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.

Stories, cheating, ending

Stories, cheating, ending

The US spy drama Homeland chugs on, probably losing viewers even as the story picks up, but you could say that it’s getting what it deserves since it cheated so comprehensively in the first few episodes, all for the sake of a dramatic twist.

In the first few episodes we saw our heroine Carrie apparently being sold down the river by her boss, the usually sympathetic Saul. Later we discovered this was all part of a cunning plan to entrap an Iranian terrorist mastermind.

But the root of our anger with Saul was a shared emotion with Carrie, when she sat apparently on her own, apparently reacting with disbelief as she took in the news that she had been betrayed. This could not have happened if, as we now know, Carrie was in on it all along. Now I feel betrayed, not by the CIA, but by the programme makes, the storytellers.

It’s not the first time, and this cheating can take subtle forms, some more satisfying than others. There’s the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, a great film in many ways and unfairly pilloried for its alleged sentimentality. I suspect the sugary music soundtrack is responsible for that misapprehension of sentimentality, and Spielberg must take some blame for approving it (all the more ironic given that the sound design is one of the most powerful elements of the astonishing opening with the Normandy beach assault), but I think he is successful in his stated aim of honouring what those soldiers did, giving us an unflinching narrative of what they went through, and rightly, literally saluting them without embarrassment at the end.

I admire the film so I don’t knock it lightly, but it does cheat, by way of a camera convention. At the beginning we see an old man shuffling through a war cemetery, falling on his knees in front of a cross. We are not shown the name on the grave and the camera zooms in close to the man’s eyes, then the film cuts to the Omaha beach landing in 1944. By cinematic convention that close up to the eyes suggests that what we’re now seeing is the old man’s memories, and because the camera next focuses on Tom Hanks’ trembling hands we conventionally assume that he is the younger incarnation of that older man. So we spend the rest of the film in some confidence that our hero will survive. The cheat can be justified partly because it makes Hanks’ eventual death more shocking and so gives more force to the revelation that the older man is in fact Private Ryan, who was saved by Hanks. It is (like Homeland) deliberately misleading, though it has more integrity than Homeland: it never shows anything that could not have happened, but instead simply manipulates our emotions through the conventions of film storytelling.

You could say with justice that all stories are selective in what they choose to tell and the order in which they tell things, and that they do this to manipulate our emotions. This is is what stories do, and it’s potentially what makes them so powerful: we call people who are particularly good at this manipulation, who can always carry us with them, “master storytellers” and we admire them. But we submit to this manipulation in the expectation that there will be a reward, that the journey will take us on a journey we enjoy and that there will be some satisfaction at the end of it.

This can make ending itself problematic: there is a contract to be fulfilled. We feel frustrated if a story ends without resolving the different strands it may have introduced, unless it ends like The Sopranos, which doesn’t so much end as stop mid-sentence, forcing us to reflect on the artificiality of endings, the folly of our own desire for resolution. Shakespeare as so often has his finger on this particular pulse, when Antony hears of the (faked) death of Cleopatra and says to his lieutenant “Unarm Eros/For the long day’s task is done and we must sleep.” Antony is being vain (as so often) characterising his life as a task, and this sad vanity puts a pressure on that single word “done”, which then itself spans the distance between something which is finished and something that’s simply over (the word means both things).

Perhaps surprisingly, on reflection The Sopranos’ ending feels right. It is at least aesthetically satisfying. The series self-consciously drew on soap operas, spinning multiple storylines that threaded the banality of ordinary life with extraordinary violence. One of the reasons I can’t bear soap operas is that they don’t have an ending; they go on and on like a pub bore. The Sopranos turned that tedium on its head, telling stories of domestic tensions within a world where antagonism was routinely fatal.

Not everyone was so satisfied, and after the final episode the interwebs were buzzing with people speculating on what might have happened next, eking out hints from the smallest clues as if they could be significant, all of which missed the point: the story was over and whatever happened next is beyond the story, beyond what we could reasonably expect to know.

In this light I see the proliferation of fan fiction on the internet as a kind of collective derangement. We like stories partly because they come to an end and yes that may be a wrench (think of Dickens’ wistful letting go of his own story at the beginning of David Copperfield), but it is part of the pleasure, the experience of something achieved. I guess you could see the desire to continue a story as a kind of tribute, but it’s one that shows scant insight into whatever made the story entrancing in the first place.

On the other hand we have all seen films or TV dramas that end frustratingly up in the air, and which then feel like acts of bad faith by the writers. The worst example in recent TV history must be the successful French supernatural series Les Revenants: I sat through eight episodes spellbound, but part of that spell was the belief that sooner or later the mysteries of what was going on would be explained (that seems to me part of the viewers’ contract with the programme makers). I suppose you could say that the series was remarkable in that it ended without explaining a single thing, but I felt more irritation than admiration, and though the prospect of a second series might promise that deferred insight, I’ve already lost my trust in the writers to reward my attention.

There is after all the example of Lost. I stayed with the first series, watching the increasing complication of the present day narrative and the back stories, enthralled by the prospect that all these different strands might be tied together. American fiction has form here, in the greatness of the hard boiled detective genre, particularly in the hands of Hammett and Chandler, where every element of the plot proves significant (and contrast it to the flaccid plotting of English writers like Agatha Christie, loaded with red herrings). Unfortunately it became increasingly clear in Lost that this was not going to happen, that the writers were making it up as they went along. I stopped watching. I let those other lives go, and I’m glad I did so.

I’ll stick with Homeland for the time being. I understand that a fourth series has already been commissioned, but if that series is going to command my attention it will need to go in a radically different direction. Plots often have a very determinate shelf life. I think this is what Aristotle meant in his Poetics, when he distinguished “action” from “plot”, with the action being whatever it is that drives the particular train of events, the plot being the sequence of events. The action is like the spirit that must make itself material in the plot. Though he’s hardly been in the third series, Homeland is still running on the emotional energy created by the idea that the hero Brody might betray his country; it’s an energy that continues to drive interesting questions of allegiance and truth among the other characters, but it’s almost used up (and has been squandered by pursuing the utterly uninteresting story of Brody’s suicidal daughter, rather than more relevant questions about the fidelities within Brody’s marriage and friendships). A fourth series is going to need to find a new “action”.

This one could run and run. In future blogs I’ll be exploring ideas about storytelling in business, what goes wrong and what goes right, and how those corporate stories can play on our sense of ourselves.