The Beginning and The End
Every film should have a good start — which means a definite start, not a meandering, weak one. And every film should have a good ending, no matter how open or mysterious it may be. This is advice I have often repeated to film students, screenwriters and movie directors in many rooms around the world — backed up by DVD examples from the greats, from Hitchcock to Bresson, Lang to Costa, Fuller to Tsai.
The argument is easy to prove. Beginnings have to engage a viewer's attention and sense of intrigue from the very first frame — which is what Samuel Fuller meant when he declared that the very start of a film should give the audience an "instant hard-on". And conclusions have to be, in some way, satisfying: not just rounding things off in plot-terms, but bringing to an elegant point of revelation all the things spoken about or merely hinted at during the movie's gradual unfolding.
One day, however, Alessandro Marota, an expert in the obscure semiotic science of Pathematics, challenged me to justify why I seemed so keen on starts and ends of films, and so little interested in the pathways (narrative and emotional) in-between that get us from one to the other. He asked: what about the middles of films, don't they matter?
This got me thinking about a particular aesthetic taste in cinema, and in cinephilia. Starts and ends in film are undeniably sensational. The start excites our imagination because the pathways are completely open, and can potentially go anywhere — recall the beginnings of Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) or João Pedro Rodriguez's Odete (aka Two Drifters, 2005); while the end (any end) is bracing, violent, apocalyptic — which is why cinephiles love the film burning up in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) or the world ending with a big flash in Melancholia (2011).
And some films — some types of film — do seem to congregate their best and most cinematic thrills at the start and end. I find this is particularly so in the literally hundreds of unknown and unsung B-grade 'erotic thrillers' that fill the shelves of DVD stores. The names of their directors are unfamiliar to us: John Stewart Muller, Joseph Brutsman, Matthew Cole Weiss. Their titles, on the other hand, seem to have been spat out of a computer permutating the same several dozen words pertaining to lust, revenge, deceit, betrayal, crime...
But what moments of sensational cinema are to be found here! Not only at the starts and ends, but also in every kind of flashback, fantasy/dream sequence, and high-gear montage. And especially when acts of sex and/or violence are taking place. In Deceit (Weiss, 2006), Federal Protection (Anthony Hickox, 2002), Lie to Me (aka Fling, Muller, 2008) and Diary of a Sex Addict (Brutsman, 2001) — to sample only four! — the screen explodes into garish shades of red whenever beatings, murders, or copulation in public places (toilets of expensive restaurants, video-art galleries) take over the episodic narrative.
In a sense, it's the oldest debate in the film-theory book: what matters more, plots or 'attractions', spectacular set-pieces or coherent flow? And what is a narrative, anyhow: a unitary, organic whole, or (as the Russian Formalists proposed) something more like a cartilage with separate, fragmented bits strung together?
So yes, Alessandro: middles matter! And middles should be just as good, just as strong as starts and ends. But what if we think of the middle of a film as nothing but a merry succession of starts and ends, openings onto the infinitely possible alternating with grand shut-downs of all things? Isn't that, for instance, how the greatest film of 2012, Leos Carax's Holy Motors, is constructed?