Sunday, November 24, 2013

Closure: The Gap between Stories

After you have devoted years to coming to terms with story, approaching it as though it were some unknown dish you were expected to eat before you could have desert and then be excused from the table, you understand that you will never be satisfied.

Some technical things and some thematic things will flicker up before you as you are revising on your own dissatisfaction or trying to cope with notes from an editor.  

The most surprising thing about the way this coming to terms has evolved relates to closure.  Endings had to be emphatic.  Drum rolls.  Beethoven-like finality.

Then came Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).

Then came James Joyce (1882--1941).

Endings were never the same again.

How nice it would be to say you were ready for these two forces when they came into your life and that you'd had enough experience away from working at you craft as well as working in it to see the implications for endings.  But you did not always see the signs and implications, or if you did have a sense of the way the future would spool out, you nevertheless stayed on a beat or two too long, in effect committing in reality the kinds of oversights you sweep under the rug of anticlimax.

Reality, in all its multifarious ways, tends to produce individuals who tell story, whether the medium is oral, written, or, now, digital.  The better tellers have discerned ways to end tales, chapters of longer works, and even outcomes of two- and three-volume running narratives.  

Story does not exist without some kind of closure or, in longer works, an edgy sense of a lasting kind of inevitability.  The more a story veers away from propaganda and fable, the more an atmosphere of ambiguity creeps into the ending, reminding many of us that we are not living in the midst of an eighty- or ninety-year parade of episodes but rather in more discreet mini-closures.

Tonight, by merest accident, you were present at a kind of closure for a longtime friend, who is moving from a rather comfortable apartment directly across the street from East Beach, and into a living arrangement with many euphemisms, such as a retirement residence.

At dinner, you unintentionally triggered a kind of moment where Chekhov or Joyce could well have ended a story.  The friend has quite a few credits for stage and screen plays as well as novels and essays.  The last time you'd been in his company, he dropped the type of bomb on gatherings of more than five or six persons that you've come to detest.  "What is your all time favorite motion picture?"

You'd taken some shrewd steps to avoid answering, but when it became clear to you that you had to answer, you'd picked a film you quite liked but which was not your favorite.  You'd picked it as a conversation stopper, which it did.  You chose Marcel Carne's Les Enfants du paradise.  True, it was a framework story of the sort such as The Canterbury Tales, you enjoy.  And, like Gogol's Dead Souls, it gave the director/author a chance to engage numerous types of story, ranging from Shakespeare to mime.

You apologized this evening and gave an opinion more reflective of your favorite, Orson Welles' adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.

Thus began a round of conversation lasting at least an hour, after which your friend said, "This is the reason I rejected the Motion Picture Home.  This--" He waved his hand to include the conversation and conversers.  "--is all we'd ever talk about.  I love film, but this would lead me to the emphatic sort of ending we most of us attempt to avoid until it is out turn to lead it."

"Chekhov would have stopped right there,"  you said.

"And you see, don't you, why The Motion Picture Home would not."

Well done, you are thinking.  A man observing a dramatic equivalent of a dotted line in Reality .  Writers, in particular playwrights, tend to capture the precise moment for an ending.

Much is made of the so-called sad ending, where a story or narrative reaches a conclusion at a point that is ambiguous and yet has given the audience enough to cause them to see some finality such as death or failure or retirement or evolution or simple change that will occur later, in the reader/viewer's sensitivities as opposed to the stage or the page.

When you stop to think of it, most endings are sad, even if they do not lead to tragedy but instead to nostalgia.  A group of friends, sitting about talking, even in the boozy bonhomie of a cocktail or glass of wine, will range from reserved to full-out funny to reflective, to the drowsy, sated feeling of a good meal.

You provided another Chekhovian potential for an ending return to raucous humor in the form of a knock-knock riddle that led to a cheery George Gershwin song being sung by a chorus of bad voices.

Who's there?

Wild Bill.

Wild Bill who?

Wild Bill a stairway to paradise,
With a new step every day.
I'm going to get there at any price,
Stand aside, I'm on my way. 
I've got the blues,
And up above it's so fair.
Shoes!  Go on and carry me there,
I'll build a stairway to paradise,
With a new step every day...

You have to be alert for the rhythms and psychology of endings, which in some circumstances mean finality or evolution or a switch.  Often endings, by their cyclic nature, keep us on the alert for understandings, new beginnings, new cycles, sometimes to the point where we scarcely notice the momentary breaks in the fabric of Reality.

When that happens, we find surprise that the story has pulled us through and beyond disappointment or a break int he rhythm, deeper into the mischief life has spun about us. 

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