Saturday, December 29, 2007

"Forget the Alamo"

The entry is part of the Endings Blog-a-Thon, featuring a variety of other blogs all talking about movie endings, which i find a fascinating subject. Thanks to Joe at Joe's Movie Corner for putting this all together.

And therefore, be forewarned that the very nature of this posting means here there be spoilers and please do not read unless you have seen the movie in question or don't mind the ending ruined.

Every semester that I teach the introductory film course, I pick a new slate of 14 movies to show over the course of the semester. Most of the students stay with me no matter what I teach, because, somehow, they trust me. Even the movies that confuse them -- Lucretia Martel's The Holy Girl (which I've written about before), Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (which I still don't understand why they don't like), Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless (their dislike for this also mystifies me, yet it's happened three times) -- are accepted.

All except one.

This is a still from the final scene in John Sayles' Lone Star, one of the most impressive movies I have seen about the contemporary American condition. Featuring a complex tapestry of storylines centering about the town of Perdido on the Texan border with Mexico, the film also openly deals with complicated concerns about history and how nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Unlike other films which tackle RACIAL CONCERNS!! with bolded, italicized, capital letters by arming itself with a sledgehammer of stereotypes (hello, Crash!), each person in Sayles' Lone Star is a full-fledged character, even if they only have a single scene.

The movie begins with the discovery of a sheriff's badge and a bullet on a skeleton right outside the town limits. This sends the current sheriff, Sam Deeds (played by Chris Cooper), on a quest to determine whether local hero and lauded sheriff Buddy Deeds -- who happens to be his father -- actually deserves his honor, or whether he killed a fellow sheriff in cold blood. In the process, he unearths many long-buried stories about how the white, black, Mexican and native populations have not-so-carefully gotten along in the interim and how times really have changed.

Add into the mix a rather interesting and tender romance between Sam and schoolteacher Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Peña). We eventually learn that she is widowed with a teenage son, he is divorced, and that as teenagers themselves they were deeply in love. Torn apart when his father and her mother, a Mexican immigrant, find them hot and heavy at a drive-in, they are forbidden to see one another until now. As the rest of the story unfolds, Sam and Pilar's story seems like an interesting diversion. At one point, we are even offered a very steamy lovemaking scene between Sam and Pilar with Freddy Fender playing in the background.

If you've seen other Sayles films, you'll know that that scene is a bit out of character for him. Indeed, the love scene seems otherwise typical for any other film, shot in a very standard style. But most of Sayles' films don't deal with love in quite this way, so this stands out, even if it doesn't seem that problematic or consequential at the time.

It turns out to be very important. The last scene is very simple: Pilar drives up to the drive-in -- long since abandoned -- to meet Sam for the first time since they had their fling, the very drive-in where their parents separated them so many years ago. And while there, Sam shows her a picture of her parents. That is, a picture of her mother and his father. Yes: at the very end, she -- and we -- find out that his father had been having a secret affair with the Mexican immigrant who he helped save as she was crossing the border. And that what they though was merely their parents' racist attitudes covered a bigger fear: that they would find each other and commit incest instead. May I remind you of the sensuous love scene I described above?

Here is the kicker: she is completely overcome, not believing that after all this time of unrequited love, they are still thwarted. He holds her hand as they sit on the hood of his car.
Sam: If I met you today, I'd still want to be with you.
Pilar: We start from scratch?
Sam: Yeah.
Pilar: All that other stuff-- all that history... to hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.
And the movie ends.

It's important to know that I usually end my screenings by having a discussion immediately following the credits. Students have usually taken this moment to chat with one another about it and I then offer them the ability to share with everyone what they think, a la 60s cinephilia.

Here's the thing: this is the only movie which hasn't worked well under such circumstances. Upon further reflection, students are able to process the subtle layering of the movie, how this one very quiet scene sends a corkscrew through every other part of the movie. It turns everything around and manages to force us as viewers to reflect on each element of the movie as it has built up. It's a different kind of twist than what we are used to in things like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects, but those movie also allow us with at least a couple shots in a montage to show us just how the twist affects the movie. Lone Star makes us think that for ourselves, which we eventually do. As such, it's an extraordinary piece.

