Although happy endings very rarely – if not never – happen in real life, somehow we do seek them, need them and firmly expect them in cinema. Depressing outcomes, deaths and grim messages at the end of films make us miserable, whereas an optimistic and romantic story ending gives us hope. It might carry no credibility and it might well represent the most unfeasible scenario, but we’ll immediately take it and run. Does this mean we are a little bit to blame for the limited amount of great stories available in cinema at the moment?
Indeed, when films are not documents, they are dreams. And we most often want them to refrain from representing real life, but rather, an idealistic life we have never lived and most likely never will. This is what cinema is required to do in most cases, this is the role we’ve given it and if not the primary reason for its creation, certainly what it’s come to be able to offer us. An escape much needed, much appreciated and very much expected. However, when films are not solid dreams, then the challenge of combining a realistic story with an uplifting ending begins.
This is exactly why James Franco’s Aron Ralston in 127 Hours might have gone through hell, but he ultimately “only” loses an arm during his odyssey, survives and changes his life around, makes commitments and starts a family. This is why although activist Harvey Milk is shot dead by his political rival in Milk, the film has to end in a more positive note, with thousands of people flooding the streets of San Francisco, lighting candles and paying tribute to a great man. And this is why in Titanic Jack, Rose and the rest of all the people who drowned need to meet again in a peaceful afterlife world.
Are these really happy endings though? Because I feel the conclusion should be able to get much happier than this and still be at least a little bit plausible. If we accept that the above examples are not going to end so positively because they are based on true stories, then it is only entirely imaginary stories that we could give upbeat conclusions to. Anything with a little bit of reality in it, anything documenting something to even a very minor extent, is pretty much doomed.
So what do we do? Do we apply the credible ending, have the audiences upset but make the story believable? Or do we “let Zidler keep his fairy tale ending” and, as a result, commercialise our subject and compromise the plot? Do we want to escape no matter what, or do we want to keep it real? My mind changes constantly and if I support one side now, I’ll probably want to take it back later.
One thing that is certain is that the storyline always needs to be strong. A powerful plot is invaluable and compromising it not to hurt anyone is always a shame. If the audience is overly delicate, then cinema loses an important part of its art. On the other hand, adding a bad ending where it doesn’t belong doesn’t make the story deeper or more thought-provoking, rather it feels like a cheap way to evoke some kind of emotion in the viewers. Unnecessary graphic violence, extreme bleak endings and pointless deaths are just as predictable and uncalled for in cinema as cute and sugary happy finales are, and personally, I think they are just as solid of an indication of a bad film.
In the end, a big part of cinema is business. And since a happy ending sells better, more stories will strive towards it. Yes, most often they are extremely predictable, but haven’t overly tragic endings ended up being just as banal?
This is I why believe that cinema becomes great when it “half-documents” and half-dreams. Allowing a story –not necessarily a true one– to keep its credibility, but also adding a positive note like in the based-on-a-true-story examples mentioned above, is necessary for this art form to still be able to lift our spirits a bit. This way, even in entirely made-up stories we can have a strong plot together with an uplifting ending. A thought-provoking conclusion does not have to be bleak and a positive finale does not have to be predictable and unintelligent.
This is how the grandpa can die in Little Miss Sunshine, the financial and family problems can still be there, but the conclusion can be as upbeat as “the world is a playground, everything is ultimately a joke, have fun”. In the same way, after a great deal of suffocation in his life, Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham might be murdered in cold-blood in American Beauty, but this will happen after a personal revolution and after he has finally acquired his own freedom. His death is somehow a beautiful one, filled with great memories and much needed satisfaction.
Ambiguous is better than sad, I feel. And realistically-positive is better than happy-for-no-reason. Besides, as it is often said, if the ending is happy, then the story is not yet finished.