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The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending 
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Post The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Seemingly ambiguous endings seem to drive film fans nuts. I can't be condescending -- I used to be one of them. I distinctly remember my father asking me what I thought of The Conversation's bleak denouement and how I responded that Coppola should have shown where the bug was! After all, Gene Hackman tore the apartment apart, and the viewers deserve to know where it is, right?

But I didn't really think about this until recently, when A Serious Man and The Sopranos were both hit by charges that their endings were too unclear, when I found them to both be perfectly clear. Here's my rationale -- it is absolutely pointless to speculate on whether or not Tony Soprano dies, or which parent she goes with in A Separation, or exactly what happens to poor Michael Stahlbarg in A Serious Man. If the directors wanted there to be an answer, they would have showed you one -- since they didn't, the point is that there isn't a clear answer.

Take The Sopranos. (various spoilers follow that I'm not hiding). It ends with Tony and his family in a diner. There are some shadowy people moving about. Are they hitmen about to shoot him? The show ends before we find out. People were outraged. They wrote long lists of reasons he's about to die, or long lists of reasons he wasn't. But that's completely missing the point.. The show's creator isn't dicking with us -- he's making a point about how unclear the situation is. This is Tony's life -- maybe people are trying to kill him, maybe they aren't.

Now I will concede that there are some exceptions. The short story "The Lady and the Tiger" openly invites its audience to speculate about its ambiguous ending. Good for it. But for the overwhelming majority of cases, it's beside the point. It's irrelevant which parent you think the girl chooses in A Separation, it doesn't matter what's in the box in Pulp Fiction, and if you truly think the ending of A Serious Man is ambiguous, then watch the movie again.

*dismounts from high horse*

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 7:37 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
I completely agree with all of this. If you're focusing on what did or didn't happen, then you're likely approaching the film (or show) from the wrong angle. It's always a good idea to analyze what you've been shown as the audience as opposed to trying to invent something plausible just so you can have closure. This is easier said than done for everyone at different times.

People are obviously free to make up their own minds and interpret things however they interpret them, but I've always found it hard to believe that people think an artistically minded person will devote months/years of their lives to a project to essentially say "think whatever you want to about it". Sure, there's no stopping people from doing that, but artists have things they want to say with their work. Claiming they've used their time in anything but an effort to get their point across to you has always seemed like a pretty selfish way to consume that work, to me.

JamesKunz wrote:
The show's creator isn't dicking with us -- he's making a point about how unclear the situation is. This is Tony's life -- maybe people are trying to kill him, maybe they aren't.


And I wouldn't even say the situation is all that unclear. The whole show is basically about what it's like to be Tony, and it ends by continuing to do that. He's got to look over his shoulder for however long he has left. Like you said, this is his life now.

I always thought it was pretty funny how that show's ending started off a cultural shitstorm. I liked how fired up people got, but when you're justifying your thoughts by saying stuff like, "one guy at the bar was random character A from Season 2 who really had it out for Tony - he killed him", it becomes more about your individual need for closure than about what the show was actually trying to accomplish.


Mon Apr 29, 2013 8:41 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
It's certainly an individual thing. A good story is its own payoff and doesn't necessarily need a definitive answer. Same for stories about deeply flawed people that are not presented with any intent to judge. But one with a very strong protagonist or a particularly vile antagonist needs a definitive ending appropriate to my rooting interest if I'm to be satisfied with it. I realize that in real life evil often triumphs and good often loses, but I don't want that depressing reality thrown at me by something that I wanted entertainment (although not necessarily amusement) from. There has been a trend in recent years to end such movies ambiguous to a definitive outcome, yet either without hope, or where everyone look like they're going to lose. The only types of those that has ever worked for me are movies like The Grey, where the main character didn't mind the thought of dying.


Mon Apr 29, 2013 9:05 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Whether or not Tony got whacked is actually pretty clear. Dig up aworking draft of the final episode and you'll find the answer.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 10:28 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Sexual Chocolate wrote:
Whether or not Tony got whacked is actually pretty clear. Dig up aworking draft of the final episode and you'll find the answer.


