Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Kiss. Fade Out. The End: Embracing the Happy Ending


The following is a conference paper delivered at
Rom Com Actually: A Two Day International Conference on Romantic Comedy in Film and Television, held at De Montfort University, Leicester, 2 – 3 March, 2011.


In the 1964 romantic comedy
Paris When it Sizzles Richard (William Holden), a screenwriter, tells Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn), his secretary, that a Hollywood film necessarily ends in the following manner:

The climax. The music soars, and there, totally oblivious to the torrential rain pouring down upon them, the two fall happily and tenderly into each other’s arms. And as the audience drools with sublimated sexual pleasure, the two enormous and highly-paid heads come together for that ultimate and inevitable moment: the final, earth-moving, studio-rent-paying, theatre-filling, popcorn-selling kiss. Fade out. The end.

Accordingly, this film, which is dedicated throughout to sending-up various cinematic clichés while simultaneously enacting them, does itself end in precisely this way. Speaking of the new script Richard is writing, Gabrielle asks, “It will have a happy ending, won’t it?” The couple then intone Richard’s earlier words to one another (him: “Theatre-filling…”/ her: “Popcorn selling…”) before falling into a passionate embrace as the words, “Kiss. Fade out. The End.” are typed onto the screen; we fade to black.

David Bordwell has said that “few conventions of the Hollywood cinema are as noticeable to its producers, to its audiences, and to its critics as that of the happy ending”. Robin Wood calls the happy ending the “most striking and persistent of all classical Hollywood phenomena”. Assumptions like these are widespread. It’s exceedingly common for critics to precede the term happy ending with words like “standard” (Dolar, 1991: 38), “standardised” (Mulvey, 1977: 54), “typical” (Booker, 2007: 42), “usual” (Žižek, 2001: 7), “traditional” (Benshoff & Griffin, 2004: 61), “formulaic” (Umphlett, 2006: 38), “conventional” (Dunne, 2004: 78), “clichéd” (Orr, 1991: 380), “expected” (Rowe & Wells, 2003: 59), “predictable” (Schatz, 1991: 152), “customary” (Sterrit, 1993: 10), “inevitable” (Kracauer, 1960: 65), “necessary” (Mayne, 1990: 363), “required” (Sharrett, 2007: 60), “requisite” (Tally, 2007: 129), “statutory” (Brownlow, 1987: 122), “mandatory” (Kapsis, 1990: 39), or “obligatory” (Shapiro, 1995: 197).

Despite being viewed in this way, the 'happy ending' has received barely any in-depth attention from film studies. This paper is an extension of my doctoral work, which is dedicated in part to dispelling some myths about the convention. In particular, today I want to discuss the kind of happy ending familiar from so many romantic comedies: the kind in which ‘boy gets girl’, which for convenience’s sake I call the final couple.

In a sense I feel that this conference may actually be one of the few places where I’ll be preaching to the choir, since romantic comedy criticism has produced probably the best work on happy endings thus far. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll bear with me.

In a 1947 article called ‘Happily Ever After’, Fritz Lang wrote:

The traditional happy-ending story is a story of problems solved by an invincible hero, who achieved with miraculous ease all that his heart desired. [...] Boy will get girl, [...] dreams will come true as though at the touch of a wand.

I think we can see something like this description as charting the basic discursive field surrounding the ‘happy ending’. Of course Lang isn’t right when he calls this ‘happy ending’ “traditional”; instead it is prototypical. This is the abstract
idea of a happy ending – exaggerated and hyperbolic. Because it has never been unpacked or interrogated, I think that this image has also tended to control film studies’ own attitudes toward happy endings, causing us to construct it as a critical ‘bad object’ rather than engage with it in detail.

That is to say:
the ‘happy ending’ is an amalgamation of the kinds of exaggerated images conjured up here, or presented in a film like Paris When it Sizzles. Rather like the way in which genres are sometimes treated, it is essentially a Platonic ideal, existing in the minds of critics, filmmakers, and audiences, and often exerting its influence most forcefully by what it represents as an ideal. Just as Hollywood cinema has plainly produced a great many of what we call Westerns, but never the prototypical Western, so has it produced a great many of what we call ‘happy endings’, but never the ‘happy ending’. Yet, unlike the case with genre, this oversimplified conception of the ‘happy ending’ is still rife in film studies, and is what has allowed the convention’s reputation as a whole to become what it is today. It’s what permits critics to speak of “the Hollywood happy-ending convention” (Buckland, 2006: 219), or “the Hollywood convention of the always-happy ending” (Bratu-Hansen, 1997: 101).

