The other week friends of mine saw for the first time Strange Days -- a favorite of mine, and a massive personal influence -- and that inspired Steve to write up some thoughts about the film. He was as unhappy about the very ending as I was, but also agreed that a movie this maverick and daring was destined to have a certain degree of messiness. "Courage always beats cowardice," Steve wrote. "Even partial courage is better when it predominates."
What's most infuriating about Strange Days's cop-out ending (which for me still can't ruin a movie that strong and sustained) was that it was Cameron's original ending, as written. It wasn't something the studio forced on him; it was his own bad idea. Partial courage is better, but what about when it's not because you're pushing against some stricture like the studio system, but because you build your own cop-outs into the material? Cameron was at heart too much of a sentimentalist to give the movie what it really needed, something that the likes of Titanic and Avatar confirmed for me. Maybe he just loved the characters so much that he felt the ending they deserved was a happy one, even if that came at the cost of the story as a whole being potentially breaking its spirit.
We talk a lot in this trade of giving our characters what they deserve. I have never been one for using that as an excuse to make characters suffer, on the premise that the more they suffer, the more of a story there is to be had about it. I think the meanest thing I've ever done in that vein was the ending of Flight Of The Vajra (those who've read it, you know what I'm talking about), and while I'm not hastening to do anything that cold-hearted again in my work, it made me realize that sometimes I have to stare a possibility like that in the face and not blink. But not everything that cold-hearted is good storytelling. Sometimes it's just brutality.
Perhaps all this is about is having the discernment to choose, and commit to, a certain kind of story from the git-go. I'm not fond of stories that are essentially systems of torment for the people in them, even when I know full well one of the common formulas for fiction is to put your character up a tree and throw rocks at them, but that doesn't mean you have to aim every one of those rocks at his head. (Or crotch.) There's nothing I get them into that they can't get out of if only they can see it, and if they can't see it well enough to get out of it, that's how their lives become tragedy. There's plenty of room to be fearless and daring in a story, and even a good deal cathartically sad, without being just plain mean.
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