On Endings: Synthesis, Triumph, and Where the Tween Might Meet
In 2017, Academy Award–winning screenwriter Michael Arndt put together and published (FOR FREE!) what I found to be an almost unimaginably helpful, insightful, and cogent “lecture” for storytellers (“Endings: The Good, The Bad, and The Insanely Great") in which he details what he sees as an effective method for delivering an “insanely great ending.” In it, he breaks down three films – Star Wars, The Graduate, and his own film, Little Miss Sunshine – and distills the common structural threads that make the endings so “insanely great." I'll do my best to first summarize Mr. Arndt's analysis and argument (much of which I am in unflinching agreement with) after which I'll attempt to parse out what I feel to be key distinctions regarding the philosophical mechanics of the endings he analyzes, as well as the finales of a couple other happy ending favorites of my own, and might even go so far as to question the interpretation that Mr. Arndt, himself, has articulated pertaining to his own film.
HEADS UP: This thing is chalk-full of spoilers. If you've never seen Star Wars, The Graduate, Silver Linings Playbook, or The Fighter, do yourself a favor!
For a truly satisfying and “insanely great” ending, Ardnt argues, it is most powerful to have not two (inner journey/outer journey model), but three sets of stakes working in conjunction with each other: the external stakes (defeat the empire/save the rebellion in Star Wars, for example), the internal stakes (whether Luke will answer the call to greatness and realize his redemptive potential), and the philosophical stakes (whether values like altruism and communal connectedness will triumph over values like selfishness and coercive, fear based power). As Arndt sees it, most films manage the external and internal stakes effectively, but where many fall flat is in the absence of a compelling set of philosophical stakes. He looks at the three aforementioned films and identifies the philosophical stakes at play in each, framing the films as cinematic debates between what he calls the underdog values of the film’s universe (like the belief that we are all connected, and that we should help one another in the world), and those that he labels the dominant values (like the belief that fear will keep the galaxy in line, and that we are all on our own and would be smart to act like it). For an insanely great ending, Arndt argues, all three sets of stakes have to flip from all-but-certain defeat to utter triumph in 45 seconds or less, during which the underdog values of the universe must prevail over the dominant values. In The Graduate, the philosophical debate might be said to be a battle between the underdog values of prioritizing one’s feelings over social expectations, while the dominant values might be said to be valuing conformity and fitting the mold of the community you find yourself in even if it means sacrificing your own truth and happiness; Benjamin’s big victory is trusting his feelings, even when it’s most reckless to do so, according to Arndt.
Each of these sets of stakes (external, internal, and philosophical), he argues, have their own narrative arc, their own antagonist, their own inciting incident, their own break into the second act, and their own climax; what makes for a great ending is watching each set of stakes be put in as much jeopardy as possible, into a position of all-but-certain defeat, just as the story rounds the bend into the do or die climax in which all three sets of stakes must be overturned within a climactic “45 seconds or less” after the character has made their final, no turning back, commitment to their goal. Arndt calls this the protagonist’s “kamikaze moment of commitment," the beginning of the climactic finale that culminates most effectively, and affectingly, in a "45 seconds or less" internal, external, and philosophical world-flip.
In Star Wars, Luke is in his X-wing with Vader on his tail. All of Luke’s allies have been picked off by Vader and the fate of the galaxy depends on Luke. It is at this moment that Obi-Wan’s voice comes back to Luke, encouraging him to trust the lessons Obi-Wan taught him earlier in the film (the underdog values), and Luke has his kamikaze moment: he pushes away his aiming device, the music shifts, and Luke is off to the races having committed to fully trusting himself. Next, however, things go downhill for Luke – as they must to bring us to a point of all-but-certain defeat. Luke gets hit, Vader locks on, the death star moves within range, and it looks like it’s all over. Just at this moment, the philosophical antagonist of the story – Han Solo – after having earlier betrayed Luke philosophically by turning his back on the underdog values of the story, returns in a full-throated enactment of the underdog values, saving the day and knocking Vader off Luke’s tail. Luke blows the death star and the moral universe has been turned on its head. In a climactic 45 seconds, Luke achieves his external victory (blowing the death star), his internal victory (trusting and owning his greatness), and his philosophical victory (Han’s return being representative of a philosophical victory of connectedness, duty, and friendship over the values of separateness, looking out for one’s self at the expense of others, etc.)
