How Stories End
If you’ve heard this story before, don’t stop me, because I’d like to hear it again.-Groucho Marx
Three very different movies started me thinking again about how good stories end.
Every story has at least three parts, a beginning, middle and an ending. It’s true some storytellers surprise us by ending suddenly in the middle—but there’s still an ending, it’s just that we have to supply it ourselves.
Compelling stories always contain some element of tension that the character(s) must face. We are drawn into that tension and immediately yearn for resolution, which comes usually in the ending of the story. We enter the imaginary world of the story, but discover that in good stories, at least, the ending compels us back into our own story but with greater clarity. Clarity which comes because the story deepened our imagination by being a metaphor for life, a slice of reality, or a way to see the ordinary in an extraordinary way. That’s why people get so passionate about the stories that resonate in their souls, why it is impossible to receive a good story and then remain neutral about it.
We may not like the ending to a story, but it has to ring true. A good ending has to carry the story through with a measure of integrity, for blessing or for curse. It’s the same with jokes. Mess the ending and the whole thing fails. That’s why after some films people argue about the final few minutes, sometimes passionately.
How the story ends matters a great deal. The reason is simple, so simple we may miss how profound it really is: how stories end matters because we are each living out a story, and how ours ends makes all the difference in the world.
It’s true that people approach reading books (fiction) differently. Some like to read the ending first, but insist this is not a character flaw. The rest of us do not understand how this is possible. My wife Margie often reads the last chapter of novels first; I always begin on the first page of the first chapter. She even does this with mysteries, which is a mystery (no pun intended) to me, even after 40+ years of marriage in a house crammed (no exaggeration) with books.
Still, whether we begin with the ending or with the beginning, we agree that stories matter and that how they end is significant.
So, if you’d prefer not to know how these three films end, you should probably set aside this article until after you’ve seen them. I’m suggesting we think and talk about how they end, how the endings are different, and why it matters.
The three films that got me thinking about all this are The Visitor (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
The Visitor is a quiet film. It tells a simple story about a few people in a large city who happen upon one another, become friends without wanting to, and discover the friendship has changed them. Though from different cultures and different segments within society, their shared humanness transcends their differences.
A college professor, Walter Vale (played superbly by Richard Jenkins) comes to New York City for a professional conference. Recently widowed, he has long ago given up on life, repeating the same classes over and over, no longer caring about his research, his teaching or his students. When he arrives at his apartment in the City, he is shocked to discover a couple is living there. They are illegal immigrants, a Syrian musician named Tarek (played by Haaz Sleiman) and his Senegalese girlfriend Zainab (Danai Gurira). They escaped hopelessness in their native lands, and are trying to carve out a life for themselves in America.
Feeling guilty about throwing them out with nowhere to go, Vale allows them to stay. A relationship slowly develops, then trust and a growing respect. Something begins to stir in Vale, a man whose heart has not felt the joy of life for a very long time. They share simple meals, the beauty of music, and the meaning that comes in community shared with people we care for.
Then Tarek is picked up by US Immigration, jailed, and deported. Zainab is heartbroken and Tarek is sent back to a country in which his future if not his life is uncertain at best. Vale is shaken out of apathy by the unjust uncaring bureaucracy that upholds the letter of the law but is incapable of responding with either reason or compassion. It’s an unhappy ending to the story with relationships shattered and a young man branded a criminal merely because he sought a better life in a free society. Yet, in the midst of the tragedy, we sense a glimmer of hope in Vale. Quiet healing begins to stir within because he has been touched by a hope for meaning in life found in a celebration of humanness, in relationship, in art and beauty, and in the yearning for justice in a broken world.
Slumdog Millionaire is a Bollywood extravaganza. The story is a succession of utterly improbable events in a plot so implausible and with an ending so happy it’s a miracle the film works at all. But it does. I usually hate implausible, improbable films with sentimental endings, but I loved Slumdog. And after the very happy ending, just for happiness’ sake there is a pull-out-all-the-stops, extended, rollicking dance sequence involving the entire cast—and that’s during the final credits after the very happy ending.
There are sad elements to the story, and though they help accentuate the happy ending they are gritty in their realism. We are brought into life in the sprawling slums of Mumbai, India where tens of thousands are caught in a relentless cycle of crushing poverty. We see the cruel gangsters that rule the streets, inhumane torture at the hands of the police, and the hopelessness as boys grow up to be men without the opportunity for meaningful work.