It seems to me that in any happy ending there are two happy endings at play:
the 'happy ending' – this clichéd, perfected ideal – and the actual happy ending we are watching, which will almost always be more ambivalent, or at least in some way distinguishable from its Platonic counterpart. I think we need to always to be aware of which we're talking about at any given moment: the 'happy ending' (which requires quotation marks), or a happy ending?

I’m also interested in the interplay between these two endings – the imagined and the real, and I’ll talk today about some assumptions about the former that are complicated if we pay proper attention to the latter – in particular, assumptions about the clichéd, ‘closed’, and ideological character of happy endings.

First though, we need to ask: why does the happy ending have such a negative critical reputation?

The Happy Ending in Film Theory

In 1967 Frank Kermode wrote in his seminal book The Sense of Ending that there had developed “a modern degree of clerical skepticism” towards narrative in general, and endings in particular. This skepticism has only increased and diversified within critical and theoretical discourse since.

Perhaps the most central reason for film studies’ hostility towards the ‘happy ending’ is its perceived links with narrative closure. Since the 1960s various theoretical approaches to both film and literature have managed to draw metaphorical parallels between narrative closure and virtually every ‘conservative’ impulse in Western culture: capitalism, patriarchy, masculinity, the Oedipal trajectory, bourgeois ideology, and so on.

It was a central tenet of '
Screen theory' in particular that a Hollywood movie usually strives to be what Commoli and Narboni called “a closed circuit, endlessly repeating the same illusion”. Theoretical models like Colin MacCabe’s ‘classic realist text’ regularly described Hollywood aesthetics using terms such as a “heavily ‘closed’ discourse”, and so on.

Of course, the excesses of '
Screen theory' – such as the concept of the classic realist text – have now received decades of critical drubbing, and its shortcomings on this particular matter of closure are easily diagnosed. The convention of closure, in-and-of-itself, conveys no ideology whatsoever. It is merely a formal device that can be used in the telling of a radical story as easily as a conservative one. This is because, a Andrew Britton says, a film’s ideology can “be gauged not by the fact that it uses certain conventions but by its use of them”.

Yet the critical enmity towards narrative closure
per se on ideological grounds certainly outlived the 'Screen theory' boom, and can be seen to have continued through psychoanalytic approaches of various stripes, feminist film theory, postmodern theory, and still persists today.

One measure of this is the survival of a concept that was central to 70s
Screen's dealings with Hollywood closure.

The 'Self-Consciously Artificial Happy Ending'

The theoretical climate that abounded in film studies' early years essentially made it necessary that, if one wishes to make positive claims for a ‘closed’ happy ending, one needs to argue that it doesn’t in fact convincingly ‘close’ the film. This produced a very prevalent – and resilient – category: the “happy ending in which the mechanics of cinema are exposed” (Geraghty, 2009: 106), because it seems “unmotivated” (Neupert, 1995: 72), “ironic” (Grant, 2007: 79) or “forced” (Pollock, 1977: 109). We can call this overarching critical category what Shingler and Mercer dub the “self-consciously artificial” ‘happy ending’. This model was very useful for the development of ‘Screen theory’ as a whole, playing a key role in the development of a concept that Barbra Klinger has dubbed “the formally subversive ‘progressive’ text”.

But the model is by no means confined to this period or theoretical tradition. For instance, in
The Classical Hollywood Cinema – which is still one of the most influential of film studies books, and is critical of much 'Screen theory' – David Bordwell writes that an “unmotivated happy ending” can “break down the ideological unity of the classical Hollywood film”. And today we can still regularly see readings which suggest that an individual happy ending is either tacitly ironic or unintentionally unconvincing, thus counteracting closure, and thus containing some sort of progressive potential, or at least additional interest.