What matters is what is shown in the end product, not what was or wasn't in a working draft.

It's not only pointless to debate whether or not he died, but it's counterproductive. Debating what he was going to order for dinner at the restaurant is about as relevant as debating whether or not he was killed.


Mon Apr 29, 2013 10:49 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
PeachyPete wrote:
Sexual Chocolate wrote:
Whether or not Tony got whacked is actually pretty clear. Dig up aworking draft of the final episode and you'll find the answer.


What matters is what is shown in the end product, not what was or wasn't in a working draft.

It's not only pointless to debate whether or not he died, but it's counterproductive. Debating what he was going to order for dinner at the restaurant is about as relevant as debating whether or not he was killed.


Exactly. Working draft is completely irrelevant. Tony did not get whacked. If David Chase wanted him to die, he would have died.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:02 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
I've always liked ambiguous endings. To paraphrase a line from Clerks "That's all life is, a series of ambiguous endings".

Recently I was reading Rick Moody's novel "The Diviners" which has such an ending and there was a Q&A interview with Moody at the end. He was asked about the ending and he pointed out that life very rarely has clean endings.

The ending you mentioned in A Serious Man reminded me of another Coen Brothers ending: No Country For Old Men. Both endings have been termed as ambiguous. However, both are less so:

[Reveal] Spoiler:
In the ending of A Serious Man, we see the teacher get the sttrm shelter door open just as the tornado starts to bear down. As for Larry himself, that part could be ambiguous. But we have a fairly good idea.

I know a few people (including my father) who hated the ending of No Country. To me, it worked. Moss was dead, Chugurgh would continue his killing spree until he either dropped dead or someone put a bullet right in his medulla and Ed Tom Bell was more or less admitting defeat. Less an ambiguous ending than a flat out downbeat one./


In many ways, "ambiguous" endings often are more or less the fact that life is going to go on for the characters who aren't dead or dying at the end of the movie. WHere it goes from there is anyone's guess. Many ending are less ambiguous than just not the "clean" endigns Moody was referring to.

Re: The Sopranos. Someone once wrote an epic length dissertation on why the ending was Tony Soprano getting offed. I read most of that and found it to be an interesting read. But not the definitive proof its author claimed it was. To me, life would go on for TOny until he either ended up six feet under or in prison.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:29 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
What are everyone's thoughts on the ending of Inception? Truly ambiguous or a mind-fuck tease by Nolan? I see it as the latter myself simply because:

[Reveal] Spoiler:
- The top wobbled.


But apparently debates still rage today about whether Cobb is still dreaming.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:39 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Ragnarok73 wrote:
What are everyone's thoughts on the ending of Inception? Truly ambiguous or a mind-fuck tease by Nolan? I see it as the latter myself simply because:

[Reveal] Spoiler:
- The top wobbled.


But apparently debates still rage today about whether Cobb is still dreaming.


That's another where I'm not so sure your spoiler section matters that much (even though if pushed, I'd agree with you). I think it's far more important that Cobb walked away from the top, which meant he stopped caring about whether or not this reality was "true" reality, and decided to just live his life.


Mon Apr 29, 2013 11:54 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
For me, ambiguous or not, "A Serious Man" had other problems besides the weak ending.

As for Inception, I didn't find Cobb to be a particularly compelling character, so I couldn't have cared less about
[Reveal] Spoiler:
whether his reality was really "real" or not
.


Mon Apr 29, 2013 12:49 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Vexer wrote:
For me, ambiguous or not, "A Serious Man" had other problems besides the weak ending.

As for Inception, I didn't find Cobb to be a particularly compelling character, so I couldn't have cared less about
[Reveal] Spoiler:
whether his reality was really "real" or not
.


Damn dude, do you have some sort of Spidey-sense going on? It's like "Inception senses tingling" whenever someone mentions it anywhere in any forum here ;)

As far as ambiguous endings in general are concerned, I love them as long as the movie's story feels like it's headed toward one. Take THE GREY for example. I saw the abrupt cut-to-black coming at least 10 minutes before it occurred. And rightfully so. Any other way to end that story would've felt too convenient and too easy.

