Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This one’s from reader Rodrigo Gonzalez:
For most of it, even though I was kind of liking it, I didn’t care that much for Captain Phillips. However, when those last five minutes came up, with Tom Hanks’ very natural performance, it took me by surprise and made me love everything I had seen up to that point. So, what’s a non-twist ending that made you change your mind?
Sometimes you really do have to stick out a movie to the bitter end to grasp its full power. I spent most of Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s acclaimed animated war documentary, convinced I was watching a vaguely distasteful stunt. The film finds its director attempting to recall his experiences as a teenage infantryman in the Israel Defense Forces during the 1982 Lebanon War. Folman uses an uncommon animation style—reminiscent of rotoscoping, but achieved through different methods—to visualize his own anecdotes and those of his interview subjects. The resulting scenes of warfare, often set to pop music, are as hyper-stylized as any modern action movie—and something about the realness of the events being described and the amped-up unreality of how they’re depicted rubbed me the wrong way. And then the final scene arrived, with Folman making a sudden switch from vibrant animation to real, documentary footage of grieving widows, and the strategy became powerfully clear to me: The war scenes are intentionally artificial, as a representation of how Folman and his comrades romantically distorted and willfully misremembered their involvement in atrocities. The sudden intrusion of doc footage functions like a rude awakening—the rush of guilty memory penetrating the protective layer of these soldiers’ repression. It hit me, hard. I’m glad I hung in there.
This is a tough question. I tend to obsess over endings. I’d say a good half of long-form writing, for me, is figuring out where a text should end, and how I should take the reader to that point. Generally, when I think of endings that really knocked me on to my ass the first time around—say, Heat or Mouchette—they’re ones that cement everything that has happened up to that moment. It might seem obvious, but an ending isn’t just a cut-off point; it’s where you’re taking a viewer or a reader, the destination of the narrative. And for that to work, they have to follow; if you don’t find Michael Mann’s cops and robbers or his widescreen style compelling for the bulk of Heat’s nearly three-hour running time, I’m not sure that final, painterly image is going to change your mind. The closest experiences I can think of to the one described by Rodrigo come from literature, mostly because books give you more time to form an opinion and to be proven wrong. First on my mind would be The Narrative Of Arthur Gordon Pym Of Nantucket, which is Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel. I liked the book just fine in the early stretches, when it was a more or less straightforward sea story. (Poe is somewhat underrated as a prose stylist; the first chapter, especially, reads as remarkably modern.) I began to appreciate it more in the mid-section, when it gradually transformed into a kind of early exercise in body horror, fixated on the bodies of sailors starving at sea. Then come the fantastical, borderline-psychedelic final chapters; Pym’s ending stretch isn’t its strongest, but it recasts the preceding text in terms of a person confronted with the irrational. It’s become one of my favorite novels, and one early sentence—“My dream, then, was not all a dream”—has become something of a personal obsession, a kind of mantra to which I return whenever I feel creatively stuck.
I’m a pretty big Woody Allen fan, but I admit that not all of his movies completely work. For example, the critically acclaimed Vicky Cristina Barcelona struck me, for much of its running time, as an over-narrated, somewhat slack story, flitting between mild drama and some funny bits with Penélope Cruz. But Allen always seems to know just where and how to end his movies, even his more indifferent ones. The final shot of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) silently making their way through the airport with contemplative looks in their eyes as the narrator explains that Vicky would return home and get married and Cristina would “continue searching, certain only of what she didn’t want,” imbues the previous 90 minutes of mild ennui with a stronger sense of thematic purpose, even as it ends with something of a shrug (a recurring pose in the writer-director’s post-millennial work). It’s still not one of my favorite Allen films, but the understated melancholy of that last shot made me more forgiving of its problems—not an uncommon occurrence for his lesser work.
Given that it’s my favorite TV show of all time, you’d think I’d be better at getting people through the first season of Farscape. But almost everyone I’ve ever tried to get hooked on Rockne S. O’Bannon and the Jim Henson Company’s epic, character-driven space opera taps out somewhere in that first patch of episodes. With good reason, too—aside from the excellent pilot, the show’s first season is full of stock sci-fi clichés, uneven characterization, and plots cribbed from old Star Trek episodes. Though there are lovely moments and important character beats strewn across those early episodes, it’s not until “Nerve,” one of the last episodes of the season, that everything really comes together. It’s not just that the episode cements the show’s stellar cast by introducing Wayne Pygram as Scorpius, one of sci-fi TV’s all-time great antagonists; “Nerve” is when everything great about Farscape clicks—the brutally high stakes, the constantly shuffling schemes, and especially the way the characters transform and develop in the face of adversity. By the end, self-interested survivor Chiana has shown her mettle, and her loyalty; badass soldier-for-life Aeryn Sun has been forced into vulnerability without losing her steel; series hero John Crichton has had his wide-eyed innocence tarnished and stripped away. And Farscape itself has gained a momentum, both in terms of plot and character development, that drives the series the rest of the way to greatness.
My favorite series as a kid was Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series, which is, on the surface, a typical hero’s journey story about an orphaned farm boy, Taran, who eventually becomes a hero and saves his kingdom. While staying true to familiar tropes in some ways, Alexander manages to tweak them in interesting ways as well. As a kid, I expected Taran Wanderer, the second-to-last book, to be full of buildup for the exciting finish to come. Instead, Taran—who the story has repeatedly hinted is the long-lost heir to the throne—goes on a quest to discover his true parentage, which he believes will be revealed by the magical Mirror Of Llunet. The book becomes a shaggy dog story, with Taran and friends unable to find the mirror, traveling the land helping people, in a series of short, stand-alone adventures that seem to be little more than a distraction from the larger plot. It feels like stalling before Taran discovers he’s the long-lost prince, because that’s what happens in these sorts of stories. But it isn’t what happens here. Taran finds the Mirror Of Llunet, and it’s not magical. It’s a pool of water, and in it, you simply see your reflection, nothing more. But Taran sees himself anew, not as a young orphan, unsure of himself, but as a man. He realizes that his parentage doesn’t matter—his true self is the decent, compassionate, courageous person who took the time to do the right thing in all of the book’s previous adventures. For a genre full of “you’re a wizard, Harry!”-type revelations, the idea that a hero comes not from destiny, but simply from one’s convictions, is a powerful one, and one that changed Taran Wanderer from my least favorite of Alexander’s books to my favorite in just a few pages.