss's death would be avenged. His last contact with sanity - our good shrink - tossed him over, his lawyer said 80-90% pending indictment and the squealer had the goods on him and he couldn't beat it..all that raking leaves and thinking..and its the perfect narcissistic way for a socio-path to go...infront of his loved ones...so everone will miss him after he is gone..feel sorry for him..da da da.

I'll go with that theory because it seems right to me and closes it out without conflict.

PWS said...

Robert Redford's character in "The Candidate" has that same Now What look as the characters in "The Graduate."

Another great inconclusive ending is Tom Hanks in "Castaway." He reaches the intersection of two desolate rural roads and you don't know where he's going to go and get the feeling neither does he.

One more would be "Sideways" where Paul G's character goes back to the woman's house and knocks on the door; we don't know what he's going to say or what will happen.

blake said...

I think it was The Simpsons that did the Thelma & Louise ending, faded to black, then revealed later that the car had landed safely on a huge pile of garbage that had accumulated in Springfield Gorge.

As for Blade Runner, Harrison Ford and Ridley Scott disagree. In the book, though, he wasn't a replicant.

Justin said...

When I first heard about the ending (I don't watch the show), it reminded me of Reservoir Dogs. I haven't seen the movie in a while, but I'm pretty sure the screen goes black right before everyone starts shooting.

Thorley Winston said...

A satisfying and conclusive ending leaving no possibility for a sequel: Thelma and Louise.

I have to agree but only because that was such an awful movie that the only satisfying ending could be one in which both of the title character died a death as pointless as the movie.


My list of satisfying television endings:

1) Alias – she gets the boy, they “retire” to the beach and start a family but get called in for the occasional mission and we get just a hint that their daughter could follow in mom’s footsteps but maybe won’t.

2) Star Trek TNG – they bring it back full circle and the adventure continues but the captain realizes how important the people in his life are and the importance of letting them know it

3) La Femme Nikita – she becomes the man she most despised while letting her lover go to raise his son with the hope that some day he’ll return to her.

4) Babylon 5 – after 20 years they finally shut off the lights but before going their separate ways have one final dinner remembering old friends.

5) Frasier – a wedding, a birth, and our hero leaves for a new city to start again.

6) NYPD Blue – after some 20 years on the force the guy who began as the flawed anti-hero overcomes his demons and earns the respect and leadership of his co-workers as their new captain.

7) JAG – literally ends as a coin toss on which of our two unrequited lovers will follow the other

Each of these shows had an open-ended ending but what made them different is the characters were by and large good people who their fans had grown to love. We wanted things to work out well for them and even if we didn’t see it on the screen, that was okay so long as there was hope. In the case of the Sopranos, with a few exceptions (e.g. Bobby) these were generally all awful people who no one really liked and the most satisfying ending probably involves bloodshed, prison, or some sort of reckoning for their actions of the last six seasons. Leaving it uncertain made it too possible that maybe they really do get away with it in the end and that bleak, awful universe continues.

John Stodder said...

If David Chase had directed "Casablanca," Ilsa and Rick would have just stared at each other while the plane was getting ready for takeoff. Fade to black.

Okay, but no, but seriously... I think a category error is being made by a lot of people. Narrative form and structure determines a lot. The problem David Chase had is that there is no formula for how to end a lengthy TV series. It's rarely been done well.

A movie or a play follows the dictates of Arisotle, which demands some kind of meaningful resolution of a conflict, with that ending providing an emotional catharsis. The tradition of comedy is to achieve an ending in which those who were in conflict are brought together -- hence, a lot of comedies throughout history end in proposals of marriage with the denouement taking place at a wedding. The tradition of tragedy is generally the hero's defeat or death, which demonstrates the consequences of a "tragic flaw" like pride or anger. Time is a factor in moving the drama to a conclusion. The play itself is usually only 90-150 minutes long, and the period of time covered in the play generally is not too long.

These classical structures weren't available to David Chase to apply to the overall arc of a series that depicted seven years of these characters' lives. What examples could he draw from? Most of the greatest TV series just stopped, the basic situation continuing into infinity, or the situation changing in a way that has nothing to do with the characters (like "Mary Tyler Moore," where almost everyone got fired for no good reason).

Many series that tie up loose ends find it is impossible to do so in a dramatically satisfying way. The plot takes over when what you really cared about was the characters.

Chase's solution to the problem was both ingenious and unsatisfying. It will gnaw at people. I assume that's what he wanted.