The worst example I've ever seen of one is a little movie called EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd. It's so wrongheaded than when I saw it in a theater, a lot of people laughed at the way the film concluded. Definitely not what the flimmakers had in mind I'm sure.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 12:58 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
KWRoss wrote:
Vexer wrote:
For me, ambiguous or not, "A Serious Man" had other problems besides the weak ending.

As for Inception, I didn't find Cobb to be a particularly compelling character, so I couldn't have cared less about
[Reveal] Spoiler:
whether his reality was really "real" or not
.


Damn dude, do you have some sort of Spidey-sense going on? It's like "Inception senses tingling" whenever someone mentions it anywhere in any forum here ;)

As far as ambiguous endings in general are concerned, I love them as long as the movie's story feels like it's headed toward one. Take THE GREY for example. I saw the abrupt cut-to-black coming at least 10 minutes before it occurred. And rightfully so. Any other way to end that story would've felt too convenient and too easy.

The worst example I've ever seen of one is a little movie called EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, with Ewan McGregor and Ashley Judd. It's so wrongheaded than when I saw it in a theater, a lot of people laughed at the way the film concluded. Definitely not what the flimmakers had in mind I'm sure.

I actually liked "Eye Of The Beholder", I didn't laugh at the ending and I wouldn't call it the "worst" example, but I did find the conclusion to be a bit dissapointing.

For The Grey, the ending wasn't an issue, I just didn't really care for the film, Neeson was good, but the story surrounding him wasn't.


Last edited by Vexer on Mon Apr 29, 2013 2:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Mon Apr 29, 2013 1:09 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
JamesKunz wrote:
If the directors wanted there to be an answer, they would have showed you one -- since they didn't, the point is that there isn't a clear answer.

I have been howling this at the top of my e-lungs for years.

The ending of Blade Runner wasn't left open just so that a bunch of armchair sleuths could trawl the movie for evidence of the "real" answer and pound their chests when they find it. The ending of Blade Runner was left open because the movie is a lot more fucking interesting that way. The issues it raises are murky and can't be thought around quite so easily. There is no answer because there is no answer.

It's actually kind of disheartening that people insist on reducing the richness of a movie experience down to the outcome of a two-hour game of Clue.

To borrow from Bordwell, "Interpretation is a matter of constructing meaning out of what a movie puts before us, not finding the buried treasure."

JamesKunz wrote:
Tony did not get whacked. If David Chase wanted him to die, he would have died.

In recent times, I've been invoking Gary Larson's Tethercat Principle. If one insists on a pat solution to a mysterious ending, then the very last thing that happens in the movie in relation to that mystery is the only solution there can be.

For example, if one applies the Tethercat Principle to Inception, the top does not fall in the movie, therefore the top does not fall. If one insists on "solving" the end of the movie, whoomp there it is.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 2:05 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Ken wrote:

To borrow from Bordwell, "Interpretation is a matter of constructing meaning out of what a movie puts before us, not finding the buried treasure."

[quote="JamesKunz


I like this quote of yours so much I had it on my Facebook profile for a while

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 3:45 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
PeachyPete wrote:
Ragnarok73 wrote:
What are everyone's thoughts on the ending of Inception? Truly ambiguous or a mind-fuck tease by Nolan? I see it as the latter myself simply because:

[Reveal] Spoiler:
- The top wobbled.


But apparently debates still rage today about whether Cobb is still dreaming.


That's another where I'm not so sure your spoiler section matters that much (even though if pushed, I'd agree with you). I think it's far more important that Cobb walked away from the top, which meant he stopped caring about whether or not this reality was "true" reality, and decided to just live his life.


I agree with Pete, the important part to me was that he wasn't looking at the top. Reality or not, he's accepted the place he's in as reality. That was his struggle throughout the movie. I think Christopher Nolan said the same thing in an interview one time as well.

