Madeleine Gaudin: Overstaying our welcome
Nothing ever ends when it’s supposed to. Especially not movies.
Last weekend, the lovely and talented Community Culture Editor, Natalie Zak, and I went to see “American Honey.” We tucked the outing neatly in between dinner and an evening of singing Alanis Morissette at Circus. We never made it to Circus, however, because “American Honey” refused to end.
Around the two-hour mark, I sat in the theater fidgeting and doing something I (almost) never do — covertly checking the time on my phone.
“American Honey” felt like it was slowly ghosting me toward our end. It wasn’t going to come right out and dump me, instead it was going to spiral towards the end, suggesting a million points of closure and choosing instead to continue on despite them. That’s what made it so painful: its repetition of signs my movie-saturated brain recognizes as ending. Something dramatic and conclusive happens, the music swells and the camera lingers on some object of symbolic significance. Then, cut to black and roll the credits, right? Wrong.
Even when it did decide to end, within the context of its scene, it was too late. Star wades into the water — a clear callback to an earlier scene and a symbolic rebirth — she submerges and then bursts out, her hair arching dramatically overhead. That’s the end of the movie, but it’s not its ending. Instead, the camera lingers on the surface of the water and the moonlight catching on the trees. This return to stillness takes away from the power and movement created earlier in the scene.
In my film class last week, we were discussing “Shawshank Redemption” and someone pointed out that it too ends after it ought to. It should have ended with hope — the driving emotion of the movie — in the form of Red riding in the bus, going up a hill on the other side of which the audience can only imagine is Andy and freedom and, you guessed it, redemption. But, instead, the camera follow Red there. We watch him get to Mexico and reunite with Andy. The film closes itself up neatly, so neatly in fact, that there is no room for lingering emotion. The hope of resolution is much more powerful than resolution itself. In the world of the movie, once the two men are reunited, there is nothing left for the audience to want.
So many movies fall victim to the too perfect ending. Even my beloved “Heathers” is not immune. Instead of leaving Veronica covered in ash with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth — by far the standout visual moment of the movie — we have to follow her back into the school so she can make nice with Martha Dumptruck and reaffirm her status as the “nice” one. Much like in “American Honey” or “Shawshank,” the movement away from the dramatic moment breaks the emotional spell that scene creates.
Maybe it’s because endings are the most artificial part of movies, of any type of storytelling. They’re so hard to get right because there’s no real world model for how to do it. In life there are very few — maybe, depending on how much you like to overthink, no — things that end like the ending of a movie. Moments slip into one another in a messy and overlapping web. Nothing really begins or ends, but rather continues.
Sometimes that endlessness is really frustrating. I think what frustrated me and Natalie so much about the slow death of “American Honey” was its resemblance to real life. It, like most ex-boyfriends, refused to let us go. It did the film equivalent of texting us right when we were finally almost getting over it. It was so frustratingly realistic.
It refused to give into the artificiality of endings. Its length seemed to suggest that it equally could have ended at any point or not at all. The moment of conclusion was arbitrary. Because it wasn’t a story of something; it was a story about something. A something that stems from, and likewise flows into, a thousand other somethings without a clear beginning or end.
I’m glad Natalie and I — unlike some of our fellow moviegoers — made it to the end. It was a challenge. “American Honey” tested our patience with an annoying lead, a grimy setting and Shia LaBeouf’s braided rattail (*gag*).
I’m not glad I made it to the ending because Star’s moment of self-baptism was particularly revelatory or original, but because it wasn’t. It ended as silently as moments in life normally do, each one fading into the next. Its mundanity highlighted the construction, the falsity, of endings.
Nothing ever ends when it’s supposed to because nothing ever truly ends. Someone much wiser than me once told me that it is impossible for the people we care about to leave our lives forever. Mortality aside, I’m beginning to understand what she was saying. Sometimes it’s a text from an ex, a sweet email from your high school art teacher or a kid handing out fliers in the Diag who you swear you met at a party once freshman year. Nothing really ends — it only changes, becoming something new.
So although I had to spend almost three hours watching a movie where Shia LaBeouf had a rattail and missed singing “Ironic” with my Alanis-loving gal pals, I’m glad “American Honey” did what it did. I’m glad it frustrated me and made me fidget. Because it proved to me that the storyteller — regardless of the expectation’s of their audience — has power over when to end their story, if ever.