Arndt goes on to show the ways that Little Miss Sunshine and The Graduate achieve an almost identical overturning of all three sets of stakes in their own “45 seconds or less” climactic sequences.
The question I’m going to pose might feel, at first, like a question the answer to which would produce little more than a semantic distinction, or insights only consequential in theory and abstraction. I feel, however, that the distinction I am attempting to make is one with significant applicable value in how one constructs the ultimate meaning of their ending and, thus, the ultimate meaning of their story as a whole and extra-thus how one might – with the desired end in mind – build the events and conversations of their story accordingly. I believe there to be an in-some-cases profound distinction to be made between interpreting the ends of these films as philosophical triumphs (of one set of values over another) and interpreting them as philosophical syntheses of competing value systems. I argue that it is actually the synthesis of the value systems that makes the ending of Arndt’s own Little Miss Sunshine as moving as it is; that it is that synthesis that makes audiences “insane with happiness,” as was his intention. His argument is to do with the power of the underdog values triumphing over the dominant values. I am offering the possibility that it is actually the synthesis of the value systems that makes audiences so insanely happy.
I’d like the tone of my inquiry to remain that of an open-ended question rather than any sort of declarative stake in the ground. I’ll be exploring the mechanics and philosophical implications of the endings of the films he looks at as well as those of a few other favorite happy ending films of my own to consider when, how, and why philosophical syntheses might better serve the meaning of a story more powerfully, and when a philosophical triumph is more in order.
Some stories are clearly intended to be understood as tales of triumph rather than tales of synthesis. In some stories, the takeaway clearly has more to do with one value system prevailing over another than it does any sort of synthesis. In Star Wars, for example, the external stakes are so primary in the hierarchy of stakes, that it’s worth considering the ending a philosophical triumph more than a philosophical synthesis. When it comes to The Graduate I feel torn, but with Little Miss Sunshine, I feel strongly that the real triumph – and the emotion it elicits – comes as a result of the hero synthesizing the competing sets of values rather than the underdog values triumphing.
In The Graduate, Benjamin and Elaine are clearly being stifled by the conformist expectations of the dominant values that Arndt describes, and yet - they aren’t about to (and can’t, truly) run off into the sunset and avoid any and all forms of conventional, communal arrangement. Nor can they live in a world that isn’t governed by certain expectations, norms, and standards through which an individual might interface with their groups. He saves Elaine from, after having blown up, the normalcy that threatens to swallow her authentic self, but the final moment of the film – on the bus – is not a triumphant moment of having vanquished the world’s evils; and to be clear, I’m not pointing out the obvious, which Arndt himself acknowledges in another conversation, that the final moment of The Graduate is a rather poignant, and perhaps melancholy moment of uncertainty, more than it is a celebratory cut to credits; what I am pointing out is that even circumstantially – regardless of what Mike Nichols wanted to say with that final moment on the bus – the characters have certainly triumphed by grabbing onto each other for dear life and breaking out of the constraints of their almost-certainly boring and empty futures.
My question is whether this is more properly construed as a triumph of the underdog values over the dominant values or as a synthesis of the underdog values with the dominant values. Benjamin and Elaine are still facing a world in which they’ll have to fit in, somewhere/somehow, and in which they will still have no choice but to continue interfacing with the external world and all of the sometimes-stifling expectations it promises. You could interpret that final moment on the bus as a sudden in-the-moment reckoning with that sobering fact, though even such an uncomfortable reckoning feels, to me at least, still like a triumph and – as Mr. Arndt himself suggests – the beginning of a new story that they have properly prepared themselves for, rather than a melancholy throwing away of the very real triumph they’ve just achieved. Though, to allow the question to remain open ended – I imagine that in response Mr. Arndt would point out the obvious, to me: any chance Benjamin and Elaine might have of effectively synthesizing the competing sets of values would be impossible without them having already broken free from the dominating conformity of their families and community. I'll come back to The Graduate.
Arndt says that he wrote Little Miss Sunshine to stick up for the underdog values of "private life," such as creativity, personal truth, spirituality and friendship, over the seemingly dominant values of "public life" such as chasing status, hierarchical advancement, wealth, public image, etc. He states in his video that he felt that our culture was valuing too highly those public life values and that this was encroaching on people’s ability to engender rich, inner lives and posing an increasingly hazardous threat to the private lives of children especially, who he felt should be protected from the sometimes soul-distorting pressures of public life. I couldn’t appreciation this evaluation of the world more and, to be clear, might never find the words to accurately, or with adequate enthusiasm, express how much I love Little Miss Sunshine. I do, however, question whether Michael Arndt got his evaluation of his own film quite right; sometimes artists’ work is cleverer than they themselves realize.