An important point to make about this argument is that it is based on the assumption that, unless it’s being subverted, a happy ending is likely to merely conform to the standardized Platonic happy ending of our imagination. A second point is that ‘open’ and ‘closed’ aren’t static categories which endings simply are or are not – there are infinite shadings of closure. We can see this by looking even very briefly at a handful of individual final couples.

Variation and 'Closure'

The final couple is regularly assumed to guarantee complete closure – the resolution of all crises and contradictions through romantic union. Sometimes it does, but it needn’t.

The uncertainty of the future may be literalised openly. In
Double Wedding (1937), Margit and Charles ultimately lie knocked out on the floor after a brawl at a misfired nuptial, a wreath reading “Good Luck!” strewn over their unconscious bodies. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) sees its couple on the verge of restarting their marriage but with Gary Cooper in a straightjacket and rendered virtually mute by rage and sexual frustration. More recently, I Could Never be your Woman (2007) has its heroine admit of her new relationship “So, it might not last...”

Equally, the lovers might not finally know each others’ true identity.
The Lady Eve (1941) famously ends with Hopsy still not having realized that Jean has been pretending to be two different people. In Bachelor Mother (1939) David finally remains under the illusion that Polly is the mother of the abandoned baby; Charade (1963) ends with the line "I love you, Adam, Alex, Peter, Brian – whatever your name is…”; Housesitter’s (1992) last words are “I love you, Gwen.” / “Actually, it’s Jessica…”

As an aside, it’s also worth briefly drawing attention to a very common strategy of romantic comedy of all eras, which is to use an epilogue, not to shore-up closure, but to follow a final couple with a dissonant gag. This may perhaps refer back to an earlier issue between the couple – say,
The Ugly Truth’s (2009) final faked-orgasm gag – or it might bring back a secondary figure of fun – in Ninotchka (1939) we finally cut to the protesting Russian envoy. Equally, Four’s a Crowd (1938) has Errol Flynn accidentally kiss the wrong new bride before switching to his actual wife, while their car is being pursued by hunting dogs, dispatched by an angry father . As Kathrina Glitre points out, “far from reinforcing the return of the status quo, [...] the Hollywood romantic comedy epilogue tends to destabilise the final union by the return of a source of conflict”.

My point isn’t that these films necessarily encourage us to envision
pessimistic futures, but only that the problems of the narrative need by no means be unilaterally closed by a final couple. Furthermore: it is crucial that no ‘subversion’ of a prototypical model is required in order to create these happy endings which are equivocal, ambiguous, or in some other way simply distinctive. Celestino Deleyto is in my view absolutely correct when he says that “a closer look at this [...] convention proves that ambiguity and variety are relatively frequent”; more to the point, he is virtually revolutionary when he goes on to suggest what no other critic has ever acknowledged: that such ambiguity and variety are “even part of the convention itself”.

And indeed, we should probably admit that this ambiguity is unsurprising, given that the final couple is simultaneously the most familiar of endings and also manifestly a moment of
beginning – the beginning of a romantic relationship. This is something that particular happy endings acknowledge to varying to degrees, but it’s always central to the convention, and can be one reason for the relative ‘openness’ of particular final couples.

Another reason it’s unsurprising that we should find moments of equivocation in many final couples is because of the overbearing weight of the clichéd, Platonic image of the 'happy ending'.

This is something that has often been acknowledged about contemporary rom coms, or New Romances, which often display, as Frank Krutnik puts it, a “knowing embrace of the artifice of convention” – with the 'happy ending' high on the list of conventions regularly considered artificial. A famous example of this is
Pretty Woman (1990), which ends with a modern version of the fairytale-style rescue of a princess by a prince, followed by a chorus-like figure announcing “this is Hollywood, land of dreams!” I would agree with the numerous critics of romantic comedy who argue that this trend needs to be explained at least partly in relation to the rise of postmodernism.

But it also needs to be seen on a continuum with the far older convention of drawing attention to the clichéd nature of the final couple. We’ve already seen
Paris When it Sizzles parodying the 'happy ending' back in 1964. We might go back to Platinum Blonde in 1931, which finishes with the hero talking to the heroine, telling her about the happy ending of a play he’s writing, whilst acting out that ending with her. Or we could look at Sherlock, Jr. in 1924, which shows Buster Keaton taking romantic advice from a movie playing onscreen...

