(Spoilers? Not likely.)
Part I: What is the final image?
The final image is the yellow bus zooming away in The Graduate (1967). The final image holds the distinction of being the moment the story ends. Does the image above spoil the ending? Not really, because the final image isn’t necessarily a spoiler. We can split the final image into two categories: The final frame, and the final shot. Both can constitute as the final image in cinema. The final frame is the decisive moment when the filmmakers decides the story is finished. Once the story has reached it’s scripted closure, the filmmakers (editor and/or director) decide to either cut to black, or let the credits roll over the remainder of the shot. This alerts the audience that the film is over, in which the average viewer will proceed to the exit without reading the credits. At this point, we are cued to return to our world safely, with an encompassing assessment about what we just saw: good, bad, happy, sad, awful, boring, excellent.
The final image is the end of the film and the beginning of the debate. No matter what the viewer’s position may be, the final image carries the weight of being the final chance the audience has to find satisfaction in the viewing experience. This satisfaction is achieved through narrative payoff. The meaning behind the film and its final image can be found in its mise-en-scène, film score, and the resulting emotional outcome.
When applied to the cinema, mise-en-scène refers to everything that appears before the camera and its arrangement—composition, sets, props, actors, costumes, and lighting. Mise-en-scène also includes the positioning and movement of actors on the set, which is called blocking. These are all the areas overseen by the director. There are at least nine formal elements that contribute to the mise-en-scène. This study is rooted in cinematography and the still image of cinema. Formal elements such as sound and camera movement will not be focused on as much, but it contributes equally well to the mise-en-scène.
Lets examine the mise-en-scène of Big (1988, dir. Penny Marshall). After experiencing the age of 30 for a week, Josh, back a boy again, walks up a road with his best friend, Billy, much like the beginning, except this time new meaning is attached. The road seems wide and endless as it inclines out of the top-right quadrant of the frame, symbolizing the big road ahead for the boy. After a Josh reverts to his child form and is reunited with his best friend Billy. From these details, we can compile a list of the formal elements that comprise the mise-en-scène of this final image.
Formal elements of the Big final image:
- composition: wide shot
- subject framing: lower center
- sets: residential street
- props: bicycle, baseball bat, skateboard
- actors: adolescent boys, one who has lived as a 30 y.o.
- performance: the boys sing and leisurely walk up the street
- costumes: kids clothing, shirts untucked
- lighting: daytime, sunny
- camera movement: fixed
- sound: diegetic ambient, non-expository dialogue, film score
This list is the formula for a satisfactory emotional outcome of this film. As Josh ascends the road, we are happy he has returned home, and are aware of the wisdom he’s gained from what he experienced as an adult.
By contrast to Big’s optimistic ascent into life, the final image of Monster (2003, dir. Patty Jenkins) is a grim descent to death. After a being a fugitive for being a serial killer of lonely men, Aileen, seen in handcuffs, is escorted to her execution by two police men, the very gender she despised. This is not only the final image of the film, but presumably the final image in Aileen’s life. It’s a wide shot with a centered door. Outside the door is a bright white light, the formal code for death, or the passing on of the protagonist. The camera pushes with her down the corridor before stopping as she passes through the door into the light.
- composition: wide shot
- subject framing: lower center
- sets: sterile corridor
- props: none
- actors: Aileen, two police officers
- performance: two police men escort a handcuffed Aileen down the corridor
- costumes: prison uniform, police uniforms
- lighting: bright white outside door
The details are bare, but powerfully shows Aileen as a victim of her own crimes. She is without worldly possessions, apart from gender-defining characteristics (sweater, long hair, etc.), and in the end, men ultimately had control of her destiny. We sympathize with this murderer because of our compassion for how she came to this point in her life. However, we are satisfied with the outcome as we learn she will be put to death as a consequence of her heinous crimes.
