Friday, October 15, 2010

And They Were Bored. . . The end.

For several years now, I’ve noticed that I’m getting less and less thrilled with the endings of movies. Actually, “thrilled” isn’t the right word, “bored” would be more correct. I’ve considered several possible causes for this, but nothing ever fully explained it. But now I think I’ve finally figured it out.

When I initially noticed this issue some time ago, my first thought was that perhaps our short-attention span culture was finally getting to me? Maybe decades of ever-shortening commercials and instant gratification was killing my mind and causing me to lose interest in anything lasting longer than a few minutes? But then I realized that my most favorite movies tend to be long films that take their own time, and I have no problems sitting through those.

Then I thought that maybe the issue was familiarity. Maybe the real problem was that I was watching movies I’d seen before, and since I knew the endings, there wasn’t a lot of point to sticking around to see them play out. This is the same reason I don’t watch reruns of sporting events. But this didn’t quite work either. For example, I can still watch many of my favorite movies over and over and I don’t turn them off before the endings. Indeed, it’s just not The Great Escape until you see Steve McQueen sitting in the cooler one last time, and it’s not The Empire Strikes Back until you see the Millennium Falcon disappear into the distance. So how could it be familiarity? Not to mention that I’m not just having this problem with films I’ve seen, but with most modern films even when I am seeing them for the first time.

So perhaps it’s a different kind of familiarity. Maybe the problem is that so many movies are so formulaic today? Maybe it’s a matter of “seen one, seen them all”? But again, how does that explain my willingness to sit through dozens of older films where I know the ending, even though I can barely get myself to sit through a film like Terminator Salvation without flipping on my laptop? Or maybe it’s just that the endings of films can rarely hold up to the promise they hold before they start having to answer the questions they posed when they began? But that same problem should apply to older movies I haven’t seen and yet I find myself much more interested in those than in new films I haven’t seen.

I could suggest that maybe I just like older films better, but that’s not true. I don’t succumb to nostalgia, I don’t prefer fakey effects, and I think story-telling techniques have continued to get better and better over time.

So what is causing this problem?

Well, after the last couple weeks of watching dozens of modern horror flicks, a pattern began to reveal itself. No matter how interesting these films started, when they got near the ending -- about twenty minutes out, the writers simply quit writing, and instead of anything plot related, they just inserted a constant assault of screaming, running and squirting blood. . . a mind-numbing assault.

And it wasn’t just horror movies. The last twenty minutes of every modern action film has become a videogame chase scene awash in gun play, wire fights, and unbelievable CGI escapes. The last twenty minutes of modern science fiction films have become shoot outs and scream-fests as the heroes run from space monsters while the space station explodes around them. Even cartoons are following this pattern.

Consider the movie Pirates of the Caribbean. The last twenty minutes of the first film were largely a combination of two fight scenes, though they weren’t super obnoxious and they involved breaks for plot. But the sequel ended in the now-standard mind-numbing Hollywood chase. The third film ended in an atrocity, a 30-plus minute special effects assault intermixed with a ludicrous CGI fight scene. Some of the CGI fight scenes at the end of the second and third Matrix films come close to 40 minutes depending on how you count them.

Everything I’ve seen lately falls into this same pattern: near the end of the film, the script apparently contains the words: “insert videogame, attention-deficit-disorder, assault-the-senses-arama here. . . roll credits.” It must be a macro.

But hasn’t this always been the case? Actually, no. And that’s why I’m finding that only modern films are boring me. Sure, older films followed a pattern of trying to put the climactic scene at the end, and that often involved a shootout, a chase scene or a fight. But they rarely ran more than a few minutes and they always left room for plot. Compare the famous car chase in Bullitt (which isn’t actually at the end), which lasted only nine minutes total, with the first two not really being a chase in the traditional sense, against the never ending CGI fights at the end of the movies listed above. Or compare the feel of the attack on the Death Star, which involved little action mixed in with significant dialog, against the videogame lightsaber fight and cliché-fest at the end of the third prequel.

