Special Symposium: Happy Endings: Real Life and the Movies

January 13, 2014 2 Comments


The Reel Deal went to the movies at the Waldorf Astoria last Saturday with “Happy Endings:  Real Life and the Cinema.”  Elliot Wilhelm, our own DFT curator was the key speaker for a wonderful program that explored the remarkable ability of film to reveal complex aspects of human existence despite (and sometimes with) the inevitable search for a happy ending.

The introductory remarks by Jolyn Wagner attempted to raise questions about the nature of  a “happy ending” and connect it with the struggles to end psychoanalytic relationships AND (inevitably) life itself.

What IS a “happy ending” anyway?  Who is supposed to be happy?  The characters?  The audience?  The studio?   I also tried  to set the tone for Elliot’s indepth presentation with a montage of 5 (of my favorite) Hollywood endings, spanning about 75 years of movie making.

The audience engaged with each clip, which included the final scenes from Sunrise (Murnau’s 1927 silent classic), Swingtime (the Astaire-Rogers gem that concludes with a reprise of the marvelous song “A Fine Romance), Wizard of Oz (Dorothy leaves the technicolored Oz and revels in the sepia-toned familiarity of her own room), Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder’s zany, edgy ending with Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis in drag and one of the best closing lines ever) and Rocky (dah dah dahhhhhhh, dah dah dahhhhhhh “Adrienne!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

Elliot then took the podium and used scenes from The Master, Vertigo and The Searchers to demonstrate the unique and subtle ways that film can share and reveal emotion and unspoken secrets.  His incredible depth of knowledge, shared in an equally engaging and entertaining  manner, kept the audience in their seats until the end (despite theater and dinner reservations after a loooong day of psychoanalytic meetings.  Elliot made the point that the ‘happy endings” in the montage were the endings for films that are nonetheless wonderful Hollywood films, challenging some ideas that “good” films must be foreign, independent and end sadly or at least ironically.

Elliot demonstrated Hitchcock’s genius in revealing the inner world of his characters:  Kim Novack (in that emerald dress) brushing  by a bedazzled and soon to be obsessed James Stewart without a word of dialogue.  The side by side scene in The Master demonstrated a dialogue-rich encounter between two men destined to need each other.  His  final clips of John Ford’s The Searchers  allowed us to explore the film’s riveting attempts to confront racism in the 1950’s under the guise of a “traditional Western”.   The Master and Vertigo are NOT happy endings.  The Searcher’s ICONIC ending was used to close the formal program and begin the Q and A.  Was it Happy?  (John Wayne standing in that doorway, before walking  out alone into Monument Valley.)  Was it Happy?   You decide.

And that’s part of the beauty of the movies!

Jolyn Wagner

Jolyn Wagner

Film Theory 101
2 Comments to “Special Symposium: Happy Endings: Real Life and the Movies”
  1. Bruce Russell says:

    Tell us which films you showed clips from and, in each case, whether you thought the film had a happy ending. That way we can test hypotheses about the essential nature of a happy ending…just like philosophers do!:)

  2. Bruce Russell says:

    I’ve given some thought to what is the essential nature of a happy ending in film, and whether it’s similar for the ending of psychoanalytic relationships and the end of life. Here is what I think.

    What do Sunrise, Swingtime, Some Like It Hot, and Rocky have in common? Two people who fall in love, or who fall in love again, in the end get together after overcoming various obstacles. In the Wizard of Oz, the Scarcrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion come to see that they already have what they want: brains, a heart, and courage. Dorothy comes to realize that there is no place like home which she has never left since Oz is no real place. What is common to the five films is that the main characters have their heart’s desire satisfied and they realize it. Is that sufficient for a film to have a happy ending, or only necessary, or neither?

    I don’t think it is sufficient,for if the ending is not a good one it’s not a happy ending. Suppose in some film what a person most want is to become rich through selling children into slavery and in the end succeeds after overcoming many obstacles. Or suppose in some film a person is a terrorist who most wants to blow up a building in New York and in the end succeeds after overcoming lots of obstacles. Neither of those would be happy endings.

    Perhaps a happy ending is simply a good ending, good for the people involved and not morally bad. But being a good ending is not sufficient for being a happy ending. In last year’s film Amour, the end comes when the husband kills his stroke-ridden, elderly wife and then dies himself. The end seems good in the sense of fitting. It was best for the wife to die and the husband’s life would not have been worth living without her. Still, it was not a happy ending.

    So I propose that a film has a happy ending if and only if the ending is good for the main characters in the film, is not morally bad, and it satisfies central desires of those characters and they realize that it does.

    Does such an ending also have to make the audience happy? I don’t think so because we can imagine a film in which a gay couple, or a couple of mixed race or different religions, is finally able to get together after overcoming many obstacles. Assume that this makes the couple happy but the anti-gay, racist, or religiously intolerant audience that sees it is made unhappy. That would still be a film with a happy ending.

    Can we apply this analysis of what a happy ending is in film to happy endings in psychoanalytic relationships? My last remark about audiences that may not be made happy with a film that has a good ending might apply to the ending of psychoanalytic relationships, too. The end of the relationship might not make the patient happy, but it could still be a good ending for her, and not morally bad, if her psychic life has improved as a result of the relationship: less anger, the releasing of her potential, the end of harmful and disappointing repetitions in her life, etc. That would be a good but not a happy ending. It would be happy only if the patient were happy with the ending, or at least not unhappy.

    And how about life? Again, I think a happy ending will be a good one, one that is good for the person and not morally bad. However, such an ending might not be happy if the person who dies was not ready to die, fought death and left life psychically kicking and screaming.

    A happy ending in film, in psychoanalytic relationships, and in life is a good ending, but a good ending is not enough for it to be a happy ending. The ending must also make the relevant person happy, or at least not unhappy.

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