You know the scene. The couple sits in roaring silence on an atmospheric porch swing, crickets chirping in the background. They are meant for each other, but despise one another instead, because of some simple thing the audience knows, but the characters are just too stupid, stubborn, or film-school-false to say. Upstairs a stereotypically miserable kid is in bed, or, if they have two kids, a stereotypically happy one completes the cliche'.
The couple does not look at each other. Not a thing has changed since the movie began. We've suffered though this ennui with the characters since the opening shot. Will anything happen to them? Are they fated to be stuck in this miserable excuse for a story forever?
Probably, but we'll never know. Fade to black.
That's just one example; the list of un-ended plots is endless. The lead character ponders a life-changing decision, fade to black; someone pulls out a gun, fade to black; a driver reaches an intersection, left means he goes back to the wife and kids, right means a new start with a young temptress, fade to black.
If the director is real artsy he'll hold the final shot for a moment, then pan up, up, up, past the trees, above the skyline, until the characters are nearly invisible below, and then fade to black.
But if the filmmakers are true geniuses, worthy of the worship of a Welles or Wilder, they pull the ultimate act of luminous creativity. They fade to white.
Oh, the raw emotional power of it all! The transcendent beauty! The magnificent, transgressive, I-did-it-my-way, artistic brilliance of fade to white!
It's almost a pity that right after they fade to white, they have to fade to black again. Because trangsressive genius only goes so far. And it doesn't go far enough to make the ending credits invisible.
I mean, what's the point of being an artistic genius who breaks all the rules if you break the one that tells the world in big, white letters on a fade-to-black background exactly who was responsible for this travesty, uh, I mean triumph.
And it's not just indie movies getting in on this depressing trend. Remember the "Sopranos" last episode? Tony and family are at a New Jersey diner as various unknown but vaguely threatening characters hover around, go to the rest room or walk past the table. Eight years of waiting to see what happens to Tony and his wonderfully normal dysfunctional family, and what do we get?
Fade to black.
The excuse usually offered Philistines like me is that the writer wants the audience to draw its own conclusion about the story. Well, I'm going to do that anyway. We all do that. If the ending convinces, we like it; if it rings false as a plastic bell, we don't.
But that's a lousy excuse anyway. Ninety-nine percent of the time fade to black expresses nothing more than a lack of imagination or conviction or just plain laziness.
I think this explains why televised sports are commanding unprecedented rights fees and huge audiences. You know you'll know something before fade to black.
My local readers might recall a Giants game in St. Louis June first. It was quite a ballgame. The Giants fell behind, went ahead late, then lost the lead on the first pinch-hit homerun Tim Lincecum ever gave up in his Cy Young career. Miraculously, down to their last strike, the Giants tied it up in the ninth, and then went ahead 7-5 in the eleventh.
A less-than-steady Brian Wilson pitched his way to a two-out, tying-run-at-the-plate bottom of the eleventh, when up stepped the very same batter who had homered against Lincecum! The count ran to 2-1. Wilson got the ball, stared in for the sign and then....