With any kind of story, it is the ending that determines its success. That’s true of short stories, plays, and novels. It applies even to the everyday stories people tell each other: anecdotes and jokes. A lot of weight falls on an ending: it has to pull together all the preceding elements of the story, leave a distinct and lasting impression of it, establish a point in some fashion, and in accomplishing those goals it is also expected to show the story’s value. That is, the ending has to prove that the story was worth the time spent listening to it, or reading it.
That being so, it’s not hard to understand why so few endings are fully satisfying. They achieve varying degrees of success. Most have a modest impact. Not many make it into the uncrowded pantheon of truly satisfying endings.
Curiously, that pantheon is populated by movie endings more than any other medium. The list of unforgettable movie endings is virtually endless; they are not only engraved on our individual memories, but carved into our collective cultural memory as well.
Yet the same can’t be said of novels. Why is it that the endings of novels don’t fully satisfy the reader? Short stories also are a letdown at the end, more often than not. And with anecdotes and jokes, they leave the listener with a vague feeling that he was tricked or cheated, despite his laughter.
What I suspect is that with film, an ending can be more satisfying because it affects the viewer through multiple senses. The director has at his disposal not only words, like the poor novelist or raconteur, but also sight and sound. A picture is worth a million words; sound and music is worth at least a million more. By deftly assembling a gestalt of sensory nuances, the director is able to tie together the conflicts and themes of the story in a neatly wrapped package with an elegant bow on top.
For me personally, novel endings are almost without exception disappointing. Even the best of novels leave me feeling unsatisfied, and I doubt I’m the only one who feels that way. Much of the fault falls at the author’s feet; a fine ending is a work of true art, but true art doesn’t come easy. It isn’t impossible, however. In centuries past, authors writing with quill pens on foolscap took fiction-writing much more seriously than we do today, and wrote better endings to better novels. But even in the late twentieth century masterly endings were written. The finest ending to a modern novel that I’ve ever read comes in the horror story “Perfume,” by Patrick Suskind—a German author whose closing scene is marvellously effective even in translation.
If I had to choose my favorite ending to a film, it would be the vivid scene Mike Nichols gives us at the end of “The Graduate.” It’s a given that most movie-goers favor an ending where the guy gets his desired girl by persevering through ninety minutes of mounting troubles and travails. In terms of this basic formula, Nichols comes through with wry but sensitive humor. Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman), while in dogged pursuit of Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross), drives his Alpha Romeo convertible from Berkeley to LA, then back to Berkeley, then Berkeley to Santa Barbara, without pausing for a moment’s rest, in his frenetic effort to prevent Elaine from marrying another man. He arrives at the church too late, but in the last frames of the film he and Elaine flee from the wedding in a municipal bus, giddy at first but quickly settling down into their own thoughts, not even looking at each other. “Sounds of Silence” plays as the camera slowly withdraws from them and the credits roll.
What is Nichols trying to say? That Benjamin and Elaine haven’t got a clue what they’re getting into? That within hours they’ll be hurling regrets and recriminations at each other? That their “half-baked” romance will soon crash on the jagged rocks of reality?
Or is Nichols simply giving viewers the sweet triumph of romantic love that they came to see? In which case the reason that Benjamin and Elaine silently stare straight ahead is because they share a love so perfect that they are, for the moment, beyond any need for words. In which case we may assume that although all the odds are stacked against such an impetuous relationship, based as it is on a single date, vehemently opposed by her parents and indelibly tainted by Benjamin’s affair with Elaine’s mother, it will survive and flourish, despite his existential apprehensions and her perplexed fickleness.
The cognescenti of the film world are surely inclined to favor the first interpretation. And yes, I think Nichols allows that the legitimacy of such a cynical view. But I don’t believe he denies the latter, more romantic interpretation. That’s not to suggest he is ambiguous, either by accident or intentionally.
What I think he’s saying is this: “Both of these interpretations are true. I want you to have both of them to take home, and I want you to never say one is true and the other is a lie. I’m telling you something about life here. Not just that we have a choice whether to view the world through the eyes of a romantic or a cynic, but that we must see it both ways—at the same time.”
In short, with the ending of “The Graduate” Nichols gives us a zen koan. It can’t be resolved and the aspects can’t be reconciled. They must be accepted as equal in truth and value, even if they are contradictions. As movie endings go, that’s both hard to beat and impossible to forget.