Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Burn Out/Fade Away

Ambiguous ending
by steviesellout

I watched BROKEN FLOWERS for the second time last night, and aside from a few things that bothered me a bit this time around (the fact that Bill Murray plays a "Don Juan" who happens to be named Don Johnston struck me as sillier and more pointless than it did before, and the “stalker in a Taurus” one-liner awkwardly standing out as the only joke of this sort in the movie), I still liked it. It's not great--I think it was one of those films that people wanted to like more than they did, the idea of Jim Jarmusch and Murray working together perhaps better than the thing itself. Still, I thought it was a good, small movie, with everyone's favorite late-career-success-story doing pretty much exactly what we've come to expect from him: turning in a performace so minimal that to call it "extremely understated" is, well, an extreme understatement. As tends to be the case with the second time around, the things I found to like and dislike about the movie this time were the small things, which I had either not noticed the first time or that had faded from my memory in the interim. Christopher McDonald's performance as the husband of one of Don's exes is amazing in that he manages to somehow get the used-car-dealer-ness (he's a realtor, which I suppose may or may not be a step up the career-respectability ladder) so pitch-perfectly, and simultaneously showing you the basic humanity of the character, and making him somehow likeable, although perhaps in a sort of pathetic way--and all within his 10-odd minutes of screen time. This is impressive because it would have been easier for McDonald to simply play up the repellant aspects of the character and just be an obnoxious parody of a realtor, rather than being someone who you feel like you've met.

But this wasn't supposed to be the point. What I wanted to touch on was a disagreement my girlfriend and I had immediately after watching the movie. During the final scene, she, sensing the way the movie was headed, declared, “I have a feeling I'm going to be frustrated with the end of this movie, and sure enough, when the credits rolled came the obligatory “That's it?!!” For those of you who haven’t seen it, the movie ends without Don figuring out which one of his old girlfriends is the mother of his son, and without meeting the son either (or rather, not knowing whether he’s met his son or not, and for that matter, suspecting the whole thing might have been a hoax), which is admittedly a somewhat unresolved ending. But what struck me was this hadn’t struck me at all; to me it seemed perfectly natural that the film ended the way it did—in fact, I can't imagine it going any differently.

The only argument I could come up with was the old "in real life, things don't end up in tidy little packages," line, to which she naturally replied with the standard response: people see movies to get away from real life, and part of the reason people like to see movies with resolutions is because they so rarely get them in real life. Of course I agree with that in theory. After all, would we really want to watch an action or adventure or other “nonserious” movie where you don't know if the hero lives or dies in the last scene? But we don't watch those types of movies for realism anyway, and you wouldn't find me complaining that STAR WARS or BACK TO THE FUTURE is unrealistic. But with a movie like BROKEN FLOWERS, where the film's strengths lie in its refusal to abide by standard movie conventions, where there are no heroes or villains or even any real climax, I think it would sort of cheapen the whole thing to have a resolution

"But all the movies do that now. I feel like it's kind of a new thing," my girlfriend argued. For a second, I thought of making the observation that the same thing could be said about talkies in 1930, but thought better of it. I replied that with a tidy resolution, you would have no reason to ever think about the movie again, nothing to talk about when it was over, no reason to wonder what it all means or try to piece together the clues and solve the mystery, even though you know that’s not the point.

So then it’s just a ploy to get you to see the movie again?” She was making me look bad at this point. But it made me realize something: I’ve always liked unresolved stories, or at least stories where there’s a lot of room for interpretation (and I’d say this extends to music, art, etc.) to the point where I think I’ve come to take it for granted that this sort of story is better than one where everything is explained—I regard ambiguity as a sort of end in itself, and I think a lot of people I know are the same way. But at what point does this become lazy filmmaking, or lazy storytelling? I suppose it is easier in a way to write a story that just ends abruptly without explaining things or offering a proper resolution, but is this really the case? And does “easiness” make something any less valid? People might accuse Jim Jarmusch of not knowing how to write an ending to BROKEN FLOWERS, which reminds me of a conversation I had with someone once where he referred to fade outs in music as being used because the songwriter “doesn’t know how to finish the song.” The absurdity of this statement is I think self-evident—it’s not like this guy was a music snob who only listened to songs without fade outs or anything—but it’s worth explaining anyway. The fade out is finishing the song, and Jarmusch did write an ending, it’s just not the ending that you may have wanted or expected. The fade out in the song, like the abrupt, unresolved ending in the film, is a tool, and nothing more. Used correctly (and I’m not trying to say there’s any sort of universal absolute for correctness), I think it can enhance the experience of the work, and in the case of BROKEN FLOWERS, I don’t think there was really any other option.

What does everybody else think?

02005: 106 minutes: dir. Jim Jarmusch: written by Jarmusch


  1. Also, I think you win some sort of prize for beating Justin to the punch and publishing before him. Glad to have you contribute.

  2. I think you talk real good like. But your argument felt a bit unresolved, so I hate it. Or do I?

  3. Oh shit, I repeated myself. NEIL YOUNG!

  4. The problem with BROKEN FLOWERS is that Bill Murray isn't really allowed to be Bill Murray for more than a minute at a time. The ending is the best ten minutes in the movie, really. Other than that it's kind of boring and not really illuminating in the way non-illuminating journeys can be. I like that he doesn't get any closure--it's perfect for his character--but seeing Murray play this kind of end-of-his-rope sad sack yet again (a year after LIFE AQUATIC's disappointments) was tiresome not only from a fan's perspective but from a critical perspective: is this the only role that interests Murray any more?

    More later, in a seperate post, tackling that very question and not the one you've posted here.

  5. Broken Flowers seems to falter in the way that any lesser Jarmusch film falters: Lazy writing. His banal exchanges and sculpting-in-time long takes have juice only when the folks enacting them are real and alive. Down by Law was real. Stuff like Ghost Dog, Night on Earth, and certain moments in Coffee & Cigarettes and Broken Flowers... just stop right at the door of a clever concept and go no further.

    But I love Broken Flowers, if only for that cut from Murray to the framed picture of the dog.

  6. Lazy writing

    Yeah, in all the Cannes PR hubbub Jarmusch said he wrote it in two weeks and it certainly showed.

  7. Actually, I'm not going to write that post about my disappointment with Bill Murray playing the same character. Who needs it? Especially after that news story about him showing up at some frat party in Ireland, drinking Vodka out of a caraffe and staying the night to help do dishes. Part of me thinks that's hilarious and righteous but another part of me thinks, Who are you? Aren't you 60 years old? Are you really just Bob from LOST IN TRANSLATION after all? Do you really just want to plow all young thangs like Scarlett cuz you know you can?

  8. I tried watching the first 10 minutes and hit Pause then Stop.

    Jarmusch makes most TV writers look like Shakespeare.

    The first exchange between Murray and Delpy was so sophmoric, I couldn't be bothered with any more.