What makes this all the stranger is that at the same time they are inserting these long, long pointless endings, they are editing them with ultra quick cuts to try to maintain the attention of the audience. When I saw Armageddon for the first time, I found the editing to be so obnoxious that I found myself counting the number of seconds between cuts; I never made it to 8. And while I thought that was a bad sign at the time, that’s the golden age compared to today. Today, waiting as long as 8 seconds to make a cut in a fight scene would be unthinkable. . . and that doesn’t even consider the vomit cam.

I think this is why I find myself rarely paying attention at the end of modern films. Once the fighting begins, everything of interest in the story is over. So I flip on my laptop, and I start doing something else. I hope Hollywood is paying attention, but I doubt it. . . there aren’t enough explosions in this article to get their attention.


Tennessee Jed said...

I think you have put your finger on it, Andrew. It still comes back to the "story." Good story and script equals a good baseline for a movie. Quality of acting, special effects, sets, costumes, etc. all contribute to how good it gets after that.

How often have we seen a Gene Hackman work his butt off with a mediocre script and improve (but not save) the project. Possibly a good way to test this is to think of all the different versions of "A Christmas Carol" and what makes some better than others.

Conversely, if I go back and look at numerous movies, I say to myself "it had a great cast, looked good, blah, blah, but it just never went anywhere." The studio fell in love with "the concept" but forgot to tie down "the story." Hence, they film before coming up with a good ending.

CrispyRice said...

ITA with you and Jed - there is no effort put into stories any more. I think it's because it's "risky"!! Ohhhh... We can't risk doing something that isn't a guaranteed formula already.

Couple that with this day of marketing tie-ins... The real money IS made from the video games and backpacks and whatever is sold at McDonalds. So you'd better have that video game sequence in your movie, ready to go.

Movies aren't made for adults anymore. They are made for kids and teenagers - the people who will go see movies over and over and then buy all the junk to go with it.

Sorry, Andrew, you've aged out of the target market!

Tam said...

I think this is true with all writing...the ending is the most important part, and it seems it is the hardest part. Whenever I see or read something with a great ending, I sit and savor it for a while, then I call one of my sisters to tell her to read/watch what I just read/watched so we can share the experience. Great writing makes you want to share, and the same definitely cannot be said for the 20-40 minutes of "video game assault" excuses for endings.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I agree completely. The story is the key to everything. Like you, I've seen dozens of films with great casts, great effects and even great concepts. . . but they never delivered because they just didn't know what to do with the story.

And you're right about Hackman. I think he's a great actor who always delivers, but no matter how great he is, he can't save a bad story.

What's more, I've found that watching older movies, they did concentrate of giving you a full story from beginning to end. These days they really do forget about the endings. Instead, they just replace what should be some of the most important parts of the plot with a big fight scene and then wrap it up with a quick conclusion or a twist. And that's why I'm finding myself so bored with so many of these movies, even when the premise is great and the first halves of these films are entertaining.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks for the good news Crispy! :-(

Sadly, I think you're right. When I watch films like the Star Wars prequels, you can almost see how they designed certain sequences to work with the videogame rather than the plot.

And I think you're right that straying too far from the formula ist verboten these days. So it's safer to hint at your ideas and then provide the "splashy" (read= safe and dull) finish.

It's sad because it's making a whole generation of films so dull that I seriously don't feel like watching any of them again -- something that hasn't been true in any other generation of film making.

AndrewPrice said...

Tam, I agree. It seems like writing endings is the hardest part, probably because it's difficult to meet people's expectations -- especially when your story involves suggestions of something incredible coming. And too often, these stories, which seemed so good up to that point, just collapse when they reach an ending that turns out to be not up to the task of explaining the rest of the book.

Also, too often, I think writers over-reach by trying to suddenly up the stakes at the end. Thus, what started as a drama between five people suddenly turns into a world-wide problem in the final twenty pages. I think that's just as bad as under-whelming.

But in any event, giving up on the ending and turning it into a videogame represents a total failure of ideas, and it ruins an otherwise good book or film.

