I’ve lately become somewhat obsessed with a particular type of movie ending.
You know the one.
Our protagonist/antagonist has overcome whatever it is Joe Campbell said they must overcome. Happily ever after feels imminent, as underlined by perhaps the opening riffs of a familiar pop-tune. But our hero, they’ve still got one final punchline to drop, whether verbal or otherwise, right before a cut-to-black.
And that music? It plays. We hit the chorus, or an ironic line, or something that makes us smile almost as much as the punchline, hitting its stride just as the first names appear.
It’s a very specific type of ending, and to be honest, I have no idea if there’s a particular cinematic term for it. But you know what I’m talking about, right?
In case you’re unclear, here’s one – the final scene of the Wachowski’s paranoid red pill, The Matrix:
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At this point of the movie, we’ve just seen the protagonist literally return from the dead, a god reborn. The new, subversive king of an artificial world populated by human slaves spending their entire life asleep as part of the plot’s major twist: as our evil robot overlord’s organic power supply. Seeing Neo fly up out of shot like that for the first time, it’s a real moment. People do superhuman things inside the Matrix, but nobody’s ever flown. And to suddenly drop an entirely fresh twist like that, literally a few frames before the cut to black? The effect it has on the average nerdy viewer is close to orgasmic. But then consider the tune itself : Wake Up, by Rage Against The Machine. One of the seminal anti-establishment protest songs of that odd late-90s era, with no accident that it both matched the subversive themes of the film itself, but also that it quite literally has a title matching the central demand placed on all the major characters (and presumably the millions of sleepers) as the film closes – an awakening this new god will hopefully bring about.
It all works. All a bit obvious, perhaps, but in the heat of the moment, if you’re too caught up in the action to ponder it, the resulting end-of-the-movie moment is electrifying.
Though this technique does not necessary have to be a high-powered fist-bump, of the likes of Fight Club (‘Where Is My Mind?’) and Iron Man (though does that one count, the music starting arguably a touch late?) There’s also the softer, smoother exit via the exact same route, often creating as evocative and energetic a moment as the punches-in-the-face.
Take the final scene Wes Anderson’s classic, Rushmore:
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While our protagonist doesn’t actually do much more to advance the plot here, he does succeed at taking the hand of the woman he’d attempted to woo so unsuccessfully throughout the film. And perhaps in that final moment as the music begins to play, by hearing the mature way Max accepts his defeat, in taking his glasses off, Rosemary’s finally looking at him as a man, not the ridiculous young boy he’d been throughout the film. And the song itself… well, that says it all. As the verse swells, the film slows to almost a halt, as we see all major characters assemble for one final photo, our couple still very much the focus of the frame. And just as the cut to black (or in this case, the curtain close) finally occurs, the music reaches the chorus: “I wish that I knew what I know now”; a line whose relation to everything else one can hardly ignore. But are these the character’s thoughts, or that of the director himself? With Anderson’s name revealed immediately as the line is sung, perhaps this busts the fourth wall for us slightly, the director having said on occasion how much of his own past he threaded into the film’s central character.
I love these moments, and yes, I’ve become obsessed.
Taking note of them for months. Collecting them. Stashing them away for some unknown purpose, unknown even to me at this point. The novel I’m currently developing has accidentally wound up with moment like it winding through the narrative and tying up the ending. Part of me even thinks there might be an idea buried amongst this odd collection to form the premise of an entire story in itself. Perhaps a tale about someone bound by a collection of endings, the same way the protagonist in High Fidelity (another great end-of-the-movie play-out moment) seems bound by the songs and playlists of the women in his past.
Or is that just too obvious? Would it be more appropriate for a literary tie-in of this device to be something more down the ‘random swing track’ path Die Hard treads, or merely a stretching of the final mood as per the much-drooled-at Gosling-fest, Drive? Or is it foolish to even be trying to force this round cinematic peg into square literary hole?
I don’t know. And if I’m completely honest here, I have no idea why I’m collecting these. And yes, I am collecting them. Check out these sweet puppies on Spotify. Each one of them one of these very deliberate end-of-the-movie music moments (if you can guess them all). Well, not this one, which I kept on the list for no good reason than… well… who doesn’t think every playlist deserves a little Backstreet? And no, it really doesn’t count as one of my obsessional types. Party tracks, such as the play-out at the end of Dirty Dancing, or the odd moment at the end of 40 Year Old Virgin; this type of ending isn’t quite the same. They’re literally just playing the track, delivering a performance. Where’s the irony, the punch-in-the-face, protagonist’s final punchline? No, not quite as magical, no matter how awesome or appropriate a party playout can be as an ending.
My search shall continue, but until I reach whatever the unknown destination is, let me know if you think of any more.
And like, don’t you… forget about me…