Leave your audience with a closed door, where they know something ominous is happening on the other side. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (2008, dir. Mark Herman) is a sad example of how our imaginations can converge with our socio-historical knowledge to reveal a negative outcome without actually showing the act. A viewer wouldn’t need to see the film to know the meaning behind this image:
- composition: wide shot
- subject framing: centered door
- sets: holding room
- props: benches, clothing hooks
- actors: none
- costumes: dozens of disrobed prisoner uniforms
- lighting: dim, overhead
It is a wide shot in a dark holding room. A closed door is centered, flanked by the disrobed uniforms of dozens of victims. The lighting is dim and grim, and the silence of the shot cripples the audience helpless, for we can create a mental picture of what is happening on the other side of that door. The projection allows for a dual final image, or the ability to create the image that follows, or projected visualization, the true final image within the mind’s eye.
Our interpretation of this image is subjective to our own socio-historic interpretations, but the intended meaning of the movie ending is implied by the styling of formal elements within the final shot.
Movement, or blocking, plays a key role in the mise-en-scene of Blue Valentine (2010, dir. Derek Cianfrance). Two people walking away from each other, showing a split. In this case the couple has just decided to divorce. Rather than have them exit screen left and screen right, respectively, the characters diverge from each other on the y-axis of the film plane.. The husband walks away from the wife, who walks towards the camera with the child, making it impossible for the camera to hold focus on both characters at once. The camera focus is pulled to the husband, revealing the recipient of our pathos.
- composition: wide shot
- subject framing: central, movement on y-axis, focus pulled to male character in background
- sets: exterior; cost-effective neighborhood street
- props: construction and cluttered urbanity
- actors: Michelle Williams, Ryan Gosling, child
- performance: the two adults walk away from each other
- costumes: character’s daily wear
- lighting: daytime, overcast, blue-tinted
As the couple walks apart, we see this construction and can see that dreams were never fulfilled. The marriage imploded prematurely, at a time before dreams could be met, and before success within the marriage could be achieved. We are left with the assessment that work is needed to be done, and that perhaps, both characters are still a work-in-progress. After the reveal of Ryan Gosling as the true protagonist, we are satisfied with the hope he will recover from his damaged marriage, as he walks into the construction zone.
A love-themed ending with a positive outcome is Fight Club (1999, dir. David Fincher). The implied symmetry in the composition is consistent with the design elements of the film. But the framing is asymmetrical, accept for the couple in the center of the frame, dressed in unison, harmonious, costumed alike, forming a virtual heart.
- composition: wide shot
- subject framing: lower centered
- sets: office in high-rise building with large window ovr-looking skyscrapers
- props: office furniture
- actors: Ed Norton, Helena Bonham-Carter
- performance: the characters hold hands
- costumes: trench coat, boxer shorts, female emo clothing
- lighting: dim, lit by helicopter lights and exterior explosions
In the end, all that matters is love. United they stand…and if the world fell down around them, they will always stand for each other.
The Decisive Moment
The final image is a composition credited to the director. However, what is actually chosen to be the final image isn’t always credited to the director alone. The editor plays a major part in determining the proper sequencing of shots, as well as the moment when the shot (and movie) should end. For example, when a character dies, as the protagonists do in Bonnie and Clyde (1967, dir. Arthur Penn), the story is finished and there is no plausible reason to continue the story, for the story no longer exists if the protagonists no longer have a goal. Their death of Bonnie and Clyde becomes the final outcome of their story, which we followed, and gave an emotional investment to, since the beginning of the film. The filmmakers decide how much of a period they want to allow for the audience to process the death, but it must then quickly go to black, for extending our viewing experience into the character’s post-mortem confuses the intention of the hero’s story.
There are clever exceptions to the rule of ending the film following the protagonist’s death. For example, in No Country for Old Men (2007, dir. Joel & Ethan Coen), the perceived protagonist was the character played by the young Josh Brolin. However, he is killed by the antagonist before the film’s climax, leaving the antagonist at large and the sheriff, played by Tommy Lee Jones, alive to steer the story to the end. The final image focuses on Jones’ character, suddenly giving poignancy to the film’s title.
The amount of time the shot can be held for depends on viewer’s attention spans and the circumstances behind the shot. The length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of where the attention is being used. [wikipedia attention span] In the case of Bonnie and Clyde, the point of view styled shot hints at the shot enduring after the gunfire, for as long as the criminals breathed their final breaths, and ended the moment he expired. The editor uses precise timing to determine the right moment to cut the story off.
