In Praise of Endings

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

My now complete copy of Because They Wanted To

I have a habit, where, as I’m reading a book, I turn to the last page. I don’t read the last page, I just see what it is and calculate how many pages I have left to read. I do this whether I am enjoying a book or not. The other night, as I was reading Because They Wanted To: Stories by Mary Gaitskill, I noticed that the last sentence didn’t have a period or closing quotation marks. There was no flyleaf or an about the author page. My copy was missing the last four pages. Google books let me preview several pages, in fact a surprisingly large amount of pages—but not the last four. I’ve checked several libraries and have discovered that there is no e-book version of the text that I can quickly check out. They did have physical copies, so I was able to Xerox copy those missing pages.

I wish I made this discovery earlier in the book, when I could have contacted the bookseller and got a different copy. But since I was 220 pages in, with annotations, I’m just going to hold on to the copy I have. Never before had I felt so much like the protagonist of Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler.

We are all frustrated when we are denied the ending of a book, a film, or a television series. We want to know how the story turns out. But recently, I find myself not longing to know what happens next, but wondering how things will end. There was time when I devoured the books in the Star Wars expanded universe, but somewhere in my twenties I lost interest. One book would introduce a new idea with interesting consequences, and the next would find a way to get rid of the consequences and return the characters to the status quo. I once was a fanatic about the show Supernatural, and considered the ending of season five near perfect. It would have been perfect if it had ended five seconds earlier, removing the cliffhanger that would lead into the sixth season. When I meet other fans of the show, they are shocked and even suspicious of me. How could I allow the characters to remain in such an awful situation? Didn’t I want to spend more time with them? However, the continuation of the story cost the fifth season’s ending its catharsis.

Once I just wanted to spend time with the characters, and I still do, but catharsis has become much more important to me. Even if that means things don’t go well for the characters that I love. Now I’m not knocking those who turn to fiction only to spend time with characters they love—it’s just that we have different tastes and want different things from our fiction. I also enjoy ongoing series. However, I’m aware that if a series goes on long enough I will eventually lose interest, even if it is still good, because it’s denying me the end, the catharsis.

Perhaps the reason that I find endings so satisfying is because things do end. People break up, retire, and die. The hero of one battle is rarely the hero of the next. Yet the longer a series goes on, the hero becomes more and more central to the universe. Eventually the universe seems to revolve around them, and, when that happens, it becomes unbearable claustrophobic. The protagonist becomes the most important person in that world. No longer are they just a human being fighting against fate, but they are mythical in their power and influence. While there is a certain pleasure in reading about characters whose importance is of mythical proportions, I prefer when the characters start out mythic rather than becoming so through each new edition to the story. Perhaps the best example of this transformation is that of John McClane, which has been noted by many people. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that John McClane is an everyman, a regular cop, who finds himself in an extreme situation and rises to the occasion. However, several movies later he has become the supreme bad ass. All sense that he is a regular guy is gone, which means the tension of the original is gone. We know he will succeed because he’s no longer is a mortal man. He’s something more. Also, the bit of escapist fantasy that is in the first one—a regular person winning against near insurmountable odds—is gone. I like John McClane, but I rather his story ended when his universe was big, and he was only one somewhat believable man.

Of course there is also a certain aspect of escapism that comes with an ending. Yes, a person dies, but humanity will continue. When humanity dies, life will continue even if its just molecules on the sea floor living off the heat from volcanic vents. When the sun goes out, the universe will continue. The events of our life are rarely tied up in neat cathartic bows. No one really has the last word. In the Grace Paley story, “A Conversation with My Father,” the narrator’s father asks her to write a story like “‘the kind Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov.’” She attempts to write the story, and, when she finally gets one that her father likes, she frustrates him by adding a scene beyond what her father considered a good ending. The narrator then says of the character that she has just created, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity.)” If stories in someway mirror life, then, yes, endings can feel arbitrary. After the story ends, the character—unless died—will continue living and making choices.