And you're right, when you see something with an incredible ending, everyone runs out and tells people -- you've got to see this... I won't spoil it for you, but WOW! You never hear that about films that end in videogames. You'll hear Hollywood reporters blather on about the "fantastic finish" or the incredible special effects or whatever, but you never hear consumers bragging about that.

Ed said...

I kid you not, I was thinking about this last week! I kept asking myself why I keep losing interest in films near the end. The one I was watching at the time was the new Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. I liked the movie right up until the ending began, then it got really boring as they worked their way through the video game over the Thames. This is exactly what bothered me!

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I generally like Sherlock Holmes but I had a hard time understanding it -- it was like they were all mumbling. But I know what you mean about the ending.

I think it's becoming standard on action/scifi/horror/blockbuster films these days that they jam this kind of ending on the story. And it's too bad because I think it hurts films that are otherwise entertaining.

Anonymous said...

I don't have much to add that hasn't already been said, especially Jed's comment about STORY.

Having said that, I think part of the problem is that many endings don't flow organically from what came before. When people analyze the great screenplays, they find a logical series of events based on setups and payoffs but many overblown endings today just seemed tacked on, like, "Okay, it's page 90 - we need something here!"

I look back on Raiders of the Lost Ark and the big "melting faces" sequence. How long was all that - five minutes? And the clocktower climax of Back to the Future... I still get chills!

And speaking of the Star Wars prequels, have you seen those multi-part YouTube reviews by Red Letter Media? BH did a story on them and they were all over the net. I don't care for the guy's sick sense of humor but he raises many good points.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I watched all of his criticism and I thought he was spot on the whole time. He really took those movies apart to the point that almost every decision Lucas made seemed ridiculous. I was very impressed. . . though, yes, he could have used fewer dead hooker jokes.

I think you're right about endings needing to feel organic to the story. The endings to the best movies always feel like a natural culmination of the story -- like you've been building toward it. Whereas so many endings today feel like "oh, we need something big and splashy" whether that fits the story or not.

It's the same thing with twists, the good ones flow from the story and make sense within the story -- they seem like they were always there to be seen and like the story relies upon then... but most twists feel like "oh, we need something more to the story, let's do something surprising."

Have you taken any script writing classes that have touched upon this?

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, P.S. You're right about Raiders too. That ending was foreshadowed a dozen times, there were dozens of opportunities for the characters to avoid that fate, and when it happened, it was short and with a huge payoff -- but an appropriate payoff. If they made that film today, Jones would have had to free himself, fight off evil demons, find some strange solution (maybe involving a hidden power he never knew he had before), and then cause the Nazis to die by letting them trick themselves into being taken by the demons. . . and that would not have been a very satisfying ending.

Anonymous said...

I've only taken a few screenwriting classes but we always touched on endings. Of course, most people who go to film school have no interest in making the kind of big, bombastic films we're talking about (it's a stereotype but there is some truth to it). :-)

And in my own writing exercises, I never got to the ending because I usually ran out of material a quarter of the way through!

Unknown said...

Andrew: I sense a lot of patience among our readers. I don't have that kind of patience, so I often don't make it to the end of many movies produced in the last ten years or so.

Perfect example. When my son was little, he and I went to see Clash of the Titans. The whole family has watched it several times since on cable. Sure, its special affects are a little clunky by today's standards, but it's a very fun movie.

Cut to the re-make, complete with CGI and 3-D. What CRAP. The CGI was muddy and the sepia coloration was depressing. The monsters and gods didn't look any better, and I ended up rooting for the kraken. Oh, and I didn't stick around for the end of the movie. The BBC took a poll, and about three-quarters of the respondents voted it the first sci-fi fantasy film which was made considerably worse by CGI and 3-D. I think they were generous.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, LOL! That would be a problem. Of course, you could just move your ending closer to the beginning? ;-)

I figured people in film school were probably less interested in the bombastic stuff, but you never know. I would have no interest in making those kinds of films personally.