...until the film-within-a-film shows its onscreen couple kiss, then dissolves immediately to a shot of hero and heroine holding several babies; Buster is left looking confused.

In fact, as far back as Shakespeare we can see the final couple being treated as a hackneyed convention – towards the end of
Love’s Labour’s Lost Berowne comments on the interruption of the play’s courtship plots by observing that “our wooing doth not end like an old play; Jack hath not Jill”.

This is because for hundreds of years it has been true that, as David Shumway puts it, “‘Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back’ is exhibit A of standard plots in all fictional media”. Given this, while postmodernism might have caused what was once, in Jameson’s terms, ‘residual’ to have became a ‘cultural dominant’, the clichéd reputation of the final couple has long been one of its defining features. This in turn would seem to mean that, just like many film scholars, most romantic comedies are
themselves suspicious of this prototypical image, and thus tend to find ways of avoiding conforming to it uncomplicatedly – either via the kinds of minor dissonance mentioned earlier, or by, as Kruntnik puts it, presenting “the fulfilment fantasy of heterosexual union, while underscoring that it is only wish fulfilment after all”.

Of course though, it isn’t just its clichéd nature that regularly causes anxiety about the final couple, but also its perceived politics.

Variation and Ideology

Other than perhaps somewhat outdated de facto associations of closure with a reactionary ideology, the main reason for political suspicion of the final couple is because to end in this way both sets up marriage as an ultimate goal, and necessarily consigns it to a narrative afterlife that remains unrepresented, and thus unchallenged .

Yet the fact that this genre often ends with marriage (or more broadly monogamy) doesn’t mean it always seeks to relegitimize it, nor that it is unable to represent anxieties about the institution. While of course usually framed within a comic mode, marriage can be criticised in romantic comedies for many reasons.

For Gillian in
Bell, Book and Candle (1958) marriage “would mean giving up a whole way of thinking, behaving – a whole existence”, while Tira in I’m No Angel (1936) sees marriage “only as a last resort”. Following the fall of the Production Code the critiques have only tended to become more overt: “You want a happy marriage?” Mac asks Eddie in The Heartbreak Kid (2007), “Do what I do: plaster on a fake smile, plough through the next half century, sit back, relax, and wait for the sweet embrace of death.” Marriage is described in contemporary romantic comedies variously as “something that’s got about a fifty-fifty shot of making it out of the gate” (27 Dresses [2007]), a “patriarchal” form of “ritualised property transfer” (The Bachelor [1999]), “a prison” (Forces of Nature [1998]), “a form of institutionalised rape” (Forget Paris [1994]), “not natural” (What Happens in Vegas [2008]), “filled with loneliness and sadness” (Bride Wars [2006]), and accused of being based upon “a bourgeois desire to fulfill an ideal that society embeds in us from an early age to promote a consumer-capitalist agenda” (Definitely Maybe [2008]). Even the assumed ideological link between marriage and the 'happy ending’ can be explicitly called into question: “Then what happens?” medical student Paige asks of a burgeoning relationship in The Prince and Me (2005), “We get married and live happily ever after? Then all my hard work goes down the drain because I’m too busy shopping for groceries and picking my kids up at soccer.”

Of course, though, these dissenting voices tend not to have the ‘last word’, since the narrative does indeed usually culminate in the beginnings of a romantic relationship. But it has too often been assumed that, whatever progressive potential a romance narrative may possess, the final couple which
ends it will always signal a return to conservative values. Of course, I don’t wish to suggest that final couples can’t serve to, say, ‘tame’ strong women, and it is certainly valid and necessary to pay attention to what Laura Mulvey calls “the amount of dust the story raises along the road”. This should not, however, come at the expense of asking how much “dust” can also be raised by a final couple. We’re free to view as equally conservative all endorsements of any monogamous heterosexual couple if we wish. However, this view will logically leave us entirely unable to differentiate between the ideological meanings of one couple and another.

I think it necessary to adjust our thinking and recognise that the final couple, while always dealing with similar ideological concerns, will nevertheless have different meanings depending on its specific treatment. As Kathrina Glitre puts it,

It is not enough to claim that [...] simply by ending with the union of the heterosexual couple, romantic comedy is about the traditional institutions of patriarchal society and must be inherently conservative. The context of The End must be taken into account.

