Saturday, January 25, 2014

Epilogue Text in Movies

I don't have many pet-peeves in movies, but one that I do have is with epilogue text. That's when a movie ends by showing a series of paragraphs onscreen that explain what happened to each major character after the story's resolution. It's typically done in movies that are based on true stories, such as Goodfellas, Ed Wood, and Milk, but it can also crop up in purely fictional pieces like Legally Blonde and Animal House. Every time a movie does it, I just groan in disgust and slump back in my chair until it's over. But why?

The first reason is that epilogue text, to me, just feels like a cop-out. It's like the screenwriters gave up near the end of the script and settled on giving us CliffsNotes for the rest of the story. You can get away with epilogue summaries in literature, but film is a medium for showing, not telling. I think there are much better ways to integrate that wrap-up information with the action onscreen.

Take Goodfellas, for instance. I was really enjoying that movie's frantic build-up towards the end, but then it abruptly stomped on its breaks and threw a bunch of words up on screen that basically said, "Sorry, we didn't want to film what happened because it was way too boring." I understand that it's retelling actual events and that real life doesn't always provide thrilling climaxes, but did Scorsese really have to resort to that? Why not show a quick montage of the characters getting their closure while the protagonist narrates over it, and then show the ending with Ray Liotta getting his newspaper? Most of the movie is narrated anyway, and it uses other montages, so a wrap-up like that wouldn't be out of place.

Another example is The French Connection. That film doesn't end, it just stops. The characters are literally right in the middle of the climax when everything suddenly cuts to black and gives us a written summary of what happened afterwards. This is especially frustrating because even though it's modeled after a true story, the movie itself is a fictional account--which was followed by an entirely fictional sequel. In other words, The French Connection could have given its climax any resolution it wanted, but it opted not to give any at all. Oh, Popeye...

Another problem I have with epilogue text is that it tends to disarm what the characters went through in the story and ruin the initial ending. The movie Ed Wood concludes with the premier of Plan 9 from Outer Space, where Ed is proud of himself for overcoming the odds and finally making the movie he wanted without compromising his creative vision. This is very heartfelt and inspiring until the epilogue informs us that Ed was deemed the worst director of all time after Plan 9's failure and spent the rest of his life filming porn until he died of alcoholism in his 50's. Kind of deflates the whole movie, doesn't it?

I should also mention that at the time of Ed Wood's release in 1994, one of the characters, Bunny Breckinridge, was still alive in real life. The epilogue text acknowledges this, but then the real Breckinridge died two years later. When you watch the film now and read that text about his character, your first thought is, "Wow! That guy must be immortal!" Not only does that epilogue betray the film's resolution, it also makes the film out of date.

My third and final issue with text epilogues in movies is that I simply don't think they're necessary. The majority feel tacked on and beside the point, and the ones that do say something worthwhile, again, can be replaced by integrating that information more creatively. Throwing footnotes at the viewers is just such a clumsy tactic to me.

The crime comedy Big Trouble isn't a great film by most standards, but I applaud it for leaving out the character-by-character epilogue that Dave Barry wrote in the novel it was based on. It would have been so easy for the screenwriters to copy and paste that text straight from the book, but they refrained from doing so because it wasn't important to the story they'd shown on screen. I think a valuable lesson can be learned from this simple act of restraint, and I hope that future screenwriting moves far away from the trend of wrap-up paragraphs.

On that note, I'm going to make a sandwich for lunch.


Katelyn never made that sandwich. Thirty seconds after updating her blog, she was beaten unconscious with Loki action figures by fangirls who didn't care for her "Was Loki a Good Villain for The Avengers?" entry from the month before. She is currently recovering in a local hospital, unless you're reading this after January of 2014, in which case she's been released.

When informed of this incident, actor Tom Hiddleston stated that while he does not condone violence, he did find the story "strangely flattering." 

Monday, January 13, 2014

The All-or-None Ending

This blog entry might contain spoilers.

I got reacquainted with the Whodunnit comedy film Clue earlier this week. In case you're unfamiliar with that movie, it's adapted from the classic Parker Brothers board game (back in the days when movies based on board games were clever and memorable) and was originally released in theatres in three different versions, each with its own unique ending. Each version can be viewed on the DVD, either with all three resolutions shown one after the other at the film's end or with just one resolution that the DVD randomly chooses.

The three endings go as follows: In Ending 1, one of the six suspects turns out to be the murderer, who also had some help from an accomplice before adding them to the body count. In Ending 2, another suspect who worked entirely alone turns out to be the murderer. In Ending 3, every suspect turns out to have killed one person each over the course of the film. While none of these endings makes total sense, I've always liked the version where everyone is guilty the best. Not only does it take the film's over-the-top-confusion motif to the maximum, but it also feels truer to the original board game, where every suspect has been the killer at some point.

This brings me to today's topic, something I like to call an "All-or-None" ending. This is a type of narrative outcome, specifically in stories containing a competitive element, that either combines or dismisses every option that the story originally presented. In murder mysteries like Clue, the usual assumption going in is that just one of the suspects is the culprit, so an ending where everyone's a culprit is far more surprising because it shows that we were right to be suspicious of every character the whole time. In Clue's case, the "everyone's a culprit" ending also makes the overall story and ensemble cast of characters feel more unified and balanced since it doesn't suddenly pick one suspect to focus on at the end.