The final image is not just about the ending of the film, it’s also a conclusion to a series of shots. Every other image in a film is designed at least partially to set up the following image. The final image has no such restrictions. It carries the responsibility of applied meaning out of necessity, based on its placement in the narrative structure.
A Function of Dramatic Structure
Five-part film structure includes the narrative plot points formed in time-linear function to advance the dramatic arc. Kristin Thompson in her book Storytelling in the New Hollywood, suggests that two-hour feature films have a four-part structure, as opposed to the classical three-act structure: set-up, complicating action, development, and climax. The set-up is the introduction to characters and story world. After we learn the character’s desires, they are pit against the complicating action, which turns the character’s world upside down. This usually occurs around the 30-minute mark of the feature film. Following the complicating action, the film moves into the development stage, where the protagonist works toward their goal, with increasing degrees of success and failure, building dramatic tension that culminates to a point where all hope is lost. This charged tension carries on for the bulk of the movie, around an hour or more in a standard 90-120 minute film. After hope is lost, the protagonist finds inner-strength to succeed beyond their expectations at the climax.
Kristin Thompson’s Four-Part Structure
- Setup: Establishes an initial situation; protagonist conceives of one or more goals
- Complicating action: protagonist has to change tactics to achieve goal, or protagonist faces a new situation and has to cope
- Development: premises, goals, and obstacles have been introduced; protagonist struggles toward goals; incidents create action, suspense, delay
- Climax: action that resolves question of whether protagonist will achieve goals
The following is four-part structure applied and how its applied to the film Raising Arizona (1987, dir. Joel and Ethan Coen).
Four-Part Structure Analysis of Raising Arizona
- Set-up: We meet H.I. and learn of his past tribulations as a criminal. He falls in love with and marries Edwina. The two decide they want a baby, but learn they can’t. Edwina becomes depressed and desperate for a baby. H.I., desperate to make Edwina happy proposes they steal a baby from a rich man who recently had quintuplets. H.I. and Edwina kidnap Nathan Junior.
- Complicating action: H.I. and Edwina return home and are soon visited by H.I.’s prison buddies, the Snoats brothers, who have just broken out.
- Development: Police are on the hunt for the missing baby. A bounty hunter is hired by Nathan Arizona, Sr. to find the baby and bring Nathan Junior back. H.I. and Edwina try to live a normal family life, but it is disrupted by the presence of the Snoats brothers. H.I. tries to repair his marriage with Edwina, but struggles with inward desires to return to a life of crime. The Snoats brothers kidnap Nathan Junior from H.I. and Edwina for the reward money.
- Climax: A showdown between H.I., Edwina, the Snoats Brothers, and the bounty hunter ends with H.I. using his head to outwit the Goliath bounty hunter and rescuing Nathan Junior.
According to David Bordwell, in his book Narration in the Fiction Film, “a classical film often includes an epilogue, a coda reaffirming the stability of the state arrived at through the preceding causal chain.” (Bordwell, p. 202)
- 5. Epilogue: H.I. and Edwina return Nathan Junior to his home and is discovered by Nathan Senior, who lets them go without calling the police. The film ends with H.I. daydreaming about an ideal life with his wife that includes many children and grandchildren.
- 6. Final image: H.I. lies in bed staring at the ceiling, coming out of his daydream.
- composition: medium close shot
- subject framing: center diagonal, overhead shot
- sets: bedroom
- props: bed, pillow, bandages
- actors: HI (Nicolas Cage)
- performance: staring at the ceiling
- costumes: sleepwear (nothing)
- lighting: moonlight
- sound: voice-over
Following Hi’s dream, the final image is him lying in bed, optimistic about the possibilities. The sad outcome is that he and Edwina remain without a child, but the positive ending is that his marriage is intact and they still have one another to love, despite not having children. That much meaning is pulled from the final image in this film, which had its narrative ending minutes earlier when they were allowed to go free by Nathan Arizona, Sr. after returning Nathan Junior. Thusly, the five-part structure is appropriated to include the final image as a formal narrative function:
- 1) Set-up
- 2) Complicating action
- 3) Development
- 4) Climax
- 5) Epilogue
- and lastly…
- 6) Final image
The final image has the distinction of being the final image seen before the credits roll, or the film cuts to black. Therefore, the finally image is the most effective signifier of the true emotional outcome of the film. Raising Arizona has a relatively happy ending, which would not have been the same assessment at the beginning of the epilogue when Nathan Junior is returned and H.I. and Edwina sadly leave the Arizona home childless once again. The final image of Raising Arizona can either be described as the second part of the epilogue, or the sixth part of the structure, which can be the sum of all parts and the signifier of the emotional outcome.
