We are at an end. We stand at the dusk of a decade. In a few short weeks the Earth’s final revolution around the sun will place us forever beyond what we will henceforth call the 2010s. We are at an end, indeed, and ends call for reflection. In a way, they demand reflection. Insofar as we recognize this segment of time as a period in which things began to happen and stopped happening, we necessarily must reflect. Without endings we lose the opportunity to understand and make sense of whatever has passed.
But what happens when ends are delayed? What happens when ends are avoided, prolonged, erased? Humans have always been uncomfortable with ends. Our religions and their afterlives are evidence of this discomfort. Even our politics, driven by unceasing media coverage, perpetuate a sort of timeless mirage, untethered from the bounds of personal temporal experience. We have little time to think about what we have just read or heard in the news before we have been bombarded again with the next big story. Even so, amidst these common human experiences, I would argue that art has historically occupied a unique role, as it has been characterized by clear-cut boundaries, by obvious limitations. Take a painting, for example, with its borders that signify where it begins and where it ends.
In graduate school, I would frequently visit the university art museum. There was one painting in particular that captivated me. It was Jackson Pollock’s “Number 13A: Arabesque”. During the two years I lived in New Haven, I probably spent an hour of collected time staring at this painting. Its meandering lines of black and white that intersected against a brown ochre background drew me into a world of chaotic convergence. The metal border that surrounded this piece allowed me to analyze it as something separate and distinct from the world around it. In this sense, it had spatial limitations, a clearly defined end to its domain. And these limitations afforded me the perspective to reflect upon the meaning of the painting as a completed work, without any expectation that there would be a continuation of this work at some other point in time.
Alternatively, let’s think about film. A movie tells a story for a definite period of time. It begins, it continues for a while, and then it’s over. However, over time, the boundaries, the clearly defined beginnings and endings, that characterize movies as completed and finished pieces of art that allow us to reflect on what we have witnessed, have been stretched, and in some cases, almost altogether eliminated.
In the last several years, evolving digital developments, like streaming capabilities, and large-scale corporate buyouts — think Disney — have transformed the landscape of film by way of ambiguating ends to the point of near nonexistence. This decade witnessed the onset of binge-watching, the madness of Marvel mania, and the resuscitation of the Star Wars franchise on screen. Whether the way a streaming service like Netflix promotes binge watching by shortening the time before the next episode automatically begins (as it has done progressively over the years), or the way Disney and its subsidiary companies ceaselessly expand their onscreen universes, an evasion of ends ensues. The defining characteristic of something like the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe), for example, is a prolongation of content, an unending release of interconnected stories, with no intention for ultimate resolution, despite relatively deceptive titles like “End Game.” Of course, in saying this, I don’t mean to question the entertainment value of these projects. Moreover, there is no denying the incredible feat something like the Marvel Cinematic Universe has accomplished in terms of its vastness. Twenty-three films operating within the same cinematic universe and released in the span of just over ten years is an achievement, especially when none of them are considered “rotten” or bad by any critics’ aggregate. But the concern I want to raise is whether the lack of clearly specified endings enables, to our detriment, a constant anticipation for the next installment, which ultimately keeps us from really reflecting on what we are watching. Maybe I am wrong, but I find it difficult to define the value of film for our lives, for how we live and act in the real world, when it is primarily a means of entertainment.
Briefly, think with me about our actions. Without an identified end to any given action, we do not have intention, and without intention, we are no longer acting. We are passive. We enter into a mode of leisure, of inaction, of consumption. I wonder if this principle applies to art forms like film, television, and the like. When the end is muddied, made unclear, incessantly prolonged, does the intention disappear? Maybe so. In a sense, they become passive mediums, vehicles of leisure and pleasure, for a leisurely people. But what if film, at its best, is supposed to play a different role in our lives? What if, as an artistic medium, it has the power to help us see more clearly, and thus to act more intentionally, in the world in which we live and breathe?
Ends define aims, provide meaning, and necessitate reflection. An ending allows us to stop, interpret, understand, and move forward with what we have learned. I think great film should stop us dead in our tracks because it relays something that we might not have seen otherwise, something that might profoundly impact our lives. But this cannot happen unless it ends, unless it wraps up, unless its concept is limited. Great film causes us to pause, to consider, to question, and ultimately, to act.
So as we approach the end of the decade, as we reflect on what happened, on the negatives and the positives, the tragedies and triumphs of what occurred in our real world, let us not forget those artistic mediums that aid us in the forever project of becoming better people in a broken world. Maybe it’s an exaggeration, but I truly think that film is an art we mustn’t ignore, an art that allows us to see our world with clearer vision. But it cannot do so unless we let it end, something that many films and the concepts that drive them simply don’t do anymore. Nietzsche said it best, “The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”
Elijah A. Weaver is a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, and he currently works as a content editor and marketing coordinator at Pepperdine University. He writes articles about the subtexts of modern mediums.