The most successful TV series ending was, I think, "Six Feet Under," which did a variation on the type of ending in which the outcome of each character's lives is explained to us -- like the end of American Graffiti. "Six Feet Under" just did that type better than anyone ever has. At the end of that sequence, you felt like you didn't need to know anything else about the Fishers.

Chase could have done something like that, but instead left it to our imaginations -- what happened in the next two seconds, and what will happen after that. But because the structural rules of a TV series as a single dramatic entity are still so undefined, no matter what he did, at some level it wouldn't have worked.

Adrian said...

major nerdage alert: okay, there was a modest kerfuffle amongst sci-fi fans over the series finale of Joss Whedon's Angel (the buffy spin-off), which cut off right before a big fight scence was about to start.

to try to regain some dignity, i wanted to mention one of my favorite endings in literature: The Portrait of a Lady. Everything is set up for a romantic, happy ending, for Isabel to run off with a man who loves her, and instead she chooses to return and suffer in her awful marriage. I found it very touching, and there is a lot of ambivalence in it, too.

An ending kinda similar to the Graduate one is in the Sun Also Rises; talking about the beautiful romance they could have had had things been a bit different, he responds, "Isn't it pretty to think so," or something like that (i.e. no, it would have been empty no matter what).

Richard Dolan said...

"Some movies end inconclusively to leave room for a sequel." So do lots of books. This reminded me of Richard Ford's Bascombe triology (Sportswriter, Independence Day, Lay of the Land); and almost everything by Updike, to name just two. Even more striking is the way that novels (and movies) aimed at the younger set seems to follow the same pattern: what would have become of Harry Potter (or Nancy Derw or the Hardy Boys or Shreck or ...) but for endings that "leave room for a sequel."

I suspect that this technique is more prevalent (and effective) in books (films) aimed at a younger audience. My reason for saying so is that the artistry needed to pull it off consists of coming up with a set of characters and a plot that can sustain a reader's (viewer's) interest over the long haul. That's very hard to do in any genre; as the audience becomes more critical, it becomes harder still.

Dewave said...

Inconclusive endings are cop outs. There is zero point to them, *unless* they are setting up for a sequel.

'Leaving room for the consumer' is just code for "we were far too damn lazy to have to decide which ending would be best, so we decided to leave it up to the viewer to to just 'imagine' the ending!"

But all viewers imagine the ending anyway, whether or not you provide your own ending. Therefore, not providing an ending is not providing anything, nor leaving any more room for the consumer than would have otherwise existed.

We're all capable of imagining our own ending, don't patronize us and pretend that your lack of providing one somehow spurs this process: I'm sure everyone and their mother had imagined 5 or 6 different possible endings for the Sopranos before the last episode even aired: therefore, the black screen accomplished *nothing*.

What were people interested in? Which of the possible endings the producer would pick -- and if he was a truly great producer, he might come up with some ending no one had anticipated, yet one that still made sense.

Saying "Eh, you guys come up with your own ending" is a copout on a grand scale. Can you imagine any books written this way? :D

Dan said...

It seems like lots of people that liked the ending are talking about it in comparison to art. It allows people to come up with their own interpretation or whatever. But interpreting something and creating a new ending for somebody else's story are different things. Story-telling is a lot different than painting or composing music.

What if I started telling you a story and it went like, "Today I was supposed to meet my friend Jimmy for dinner at Barne's Restaurant. He calls me about 10 minutes before we were supposed to meet and tells me to meet him at Lucy's Pub instead. I go the extra few blocks to Lucy's and walk inside. I scan the crowd for Jimmy but couldn't find him, instead, I found myself face-to-face with... Hey, you wanna listen to some Journey?"

That's not a story. That's a bunch of garbage. The Soprano's wasn't my story. I don't want to write the ending. It's Chase's story and he should have ended it. If he were my friend I would punch him in the arm twice for that.

Dewave said...

It seems like lots of people that liked the ending are talking about it in comparison to art. It allows people to come up with their own interpretation or whatever.

That's certainly a bad anology. There are endings in which you can do this: a blank screen is not one of them, any more than a blank canvas is 'art'.

Art adds value. A non-ending doesn't add anything. Ergo, it's not art.

SteveR said...

I am a Casablanca person, I prefer the ending to be an ending. I can't cite an example but I tend to believe that a sequel is best created by the richness of the story not the lack of an ending.

Revenant said...

A lot of people are calling the end of "The Sopranos" a "cliffhanger". The more I think about it, the less appropriate that seems. Every significant plot thread that existed going into the final episode was resolved by the end of it.

