I don't want to spoil any movies--or indeed, any books or television shows, certainly not any long-running, mystery-driven shows about an island , so I'm not going to name names or point fingers in this post. All of you have seen shows and movies and read books wherein The Ending has appeared, corpulent and tired, its baseball cap turned to the side, sticking both fingers up its nose and hollering I R ART at the top of its prodigious lungs.
You know The Ending. Say it with me.
He/She/It/They were dead all along/in hell/heaven/purgatory all along/were manifestations of multiple personalities all along/were crazy all along/were in a computer simulation all along.
All of these variations on The Ending are really the same ending: they weren't real.
Now, I know all you postmodern kidz can go with me when I say "real" and mean "real within the confines of a narrative that is obviously fictional and there for unreal in itself, however, there are shades of real, yo" so let's not argue about who killed who, ok? The point is, you may recognize The Ending. You probably knew it when it was a kid, eating paste and pencils in the back of the class, desperate for teacher's love, wasting everyone else's time with constant grabs for attention. Back in those days The Ending went by the name of And Then I Woke Up. In a twist The Ending itself might appreciate, they're the same dude.
Now, it's gotten to the point where if I even catch a whiff of The Ending, I run the other way. It is one of the most common endings in Hollywood these days. I'd go as far as to say writers and producers are obsessed with it. And they all trot it out like it makes them new and edgy and OMG WASN'T YOUR MIND BLOWN?
Here's the thing about The Ending. It's a fucking cheat. It's like Lucy yanking that stupid football away over and over again and laughing demoniacally every single time. The Ending breaks compact with the audience. It says: everything you just watched and cared about and experienced vicariously didn't matter. You sat here for two hours and watched something whose sole purpose was to yank the football out at the end. None of the actions of the characters matter, or the characters themselves. Everything onscreen was irrelevant and unimportant, because even in the context of the film, it was not real, and no one could react to it sufficiently to solve their problems because they had no problems because they weren't real. There was no story, and most especially no threat, because this did not occur on the plane of the actual, and therefore was never subject to the rules of cause and effect. You just thought they were. You were given the tools only to HAVE YOUR MIND BLOWN, a joke shared by the producer, you, and the football.
Now, The Ending can work, I'm not saying The Sixth Sense and Fight Club didn't pull it off--but they pulled it off because something onscreen was real. The relationship between Bruce Willis and the kid, wherein the living child played psychopomp to the dead man--that was the story, not just that none of it was real ever. And this is why when Lost did it, it was horribly unsatisfying, because fully half of the story was never real at all, none of it, not death or threat or love or anything, it was all just a confusing construct with no reason behind it. And then we woke up. If it never worked, we wouldn't have to see every B-List screenwriter try it. Like any literary tool, in good hands it can be beautiful, and if it falls into the wrong hands? Doom.
And I think there has to be something going on culturally for The Ending to show up so often these days. Why do we keep wanting to play this out? Why do we keep wanting the world around us to be made unreal? I mean, in a meta-sense, The Ending is universal--at the end of every film, show, book, artistic experience, we wake up from the fictional world, shake our heads, and return to our real lives, which are often somewhat-to-extremely less awesome than the constructed world we briefly experienced. But I don't think that's it.
I do think there's a desire to suddenly depart from the everyday humdrum world, to suddenly have the curtain pulled back and find oneself in Oz, in a different story, where the rules are not the same, and all the threats and conflicts that consumed you vaporize immediately, become more than irrelevant. I think that's the whole instinct behind the current brand of Christian eschatology in this country. Wouldn't it be nice if your unemployment and unfulfilling marriage and angry children were all unreal, and you were just vaulted into a world where none of it mattered, but you, your essential person, still did. It's a kind of solipsism--the protagonist is always ultimately real, experiencing the unreal world. The protagonist goes on to the next reality, and all the bit players in his life are left behind. It's a wish fulfillment, though I'm not sure the wish is even on the level of consciousness--it's the most seductive part of that Freudian death-instinct. The world is not real, but I am. The rules of life which I hate apply to others but not to me because I am the protagonist and they are not real. Everything I see and feel and experience exists purely to facilitate my personal enlightenment and development. I am the project. They are tools.
That's a somewhat terrifying and sociopathic thought-line, but I think we can all look around us and see that a rather large number of people conduct their lives as though this were the truth and not just a disturbing ending to a film. I think The Ending plays into that fantasy, and when coupled with quality writing, that's why it can be incredibly satisfying to a mainstream audience. MIND. BLOWN.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is that most often, the protagonist is ripped from an interesting and exciting world, full of action and high drama, and forced to accept that they are stuck in the every day humdrum world after all, in an asylum or dead or in Kansas or whatever. If there is ever a question within the film as to whether a series of fantastical events is or is not real, the answer is it wasn't real, or at least not fantastical,
But it's not satisfying to me. It's And Then I Woke Up. It's a navel-gazing, narratively unfair playground cheat, and most often it's done stupidly and clumsily, with a logic that crumbles when the nearest breeze passes by. And worst, it's easy. It's not daring or edgy, it's just easy, flaccid storytelling, and I'm deeply tired of it. I would boycott The Ending, but by nature, it's a stealthy bastard, and we all have to keep up our defenses just to hold on to our damn football.