Parting Shots

    If I were the director of a feature film, the only thing I would enjoy more than planning the opening shot would be planning the closing shot. Everything in between would be nice too, but the first and last shots in a movie would have the intrinsic potential to be seriously privileged moments. Many not-so-great films gain memorable-ness by tapping this potential. Many great films lessen their impact by not attending to it. Many of the films whose inspired closing shots I'm about to discuss are solid all the way through.

    Basically, this is one guy's hope chest of striking end shots. I must confess to a preference for ambiguous, non-linear, or left-field closing moments, especially those that come suddenly and are capped by a director's credit (i.e. any William Friedkin film). I also like ending shots that are slightly tragic or desolate, i.e. VERTIGO or THE OUTER LIMITS' "Corpus Earthling" episode. And I'm omitting many great parting shots simply because they've already gotten their attention: DEAD OF NIGHT, CITY LIGHTS, THE THIRD MAN, PSYCHO, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, CITIZEN KANE, 2001, THE SEARCHERS, THE 400 BLOWS, THE SEVENTH SEAL, etc.

    I'm not sticking to the horror genre or any of its kissing cousins. What would be the point in that?

In no order:

1. THE OLD DARK HOUSE: After hosting a night of icky terror for him storm-bound guests, Ernest Thesiger stands on the small porch in the light of morning and cheerily waves to the departing visitors, shouting "Good-bye!" in absolutely sincere friendliness, as though non of the night's deadly perambulations had ever happened. If it's not the final shot, it's what I remember as the final shot.

2. SPIRITS OF THE DEAD: The Fellini episode, "Toby Dammit," ends with the little ball-bouncing girl who represents the devil picking up Terence Stamp's head after he has insanely attempted to jump a gutted highway bridge in his Ferrari and "succeeded," only to be decapitated by a construction cable strung across his path. Yes, Fellini seems to have stolen the diabolical little girl concept from Bava's impressive KILL, BABY, KILL, but the way Fellini films her, and the near-dawn, isolated-Roman-outskirts-highway atmosphere all make the final moments of Fellini's little horror exercise seem rather unique. In honesty, I must say that the non-horrific ending moments of other Fellini films (LA STRADA, NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, LA DOLCE VITA, 8 1/2) are even better.

3. RED DESERT: In a 1965 review, Stanley Kaufman said this film by Michelangelo Antonioni featured "the best use of color of any film I have ever seen." See the film today and you're likely to say the same thing. The way Antonioni uses color and other cinematic tools to communicate the visual beauty of industrial architecture, smoke, and marshland is indelibly exemplified in his final sequence, in which his floundering protagonist, Monica Vitti, and her little boy observe the yellow smoke angling swiftly out of smokestacks in the distance. When asked, she tells her son that the smoke is yellow because it is poisonous, and that little birds know to fly around it. Then, in the film's impressionistic penultimate shot, her foregrounded head moves past the abstracted, soft-focus swirling colors of this industrial background, and ultimately, in long shot, the tiny figures of mother and son walk out of the frame, enabling Antonioni to hold on a quite lovely tableau of his contaminated industrial landscape, while distant, ominous electronic/industrial sounds play about on the soundtrack. Other great Antonioni ending sequences of course include LA NOTTE, BLOW UP (a bit mannered), THE PASSENGER, and particularly, L'ECLISSE. I've never particularly liked the ending of L'AVVENTURA.

4. "Corpus Earthling": This is the most haunting and brilliant episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, and thus it is one of the finest pieces of film I've ever seen. Robert Culp (a truly brilliant and dynamic actor in his three OUTER LIMITS appearances) and Salome Jens (an utterly haunting presence) are a scientific couple desperately hiding out in a little rented shack in the New Mexico desert. It's only a matter of time until they are found by the "rock" aliens, now controlling scientist Barry Atwater (another haunting presence). This inspriredly spare episode and its somber atmosphere beautifully evoke the existential sadness of being hopelessly on the run and the in the middle of nowhere, with someone you love and want to protect. Inevitably, the events of the episode play themselves out tragically, and the piece ends on a shot of real desolation, as the protagonist, his running over, leaves the desert hut, with foreground smoke rising feebly from the remains of a now-abandoned magical, protective circle constructed by the couple's Mexican landlord. A landscape of the mind.

5. MIRACLE MILE: A very uneven little second film by director Steve DeJarnatt. I love it for its opening thirty minutes (a man finally meets the girl of his dreams at, where else, the La Brea Tar Pits, on the day the world ends: the meeting and courtship are depicted with just the right sense of discovery, intoxication, and John Agar) and for its final minute or two. The nuclear panic section in between is too arch, but the closing shots redeem the film. Without revealing too much, let me say that these shots are so strong, they make the film much more unforgettable and necessary than it has to be.

6. HALLOWEEN: The ending of Carpenter's orange-and-black movie is the mother of all "he's not dead yet!" groaners, but the first time was a charm, and the final shots are so poetic and exciting, with the cutting from one lovely nocturnal shot of the now-empty suburban landscape to another, energized by Carpenter's sinister, rhythmic score at its most delirious, that you leave the theater feeling full of life and Halloween-ish magic and danger.

7. THE ELEPHANT MAN: Despite its melodramatics, this film remains David Lynch's most accessible work and one of his three best, along with ERASERHEAD and BLUE VELVET. Neither its exquisite style nor its ability to move the viewer lose their impact with repeated viewings. The ending in particular retains its strength. While preparing for bed after an unparalleled evening of complete happiness at the theater, David Merrick removes the mass of pillows at the head of his bed against which he must sleep "sitting up." Perhaps he is thinking that, after a night of so much warm acceptance, he can now sleep reclining like everyone else. Perhaps he knows very well, as we do, that to sleep in this way will kill him. (I think not.) As he lies back, the camera begins a Lynchian journey into the cathedral model nest to the bed and then advances into a dark, starscape realm. As the stars begin to move toward the camera, the idealized face of Merrick's mother appears over the stars and intones in a soothing voice, "The wind flows...the sea flows...the cloud fleets...the heart beats. Nothing ever dies. No, nothing ever dies." Here we are quite possibly inside the mind of someone dying a peaceful death. It is the finest of several times in this film when Lynch effectively, carefully advances his most linear narrative with moments of inspired abstraction.

--guest commentary by david walker

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