In contrast, another Whodunnit comedy film called Murder by Death plays with our murder mystery expectations by revealing that there was never really a murder at all -- maybe. That's another confusing one. Either way, none of the detectives involved ever wins their host's contest by solving the case and identifying a culprit. In both It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Rat Race, none of the parties chasing after the cash prize ends up winning it. These resolutions again create unification and balance in their overall stories and ensemble casts by not suddenly favoring one character over the rest.

All-or-None endings are also popular in "Versus" movies. The assumption going into a film called Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus is that one of the over-sized sea monsters will defeat the other by the end, much like how a boxing match has a clear winner and loser in the final round. Instead, Mega Shark and Giant Octopus kill each other at the same time and there's no winner at all. Pokémon: The First Movie builds up to a huge throw-down between Mew and Mewtwo, but both characters end up deciding to call it a draw because they're too evenly matched for one to defeat the other. This could be a case of a fight having either no winner or two winners, depending on how you want to look at it.

Even when films like this do pick a victor, they don't always commit to it. Films like Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, and a large number of  Godzilla movies end with a last-minute hint that the loser is or could be a threat still. This seems to be a trend for two reasons: 1) It leaves the film open for sequels, and 2) it keeps the film from totally disappointing and alienating fans of the defeated character. While this may be a more cynical view of All-or-None endings, these movies are still aware that both of their titular combatants are equally important.

So what am I getting at with all this rambling? Mainly that the All-or-None ending has a place in storytelling even if it may seem indecisive at first. It's always important to have a clear hierarchy of importance in mind for your characters when you write, and in cases where all of your major players are of equal importance, suddenly shifting most of the attention to one of them at the end can feel a bit out of nowhere and arbitrary.

If you properly set one character apart from the rest throughout the story, perhaps by telling it from their point of view or by giving them the most emphasis in each scene, then making them the focus of the ending would feel a lot more natural. That's not to say that this rule can never be broken, but it's usually best to clearly set something up before paying it off. Otherwise, a lot more stories might come with multiple, interchangeable endings that don't always add up -- and that doesn't fare well outside of comedy.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

That's What She Said

As a writer in the twenty-first century, I sometimes find myself worrying about innuendos. It seems like no matter what you say these days, someone always laughs at it because they've found a sexual double meaning behind it. Sure, innuendos can be funny when they're intentional, like in the Spinal Tap song "Sex Farm" or the "Schwetty Balls" sketch on SNL, but when they're not intended, they can ruin the effect of a scene by turning something harmless into a filthy joke to the audience. Having your work taken the wrong way is probably the biggest fear of any creative person, and with so many slang terms and metaphors for sex floating around in our culture these days, it gets harder and harder to avoid dirty entendres when writing.

Err, I mean, "it gets more and more difficult to avoid dirty entendres when writing."

What's more aggravating is that language is constantly evolving, so words or statements that used to have one particular meaning can develop others over time. Not only does this end up dating a lot of texts, but it can make them a bit awkward to read today. Take the word "ejaculate" for instance. That word was once used fairly often in literature as a synonym for "exclaim" or "blurt out." Since our culture has grown to associate it with another action though, it isn't used much in that first context anymore, or even used much at all. The same goes for words like "penetrate," "erect," or "cleavage." You can almost hear the readers snickering when you put those in a piece of writing.

It can be especially challenging to avoid innuendos when writing fantasy or certain period pieces, since those genres typically use older dialects to make their atmospheres feel more authentic or other-worldly. You don't really like to say the above mentioned words in such stories, despite them being used often with different meanings in the old days. This puts some writers, including myself, in the position of either using replacement words that may not feel as natural for the setting or using the original words with gritted teeth.

It can be even more challenging to come up with names for places and characters in those kinds of stories. As someone who grew up loving Lord of the Rings and who spent a lot of time on message boards and fanfiction websites, I've come across more "Gimli, son of Groin" jokes than I can count. Gimli's father, who appears in The Hobbit, is really named Glóin, but because that name loosely resembles the term for a private body part, that's all some people see when they read it. What turned this annoying fad upside-down for me was reading Tolkien's other Middle Earth works and discovering that...sigh...Gimli's grandfather is actually named Gróin.

Okay, it's not like Tolkien named the character "Gnotti Bitz" or anything like that, but he HAD to be aware that a name like Gróin was going to look odd to readers. I'm pretty certain that the term "groin" existed in England at the time when he wrote those books. Tolkien didn't seem like the type to intentionally slip raunchy humor into his work, and since that name apparently means "Growing One" in Old Norse, I'm guessing that its use is just a case of cultural differences in fiction; it sounds funny to humans, but not to dwarves.

With that being said, I guess finding an innuendo in something serious is really the audience's problem more than the writer's, and I say that as someone who's laughed at a lot of unintended euphemisms myself. As readers, we need to be able to set aside our "That's what she said" mentalities and look at certain things in a more mature mindset. In turn, we writers should still be mindful of the words we use, but not to the point that we labor over every sentence in an effort to sound squeaky clean. We can't please everyone, so we need to learn to get a grip on ourselves, suck it up, and not think so long and hard about it.

And if you laughed at that last sentence, then one or both of us probably did something wrong.