Gilbey on Film: the greatest movie endings ever

And how will Roman Polanski's The Ghost compare?

It's been a while since anyone discussed Roman Polanski as a film-maker, but let me put aside for now such words as "extradition" and "house arrest" in order to proclaim the giddy brilliance of his new thriller, The Ghost, which premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival.

The picture is adapted from Robert Harris's scurrilous novel about a ghostwriter (played by Ewan McGregor), hired to produce the memoirs of a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) who is accused of war crimes. Honestly, how do writers come up with such ludicrous and far-fetched stories?

I'll be reviewing the film when it opens in the spring, but let me say in advance that the ending is an absolute humdinger. (No need to avert your eyes: when it comes to surrendering secrets, I'm like Jack Straw at the Chilcot inquiry.) The final pages of the original novel were satisfying enough, but Polanski has conjured a closing image that stays true to Harris's prose while elevating it to the realms of cinematic poetry.

The director, you will recall, has form in this area. His creepy 1976 horror-comedy The Tenant closed on a devastating final image -- the screaming mouth of a figure wrapped in bandages. And it was Polanski who famously jettisoned the upbeat conclusion of Chinatown favoured by the screenwriter, Robert Towne.

The original script ended with Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) killing her revolting father, Noah Cross (John Huston), by whom she had borne a daughter. "You knew that Evelyn was going to have to stand trial and you knew that she wasn't going to be able to tell why she did it," Towne explained.

"But it was bitter-sweet in the sense that one person, at least, wasn't tainted -- the child."

Polanski was having none of it. In his autobiography, Roman by Polanski (later revealed, irony of ironies, to have been ghost-written), the director said: "I knew that if Chinatown was to be special, and not just another thriller where the good guys triumph in the final reel, Evelyn had to die. Its dramatic impact would be lost unless audiences left their seats with a sense of outrage at the injustice of it all . . .

"To this day Towne feels my ending is wrong; I am equally convinced that his more conventional ending would have seriously weakened the picture."

Good call. No, great call. Towne observed correctly that Polanski's ending "was like the tunnel at the end of the light".

It's a cert for one of the greatest movie endings of all time. But here is a handful of unsung sign-offs that deserve some love:

Brighton Rock (1947)

Admirers of the Boulting brothers' film of Graham Greene's novel, co-scripted by Greene himself (with Terrence Rattigan), tend to turn up their noses at the altered ending, in which Rose never discovers Pinkie's hatred of her -- the vinyl record on which he has recorded his malevolent message has a scratch on it, so she stays happy in her delusion as the needle gets stuck.

Greene saw it as a compromise, but a clever one: "Anybody who wanted a happy ending would feel that they had had a happy ending," he said. "Anybody who had any sense would know that the next time Rose would probably push the needle over the scratch and get the full message."

"But is the film version really softer than the original?" wondered the novelist Jake Arnott. "It has always struck me that it is much more cruel. Rose's horror is simply postponed." It'll be interesting to see how things are wrapped up in the forthcoming second adaptation, starring Sam Riley as Pinkie and Helen Mirren as Ida, which opens later this year.

Before Sunset (2004)

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the garrulous romantics of Before Sunrise, meet again nine years later. He's married with kids now; she has a boyfriend. After 80 minutes of walking and talking around Paris, he ends up back at her apartment.

"Baby, you're gonna miss that plane," she tells him. He agrees she's right. Cue fade out -- possibly the most tantalising fade-out, in fact, in all of cinema.

Limbo (1999)

The over-praised John Sayles wrote and directed this oddity, which starts as a tentative romance between two middle-aged loners and darkens to become a cruel thriller. I still can't make up my mind if I like the ending but the fact that it still bothers me 11 years after seeing it surely counts for something.

It's not a widely seen film, so I'll hold back on the spoilers, apart from saying that the picture ends with all the jarring suddenness of an emergency stop.

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

River Phoenix, as a narcoleptic hustler, has passed out in the middle of a country road. In extreme wide-shot, his unconscious body is lifted into a car by a stranger. The car drives off. Cue "The Old Main Drag", the Pogues' finest hour. A perfect finish to an erratic film.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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