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Taking Leave: A Film Ends

Amongst numerous acts of philistinism perpetrated by film "lovers" whilst watching a film on the big screen, the act of shuffling, talking and taking leave of the theatre during a film's end credits is the most symptomatic of a lack of true engagement with the cinematic experience. (And I'm not referring to the actual reading of the end credits, though, of course, one should sit there and skim them anyway, in acknowledgment of the contribution these dozens or hundreds of people made to the film.)

The time it takes for a film's end credits to roll (anywhere between one and seven minutes, depending on the film) is a unique time, creating a space for the spectator somewhere between the film's world and the real world. It is then a question of how the spectator chooses to use that time - one extreme is to walk out immediately when the first credit appears, the other is to stay glued to the screen with the same attentiveness as before the credits.

Objectively, one could answer this question by saying: it depends on what value, thematically or emotionally, that rolling of the credits has for the particular film.

In the spectrum of films, there are many films where the end credits mean nothing. These are your standard classical narrative (Hollywood, but also elsewhere) films: the narrative has provided a climax, a resolution, a denouement, a verbal summing-up, a musical cadence, a panoramic craned closing shot, a fade to black, a second or two more of black ... and then the credits roll, with different (much more sedate) music accompanying them. For all intents and purposes, these type of endings leave the credits empty - all emotion and meaning has quite clearly been wrung from the film.

Still, even with these type of films, one can use the credits to reflect, replay, or, emotionally, feel some kind of afterglow. No film's credits should be walked out on!

It seems to me that the endings of films are changing. Many films still exist that conform to the above model, but many other films these days (i.e. in the past 20 years) are breaking those narrative rules, even radically in some cases.

The key (but it's far from the only device) is music, especially the (pop/rock) song. Credits are now clearly emotional affairs - a song or music track is used to express or heighten the film's main emotion (or "end" emotion, invariably making the music track an "up", happy one). And, importantly, in many cases this music track begins five, 10, 30 or more seconds before the credits roll. The emotion (and thematic meaning) this music creates does not disappear when the credits kick in. If anything, the opposite happens - devoid of any pictorial and narrative information, the film becomes the music and the music alone, and its inherent emotion bursts forth. The spectator (sic - listener) can then take leave with that emotion, and truly fly with it. (Hear and feel the endings of Happy Together, Magnolia or any good teen movie.)

Using music in this way is a simple first step for filmmakers in making their films resonate outside the space of the film. The emotions and meanings of the film enter the space of the end credits. In rare cases, they enter the space of the external world , i.e. our consciousnesses and psychological make-up.

One method filmmakers use to make this rarer thing happen is to simply not complete the film within the film's framework, or to substantially subvert those normal processes of narrative and thematic closure.

For example, a film can have a perfectly normal resolution and denouement, complete with happy ending, but if it makes only one small change to the conventional grammar, this change can have a beautiful impact. Look at PT Anderson's 1999 Magnolia's ending. The shot that closes the film is not a wide shot or landscape shot, but a slow track in to a close-up of Claudia's (Melora Walters) face. This has the effect of bringing us into close proximity with her emotions and leaving us in the middle of them when the film cuts to the credits. (The fact she suddenly and wilfully looks at the camera in the last second of the shot is a further complication I won't delve into here.) It's a happy ending, but slightly unexpected and therefore unsettling. (Anderson's previous film, Boogie Nights, also has an unexpected and interesting ending.)

But it's the films which refuse conventional closure which are the more fascinating. Many European films, for example, set the characters on journeys and leave them and us hanging at the end (The Stolen Children, The 400 Blows). Other films set up intrigues which are not resolved in any clear sense one way or the other (The Interview, Taste of Cherry, L'Avventura). And then there is a curio such as The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972), where the protagonist has a clear goal, strives determinedly to get it, gets it, and almost immediately feels flat and doesn't care for it, cut to credits.

My point is that it is always the end credits which signify that a film has finished. Films with unusual endings suddenly become amazing experiences during those credits.

One of my favourite endings of all time, and quite possibly the most abrupt ending in the history of narrative film, is in an Australian short, Paper Chains (Mark La Rosa & Richard Tuohy, 1992). Throughout the film, the central character tries to organise a reunion of her old high school friends. The film progresses and she makes a phone call to one of them, trying to persuade the person to come along. "What do you think?" she asks. And after one beat: "Are you there?" Cut to credits, which proceed silently. The effect is devastating. (From memory, Jacques Demy's The Model Shop finishes with the same shot - mid-shot of the protagonist half-way through a phone conversation.)

This is simply narrative ellipsis, but it is apparent only in the exact split-second the film cuts from its "body" to the end credits. There is no doubt that filmmakers have become more conscious of this moment in the past 20 years. We just need the audiences to now catch up.

© Bill Mousoulis June 2000
This review first appeared in Senses of Cinema, No.7, June 2000.