I've always found in writing that you get a sense of whether or not you're on the right track by how perfectly everything seems to fit together as you work your way along. When everything seems to fall into place and it "writes itself", then you're on track. If you're struggling, then you're on the wrong track.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I haven't seen that one because it really had all of the elements that normally turn me off, so I'm not at all surprised that it turned out poorly. It just had "assault on the senses" written all over it.

I don't mind action (in fact, I like it), but if all they're selling is 40 minutes of quick edits, explosions and action that you can't make sense of, then I lose interest pretty quickly. And these days, I honestly start turning movies like that off once they start heading into their endings.

Tennessee Jed said...

Interesting comments about the Sherlock Holmes movie. Holmes, in my mind, is probably my favorite fictional character of all time. I am, a dedicated follower of the canon, so the Jeremy Brett Grenada t.v. series has always been the benchmark. And yet, having grown up with Sir Basil Rathbone (one of my top two or three actors all time) I could easily accept bastardized WWII propaganda stories.

Now I also really enjoy Robert Downey, Jr., but was concerned since the director had a reputation none too favorable in my eyes. I actually saw that movie in a commercial theater. Soundtrack was loud, gobbled, and drowned out the dialogue (poison to good plot development.) And the story ???

My point is that movie represents to me everything under discussion here. Good cast, big budget, special effects, great concept . . . within 30 minutes, I was so bored I wanted to walk out.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I was pleasantly surprised, but let me clarify.

As far as summer blockbusters go, I thought the film was entertaining and it had it's clever moments, but it wasn't Sherlock Holmes. I had real problems understanding all the mumbling, I thought the "Watson is leaving" subplot was just too much to add to an already convoluted story, I thought they tried too hard to make references to Holmes' stories, and overall the film was overwhelmed by the effects and the constant need for frenetic action and special effects-laden fights and escapes.

So while I enjoyed it as a blockbuster, I would rate it very poorly as a Sherlock Holmes film.

And that said, it did have a good cast and they clearly could have done a great Holmes story, but they didn't -- they just used the "Sherlock Holmes" names.

Ed said...

Jed and Andrew, I thought Downey did a great job giving a different kind of Holmes. He clearly wasn't playing a dramatic Holmes like in the television series, but I thought he did a good job. I agree the movie was too busy with too much stuff going on and I didn't like the video game ending, but overall I liked the film. I don't think I would want to see it again, but I don't regret seeing it.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I largely agree. So long as you don't try to see this film as competing with the classic (serious) version of Sherlock Holmes, then it was entertaining (excluding my complaints above). And in those terms, I enjoyed it. But it would have really turned me off if I associated it with "classic Holmes."

Joel Farnham said...


I blame it on the bigger is better concept that also destroyed the Mustang. The Mustang originally was a car that was written to specs provided by people who were interested in a second car. The subsequent models were increased in size and power to resemble a bloated box.

Tennessee Jed said...

Ed and Andrew - no real disagreement from me on either of your points. I wasn't disappointed because it wasn't a "Sherlock" movie (neither were many of the Rathbone stories.) Rather, I was all primed up to see a nice Downey, Jr., modern technology, blockbuster based on that character and was disappointed because I couldn't (for a variety of reasons) follow the plot closely enough to maintain interest.

Andrew, you and I have discussed commercial movie soundtracks, and I admit this may have had a big impact on my reaction. Still, I can't help but feel the movie mostly jumped from one big blockbuster special effects violent scene to the next causing me to not understand, and therefore not care about the ultimate storyline.

Let me share one other potentially interesting reaction I have been having recently. Do you know how great and involved some music can sound when you are in a semi-conscious state (falling into or out of sleep?) Recently, I have found this happening in reverse with television and movies. What amazes me is how dialog from good actors in shows or movies I have liked come across as wooden and as acting (as opposed to realistic.) Don't know why, but it has been happening a lot lately.

T_Rav said...

So wait, you're saying the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels were bad? Come on! It's not like we couldn't tell what the motives of all the different characters were, or like the fight scenes were over the top, or...oh wait.