It is true that romantic comedies usually encourage us to endorse their ultimately united romantic couples. But that couple will be different in each case, which will in turn change the implications of our endorsement of it. More important than the fact of the final couple is the kind of future a final couple invites us to imagine – as well as
who the people getting married are, and how equal their relationship is. Two final kisses shared by the very same stars within a couple of years of one another can have extremely different ideological overtones depending on - to take one blatant example - who has been pursuing and educating whom. We can see this in the huge gulf separating the sexual politics of, say, The Philadelphia Story (1940) and Bringing Up Baby (1938).

The first of these final kisses has been arrived at after two hours of male characters paternalistically putting Tracy in her place; the latter is the end result of the couple's joyous escape from virtually all traces of patriarchal dominance in their relationship.

There are lots of questions we must ask of individual final couples if we wish to move beyond a view which accuses every romantic comedy ending of conveying the same ideological message.

For instance: is the final couple predicated on the woman having to give up a career opportunity, as in
How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), or is it founded explicitly on her professional success, as in something like His Girl Friday (1940)?

Is the woman desperate to be a wife, as in
Every Girl Should be Married (1948), or is she finally reluctant to wed and has to be talked into it by the man, like in Indiscreet (1958)?

Is the final marriage presented as the fulfilment of all the woman’s dreams, as in
27 Dresses (2007), or does it seem strangely threatening, as in She Done Him Wrong (1933), which ends with Cary Grant telling Mae West “you’re my prisoner and I’m going to be your jailer for a long time...”

Whereas the final couple under the Production Code tended to be synonymous with marriage, now it need only constitute a committed relationship. Given this, if a contemporary film wants to marry its couple off, does it make this seem logical by structuring its entire narrative around weddings, as in
The Wedding Planner (2001), or does marriage seem a strangely anachronistic tacked-on addendum, as in Blind Date (1987)?

If the couple is already married by the start of the film, does the movie flirt with but finally steer clear of adultery, as
Wife vs. Secretary (1936) does? Does it suggest that an infidelity can actually save a marriage, like Kiss Me Stupid (1964)? Or is the final couple itself adulterous, as in Same Time Next Year (1978)?

What age is the couple? Teen romances can often make their final couples feel tentative and provisional. The teenage heroine of
A Cinderella Story (2004) says in voiceover at the end of her film “and we lived happily ever after. At least for now – hey: I’m only a freshman!” In Clueless’ (1995) final scene we cut to a wedding that we expect to be that of the main couple, only to be told “as if!”

While the marriage can seem to be all about the couple, it can also focus far more on the friendship between two women, with the husbands cast as merely incidental, as in, say,
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), or more recently, Bride Wars (2008).

All these things will have distinct significance for the politics of particular final couples. And this is before we even start talking about happy endings which don’t feature a final couple at all, like
Roman Holiday (1953), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), Prime (2005), and so on.

So – to wind things up...

The assumption that a happy ending fundamentally requires irony or subversion in order to avoid being monolithic and conservative is a damaging one. While film studies may have largely left categories like the standardised classic realist text firmly behind, those surrounding the standardised ‘happy ending’ tend to continue unabated. Though it certainly does have its uses, the model of the self-consciously artificial 'happy ending' is a rather anachronistic remnant of an earlier critical climate, and deserves to be rethought.

Because the final couple
is so widespread a feature of Hollywood conclusions, it can be tempting to assume that it will always be the same and mean the same thing. Yet I would suggest that its very prevalence should in fact encourage a contrary assumption: that this convention will be bound to serve many varied functions depending upon the needs of varied films. If we recognise this, it will allow us to see the 'happy ending' for what it is: a tenacious Platonic ideal whose influence is important for our understanding, but which can by no means tell us all we need to know about what can be conveyed by 'Kiss. Fade Out. The End'.

1 comment:

  1. The eminently rememberable and some do safely say immortal romantic comedy, "Some Like It Hot" honoured the convention in a double-whammy, one might say.

    The loving clinch between Monroe and Curtis would have sent millions up the aisle and out of the cinemas in a dream of satisfaction but the authors, Diamond and Wilder, had a super card to pull out from under their cuffs and on it bewrite, "Well, nobody's perfect . .!"

    No Kiss (ahem). Fade out. The End.