I think the best endings leave room for the knowledge that time continues. You feel that, when you close the book or turn off the film, the characters’ lives don’t stop. You sense that they will continue with their lives for better or worse, but that they are changed. Or maybe the characters aren’t changed, but the audience is. You have observed the characters go through a set of events that makes you realize something you hadn’t before, and part of the satisfaction—albeit a more melancholy one—is understanding what the characters fail to understand. That is what a good ending provides: a sense of consequence. We are changed by it. We understand how the characters will be dealing with those consequences for some time. I think one of the best examples of how an ending can do this is the new film The Babadook. (Obviously there are spoilers ahead, so go watch the film if you haven’t yet. I highly recommend it)

Poster for The Babadook

The Babadook ends with the titular monster locked in the protagonist’s, Amelia’s, basement. Amelia is caring for it or at least feeding it. I like this ending for several reasons. If you interpret the story as literal—this woman was actually dealing with a monster—the ending suggests that the monster is so powerful that it can never be killed. The Babadook is a curse she can’t rid her family of, but it is one that she can contain and keep from harming her, her son, and others. If you interpret the film as being symbolic, the Babadook representing her chronic depression, then we see the ending as her learning to manage mental illness. She will continue to suffer from it, but she has found ways to deal with it and still live a good life. As I walked out the theater, I discussed the “what ifs” with my husband. It was a fairly long conversation. I spent a lot of time wondering what would happen next for Amelia and her son. However, I do not want them to ever make a sequel to The Babadook. I do want the director and the actress and everyone involved to continue making films, but the ending is so satisfying I don’t want to lose it.

The risk of every sequel, of each new edition, is that it will somehow undermine the consequences of the original’s ending. The couple who started a relationship in the last story are suddenly divorced at the beginning of the new one. The lesson that was learned is forgotten. A sequel to The Babadook would perhaps eliminate one of the possible readings of the original. If the Babadook attacks a new family, I would have to view him as real rather than the manifestation of the protagonist’s mental illness. I’d also wonder what happened to Amelia and her son, whose survival I was so invested in in the first film. If they are killed off to tell this new story, I would be livid. If a sequel returned to these characters, there is a chance that I will lose the interpretation that the Babadook is a supernatural monster.

While it is possible to make a good sequel, doing so without undermining the ending is hard. Part of the reason I think so many people disliked Alien 3 was because the character whose survival was key to the tension of Aliens was killed off at the beginning. Suddenly your joy at the little girl, Newt, being rescued by Ripley is taken away and off-screen at that. For a lot of people, the new film doesn’t change the enjoyment of the old one, and I wish this was true for me. But whenever I sit down to watch Aliens, I can’t help but watch Ripley’s rescue of Newt with sadness because I know that she will die soon after the credits roll.

Once again it’s not to say a good series or sequel can’t be made, Aliens certainly proves that, but sequels can alter how we feel about the original’s ending. Hell, I think that the third sequel to Alien could have killed Newt and still have been a good movie. However, since her survival was a key part to the ending of the second film, her death needed some of its own time. As it stands in the film, it feels like they simply got rid of the character because she stood in the way of their new plot. The consequences of the last film were not explored, instead they were brushed aside.

Perhaps I’m not writing in praise of endings but rather in praise of consequences. Like I keep stating, serialized stories can be good, but each new edition must feel like it is building on the last story. Sometimes the new situation created by the ending can lead to a new story. I feel that the best ongoing series, whether book, film, or TV, acknowledges these consequences. However, when the series does not acknowledge them, the impact of these consequences are negated, and the characters become either caricatures of themselves or just empty vessels that are used to better advertise a product. When a story ends, whether it be realistic or fantastical, I want a sense that what has just happened has some sort of impact on the character’s life and is not just another adventure in a set of adventures that becomes, no matter how extraordinary to us, a boring routine for them.

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Suspira in Bluebeard’s House

Today, as I was thinking about fairy tales and horror films, like I do, I came to the realization that Dario Argento‘s Suspira is a variation on the Bluebeard fairy tale type.

For those unfamiliar with the fairy tale, “Bluebeard” was recorded/written by Charles Perrualt in 1697.  In it a young woman marries a very rich man called Bluebeard.  He had been married several times before, and his wives all have gone missing under mysterious circumstances—everyone assumes that he’s murdered them.  The marriage goes well enough, until Bluebeard has to go away on a trip.  He gives his wife the keys and tells her that she may enter every room but one.  She eventually gives into curiosity and enters the forbidden room, where she discovers the remains of Bluebeard’s late wives gruesomely displayed.  She drops the key in a puddle of blood and is unable to wash the blood off.  When Bluebeard see the blood stained key, he readies himself to kill the girl.  Her brothers arrive just in time to save her and kill him.  The girl lives happily ever after as very rich widow.

Suspira is a 1977 Italian Horror flick and the first film in Argento’s Three Mother’s Trilogy.  Suspira is by far the best in the trilogy (Inferno has some good visuals, and Mother of Tears is crap).  This film’s visuals purposely have a fairy tale feel, and it is often described as a fairy tale gone wrong (which only convinces me how little film critics know about the gruesome nature of fairy tales). In Suspira a young American, Suzy, arrives at ballet school and discovers a coven of evil witches. 

