The perfect end: Fiction and cinema's most memorable finales are inevitably surprising
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 8 February 2005)

The opera Siegfried, that sublime fairy tale, ends with the hero and heroine singing Wagner's most exquisite love duet while an urgent orchestral score drives us toward the ecstatic conclusion. "The good ending," John Updike once wrote, "dismisses us with a touch of ceremony and throws a backward light of significance over the story." He was discussing fiction, but the same could be said of any well-made narrative, including Siegfried. In the incandescent production by the Canadian Opera Company now in Toronto, the conclusion seems perfect. Watching it the other night, I found myself wishing that all drama could leave us with such a fine-tuned consummation.

Siegfried, though first performed in 1876, has what we call a Hollywood ending, meaning that everything turns out for the best. The young Siegfried has honoured his heritage and asserted his personal power by forging a magic sword from the broken bits of his dead father's weapon. He's killed the dragon Fafner and penetrated a ring of fire to awaken Brunnhilde with a kiss and claim her as his bride. His saga ends, for now at least, in loving fulfillment. It's like the end of James Joyce's Ulysses, where Molly Bloom's inner monologue ("he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes") seals a complicated story with innocent emotion.

That kind of simplicity works best for the great and the lowly; it comfortably attaches itself to masterpieces and trash. In the middle, where most stories of interest are found, the audience and the reader expect something else at the end -- surprise, but surprise mingled with a sense that somehow the result was inevitable even if hadn't quite anticipated it. Aristotle called it recognition and reversal.

That's our feeling when we discover that incest was driving the plot of Chinatown, or that Keyser Soze, the super-criminal who lives off-screen in The Usual Suspects, maybe didn't exist. Or when Orson Welles informs us at the end of Citizen Kane that "Rosebud" was the hero's sled symbolizing his thwarted childhood. Or even when the beautiful woman Stephen Rea falls for in The Crying Game reveals that she has a penis.

That same alchemy stirs us when Charlton Heston, playing an astronaut who believes he's landed on a planet dominated by apes, finds the Statue of Liberty's tiara poking through the sand on a beach and realizes this isn't the Planet of the Apes but his own dear Earth. In an instant he knows he's pierced a time warp and that the apes are in charge because humans destroyed their civilization.

Billy Wilder liked an ending that enriched and expanded the plot. Among directors he was the master of the clever exit strategy, as he proved with his drag comedy, Some Like It Hot. Daphne, a.k.a. Jerry (Jack Lemmon), is going off with a rich boyfriend, Osgood Fielding III (Joe E. Brown). For two hours the audience has been wondering why Lemmon and Tony Curtis look so cute in dresses. Finally Daphne/Jerry, confesses: "You don't understand, Osgood! I'm a man!" Osgood ends the film with a line that hints at future scandals the audience can never know: "Well, nobody's perfect."

I was in Grade 9 when endings first appeared on my screen as a distinct element in fiction. While we 13-year-olds read the last chapters of Great Expectations, our teacher explained how Dickens always steered the ship bearing his characters safely into port. Like Siegfried, his Pip and Estella have earned their happiness. Selfish young Pip has grown into a decent young man. Cruel, icy Estella has become warm and considerate. Dickens rewards them with the love they want and need.

But that's not how he first wrote it. Dickens originally intended to have Estella married to someone else and Pip left alone. A friend, after reading the manuscript, argued for their happiness and Dickens, ruling like a genial appeals-court judge, agreed to change it. Today many editions carry the original ending as an appendix so that readers can decide the case for themselves. Bernard Shaw considered the happy ending an outrage that trivialized an otherwise honest novel. More recent critics have decided that it fits better into the book's general pattern of separation and reconciliation.

Pattern: That's the reason fictional narratives are vastly superior to "real" life. We can rely on them, usually, to wrap things up, give events the neat packaging that reality notoriously fails to provide. As Larry McMurtry once wrote, "Life, for all its raw talent, has little sense of structure." Life suffers from a lack of editing and pacing. Its endings are seldom clever. In that sense, Samuel Beckett's work resembles life more than literature. Waiting for Godot doesn't end, it dwindles. Fine for Beckett, but one Samuel Beckett is plenty.

Still, he's not the only writer who has made memorable art by ignoring the rules. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald and the often quoted conclusion of The Great Gatsby, which I once heard read with unforgettable poignancy at the burial of a troubled but much-admired artist.

The narrator, Nick, having set down a parable of hope, disillusionment and death, begins brooding about Jay Gatsby's rapturous feelings when he first glimpsed the green light at the end of Daisy's dock and assumed that after all his struggles he was close to possessing the woman he had dreamt about for so long. Gatsby didn't realize that this dream was already behind him; he was pursuing the ideal future that we insist on seeking while knowing it will always elude us. "So we beat on," Nick concludes, "boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Now look here, Fitz, that's dead wrong. Every creative-writing teacher can tell you Rule No. 1: Don't state, indicate. Let the events make the point. Don't preach, don't deliver life lessons. If you realize there's a moral in all this stuff, keep it to yourself.

Nevertheless, in this flagrantly misguided passage, several generations of Fitzgerald readers have heard heart-tending echoes of their own failures and longings. Like many a first-class artist before him, Fitzgerald understood that rules are for breaking. His direct address to the reader reversed expectations and produced an enduring sense of recognition while compressing into a few words all that came before.

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