Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Great Movie Endings - Part 1

I'm writing this in homage to Roger Ebert, who is recovering from a lengthy illness, and has still managed to inspire film lovers at his ninth annual Overlooked Film Festival.

I want to talk about some of my favorite films. Some stick with me for particular lines or scenes or characters. Dustin Hoffman breaking his Ratzo Rizzo character to shout "I'm walking here. I'm walking here!" when a taxi nearly hits him in Midnight Cowboy. Harrison Ford ad-libbing "I know" when Princess Leia admits her love for Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back. Richard Dreyfuss's Roy Neary enduring an interrogation in Close Encounters of the Third Kind that is frustrating and frightening until being asked whether he's experienced a "close encounter with something very unusual." At once he recognizes that no one is running this show, no one on Earth at least, and he screws up enough courage to appear suave and conspiratorial, asking with a crooked smile, "Who are you people?" I love these movies.

Ignoring any pretense to wrap my tastes in Great Cinema, I love these movies because of their ability to reveal some insight into the human condition that I'd never before encountered before taking my seat. And I watch these movies year after year. But lately I've been thinking about movies that are powerful for something special and difficult to pull off: their endings. These movies send us from the theater babbling with shock, smiling with deep appreciation, or feeling simply amazed that the director pulled off some impossible feat. To celebrate these achievements, I am developing a list of classic films that manage (in gymnastics parlance) to "stick the landing." I will add to this list as time allows, emphasizing that my collection is idiosyncratic and always incomplete. Naturally I'd love to hear your suggestions for movies that ought to appear here. But I should start somewhere, so I'll start in Texas.

Warning: Spoilers

Dazed and Confused
(1993) follows the meandering course of a rowdy Texas town of teenagers on the last day before summer, 1976. More than a dozen plot-lines converge and fragment as characters hook up, get high, raise havoc, ask questions, and wonder if the "best years of [our lives]" are worth all the trouble. By the end of a long night, Randall "Pink" Floyd has decided that he'd rather hang out with his stoner pals than sign his football coach's no-drugs pledge. So he hops into a 1970 Chevy Chevelle Super Sport with his friends to score Aerosmith tickets in Houston. The image is perfect: a car filled with kids who try to look mellow and cool, ignoring the anxiety of diminishing choices and inevitable compromise. They cruise away on a road that climbs upward and promises no horizon. Foghat's "Slow Ride" cranks through the speakers, and the scene fades slowly to black.

Visit IMDB's post on Dazed and Confused

American Graffiti
(1973) takes the cruising movie one step further than Dazed and Confused, telling the audience what happened to its southern California teens facing graduation and the real world beyond in 1962. While George Lucas is rightly castigated for many of his excesses in the Star Wars prequels, his over-emphasis on sets and props to the detriment of characters and plots, the director gets so much right in his homage to the hot rod fantasies of his youth. His movie is disarmingly simple: cars and tunes, disappointments and realizations. By night's end, all the threads seem fairly well woven together; Toad has even managed to impress a girl that is hopelessly out of his league. The film concludes, we presume, when one character flies away on a plane, looking down upon his town and seeing its small horizons for the first time. Great ending, right? But then Lucas adds something new, a wrinkle that some film historians consider to be revolutionary: He uses captions over the characters' high school pictures to tell what happens to them over the next few years. One character will die soon in a car wreck. Another will settle for a boring job in the insurance agency. And Toad, gentle, clueless Toad, will head for Vietnam. At once American Graffiti earns an entirely new resonance; its teenagers become the short-lived innocence of the nation.

Visit IMDB's post on American Graffiti

Finally, let me tell you how much I love The Last Picture Show (1971), a black and white film set in the fictional north Texas town of Anarene. The Last Picture Show portrays the lonely lives of a small town facing slow but inevitable extinction. The traditional roots of the community, an aging fellow named Sam the Lion and the movie house he owns, die in rapid succession. And those who remain look to an empty landscape of scrub and mesquite and know that their best times have come and gone. The oil fields are drying up and most of the kids are leaving. And yet Anarene folks still manage to have some fun, generally through a rotation of sexual indiscretions. There's so little else to do but screw. Though, as one character explains, "everything gets old if you do it often enough."

(Photo by Andrew Wood)

Ever since I saw the movie years ago, I have felt a close connection to those living ghosts of Anarene, so much so that I even made a pilgrimage to Archer City and visited the actual last picture show, the Royal Theater, where some scenes were shot. One of its walls has already crumbled, but folks still turn on the sign at night. The theater's website advertises performances that attract visitors from all over Texas. It's such a nice place to stop on a twilight evening that I almost forget the film's sublime ending: Sonny has returned to Ruth, an older woman whom he'd abandoned for a young fantasy of batting eyelashes and parted lips. Ruth initially rebuffs Sonny, but eventually realizes that the two need each other despite their sins. The old woman whispers softly, "Never you mind, honey. Never you mind." The image then fades to the dusty streets of Anarene, a panning shot along its empty main street, before settling on the Royal Theater. Closed and abandoned, the last picture show reflects mortality on a much larger scale than can be found on a movie screen. The winds of change will sweep everything away.

Visit IMDB's post on The Last Picture Show

I'll add to my list of Great Movie Endings over the next few months. Some potential inclusions:

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
The Godfather (1972)
The Usual Suspects (1995)
The Matrix (1999)

Oh, and I know that eventually this list must include Citizen Cane (1941) and Casablanca (1942). But I may take a while to get to these classics.


Unknown said...

Anarene was actually a small, short-lived town in the Anarene Oil Field in Archer County. William H. Taylor is the rancher/oil man who made his massive library available to Larry McMurtry in Mr. McMurtry's youth. I suspect Mr. McMurtry remembered the name of Anarene due to Uncle Will's participation in that field. Legend has it there is a town stone with "Anarene" still to be found there. We've hunted for it over the years and never been able to find it.

highway163 said...

Thanks so much for sharing this history. Fascinating stuff!