On the surface, these two stories seem unrelated.  Yet both Bluebeard and Suspira is about the consequences of opening doors and viewing what secrets lie behind them.  When Suzy arrives at the school, she sees a young woman running from the premises.  This woman has seen behind the hidden door and is gruesomely killed for it.  Later, Suzy’s friend Sarah is killed, as well, for knowing too much. Finally, Suzy herself passes through the door, and, much like the girl in Bluebeard, she discovers the corpse of a previous victim, her friend Sarah.  Of course, the witches set out to kill Suzy, but just in time she kills the head-witch.

Even at the beginning of the film, there is the focus on passing through doors into the unknown.  Suzy is at the airport staring at the automatic doors and every time they slide open you can hear a whisper of the film’s score.  Once she passes through them, Suzy finds herself in a storm, as the film’s score swells.  At the moment Suzy walks through that seemingly benign door, there is no turning back for her.

While, Argento purposely made Suspira fairy tale like, I don’t think that “Bluebeard” was what he had in mind.   Instead, there is the alluring house in the middle of the woods that draws young women away from their families.  Where Hansel and Gretel were promised sweets, these women are promised careers in ballet.  Suzy is drugged with sleeping medication by women who are currently her guardians.  The witches ultimately function as evil stepmothers.

However, the young women are put in harm’s way because of curiosity, like the women in “Bluebeard.”  Many people have wondered what would have happened in “Bluebeard,” if the girl had never opened that forbidden door.   We see one possibility in Perrault’s moral:

Curiosity, in spite of its many charms,

Can bring with it serious regrets:

You can see a thousand examples of it every day.

Women succumb, but it’s a fleeting pleasure;

As soon as you satisfy it, it ceases to be.

And it always proves very, very costly.

Or in other words, the girl and Bluebeard could have had a happy marriage if only she had never discovered he was a serial killer.  This outlook is the type that allows people to asked a battered woman, “What did you do to make him so angry?”

While a similar reading can be applied to Suspira, it is obvious that ignorance is not an option either.  One of the victims in the film is a blind man whose eye-seeing dog barked at little boy who happened to be one of the witches.  The blind man is brutally murdered, because he annoyed them.  We also see that Suzy is being manipulated by the witches throughout.  She has a spell cast on her that makes her sick and allows her to be in a position where the witches can drug her regularly, all before she starts investigating the place’s strange happenings.  In one scene, maggots rain down from the ceiling of the girl’s dormitory, because there was rotten meat in the attic.  I can’t help but wonder, if the meat was the body of some other victim we don’t know about?  Even if it is something as innocent as beef, why was it put in the attic?  Were the witches just tormenting the students?

Here Argento presents a world where ignorance is no protection.  To not enter that forbidden door may be more dangerous than entering it.  The only way for Suzy to end the violence is to face it and acknowledge that it ‘s there.  I can’t help but feel the same is true in “Bluebeard,” and ultimately for anyone.  To ignore violence that happens behind close doors is to risk becoming a victim of it.

Stories of Cruelty and Horror

Once I start reading a poem, story or novel, I feel compelled to finish it.  Yet recently while reading Gallery of Horror: 20 tales by the Modern Master of Dread there was one story that I could not stand to complete, “Down Among the Dead Men.”  Now this story wasn’t so frightening I couldn’t bear to read it; it was just cruel.  It dealt with a vampire in a concentration camp.  Here the narrator was dealing with real horror, with one of the greatest atrocities of the Twentieth Century, and he had to worry about a vampire preying on him and his fellow prisoners too.  For me that was too much.  If a character has to deal with realistic violence on that grand of a scale, I can’t help but feel that he or she shouldn’t have to deal with mythical monsters as well.

I suspect that the vampire was being presented as metaphor for what levels humans sink to when they are trying to survive.  But when dealing with a concentration camp you don’t need that type of metaphor.   In fact, the metaphor seems a bit cheap in this context, and has questionable implications.  If a vampire is imprisoned in concentration camp and feeding on its fellow prisoners, who is, the authors seem to be asking, the real monster?

Now I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t write about atrocities—writing about them is one of the ways we ensure they are not forgotten.  However, when someone writes about war crimes and genocide the purpose is usually to bear witness, to say these things happened and can happen again, and that any one is capable of committing these crimes, even ourselves.  Books like Night, The Shawl, and Maus may frighten us, because they show what monsters ordinary people are capable of being.  What makes these books readable is the compassion that the Elli Wiesel, Cynthia Ozick, and Art Spiegelman show to the victims of these atrocities.   Even with The Shawl, which is a work of fiction, you never feel for a moment that the characters are suffering for our titillation.

