Resolving without ending
Some thoughts about Children of Men (and some spoilers, so caveat lector), which I eventually saw today – though the lateness of things didn’t seem to hurt: the cinema was virtually empty and the print was more than fine.
I came out – after listening to Jarvis Cocker singing about cunts still running the world (must have missed that one at the Oscars; Jarvis is several gangly steps ahead of even the pimp’s lament) – musing about the final scene, and how its simple sense of resolution seems not to fit the rest of the narrative. It echoes the incongruously sunny postscript rescue of 28 Days Later – though in that case the sunniness is somewhat mitigated by the several alternative endings on the DVD: it’s clear they didn’t really know how to end the thing, so the chosen ending doesn’t come with more than a tentative stamp of approval.
The problem with Children‘s final scene isn’t that it presents a simple resolution, exactly. It’s rather more that the neatness doesn’t add anything to what’s come before – except on a rather superficial level – and in not adding anything it serves to subtract. The boat’s arrival – and the rescue and sense of hope it strongly implies – isn’t a deus ex machina, because we’ve spent the majority of the film knowingly working towards it, but so far as the narrative is concerned it’s just as empty.
The emptiness derives mostly, I think, from the scene’s poor fit with the film’s essence, which is its examination of society collapsed into martial law, extreme stratification, persecution, paranoia. That the collapse was engendered by universal infertility isn’t important. This is made all-but-explicit by the screenplay’s refusal to go into details: the infertility just happens, with no apparent cause; the new pregnancy after so many years also just happens; there’s no real investigation of exactly how lives have been changed in a world without children. The baby is a kind of double Macguffin: it (or rather its absence) is an easy motivation for dystopia; it’s also, in the more traditional Hitchcock sense, the object everyone in the story desires, for their own reasons – it motivates action.
But the conspicuous lack of filling-in of back-story and causal machinery, which pushes the social commentary to the foreground, makes the semi-mythical existence of the Human Project more or less irrelevant. By the time Theo, Kee and child are waiting in the boat at the buoy, the narrative’s work is done – unless it were then intending to extend its social commentary to the location of the Human Project itself. But that doesn’t happen. It’s a rescue uncomplicated by anything other than Theo’s cheaply-written death. That the Human Project is believed to exist is important; that it actually exists is not.
Echoing Hitchcock in another way, the surface level of the narrative takes the form of an extended chase sequence, complete with crosses and double-crosses. Theo and Kee are handcuffed together as securely as Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, first by the poorly-motivated ‘transit papers’ which require them to travel together, and then by the baby itself.
But even this more genre-friendly reading of the narrative struggles to make friends with the easy rescue of the final scene. At the buoy, the narrative has collapsed to two alternative branches: the boat comes; or the boat doesn’t come. As a viewer, it’s quite clear to us that these are the only possibilities: rescue; or death. And, once this situation has been reached, the narrative adds nothing by simply choosing between them, except to achieve a redundantly superficial resolution. The processing of possibilities in the viewer’s head is not enriched by cashing-out one fully-mapped branch rather than another.
There’s a very good analogue: the climax of The Italian Job might have been a last-minute expedient pushed in against the writer’s wishes in the absence of any better ideas, but it works astonishingly well. It’s memorable not simply because of the novelty of the lack of resolution at the moment of a literal cliffhanger, but also because it dares – albeit unintentionally – to resist exactly that cashing-out of fully-mapped branches. It presents essentially the same two possible branches: the crooks rescue themselves (and are heroes); or they plunge to their deaths. Show the film to someone who doesn’t know what’s coming, and they might groan as the credits roll, but they’ll always remember it. Cash-out either of The Italian Job’s two remaining branches, and the film is significantly diminished. Since an attentive viewer is capable of imagining the crooks righting the bus and speeding away home, but also the terrible plunge – and, importantly, since an attentive viewer is unable not to imagine both of those things – choosing between them adds nothing that’s not been played out already in their head. It becomes a resolution with no resonance whatsoever. Retain both possibilities, however, and an irresistible calculus is triggered: the viewer tries to perform resolution himself, by projecting forward what’s been seen. Cheekily, The Italian Job’s final line explicitly encourages this process:
Charlie Croker: Hang on, lads; I’ve got a great idea.
Leave Theo (alive) and Kee in the boat, conclude with an exchange such as:
Kee: So, what happens now?
Theo: We wait.
and then cut to black. What would happen, other than general whining about lack of resolution? The Human Project would remain perhaps-mythical, and the same irresistible calculus would be triggered.
This is not, of course, to deny the power of resolution in a narrative. But it’s worth asking this question of narratives such as those of Children of Men and The Italian Job: What difference does it make? What difference does it make if one of the two explicit branches is chosen over the other? The characters are not real people, so it matters nothing to them. And yet, we often fall carelessly into talking about characters as if their lives do project somehow beyond the stories they inhabit. Discussions ensue about what exactly Charlie Croker’s ‘great idea’ is. But of course we don’t know that any such idea exists; all the narrative tells us is that he says those words. People talk about whether they think the crooks ‘do’, or ‘don’t’ get the bus from the cliff-edge, as if the film is merely a small window on another fully-functional world. Character motivations are examined as if they are intrinsic to the characters themselves, rather than tools for the author to use in order to choreograph the plot.
Rather than wondering whether Theo and Kee ‘do’ or ‘don’t’ get rescued by the boat, the only level on which it makes sense to talk about resolution in this case is that of its effect on the viewer. What difference does it make to the viewer if they get rescued or not? I’d like to argue for a third case, in which a narrative such as those in Children of Men and The Italian Job, which reduces to a simple choice between two mapped-out alternatives, resolves perfectly well without needing to choose. Leaving Theo and Kee in the boat in the fog, and leaving the bus on the cliff-edge, is a form of resolution. The narrative has completed its work, and that’s the best place to stop.