December 9, 2009

Nothing is over, not yet

My 9-year-old son Oden came home from school the other day talking about a puzzle involving dots and lines.

It sounded like that classic “thinking outside the box” puzzle, where you have to connect the nine dots, arranged in a square formation, with four straight lines, without lifting your pencil. Who hasn’t seen that one? Except maybe a fourth-grader. When I was in college it was a real brain buster. Now I make a joke about it: I’ve been thinking outside the box for so long, I wish I had left a breadcrumb trail. It’s because I can’t even find the box anymore. Ut! I’m hilarious!

The whole “outside the box” thing came to mind again recently when I watched an old favorite movie, Hal Hartley’s “Trust,” with a new friend. An offbeat love story with an ambiguous ending, it inspired my friend to wonder, “What do you think happens next?” “Hmm,” I thought to myself, “that is a good question.”

As you may recall, Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley’s characters are mismatched as lovers; he is a misanthropic computer technician who reads philosophy, and she is an empty-headed, pregnant high school dropout. The movie ends with Donovan’s character in the back of a police cruiser, under arrest for an apparent act of attempted self-destruction. Shelley’s character is watching as the car disappears over the rise. Whoops. Maybe I should have said “Spoiler Alert.”

Imagining the story beyond the closing credits is a fun little exercise, especially if the characters are lively enough that we can imagine their behavior in further adventures (sequels), but for the most part, it really isn’t what we are supposed to do, is it? At the end of “Casablanca,” we see Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains embarking on “a beautiful friendship,” but would any of us really want to follow that story after Ingrid Bergman is gone? The producers of the short-lived television drama (five episodes!) that offered just such a scenario in the early ’80s (featuring David Soul as Rick and Hector Elizondo as Capt. Renault, ugh!) probably wish they didn’t know for sure, but I can tell you quite simply: Nobody wants to see that. Then, now or ever.

One of my favorite “What happens next?” discussions would follow “American Beauty.” It seems obvious that Kevin Spacey’s murder would be blamed on his daughter’s boyfriend, Ricky, played by Wes Bentley. In fact, I think that is a basic point about the way the movie is constructed. Oh wait, did I forget to say “Spoiler Alert” again? Damn. Well, yeah, Spacey bites it toward the end of “American Beauty,” and it looks like the guy who did him in isn’t going to be connected to the crime. Sorry, if that’s news. You should have seen it 10 years ago.

Still, for the most part, a movie’s success, critically and commercially, depends on leaving the audience with a sense of rightness or completeness, and a well-crafted ending is a big part of that equation. Happy endings are just a matter of skillful screenwriting; as viewers, we are manipulated for 90 minutes or so, while the script leads us to a chosen moment of satisfying resolution. The standard romantic comedy will leave you with the sense that lovers will live together happily ever after, but consider “The Graduate.” Yes, there is some perverse satisfaction in Katharine Ross’s character, Elaine, finally realizing that she is in love with Dustin Hoffman’s Ben, but does this relationship have a ghost of a chance? Buck Henry, who wrote “The Graduate,” famously appeared as himself in the opening sequence of Robert Altman’s “The Player,” riffing on a possible sequel, dealing with the next generation of the dysfunctional family, presupposing that the couple would survive 20 years of marriage. A multilayered joke, indeed.

Meanwhile, life isn’t afforded carefully composed beginnings and endings. We struggle with challenges and changes without the benefit of commercial breaks or imposed dramatic structure. It’s just a big mess of stuff happening all the time. I don’t know why we aren’t all running around screaming and drooling. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could go sit in the dark for a couple hours and come out to find everything making sense again?

Dedicated to the memory of my Uncle Ted, the transitions in the life of my friend Stephen, and the long life ahead of my son’s newborn half-brother, Lev. God bless. Indeed.