But this ending really messes up your average undergraduate's mind, where all they can think is oh mah gahd, he just slept with his SISTER!!! I mean, heck, Chinatown gave us more time to deal with that. The fact that these otherwise really cool, normal, nice characters not only learn that they have committed an ultimate transgression but that they resolve to be OK with it and keep going -- to "forget the Alamo" indeed -- is just too much to immediately process. Lone Star has an ending that demands thought and time and, as such, stands above many other contemporary films.


Matt said...

1. I loved the ending of "Lone Star" precisely because the closing line is at once memorable and jarring. It had the same effect on me as have innumerable poems with perplexing/troubling finales (e.g., Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" and Yeats' "Second Coming): instantaneous recognition coupled with near zero comprehension. The result is, as you suggest: permanent resonance.

2. What about the opposite kind of effect, an ending that seems palatable on first viewing but seems stranger and stranger as time passes since one's initial viewing? Hitchcock's "The Birds" is an example--where are those humans going?? Or, "Rosebud"?

3. Isn't messing with the minds of students the most important thing a teacher can do? Have you screened Tarkovsky's "The Stalker" yet?

Middento said...

Hee, I haven't screened The Stalker yet, perhaps because I haven't seen it myself yet. (I know! I know.) I did, however, recently finally see The Birds and I completely agree with that ending, which was also unexpected and resonant. (I remain haunted as I drive and see birds on a wire. Shudder.)

I love your references to poetry, Matt, particularly (as you know) as that is my weak spot. I think that the ability to throw these particular kinds of endings is, if not unique to either film or poetry, something that generally does not happen with the novel. (I would argue that it does work with the short story.) To some extent, it goes with my growing literary obsession with size (if everyone can get their minds out of the gutter for the moment) where the length of a piece actually determines the structure. A novel with the kind of twist ending on the last page like this would ultimately seem unfulfilling. The exception there might be in genre fiction, where a sequel might be expected; such might also be the case with series television, although I have been thinking that series television is the most analogous visual medium to the novel.

You might be interested, Matt, that among the films I was considering for this posting (which included Jocelyn Moorhouse's Proof, Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (or, for that matter, Dancer in the Dark, Maria Novaro's Danzón, Alejandro Amenábar's Tésis, Walter Salles' Diarios de motocicleta, Claudia Llosa's Madeinusa or, that old standby, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot) was one of your favorites, The Holy Girl. I know we've had discussions about that film and its ending -- and therefore you might be amused to know that I have included it on this coming semester's grad syllabus precisely because of you. (I'd say "you're welcome" but I think a "thank you" is more appropriate, heh heh.)

Matt said...

I know well the gratitude your students will feel--thank you.

Chelsea said...

I am an undergrad who is currently taking Film Analysis and I just wanted to say that this brilliant scene is not lost on ALL of us. I loved this movie, but without this side story and impeccably twisted ending I would not have appreciated it as much. I truly enjoy that the film leaves audiences feeling a disease, but also examining what they are and are not willing to forget. It has brought much to my attention about what we choose to "carry" throughout our lives, and what things we choose to "leave behind."
I am currently working themes and ideas from this film into a paper I am writing on Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.
I am sorry for this strange and long post, but I just wanted to let you know that I think your blog is very interesting, and I appreciate your post on this film.

Angel said...

My film professor had us read articles analyzing the film's ending prior to viewing it for that reason. I'm glad he did. I ended up really loving the film, and I think I wouldn't have if the ending had been a shock. As a History student, there was so much there about the drive to uncover the past and respect its full complexity (in Sam's investigation, Pilar's teaching of history at the local school) and yet how effing miserable living with complexity can be, and how Pilar--the person who argued in support of inclusive, honest history lessons!--is the one who decides it's too effing much and let's just forget the Alamo already.

Brilliant film. Gorgeous visuals. And the other storylines--Otis and his son and grandson, Pilar's mother, the military couple--were just so finely drawn and they worked so well with the overarching themes. LOVE it.