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Does the Hollywood Happy Ending Exist?

Does the Hollywood Happy Ending Exist?

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Published by James MacDowell
A scholarly essay questioning film studies' existing approaches to the Hollywood 'happy ending'. Published in the edited collection "Happy Endings and Films". Eds. Armelle Parey, Isabelle Roblin & Dominque Sipière. Paris: Michel Houdiard, 2010. 15-27.
A scholarly essay questioning film studies' existing approaches to the Hollywood 'happy ending'. Published in the edited collection "Happy Endings and Films". Eds. Armelle Parey, Isabelle Roblin & Dominque Sipière. Paris: Michel Houdiard, 2010. 15-27.

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Published by: James MacDowell on May 24, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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05/23/2013

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ESTHEHLLYWDAPPYENDlNGEXIST?
James
ua»:
II
Wehvehraperfe
t
illurrarionof
tholt
familiarintellectual
trickwhereby,onean
unten
ble
J
finition
has
been
established.
aninordinateanddistortedsignifnee
i
athed(...)toinstanceswhichshowthedefinicion
t
einrre
t.
-AndrewBritton'TheIdeologyof,.'(413)
'W
tendtoumeweundenthe'
ppy
endin
fHollywoodcinm-bothth
t
it
e.
0
ts,
and
what
it
is.
T.
y
will
question
that
umption.I
will
nothavethe
p
ce
heretodo
that
whichit
is
ncfor
fihn
studiestodo,which
i
toattemptdefinitionofwhatin
f
ct
the
'happy
ending'
is.
Instead,Iwillhertrytodmonsrratejust
h
importantit
is
thatsuch
a
kbe
undertaken.
PROBLEMSFDEANIT[
AlthoughthetermisusedagainndinindiscussionsofHollywood,
it
is
startling
to
realisethatthecinerntic'happyending'hasreceivedbarely
any
sustainedcriticalattention,norhasanadequatedefmitionofiteverbeenagreedupon.
Is
it,
forinstance,oneatwhich
characters
or
audience
areleft'happy'?
If
theformer,how
is
it
that
Casablanca
(1942)endsonatriumphantnotedespiteitscharactershavingsuffereda
painful
separation?Ifthelatter,howarewetolabelaconclusionlike
Stella
Dallas'
(1937),which
is
heart-rendingdespiteleavingStellasoradiantly
fulfilled?
Is
itaparticularnarrative
motif.
suchasthecreationofacouple?In
tho
case,it
w
uldapplyequallytoawrenchinglybittersweet
final
unionlikethatof
AllAffairto
Remember
(1957)as
to
amischievouslyequivocalonesuch
Bri,tgingup
&by's(1938),and
would
also
leaveouteveryending
wahout
acouple,suchas
S3y.
The
tZard
oj
Oz
(1939).Isita'morallysatisfying
9
outcome?In\hichcase:
is
itanendingthatadherestotheProductionCode'smoraldictates=-as"henagangstermovieprotagonistmust
be
killedoranextra-marital
affair
requiredtoend-ordoesitnecessitatea
film
win
theaudience'smoralassent?Isitwhen'goal-orientedprotagonists'achievetheir
goals?
In
this
case,
it
couldapplyjustaseasilytoEthan
 
16
JAMESMACDOWELL
Edwardsbringinghomehiskidnappedniecein
TIle
Searchers(1956)
asto
th
successofthepseudo-socialistcommunityin
Our
Daily
Bread
(1934),astoElwood
P.
Dowdremaining
with
his
imaginary7-foot
tall
rabbitfriendin
Harvey
(1950),andsoonandsoon.
To
grouptheconclusionsofthese
films
undertheterm'happyending'wouldmeanverylittle,and
be
notat
all
conducivtoaccurateorperceptiveaccountsofthem.Untilnow.
thishas
essentially
beentheindefatigablecriticaltendency,meaningthatthetermhasbecomebothover-usedandunder-defined.
It
is
mybeliefthatmost
film
studiesdiscussionsofthe'happyending'reflect
lessa
desiretomeaningfullydiscussthefeaturethanawidespreaddesiretoconstructitasacritical'badobject'.
In
ordertoachievethestatusitholdstoday,
this
conception
has
hadto
rely
ontheperpetuationofnumb
r
ofcommonassumptionsaboutwhatthe'happy
nding'is
andstandsfor
ASSUMPTIONS
Probablythemostbasicassumptionaboutthe'happyending
is
thatitisanexceedinglycommonfeatureofHollywoodfilmmaking.Inthemostfrequendycitedstatementaboutthe'happyending'in
film
studies,DavidBordwelltellsusthat60percentofth
films
constituting
The
Classical
Hollywood
Cinema
s"unbiasedsample","ended
with
adisplayoftheunitedromanticcouple-the
cliche
happyending,oftenwitha'clinch'-andmanymorecouldbesaidtoendhappily"
(Na"ation
159).Byneverrevealingwhy-accordingtowhatdefinitionandjudgedbywhatcriteria-thesemanyendings"couldbesaidtoendhappily",Bordwellherefollowstwoofthemostcommontrendswithinthecriticalreactiontothe'happyending'(a)anassumptionofitssimplicityandintelligibility
as
somethingthatwecan
all
immediatIyrecogniseandunderstand,and
(b)
theweofthis
assumption
toassertthetrope'spervasivenessacrossclassicalHoywoodcinema.Thisapproachaboundsinthelimitedwritingsonthe'happyending'(whichoftenuseBordwell'sstatisticsasabasis),betrayingthefactthatsomuchopiniononthesubjectisinfactbasedonsupposition.Giventheexistenceofthisfundamentalassumptionaboutthe'happyending',it
is
verycommonforcriticstoprecedementionsofthetermwithwordslike"standard"(Dolar38),"standardised"(Mulvey54)."traditional'(BenshoffandGriffin61),"conventional'(Dunne78),"cliched"(Orr380),"expected"(RoweandWells59),"predictable"(Schatz152),"customary"(Sterrit10),"inevitable"(Kracauer65),"necessary"(Mayne363),"requisite"(Tally129),"statutory"(Brownlow122),"mandatory"(Kapsis39),"obligatory'(Shapiro197),orsimply"obligation"(Maltby16).Thelogicbehind
 