The genre of horror, however, tries to titillate its audience.  We in our everyday somewhat secure lives want to feel fear—and horror presents characters to sacrifice to that want.  Now horror can tell us of the monstrosities of which humans are capable, but not straight on.  Because the purpose of horror is to thrill us, it must approach heavy topics through metaphors.  Frankenstein is the classic example of horror, showing us an unpleasant reality through the metaphor of the sympathetic monster and the doctor who created and abandoned him.  In the film Halloween the scariest moment for me is when Lori Strode knocks on the neighbors’ door for help, and they turn off the lights and wait for her to go away.  Suddenly the movie switches from being about a boogeyman killing teenagers, to how people respond to violence, particularly violence against women.  (I have a lot say about how the first two Halloween films discuss violence against women, but that is for another time).  So these horror stories are made to frighten us, but they can use metaphors to say something more.

The best horror stories work because there is a character or characters that we feel compassion for.  When I watch a film or read a book where all the characters are unlikable, I can’t help but feel that it fails.  We feel no fear, and what is worst it tells us that everyone deserved what they got.

I suspect that “Down Among the Dead Men” was trying to titillate.  Two terrifying situations had been added together for twice the horror.  While the story was told in first person, I got the sense that the authors’ didn’t have compassion for their narrator.  They didn’t hate him, but the narrator was merely a device for a cheap twist-ending.

Pure unadulterated cruelty presented for audience titillation is the one thing in a piece of writing or film that I cannot bear.  It is all right to want to feel fear, to want to understand what it takes to survive or to want to know what makes a monster, but it’s not all right to enjoy watching the pain of others.

Looking for Scares in All the Wrong Places

Recently I realized that I could break down my movie tastes into a simple equation:

Movie + Vampire – Love Story = Awesome.

Now you can replace the vampire with a werewolf, a horde of zombies, or a guy in rubber suit stomping on a model of a city, and I’ll still be happy.  I love my monsters, and when I sit down to watch them I want a few simple things:

  1. The monsters want to kill a human or a group of humans.  I watch these movies to experience fear.
  2. That the monsters are inhuman.  The best monster movies are the ones where you look at the thing and your gut tells you something is wrong that it shouldn’t exist.
  3. If the movie fails to scare me, it at least makes me laugh.

I was once willing to rent any film—major studio productions, foreign releases, straight to video and so on—because I never knew what surprising little gems I’d find.  The Subspecies series is awesome even if it’s campy, and while Never Cry Werewolf totally ripped off Fright Night it was fun.

However, that has changed with the popularity of a certain supernatural romance series that I shall not name here.  Vampires, werewolves and zombies are now presented as being emotional distraught romantic leads instead of something that you need to run from.  This change has been a long time coming.  Back in the days of my adolescence, I scoured the library for books on vampires and werewolves (this was before the recent Zombie renaissance).  Innocently I picked up books like Blood and Chocolate only to throw them at the wall in frustration.  I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with the supernatural romance genre (other than finding stalking behavior romantic), but I’m not fan of the genre.  When I pick up a book that is labeled as horror,  I want something that at least tries to frighten me.

I ended up reading folktales.  While most  these tales, as recorded by scholars, won’t scare you, they are, at least, genuinely uncanny.  I remember reading one were the woman discovered that a man was one of the undead, because he had the feet of a rooster and was munching on corpses.  These vampires rarely reside in castles or wear tailored clothes, but they are dangerous, otherworldly, and maybe a little smelly.  They are silly at times, which is fine.  As stated in the above list, if a monster does not scare me it at least needs to be funny.

I’ve noticed a few internet critics complain about the weird rules that people have in vampire films.  Suddenly they can’t cross running water or must obsessively count seeds.  The critics call bullshit, and complain about these new random rules.  Well, the thing is the filmmaker actually did some research; those rules come from folklore.  That’s right, the Count from Sesame Street is straight from the old legends.  If you want to know how silly those tales can get, just take a look at Cecil Adam’s Straight Dope article on the best ways to kill a vampire.  My favorite method on the list is the lemon in the mouth.

The other day I was delighted to discover the film Strigoi.  Strigoi by the way is the Romanian word for vampire.  In the film you enter the life of Romanian village that has recently developed a vampire problem.  The titular monsters are unsettling and threatening. This movie is not interested in cool actions scenes, over the top gore or suave creatures, but it does present story that reflects the often forgotten folklore.  While there are no straight out scares, it is creepy and darkly funny.  The best part of this film: no love story!