Happy and Sad Images
We all know how to describe a film based on whether it has a happy ending or sad ending. Movies can end with a crowd of people literally cheering with joy, as in Teen Wolf (1985, Rod Daniel), or the opposite with the terribly sad ending of American History X (1998, dir. Tony Kaye), where Edward Furlong is killed while trying to do a good deed for the sake of race relations. These are closed endings, where the film ends on an extreme high or extreme low. For the mentally challenged, however, we need a bit of dualism in our endings to stimulate our calculating skills. There needs to be an inner (and outer) debate about the film’s emotional impact.
In Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) Clive Owen has successfully kept the only baby alive on Earth from being murdered. He, the baby, and the mother, drift on a boat, awaiting rescue. Help arrives, and from this, we know the world stands a chance at being saved. Unfortunately, help doesn’t arrive before Clive Owen dies from his wounds. The overall outcome is happy, but not without a price: the protagonist sacrifices his life for the greater good of the world. This is the type of ending that makes you feel h sad on the outside, but happy on inside.
- composition: wide shot, boats are on angled y-axis toward the buoy light
- subject framing: The protagonists boat is located in the first third panel of the frame, pointed toward an incoming tugboat.
- sets: out at sea
- props: boats, lighthouse buoy
- actors: Clive Owen, Baby, Mother of baby
- performance: Clive Owen lay dead in the boat as the others wait to be rescued
- costumes: blankets, street clothes
- lighting: dark, ominous, diegetic light source from foggy, cloudy day
In the courtroom drama Philadelphia (1993, dir. Jonathan Demme), a montage sequence is used to end a film. The film’s climax is of lawyer Denzel Washington successfully winning Tom Hank’s case, a victory that ends the film on a high note. It is established from the beginning of the film that Tom Hank’s Andrew Beckett has AIDS and will die. Therefore, the audience prepares for this and accepts it as his condition deteriorates. The courtroom victory is merely the climax, the epilogue is Beckett’s death sequence. The ending montage is a collection of home movies of Beckett as a healthy child.. With the haunting title track by Neil Young playing, we see children having fun, interacting with family, but it isn’t revealed which child is Andrew Beckett until the final image, where it ends on one little boy. At that moment, it clicks in the audience’s mind who the boy is, and the waterworks are cued.
This little boy’s promise is lost to a horrible disease, and he is victimized by society’s prejudice for his unpopular affiliations. We are reminded of a previous scene where his mother cradles her dying son, lamenting her “beautiful baby boy.” We agree, and feel her pain.
Very rarely does a film have a neutral ending, and if it does, that film should be evaluated for quality. Many times a neutral ending can be the perfect cap for a rich, artistic film with tons of depth. For example, the cult film Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater) for all its cultural and historical anthropology, has one of the most banal endings and final images I’ve ever seen. It lives up to its title and theme, by following a group of aimless teenagers to no ultimate destination in the end. The night has turned to day, and everyone is safely positioned within the new day. What can you conclude about the emotional outcome of the final image of Dazed and Confused based on it’s mise-en-scenic formal elements?
- composition: ___________________________
- subject framing: ________________________
- sets: __________________________________
- props: ________________________________
- actors: ________________________________
- performance: ___________________________
- costumes: _____________________________
- lighting: _______________________________
The setting of the final image provides a car driving up a highway on a gray, overcast day with no discernible destination in sight. No one won a battle, and no one died. Since most of the characters were stoned throughout the film, there wasn’t really much of a life-changing complication, mostly an anthropological study of the time period with excellent acting and direction.
Compare this image to the one at the top of the page and tell us your thoughts!