*** WARNING: this post contains crucial spoilers to both The Departed and La Grande Illusion. If you read this post, and ever have the intention of watching The Departed, it will certainly ruin it for you. La Grande Illusion, less so. ***
I recently watched Jiří Menzel’s film Larks on a String. On the DVD version of this, there’s also a brief interview with Menzel, in which he largely reflects on all that wasted time after the Prague Spring in which he wasn’t allowed to make films. Right at the end of this interview, Menzel begins to reflect instead on the essential problem of cinema, as he sees it, today. He is talking largely about all cinema. What he sees as lacking in cinema is a sense of “compassion”.
Of course, Obooki is inclined to suggest – of course Menzel misses a sense of “compassion” in cinema, because “compassion” is so often what Menzel’s films are about (based as they are on that similarly compassionate writer and Menzel-collaborator, Bohumil Hrabal). But all the same, I feel Menzel is onto something, and something quite fundamental about the nature of art which has been brushed aside rather by the later c20th – in which it glories even.
Since they’re very similar, but with opposing outcomes, I thought I’d take two moments from The Departed and La Grande Illusion to illustrate this.
The Departed (highly rated – on imdb, at least; directed by Martin Scorsese) is about the mob in Boston. In this film, a mob boss manages to place his son in a high-up position within the police force, where he can relay to him inside information; whilst the police force manage to place an agent in a high-up position within the mob’s organisation, where he can relay to them inside information. So two parallels stories develop. As it happens, both these spies are in love with the same woman: she at first is going out with the cop who is really a mobster, but gradually she is won over to the mobster who is really a cop. This is essentially because the latter is good and the former is evil (I’m not going into the details as to why).
Naturally, in the above state of affairs, the viewer is made to root for the mobster who is really a cop, since he is good, and since he and the woman are in love with one another. The viewer wishes to see good prevail and love to be consummated. He wishes things to turn out happily ever after.
It seems this is the way things are going to transpire too, and the viewer is sitting there watching quite happily. The mobster who is really a cop seems to be about to triumph over the cop who is really a mobster. But this is a modern film, a film of the early c21st: and perhaps it should come as no surprise that the mobster who is really a cop, just as he is at his moment of triumph, is suddenly and unexpectedly shot dead. The viewer sits there in a state of shock. He begins to believe even that, although the mobster who is really a cop has clearly been shot through the head, he is somehow going to come back to life and everything will get sorted out. But no, he is really dead: good may yet prevail, but it will do so at the price of love being consummated.
La Grande Illusion
In La Grande Illusion (directed by Jean Renoir), two men escape from a fortress where they are being held as prisoners of war, and trek at great risk and ultimately in a state of great exhaustion, across Germany to reach Switzerland and freedom. Naturally, as in The Departed, the viewer is rooting for them to escape, wishing they should survive and reach freedom. Just as they are coming to the border, a German patrol catches up with them; they raise their guns to fire on them in the distance. The viewer is tremendously anxious all of a sudden that just at the last moment there will be tragically killed. Then, after they’ve let off a few shots, their captain tells the patrol to stop firing, pointing out that actually the escapees are already in Switzerland.
OK, so that’s the two moments in the films – similar enough in their way. If La Grande Illusion was made today, no doubt at least one of the two would have been shot dead (possibly after he’d already crossed into Switzerland, for the sake of the greater irony). This would, of course, be realistic – be like life really is. Life does not always have a happy ending. So what is my point here? Does little Obooki need a happy ending? Is he going to cry if he doesn’t get one? [ed. No, he’s much more likely to cry if he does get one!].
No, it’s not so much a happy ending I require from art – although a happy ending is often what it constitutes – but the right ending. Something I’d like to call “resolution”. One of the very few things I think all works of art actually require is resolution. This doesn’t have to be happy. Tragedies, after all, are generally resolved by death – but they are nonetheless resolved. The nature of the resolution depends on the nature of the work of art: it depends what the work of art has been building towards. If, as in the case of The Departed, the resolution we are building towards is suddenly taken away from us, then that art loses its emotional power. When the man who is about to win loses, I’d don’t feel sad about it, I am not shocked that he is killed, I don’t really feel for his widow and the life she must now lead; no, I feel very angry about it – and not because such things happen in the world and are allowed to happen; I feel angry because I feel I’ve just been cheated by this work of art. I’ve been promised something and it’s not delivered. I am not properly cathartised. To be cathartised, I need my resolution. – OK, The Departed goes on to give me another kind of resolution – because this was only a dirty little trick, this violent murdering of hope – it was only a contemptible modern idea of what might make a work profound, the shock-value of the thing; – evil doesn’t succeed in this film, no, it doesn’t go that far; – but by now I’m only partly mollified; I feel satisfied when evil fails – I’d have been annoyed if it hadn’t – but there’s no emotion for me in it. In many ways, I couldn’t care less.
But as I say, it’s all to do with what the work has been building towards; resolution is just whatever is demanded. In La Grande Illusion, of course the German patrol stops shooting once it realises the escapees are in Switzerland, because the entire film is about living and letting living, because Jean Gabin has just fallen in love with a German woman who was kind to them and is lonely since her husband was killed in the war, because war in the film is conducted entirely through rules of fair-play, because the aristocrat sacrificed himself to give them the chance and we can’t bear that should have been in vain – because we want them to escape.
(n.b. The Departed was based on a Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, which – though oddly I’ve never seen it – I imagine is equally – if not more – cynical around this question of resolution and audience expectation).
***If you’ve avoided the spoilers in the foregoing, you can read this bit, except it’s got spoilers about The Magnificent Ambersons in it.***
Here’s another filmic example of this idea, now I’m thinking of it. I’ve forget the details a bit, since I watched this last year sometime. The central male character in The Magnificent Ambersons is a thoroughly dislikable person. The viewer watching it only wants him to fail. The last thing the viewer is rooting for is that he should win through and get the girl – and yet this is what happens.
Of course, this ending – where he gets the girl – was stuck on by the studio; it wasn’t the ending Orson Welles wanted. Orson Welles didn’t want him to get the girl. Orson Wells wanted him to fail. The viewer wants him to fail. The entire film is constructed on the basis of his ultimate failure. That he does get the girl annoys the viewer. The viewer, perhaps, isn’t even inclined to see it as a happy ending – even though a happy ending, by the studio definition, is that he gets the girl – because it is so wrong. The viewer doesn’t cry with joy that he gets the girl. The viewer leaves the cinema with a feeling not of catharsis, but of bitter annoyance.