Slumdog tells the story of two brothers. One becomes a thug working for the gangster that runs their neighborhood. The other brother ends up on the Indian version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire.” There he just happens to be asked a series of questions that he just happens to be able to answer because growing up he just happened to be in the right place at the right time to just happen to learn the answer. He wins the million dollars (rupees actually but same idea), and proves he isn’t cheating, and is released by the police, and the beautiful girl just happens to get to the phone in time, and he wins the love of the beautiful girl, and… then there is the credits with the dance scene.
You simply cannot have a happier ending than that.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a comedy, a love story written and directed Woody Allen. He makes us laugh with wit and romance and surprise and the beauty of art, but this is a very up to date love story. So, the final moments of the film show life going on, but in a meaninglessness that feels like quiet despair. There will be more laughs, we assume, more romance, and perhaps more adventures, but in the end, no love within reach seems capable of bearing the significance that we so desperately need and for which we so desperately seek as human beings.
Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall) travels to Barcelona, Spain to do research for her thesis on Catalan art, and especially the work of the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi. She is engaged to a hard working young man who is handsome and dependable, if not exactly romantic. Vicky’s friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), not exactly sure what she should do with her life, comes along for the chance to spend a summer in Europe. Soon after arriving in Spain they meet Juan Antonio (played wonderfully by Javier Barden), a flamboyant, handsome Spanish painter who invites them to spend a weekend with him, and to hopefully enjoy love together. Cristina finds the offer too good to resist, Juan Antonio’s society of friends too exciting to miss, and though Vicky has her doubts, they accept. Then in the middle of their weekend adventure, Maria Elena (played brilliantly by Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s ex-wife suddenly appears. Emotionally unstable, insanely jealous, and always volatile, Maria Elena not only makes sparks fly, her presence forces each character to face serious questions of life, morality, and the meaning of relationships, sex, and marriage.
In the end, of course, Vicky and Cristina’s romantic adventure must come to a close, and the final scene shows them in the airport returning to America to continue with their lives. “Vicky returned home to have her grand wedding to Doug,” the narrator says. “To the house they finally planned to settle in. And to lead the life she envisioned for herself, before that summer in Barcelona. Cristina continued searching… certain only, of what she didn’t want.” But we know their doubts and questions. Can Vicky be certain she loves Doug since Juan Antonio so easily swept her off her feet? Will Doug suffice for a lifetime? Can Cristina find a love that will not fade in the morning light? Is there something that can possibly bring meaning to her life when adventures are fleeting and everyday life is so mind-numbingly ordinary?
Though he is considered dated by many, Woody Allen is a master storyteller who has his finger on the pulse of the culture. He is too honest to give a happy ending to Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He makes us laugh, and draws us in, and then makes us feel the quiet, wrenching despair that comes when we yearn for love but find no relationship big enough to fulfill our need for love.
The three films are very different, with very different endings. Yet each one works, at least in the imaginary world of the story. Given the assumptions made in the story, each ending fits. Which is why, in turn, the movies work as movies.
Each ending however, raises deeper questions, just as we should expect from good art well crafted, and from stories well told. Questions that touch on the things that matter most in life and which become sharper as we live in proximity to suffering, injustice, meaninglessness, and death. Questions like is there reason to hope? How do we live when justice blindly works injustice on innocent people and cycles of poverty crush millions? Do relationships matter for more than merely the moment? Is it possible that human love points to a greater reality beyond the horizons of time and space? If it does, is that reality forever out of reach? If it is within reach, how can we know for certain? Can there be happy endings in a broken world like ours or is that merely utopian dreaming? How does the ending we own in our story make a difference to how we live in that story?
I don’t read the last chapter of novels first, but when it comes to the final ending of The Story, I want to know the ending, or some hint of it. Which is one reason I am a Christian. The ending the Scriptures tell is so satisfying, so reasonable, so just, so full of improbable grace that it wins hands down. Other religions and worldviews propose alternative endings, of course, but I’ve found that in the end they all ruin the story and dash our deepest hopes.
“Sanity may be madness,” Don Quixote said, “but the maddest of all is to see life as it is and not as it should be.” To my mind at least, the biblical ending is the sanest ending of all. And I am glad for films, for good stories as delightfully different as The Visitor, Slumdog Millionaire, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona to raise the topic for discussion.