Actually, more seriously, I never can figure out why people always rag on Armageddon. I mean, yeah, the dialogue was a little cheesy sometimes, and the Ben Affleck-Liv Tyler romance was little short of nauseous much of the time, but for the most part, I don't think it was that bad. Plus, it had a pretty good soundtrack.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, That's an interesting comparison. There seems to be a human tendency to think that if 10 is good, 20 would be better and 30 would be even better than that. And that seems to be how so many things spin out of control, not to mention that it's rarely true.

I certainly think this has become a problem with film, that each film needs to be bigger than the last to make an impact. But I also think this shows a lack of creativity. If the plots were better then they wouldn't need to engage in the CGI arms race.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I fully understand your point about the movie and I agree. It was far too busy and it seemed like every couple of minutes they took a break from the plot to interject a fight scene. I was still pleasantly surprised as a blockbuster, but that's a pretty low threshold.

I agree about the soundtrack too. Like I said, I have a very hard time understanding much of what was said and that was distracting.

You raise an interesting point about modern acting. I agree that a lot of what I see these day in the way of acting feels "disconnected." I first noticed the beginnings of this years ago when I noticed that there is no timing anymore in Hollywood -- instead, it's all about editing now. So rather than have the really neat almost-overlapping dialog you would find in a Bogart film or in a Marx Brothers film, you got carefully edited lines running back to back. . . it wasn't the same.

But in the past couple years, I've noticed what seems to be the next step -- that dialog increasingly feels like it's being delivered by the actor alone without regard to anyone else being in the scene with them. Thus, you seem to get dialog that is either very flat or overly dramatic, and the actors don't seem to be playing off of each other. You also get a lot of actors whispering their lines because it sounds "cool" even though it doesn't seem realistic -- try whispering to someone across a crowded room and see if that works in real life.

I've put this down to a decrease in the quality of acting these days (all looks, no talent), and an over-reliance on editing which makes me suspect that scenes are being created almost one line of dialog at a time.

I could be wrong, but that's my impression.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, What bothers me about Pirates is that there is a pretty good movie buried within a lot of garbage in the sequels. It's like they wasted an opportunity to create something truly interesting and lasting because they didn't trust the audience, so they tossed in all the stuff that's wrong with Hollywood. If you could strip that out, I think it would make a pretty good film.

My problem with Armageddon is that, at the time, it was one of the first films to really go nuts with the quick cuts. I'm not kidding when I say there isn't a single shot that runs more than 8 seconds before they change camera angles. It was film making for the ADD set. Sadly (and predictably), these days it no longer stands out for that. In fact, it's tame by comparison to much of what's out there now.

I do agree about the soundtrack though, very good!

T_Rav said...

I hadn't noticed that before. You're probably right, but I'll have to check it out for myself the next time it's on TV.

Although, I can tell you what is definitely worse than Armageddon--Armageddon dubbed in German. I found it on TV once when I was in Munich, and it was so incredibly badly done, you'd think it was a comedy.

DUQ said...

Thank you for this. I was beginning to feel like an old fuddy-duddy.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, LOL! Actually, I've seen a lot of German television (I have relatives there). It's pretty strange to see something like The Simpsons in German, with different voices and where the humor isn't translated correctly.

Looney Toons too: I still recall Foghorn Leghorn having a high-pitched, fast speaking German voice. . . the horror. . . the horror!

AndrewPrice said...

DUQ, I don't think it takes an old fuddy duddy to see that these pointless endings don't improve films, but instead hurt the whole film.

Let's hope someone in Hollywood is listening.

Mike K. said...

Explosions are loud!

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, but they're purty... and cool. LOL!

Mike K. said...

The best ones are when you see an explosion and think, 'that was good!' and then there's an even bigger one and I start yelling 'Did you see that! That was two explosions right there!'

Mike K. said...

Of course I like a thinking man's ending too sometimes.

Like when the good guys are about to win, but then one good guy is like, 'Not so fast, I'm a bad guy, really.' And then they have to fight him too. It really makes you think.

AndrewPrice said...

Mike, LOL!!

Yeah, that really makes you think!

I like when they get artsy too, like when you see the same explosion from five angles always in slow motion! That's like cool five times over. . . but six would be boring.

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