Loose ends and the hope of things to come

Loose ends and the hope of things to come

Stories may be lifelike, but not like life. After all they require a selectiveness about what to tell and what to withhold. That decision is fundamental to narrative success.

When you’re writing a piece of fiction, or for that matter a poem, the notion of form is metaphorical. You can choose to work within a recognisable genre, or verse form, (though even here the “form” cannot be a constraint in the way drawing within a rectangle might be). Or you can set your own terms and ask the reader or viewer to come with you. Readers or viewers will then come to their own judgements about whether this new thing you’ve offered is aesthetically or even emotionally satisfying.

Christopher Booker made a splash arguing an alternative view. His The Seven Basic Plots spends hundreds of pages trying to delineate seven archetypal narrative forms, which he suggests somehow correspond (in a Jungian way) to something deep in our consciousness. If you deviate from these forms, as old Modernists like James Joyce did, he argues you will produce something necessarily unsatisfying.

This strikes me as a lot of effort to give a psychobabbling and spurious apology for bourgeois art, but with that point made, I want to focus on the mainstream narrative of ITV’s Marcella, which just completed its first (and possibly only) series.

Marcella was written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who created and wrote The Bridge. You could say then he has form, which would happen to be a version of crime fiction with plots extended by multiple red herrings.

It worked after a fashion through most of Marcella, because through most of the series it was impossible to guess what was going on. There were just too many elements in play. This was useful for Rosenfeldt because it obscured the many implausibilities that were already running through the story.

In these circumstances implausibility really may not matter too much. You go along with the story (this is a version of writers being able to set their own terms).

The trouble is that what when you’re working in an established genre like TV crime fiction you also have to deal with a weight of audience expectation. We could accept and enjoy all these multiplying threads because the genre promised resolution in the end.

It seems though that the pleasure of this resolution depends on how much actually gets resolved. Marcella answered its main whodunnit question, with meta-narrative pretensions (some of the story’s red herrings had been put there by the killer to keep the police from his trail). I understand too that the series might have wanted to set itself up for a sequel, where further questions could be answered, but with the way it all worked out there were far too many loose ends for this to be acceptable.

It’s true that audience expectations are not set in stone, even when you choose to work in a mainstream genre like crime fiction. You can shift those expectations, recalibrate them, as David Lynch and Mark Frost did in an extreme way with Twin Peaks. The latter started off looking like a soap with a murder mystery thrown in, but it soon became clear that the pleasures it offered were going to be of a different kind, with the narrative constantly teetering on the edge of coherence (I think and hope David Lynch would take that as a compliment).

But you have to do the work for this. Marcella wanted to take us to a version of London where building companies murder local authority planners if they get in the way of a project. This might just about have been plausible had there been a gangland connection, but it didn’t seem to be that kind of story. None of the red herrings or minor plotlines conditioned our responses to expect anything other than a tying up of loose ends. Writers can set their own terms, but that takes a bit of effort, and on its own terms Marcella was sadly underwritten.

It’s illuminating to contrast this inadequate narrative management with the very finely calibrated conclusion of Great Expectations. Dickens had some problems with the ending. There was public pressure for a happier resolution, in which Pip finally got together with Estella. Dickens consequently rewrote the ending, with a carefully ambiguous sentence which allows the reader to hope for their eventual union. But it doesn’t actually offer that resolution, instead perpetuating the daft aspiration we were encouraged to share with Pip throughout the story, that he might marry this monstrous woman. Great Expectations is a novel about how romantic hope may overwhelm judgement, an idea which it formally embodies by playing on the romantic expectations we readily bring to these fictions. The ending cleverly leaves us in a state of irresolution, which is formally satisfying, just because it is frustrating for our sentimentality.

Marcella is not alone among recent TV productions in taking us for a ride then leavingt us short of the destination, bodging the end: Line of Duty is the most obvious high-profile culprit. The Dickens comparison shows that there’s a world of difference between a creative ambiguity and a tangle of loose ends or implausibility. Endings have the power to make or break or story, no matter what may have preceded them. I’ve found myself too often lately living in the hope of something better from TV drama.

Stories, faith and resolution

Stories, faith and resolution

I want to think a bit more about story endings, which is going to mean spoilers for the films I’ll be talking about. If you don’t want to know the ending for The Godfather trilogy, or Flight, or The Great Beauty, then you should stop reading.

I wrote in a previous blog that the ending of any story has the power to affect fundamentally how you view everything that had gone before it, for better or worse. Storytellers may also choose to teeter around irresolution, which conversely may or may not be satisfactory depending on what went before.

Perhaps the best example of how irresolution can work well is in the perfect end of The Sopranos, which didn’t so much end as stop. This “stopping” is quite different in turn from something like the BBC’s The Hour, which came to an unresolved end in the apparent expectation of a third series, and was then cancelled by the network. Its cliffhanger ending was instantly meaningless. The ending of The Sopranos on the other hand forcefully reminded you of the distinctive premise of the series, that this was not some modern or ironic tragedy about the rise and fall of its central, commanding figure: it offered a random segment of an extraordinary life, lived as an ordinary one, where the notion of a Mafia family was pushed to a literal extreme and turned into a kind of vicious soap opera.