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Mon Apr 29, 2013 7:35 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
JamesKunz wrote:
Seemingly ambiguous endings seem to drive film fans nuts. I can't be condescending -- I used to be one of them. I distinctly remember my father asking me what I thought of The Conversation's bleak denouement and how I responded that Coppola should have shown where the bug was! After all, Gene Hackman tore the apartment apart, and the viewers deserve to know where it is, right?

But I didn't really think about this until recently, when A Serious Man and The Sopranos were both hit by charges that their endings were too unclear, when I found them to both be perfectly clear. Here's my rationale -- it is absolutely pointless to speculate on whether or not Tony Soprano dies, or which parent she goes with in A Separation, or exactly what happens to poor Michael Stahlbarg in A Serious Man. If the directors wanted there to be an answer, they would have showed you one -- since they didn't, the point is that there isn't a clear answer.

Take The Sopranos. (various spoilers follow that I'm not hiding). It ends with Tony and his family in a diner. There are some shadowy people moving about. Are they hitmen about to shoot him? The show ends before we find out. People were outraged. They wrote long lists of reasons he's about to die, or long lists of reasons he wasn't. But that's completely missing the point.. The show's creator isn't dicking with us -- he's making a point about how unclear the situation is. This is Tony's life -- maybe people are trying to kill him, maybe they aren't.

Now I will concede that there are some exceptions. The short story "The Lady and the Tiger" openly invites its audience to speculate about its ambiguous ending. Good for it. But for the overwhelming majority of cases, it's beside the point. It's irrelevant which parent you think the girl chooses in A Separation, it doesn't matter what's in the box in Pulp Fiction, and if you truly think the ending of A Serious Man is ambiguous, then watch the movie again.

*dismounts from high horse*



I'm pretty sure Tony Soprano was killed though. It's 5 years since I watched that finale and jumped onto the internet to establish WTF happened, and as far as I know, we were shown Tony's death from his first person perspective. A kind of punishment for the viewer for siding and sympathising with a monster.

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Tue Apr 30, 2013 3:58 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Ken wrote:
It's actually kind of disheartening that people insist on reducing the richness of a movie experience down to the outcome of a two-hour game of Clue.


Even the movie Clue had three different endings (though it was only an hour and a half.) :D


Tue Apr 30, 2013 11:56 am
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
NotHughGrant wrote:

I'm pretty sure Tony Soprano was killed though. It's 5 years since I watched that finale and jumped onto the internet to establish WTF happened, and as far as I know, we were shown Tony's death from his first person perspective. A kind of punishment for the viewer for siding and sympathising with a monster.


He was whacked, at least in the shooting script. Chase decided to cut it, and upon rewatching the ending, I think it was a good choice.

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Tue Apr 30, 2013 9:41 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Sexual Chocolate wrote:
NotHughGrant wrote:

I'm pretty sure Tony Soprano was killed though. It's 5 years since I watched that finale and jumped onto the internet to establish WTF happened, and as far as I know, we were shown Tony's death from his first person perspective. A kind of punishment for the viewer for siding and sympathising with a monster.


He was whacked, at least in the shooting script. Chase decided to cut it, and upon rewatching the ending, I think it was a good choice.


Ugh, why do you insist on being married to what's in the shooting script? Things get cut ALL THE TIME.

As I said earlier, this is a counterproductive debate. Sure, you can call it ambiguous because you can make a somewhat feasible argument for whether or not Tony was killed (although it's still fairly weak seeing as how the only legitimate evidence is a smash cut to black to end the episode), but that's completely missing/ignoring the point of that kind of ending. It isn't ambiguous it terms of what it means for Tony: He has to live the rest of his life, however long that may be, exactly how he's living that final scene - waiting for the bullet that kills him.

I mean, if the point was Tony dies, then the show would have ended with him being shown dead. The larger point is still made, so it's tough to really call it ambiguous.


Wed May 01, 2013 3:06 pm
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Post Re: The Myth of the Ambiguous Ending
Surprised no one's mentioned The Sopranos had 10 seconds of black before end credits started rolling in the final episode. I found that much more annoying than not showing what happened to Tony.


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