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Alternate endings

Alternate endings July 16, 2007

Years ago I was doing Bad Dinner Theater. The “play,” which was really just an extended sketch, was billed as a murder-mystery-comedy. It was cheesy, but fun.

I was in a handful of performances, all in banquet halls with no sets or scenery. For $35 a night, I played “The Great Somnambulo, hypnotist extraordinaire,” one of a half-dozen suspects, all of whom were performers in a 1950s Catskills night club talent show. That setting seemed authentic because the jokes all dated back to 1950s Catskills night clubs too.

We’d perform the first act set-up while the audience had a few rounds of pre-dinner cocktails, establishing that we all had a motive for killing the surly night-club manager, who was found dead just as the salads — and another round of cocktails — were being served. As the audience enjoyed their choice of chicken cordon bleu or prime rib — and, ideally, even more cocktails — we worked the tables, improvising responses to their questions as they tried to figure out which of us was the guilty party. Then during dessert, the audience would vote on the killer’s identity and, based on their choice, we would perform one of six possible finales, all of which included arbitrary comic twists and revelations, a la Murder by Death or Clue.

These alternative endings worked because our story wasn’t really much of a story, and because the broad types we were playing weren’t really characters (and, mainly, because our audience was buzzed from all those cocktails).

I was reminded of those days this weekend while watching The Sixth Sense on TNT.

***Spoiler Alert***

There’s no way to discuss what I’m about to discuss without spoiling the endings of Sixth Sense and Casablanca. Both films have famous twist endings, and I wouldn’t want to spoil that experience for any readers here who haven’t seen them, so just in case you haven’t, go watch them now. (Seriously. You’ll thank me later.) And then come back and read the section below.

M. Night Shyamalan has attempted several times to recapture the success of his break-out film with more twist-endings in Signs and The Village. Those came across as a bit gimmicky, and his reputation has faltered as a result, but that doesn’t change the fact that Sixth Sense is a masterful piece of storytelling, brilliantly conveyed by the director, his three stars, and a supporting cast of some of Philadelphia’s finest regional actors.

The first time you watch it, you’re taken in by Shyamalan’s well-crafted surprise. The story is told from Bruce Willis’ point of view and the viewer, like Willis, is unaware of the full gravity of his condition. So on that first viewing, you share his limited, inaccurate understanding of what it is you’re seeing.

On the second viewing, it’s difficult to do much more than check to see if Shyamalan & Co. were playing fair. You watch Sixth Sense the second time looking over the director’s shoulder, double-checking for continuity and consistency to confirm that this revelatory ending really holds up. And it does.

But it’s after that, on later viewings, that you really begin to appreciate the meaning of the story you’re being told. In these later viewings, you know what Haley Joel Osment knows, and you begin to see the story from his point of view, which is a very different story and a much richer one. It is no longer the story of a scared little boy and his frightened mother, and of the psychiatrist who tries to help them. It is now the story of a little boy who, with real courage and at great cost to himself, does whatever he can to protect his mother and to help his ghostly friend.

TNT, as always, interrupted this story with long and frequent commercial breaks, each of which this weekend seemed to include an ad for the DVD release of the Sandra Bullock thriller Premonition. The DVD, we’re told, includes among its bonus materials an “alternate ending” for the story.

That’s what got me to thinking again about my experience in Bad Dinner Theater. Our play could have multiple alternate endings to the story only because it wasn’t really much of a story — any arbitrary ending would be equally meaningful. Does the possibility of “alternate endings” for the story in Premonition suggest that this film is also, like our sketch, arbitrary and meaningless?

Considering that question while watching Sixth Sense, I began to appreciate that for all the talk of Shyamalan’s “twist ending,” his story ended the only way it could have ended. Or, at least, if it had ended any differently, it would have become a different story. The twist at the end is not a matter of the story taking a sudden turn, or making a sudden break. It is surprising because it suddenly reveals the nature of the story we’ve been seeing all along. That story could not be true to itself and end any other way.

So that got me to thinking about whether this is a general rule, whether it’s possible for a good movie — a good story — to allow alternate endings. A bit of delightful nonsense, like Clue, doesn’t strike me as a valid counter-example, since storytelling isn’t really the point of a movie like that one. But then I thought of Casablanca, one of the greatest pieces of cinematic storytelling ever produced, and its famously chaotic and ambiguous production.

While Casablanca was filming, no one — not Ingrid Bergman, not even the writers, Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch — knew how the story would end, whether Ilsa would fly away with Victor Laszlo or with Rick. That uncertainty led to difficulties on the set, but it also helped to produce some of the film’s fine performances (watch Bergman again in the scene in Rick’s apartment).

Casablanca, we’re told, could have ended differently. But it could not have ended differently and still have been Casablanca. The movie ends the only way it could — the ending flows from all that went before it. As Bogey says, “It all adds up to one thing: You’re getting on that plane with Victor where you belong.”

An alternate ending might be imaginable, but it would force us to reinterpret everything else in the story. An alternate ending would create an alternate story — one in which, as with Sixth Sense, the hero would be someone else (Laszlo, perhaps, but certainly not Rick).

The ending of a story is inextricably tied up with the rest of it. It flows from what precedes it, but it also shapes and reshapes everything that precedes it. The ending of a story can tell us what the story means — it can give meaning to all that precedes it.

This, I think, is the function of much apocalyptic literature. John’s Apocalypse is an attempt to provide an alternate ending, an ending that would reshape and reinterpret all that came before it, giving it new meaning. This is a surprise twist, a “revelation,” like in Sixth Sense or Casablanca — an ending that suggests the story we’ve been seeing isn’t what we thought it was, and the heroes are not who we thought they were.

Real life, of course, is not a story. It’s full of extraneous, messy details that rarely “add up to one thing.” It’s twists and turns can be as arbitrary and meaningless as those in Bad Dinner Theater. John the Revelator knew this too. He and his fellow believers had seen too much of arbitrary suffering and death to find any comfort from a Hollywood ending that claimed life was fair, or virtue was rewarded, or justice wins out in the end and “No one ever dies and everybody lives happily ever after.” So he set his alternate ending later, afterward, after life, in an eschatological epilogue — an ending that asserted his unproven and unprovable claim that our lives are part of a story that means something.

But enough with the theologizing, let’s get back to the movies.

Alternate endings don’t always wind up as DVD extras, sometimes they get released to theaters. We hear about this all the time — a movie fails to impress test audiences, so they rewrite and reshoot the ending. In some few cases, this can work out, but this has nothing to do with whether or not the ending is “happy” or uplifting. Audiences can usually tell when they’re being lied to, when a storyteller is cheating. Sometimes a test audience will recognize this, rejecting an ending that doesn’t fit, that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t follow what went before. In such cases, the reshot ending may be a necessary and superior correction.

Usually, though, these rewritten endings are themselves untrue. They’re tacked-on, artificial happy endings that reinterpret the stories being told in ways that the stories themselves will not allow. (The whole of apocalyptic literature — from John’s Apocalypse up through reggae classics like “Downpresser Man” — might also constitute nothing more than this kind of artificial rewrite, but it’s too soon to tell.)

My favorite example of this is Ben Stiller’s Cable Guy, a movie with a tacked-on ending that doesn’t seem to add up to one thing. The only way for that story to end would have been with Matthew Broderick in jail, framed by Jim Carrey for the murder of his girlfriend. But Stiller, or the test audiences, or Carrey, or all three, balked, opting instead for an incoherent, ill-fitting “happy ending.” Feel free to share your favorite examples in comments.

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