Funnily enough one of the reasons I can’t bear soap operas is that they never reach an ending, but will drag on and on as long as ratings permit, their interwoven stories each reaching their own semi-resolutions without offering the gratification of an ending. I’m not knocking the craft of those who make these soap operas, but I think what put The Sopranos on a different level (apart from the general brilliance of its writing and execution) is the sense that Tony’s world might well have come tumbling down around him at any point, and so brought the story to a close. The fact that it didn’t happen (which is not to say there weren’t casualties along the way) was in itself a twist, a reminder that these extraordinary lives were indeed also ordinary and might just drift on. In the context of a story about corruption and murder such an irresolution takes on specific meaning.

The Godfather Parts 1-3
One of the funnier elements of The Sopranos was the way its Mafia characters would quote from The Godfather films, which certainly operated on an operatic rather than soap-operatic level (literally so in the final film).

It’s routine for critics to knock the third Godfather film as a piece of hack work appended to the perfection of Parts One and Two in order to make a bit of money. While Coppola might well have needed the money, it seems to me crass to suggest that his pride would have allowed him to turn out something so much diminished, and to my mind Part Three brings a perfect resolution to the careful irresolution at the end of the second film.

The Godfather Part Two you might remember ends with Michael Corleone sitting alone among trees, his passage from war hero to murderous Mafia don complete, and the isolation his symbolic reward. This is artistically satisfying but in truth leaves plenty of scope for further reflection and development, which is what happens in the third film.

Thinking of this Part Two ending as a resolution, as the last word on Corleone, invites a narrow judgement of Michael which actually cuts against much that made the films so compelling. Critical here is the part played by the Catholic church in Mafia life, a part which is given its most powerful moment at the end of the first film when the baptism of Michael’s child is intercut with the ruthless elimination of the Corleones’ rivals. It might be tempting to see this as a straight irony, a way of highlighting the family’s hypocrisy, but it’s not that simple in Catholicism which (to deploy a cliché), preaches love for the sinner while hating the sin. To be drawn into the story is to understand and feel for the Corleones’ humanity alongside their monstrosity, itself a very Catholic view. The idea that Michael might have reached the end of his moral journey at the end of Part Two might be satisfying enough aesthetically but is not acceptable theologically, and that’s where the third film starts.

In the third film Michael seeks redemption. Its thumping irony is that he turns naturally to the Church for that redemption, but only finds a deeper corruption than in his own life. The assassination of his daughter embodies the dying of any remaining light in that life and Michael is left in a final scene sitting alone again, to die like the crumbling of a dried out leaf.

Perhaps this religious element is not interesting to those who have not felt the conflicts of trying to maintain a Catholic faith, but for a lapsed Catholic like me it means the third film finds a new depth which makes it a worthy conclusion to the trilogy. Sofia Coppola’s much-vilified performance is at least as good as it needs to be, and technically the film is as masterful as the first, the structure of which it consciously mirrors. History I hope will judge it more kindly as a proper end to the saga.

Flight: an end off pat
I’ll touch briefly on Flight, which I saw recently, as a film which is undermined by its ending, an ending which smacks too much of the desire to offer something morally cut and dried, perhaps for commercial reasons. That’s a shame because Robert Zemeckis’ film is through most of its duration consistently more interesting and ambiguous. It too has an interest in faith though what makes that interest interesting is the way it plays through the film without being particularly important to its narrative; it’s there in a cynical monologue from a dying cancer patient, in the Baptist sect who interrupt their strange rites to help the plane crash survivors, in the oppressive blinding faith of the co-pilot and his wife.

But this faith is not a force pushing the film to its resolution. It’s more like a series of grace notes in the story of a man who’s lost himself to addiction, and proves irrelevant to his eventual recovery. It’s hard to say then what it’s doing in the story, but it broadens its scope in a way which makes the pat ending all the more unsatisfying.

The Great Beauty: sentimentality redeemed
That pat quality, a kind of sentimentality, afflicts the end of The Great Beauty, a very different film, though it works in a way which makes you want to accept the possible value of sentimentality. This long and spellbinding film weaves in several minor stories, but for the most part lacks narrative drive. It meanders with all the pointlessness of its main character as he wanders from party to party, a successful but dried up novelist adrift in the empty glamour of Roman high society.

Once again there’s a religious element towards the end, when a Mother Theresa figure is briefly welcomed into that society as an object of curiosity. Her intense but (in this context) bizarre faith becomes a counterpoint to our lead character’s concluding journey to the island of Giglio, where he finally recognises the significance of the young woman who turned away from his 18 year old self, the Great Beauty he’s been seeking ever since.

As I say this ending risks sentimentality, but because it suddenly gives a shape to what previously felt shapeless, finally reveals that there’s been a story arc after all, the resolution is satisfying. Instead of letting down what went before, it gives it the meaning that’s been lacking in the writer’s life, without detracting from the incidental observational delights along the way. As you reflect too on those delights it becomes apparent that any sentimentality is in the mind of novelist, and has a sustaining place there, but is not itself especially sustained by the events you have seen: after the death of the woman who was the Great Beauty, her husband cheerfully finds another much younger woman. This balance of insights helps to ensure that the film continues to feel satisfying as you reflect on it, and to have reached a good resolution which has not been cheaply won.