Archive for category Films


The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.

In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.

Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.

Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.

The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.

That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.

Not an unresolved ending!

Not an unresolved ending!


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The Truth and The Truth



Based on a true story.

This is the most deadly phrase I can read or hear in a movie ad.

In fairness, Dallas Buyers’ Club, which I saw with my daughter, uses the words inspired by a true story in its ads and trailers. Inspired makes it sound a bit more as if it’s intended as fiction, although I suspect that distinction is lost on most moviegoers. Anyhow, this movie version of Ron Woodroof, the AIDS activist who founded the Dallas Buyers’ Club, follows him from his diagnosis, all the way to a court case against the FDA. Along the way, he battles doctors, customs agents, the FDA, and his own worsening state of health. It’s a moving story, and for someone my age, it effectively brought back memories of that time–the cluelessness of the experts, the rampant homophobia, and the ignorant, often hysterical, fear regarding the possibility of being infected. These larger points I recognized as truly depicted within the film, based on my memory of the history.

On the short drive home, my daughter and I discussed the film, and began speculating about its basis in truth. We both doubted that Dr. Eve Saks was a real person. My daughter was not a fan of the pseudo-romantic relationship between Ron and Eve, the going out to dinner and so forth. I wasn’t either. More importantly, we wondered whether or not the character of Rayon was a real person. We hoped so, but we had our doubts.

Rayon, depicted as Woodroof’s business partner, is portrayed by Jared Leto in a gut-wrenching performance that ought to win him many awards. This is one hell of a performance, and one hell of a character.

I looked it up as soon as I got home, and found these:

Alas, Rayon is not real. The Slate article states, “The real Woodroof didn’t have any particular Rayon in his life…”, and was created (quoting screenwriter Craig Borten), “…as a character to give Ron a dramatic challenge to his prejudices while facing his disease.”

In other words, she’s a standard-issue screen-written sidekick. Sorry. But I was not surprised.

Let me see if I can articulate why I am annoyed.

I remember the eighties and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, from the first news reports of an odd new cancer that seemed to strike mainly gay men. I recall an early report stating the mortality rate appeared to be about 33%. Soon, the true mortality rate emerged. No one, at first, knew what caused it, except that it was sexually transmitted. Then, the virus was found, but there was no cure.

I remember the homophobia, and the pronouncements from certain religious quarters that AIDS was a judgment from God against gays (while leaving lesbians, inexplicably, especially favored by heaven) and drug addicts. Then we were horrified to realize that blood transfusions were a common vector. This situation lasted throughout the eighties, until effective drug cocktails were developed, approved, and prescribed. But between the original diagnoses and the onset of effective treatments, was a decade of denial, bigotry, and fear. And yes, governmental and drug company intransigence both exacerbated that denial, bigotry, and fear, and was exacerbated by those attitudes.

Many people suffered and died, and many, like Ron Woodroof, did what they could outside the establishment–sometimes, outside the law–to buy themselves and their co-sufferers a bit more time, a bit more wellness. I’ve no objection to someone writing about a straight white guy caught up in the epidemic; his story is as valid and moving as anyone’s. But is an invented transexual addict with a heart of gold necessary here? Rayon is portrayed as pivotal, Ron’s supposed business partner. And she’s not real. She is, in the end, a redshirt, a casualty deemed necessary to the script. She is an invention used to show fictional evolution in Ron Woodroof’s purported character issues. What so-called truth am I supposed to glean from this?

Jared Leto’s performance makes all this even more of a problem for me, simply because he is so astonishing as Rayon. A beautiful performance that comes close to stealing the movie. And it is a beautifully acted, well-written movie. The problem for me is that those very screenwriting skills are what muddle the truth. In a article, the movie is referred to as “…the real life story of…”, “…a true story, a triumph…”, when in fact, key points are completely made up. In addition, the characters of Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks are treated, in the article, as absolutely real. Check it out:

And this is why I have become a biopic cynic, fed up by all this inspired-bybased-on, bullshit. I love fiction, because fiction is true. It is true, precisely because I know it is made-up. With non-fiction, I can never be sure, but at least, I’d like you to try to tell the truth…

The Virus

The Virus

Photo: CDC

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Presidents Who Fix Stuff

Campaign after campaign, we hear the promises that stuff will get fixed. Health care. Washington. Spending. The culture of mistrust. Unemployment. Education. We want stuff that is broken to be fixed. But somehow, after inauguration, it never turns out as we…or he…had hoped.