What was left unresolved was the ultimate fate of the Tony Soprano *character*. There have always been exactly three possibilities:

(1): Prison
(2): Witness protection
(3): Death

What the finale did was tease us with all three without explicitly saying which one it would be. Carlo's testimony brings up (1), the steadily improving relationship with the FBI guy brings up (2), and that great, tense-for-no-reason restaurant scene at the end had us all expecting (3). It was, indeed, a Lady/Tiger ending.

How you feel about the last episode depends, I suspect, on how much the question of Tony's ultimate fate matters to you. I found that it didn't matter to me at all. We didn't know the ultimate fate of Michael Corleone at the end of Godfather 1 or 2, and I for one didn't feel worse off for not knowing.

Revenant said...

I am a Casablanca person, I prefer the ending to be an ending.

But the ending to Casablanca was just as open-ended as the Sopranos ending was. We know that Victor and Ilsa are rejoining the war effort (a war that wasn't going well for the good guys at the time). Rick and Louis wander off and we never find out what happened to them.

The ending isn't presented as an ending -- it is presented as a *beginning*. The movie is ultimately about getting Rick to join the fight against the Nazis. At the end he does. Watching the movie today it is easy to say "and then of course the Nazis lost", but the audience watching the movie in 1942 didn't know that. The future of all those characters was very much in doubt!

Revenant said...

okay, there was a modest kerfuffle amongst sci-fi fans over the series finale of Joss Whedon's Angel (the buffy spin-off), which cut off right before a big fight scene was about to start.

Short of having big flashing letters saying "by the way, the good guys are all going to die" on the screen I can't think how that scene could have been any more conclusive. The scene ended where it did so that the final note could be one of defiance of evil, even in the face of certain death. A few more gratuitous minutes of all the characters being slaughtered by the aforementioned evil would have served no dramatic purpose. "A Tale of Two Cities" ends in a similar manner, and for similar reasons.

Terry said...

I too loved the final episode of "Six Feet Under", especially since the basic structure of each episode began with a death, followed by the name and dates of birth and death. To take the show's characters to that same conclusion seemed fitting and relevant to the theme of the show.

To end the Sopranos with blurbs saying what happened to each character--"Tony testified before the Senate committee on organized crime, went into the witness protection program and died of pancreatic cancer at age 72" would have been cheesy. The end must fit with the tenor of the series. When did the Sopranos ever tie things up neatly or explain things completely?

George said...

Excellent comments, esp. Mr. Stodder above.

Bad ending. Clearly, a movie or other episodes are coming. Too much money at stake for all the major players.

As Stodder said, "A movie or a play follows the dictates of Arisotle, which demands some kind of meaningful resolution of a conflict, with that ending providing an emotional catharsis."

No catharsis here, just that ripped-off feeling we've all grown used to.

Revenant said...

A movie or a play follows the dictates of Arisotle, which demands some kind of meaningful resolution of a conflict, with that ending providing an emotional catharsis.

First of all, Aristotle's theories about drama only work in settings where evil and hubris are punished. In other words, they don't work for stories that try to be like real life. It is also highly questionable that his theories can apply to a 90-hour story -- who is going to wade through fifty or sixty hours of story just to get to the part where things start actually being resolved?

Secondly, even if we were to assume that Aristotle's theories apply here -- what, exactly, is the conflict that you're claiming wasn't meaningfully resolved?

The struggle between Tony and his one remaining mob enemy is over. Tony won. For the first time in the history of the show he has no living enemies (that we know of).

The struggle between Tony and his darker nature is over, having ended a couple of episodes ago. Tony lost.

Meadow and AJ's struggles between altruism and materialism are over. Altruism lost. Same goes for Carmilla.

The struggle between the family and The Family is over; The Family won. Tony eliminated all of his family except for his wife and children, who (as noted above) are now firmly entrenched within the Family environment -- Meadow as a future mob lawyer, AJ working in mob-owned film companies and nightclubs, and Carmilla engaged in fraudulent real estate practices.

The outstanding question is whether or not Tony will be indicted, but that's not a conflict. The justice system, in The Sopranos, has always played a deus ex machina role, whisking characters into and out of the drama at a moment's notice.

So what's the unresolved conflict?

Tom T. said...

Don't forget the classic ending to Animal House: "Senator & Mrs. John Blutarsky"

SteveR said...