DOESTHEHOLLYWOOD'HAPPyENDING'EXIST?17
thistendencyalsoprovokesclaimssuchas"fewconventionsoftheHollywoodcinemaareasnoticeabletoitsproducers,toitsaudiences,andtoitscriticsasthatofthehappyending"(Bordwell"Happily"2),andevenassertionsthatit
is
the"moststrikingandpersistentof
all
classicalHollywoodphenomena'(Wood
Hitchcock
52).lnde'edit
is
notuncommonforacritictoimplyth
t
virtually
all
classicalHollywood
films
havethe'happyendingincommon(ee:Maltby[36],Altman[32],Neupert[35])'.Anotherverycommonassumptionaboutthe'happyending'is
that
itisbynatureideologicallyconservative.Thismeansthatmentionsofitarealsooftenaccompaniedbyeitherimplicitorexplicitsuggestionsthatit
is
an"ideologicalstraightjacket'(Wood
SexualPolitics37)
designedto"reaffirmthestatusquoofAmericansociety"(BenshofflGriffin28),and'maintainthecultureofwhich[Hollywood
films]
areapart"(Maltby
16)2.
It
is
quitestaggeringthatthereshouldbeapaucityofresearchintoasubjectthat
is
conceptualizedinthisway.
If
afeatureofHollywoodfilmmakingisnotonlyconsideredsoubiquitousastobean"overlycodifiednorm"(Neupert35),butalsowieldssuchideologicalpower,
is
thisnotcauseforagreatdealofworktobecarriedoutinthenameofilluminatingit?It
is
certainlynotdifficulttoimagineawholebodyof-potentiallyveryuseful-writingdedicated
[0
detailingthewaysdifferentfacetsofAmericanideologymightbesaidtobeexposedand/orreaffirmedthroughthe'happyending':perhapssexuality,marriage,gender,class,race,the
family.
the
law,
capitalism,etc.Yet,althoughsuchmattersareoftenhintedatinpassing,andthoughthe'happyending'mightsometimesbementioned
in
discussionsoftheseissues,theyhaveneverbeenaddressedrigorously.Ofcourse,thislackofresearchhasalsomeantthattheseassumptionshaveneverbeenquestioned,andthusneverbeenprovedcorrect,buthaeratherbeentakenasread.Insteadofattemptingtodemonstratethetruthofsuchdominantassumptionsaboutthe'happyending',it
is
farmorecommonforcriticalengagementswiththeconcepttousethemasabackboneforbroadergeneralisationsaboutHollywood.It
is
unsurprisingtodiscover,
in
lightofthekindsofassumptionsIhavementioned,thatthe
'happy
ending'hasnotbeenviewedkindlyby
film
theoryandcriticism.Indeed,ithasregularlybeentreatedasa
key
siteforwhatareoftentakentobetheworsttendenciesofHollywoodcinema.AnumberofwidelyreproducedtheoriesaboutHollywood,whilenotnecessarilymentioningthe'happyending'byname,clearlyimplicitlypresupposebothitsexistenceanditsinnatedisreputability-mainlythroughreferencestothe'resolution'itisassumedtobringabout.Forinstance,
it
isoftensaidofthenarrativepatternsof'classicalHollywoodcinemathat,"Theclassicnarrativemayberegardedasaprocewherebyproblemsaresolvedsothatorder
may(...)
be

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