George H. W. Bush famously said, “Read my lips…no new taxes,” and then raised taxes. Obama promised Gitmo would be closed by one year after his inauguration, but it is not closed yet. FDR, however, kept many of his New Deal promises, to provide unemployment insurance, old age insurance, and to repeal prohibition. He had also promised to balance the Federal budget, but gave up on that promise pretty quickly. LBJ became president unexpectedly, upon the assassination of JFK, but then pronounced a War on Poverty. That hasn’t been won. Neither have subsequent Presidents’ Wars on Drugs, Crime, or Terrorism. Lyndon Johnson was of course derailed by a disastrous war that he inherited, the progress of which he lied about, in the hopes he could somehow fix it. Which he couldn’t. Nixon came along, promising “Peace With Honor,” and that didn’t really work either. But Nixon did keep the promise of extending the vote to 18-year-0lds.

I’m sure you can come up with dozens of other examples of things fixed/not fixed from the pages of our history. I’ll bet way more things not fixed than otherwise.

Trying to fix stuff as President is a difficult task. I do not believe we are totally honest about how limited the President’s control really is. I do believe fictional presidencies can give us a clear picture of the nature of these limitations and pitfalls, and my favorite fictional presidency of all time is that of Merkin Muffley, in Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

(Spoiler alert: If you have not seen this movie, go watch it first, and then come back and read the rest of this post.)

The movie came out in 1964, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kennedy’s assassination. In it, an insane General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), fearing communist plots against America, launches a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Naturally, President Muffley (Peter Sellers) tries to fix the situation in the most direct, aboveboard, and ethical manner possible. He invites the Soviet Ambassador into the War Room. He calls up Soviet Premier Dmitri Kissoff and apologizes profusely (in a delicious mid-western-mid-atlantic accent) for the error, and offers target information to them, so that they can defend themselves, as well as attempting to call back the attack. This should fix it, right?

Turns out, no. Premier Kissoff is a bit drunk, and despondent. Turns out the Soviet Union has developed a Doomsday machine, and if a single bomb drops in the U.S.S.R., a massive retaliation will occur. So call our planes back, right? Except that Mad General Ripper is the only one with the code to call back the attack. Dr. Strangelove (also played by Peter Sellers) helps overcome this problem, and the bombers are successfully called back, except for one.

Major T.J. “King” Kong’s (Slim Pickens) radio equipment was damaged by Soviet anti-aircraft, and so he does not receive the order to abort the attack. Although the bomb bay was damaged as well, he manages to open it manually, and releases the bomb, and rides it down, and achieves mutually assured destruction.

So President Muffley was prevented from fixing the problem of an unintended nuclear attack by the following:

1. Craziness (General Ripper)

2. Drunkeness (Kissoff)

3. Equipment failure (Radio equipment)

4. Equipment success (Doomsday machine)

5. Openess (President reveals target info, possibly resulting in damage to bomber radio.)

6. Secrecy (Doomsday machine kept secret from Soviet Ambassador)

7. Failure to Communicate (resulting from all the above)

And I haven’t even touched upon the balance of powers institute by our Founders, without which the President–any president–would be both far more efficient and far more potentially deadly. What I want depends on who is in office. When my guy is in, I want him to be masterful. When their guy is in, I want him to be quashed.

The office of President is called the most powerful in the world. Maybe. It also has its moments of utter futility. The President and everyone tasked with running our country are human beings who are occasionally crazy, drunk, incompetent, dishonest, too honest, or otherwise idiotic. Sometimes they are all of these, and yet still believe they are right.

Watching Dr. Strangelove makes me more sympathetic to the President, whoever he (no she yet) turns out to be. Poor President Muffley. You proved incompetent, but you tried.

Thanks to the IMDb website for refreshing my memory on this wonderful movie. If you haven’t seen it, do. It is still remarkably relevant.

Happy President’s Day.

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