Rev: I don't disagree with you about Casablanca but Rick chose the tiger, the immediate situation was resolved. As a viewer, I could react and not feel I needed to know more.

John Stodder said...

First of all, Aristotle's theories about drama only work in settings where evil and hubris are punished. In other words, they don't work for stories that try to be like real life. It is also highly questionable that his theories can apply to a 90-hour story -- who is going to wade through fifty or sixty hours of story just to get to the part where things start actually being resolved?

Rev, that was exactly my point. The rules of drama, which almost demand a heightened ending, could not possibly apply to a 90-hour TV series. What I was trying to say is there is no defined aesthetic that Chase or other producers of successful TV series can look to. Screenwriters still study Aristotle in school. Who's a TV series showrunner supposed to study? Sherwood Schwartz? Quinn Martin?

Some would say the serialized novel of the 19th century -- Dickens, say -- is the precursor. Close but no cigar. Dickens stretched his novels out at long as he could in order to get more chapters and more money. But all he was doing was postponing the ending he already had in mind.

Revenant said...

John, I was actually replying to George, and missed the fact that he was quoting you.

I just don't agree with the idea that there were unresolved conflicts as of the end of Sunday's episode.

"More episodes"? "A movie"? About what? There's nothing left to say.

AllenS said...

How about the Sopranos move to South Park, CO., and wack all of the cartoon characters, and then live happily ever after.

George said...

Rev and John-

Rev, there's always something more to say when Hollywood waves the big bucks. It may not be much, but it will be said.

And, John, I don't see why we can't have a heightened ending at the end of a 90-hour TV series. Look at 'The Fugitive,' 'Mary Tyler Moore,' 'MASH,' or 'St. Elsewhere.'

Tony is a murderer (among other things), and he should have paid with his life.

I found the last episode tedious. Yes, like life itself, a bit random. But I wants ketzchub wid mi cheezburgrz.

m.croche said...

Richard Strauss' great (and final) opera "Capriccio" is set in an 18th century aristocratic salon. The Countess Madeleine is being courted by two artists who are pursuing her: the poet Olivier and the musician Flamand. The assembled company, which includes a theater director, an actress, dancers and amateur enthusiasts, debate the importance of various arts generally, and specifically whether poetry or music is the most powerful art. Their conversation is concluded by the resolution to make an opera out of the day's events. But both Olivier and Flamand send word to The Countess, asking her to decide the ending of the opera. Which will she choose, Olivier or Flamnd, poetry or music?

In a 20-minute monologue she weighs their respective merits and comes to no conclusion. She asks her reflection: "You mirrored image of Madeleine in love, can you advise me, can you help me to find the ending, the ending for their opera? Is there one that is not trivial?"

Her servant then quietly announces, "Your Ladyship, supper is served." With that, the opera comes to an end.

Revenant said...

Rev, there's always something more to say when Hollywood waves the big bucks. It may not be much, but it will be said.

If money was enough to get Chase to keep pumping out Sopranos stories and Gandolfini to keep acting in them, the series wouldn't have ended in the first place.

And, John, I don't see why we can't have a heightened ending at the end of a 90-hour TV series. Look at 'The Fugitive,' 'Mary Tyler Moore,' 'MASH,' or 'St. Elsewhere.'

That's an odd mix of examples. "St. Elsewhere" is widely considered to have had the worst ending of any television drama, the ending of "The Fugitive" is widely viewed as a cheat, and "MASH" opted to end what was basically a sitcom with bathos and melodrama. Of the four, only the ending of "Mary Tyler Moore" can be viewed as an artistic success.

Tony is a murderer (among other things), and he should have paid with his life.

Eventually he probably will, but that's not the point of the story. "The Sopranos" was, thankfully, not a Greek tragedy -- the last thing the world needs is another one of those.

John Stodder said...

I just don't agree with the idea that there were unresolved conflicts as of the end of Sunday's episode.

"More episodes"? "A movie"? About what? There's nothing left to say.


I'm with you, Rev.

The big stuff got resolved. The biggest of all was the battle for Tony's soul. His soul lost. That doesn't mean he can't enjoy an onion ring with his family now and then, but the possibility of salvation existed throughout most of the series, but that's over. No one is going to stop him from being a ruthless, conscienceless criminal except another ruthless, conscienceless criminal.

George said...

Meanwhile....

http://www.nypost.com/php/pfriendly/print.php?url=http://www.nypost.com/seven/06142007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/in_gazas_shadow_opedcolumnists_ralph_peters.htm