The final takeaway of Little Miss Sunshine – as I see it – is not simply a triumph of private life over public life, or a final flipping of the bird to beauty pageants (nor do I think Arndt sees it this way, exactly) but rather that Olive’s ultimate triumph is her having accepted that some amount of pageantry is an unavoidable part of life and that one might as well get good at, or at least get comfortable with, being fully one’s self in the midst of the competitive, pageant-filled landscape of life that they find themselves in. The ultimate triumph in films like Little Miss Sunshine is not for the character to defeat the philosophically antagonistic forces they face, but to become friends with the fact of their existence. Olive must learn to smile at, or in the face of, pageants and any and all pageant-like competitions she will face for the rest of her life. One couldn’t devise a more crippling conclusion for a character than for them to decide that they want nothing whatsoever to do with pageantry and competition for the rest of their life; they’d become agoraphobic hermits. Olive’s empowerment comes through a synthesis of the underdog and dominant values of the world and even an embracing of the notion that the dominant, “public life” values Arndt speaks of, despite their potential to cripple one’s sense of personal worthiness, are not without real utility and not without their time and place. What we find most inspiring and life changing about Olive’s “kamikaze moment of commitment” is not her flipping the bird to pageants and all other worldly arbiters of worthiness (as her Obi-Wan Kenobi mentor grandpa might suggest she do), but her taking of the stage voluntarily, without a trace of resentment or resistance to the very real fact of the stage and the very real fact of the judges looming beyond it, even after having overheard her family articulate how nonexistent her chances of winning are. It is Olive’s having synthesized the competing sets of values that allows her to step into the competitive realms of life henceforth, self possessed and without resistance, resentment, or regret over her choice to do so. If the triumph were simply to do with the underdog values prevailing over the dominant values, we might foresee a grumpy, bitter, 28 year old Olive, crippled by her own judgment of competition, and judgment of judgmentality itself, even. Instead we imagine a future Olive, mature and fully capable of living and letting be, superficial competitions of the world and all. Her “kamikaze moment of commitment,” I feel, is an enactment of mature tolerance for the coexistence of these competing sets of values more than it is a rejection of the dominant values. I grant that you that her moment of commitment is also, undeniably (and as Mr. Arndt intended), an enactment of her mentor’s underdog declaration that “we are going to have fun out there and we can tell ‘em all to go to hell,” but it is not without some recognition – at least subconsciously – that external appearances do matter and that developing one's capacity to compete and to compete fiercely, and that the results of competitions have real consequences, even if she's unwilling to let such concerns keep her out of the game. Despite her grandpa’s necessary batting back of her father’s too-rigid philosophy about “winners and losers,” Olive doesn’t take the stage without awareness of, and the intention to honor, her father’s legacy of purposeful and presentational assertiveness. Olive doesn't emerge from her trials a naive child simply intent on having fun in life but emerges, rather, more prepared to face the challenges of life open eyed, and with a more integrated sense of her capacity to take life on forthrightly, come what may.
I doubt Mr. Arndt would quibble with any of what I've said but would simply reiterate the notion that it does, nonetheless, serve a writer to conceive of their story as taking place in a world dominated by certain values and in which other, less appreciated values need to assert themselves and claim their rightful time and space in the world. I, in turn, wouldn't quibble with any of that, but would assert that there is a spectrum between synthesis and triumph that is worth a writer's conscious consideration and that I feel that Little Miss Sunshine tilts towards synthesis. In another, shorter lecture of Arndt's titled Beginnings, he describes the character's fundamental flaw as a "good thing taken too far.” I think the dominant values of any story-world could be construed similarly - a good thing taken too far and that needs to be rebalanced and given a place to land more healthily in the character’s philosophical and relational orientation.
In another favorite happy ending of mine, Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Solitano’s ultimate personal triumph is not simply embracing his “crazy sad shit,” (the underdog values of self-acceptance in the face of a judgmental world) it is embracing it while also accepting that it is his burden to bear responsibly (more aligned with the dominant values of the world - that people should be more normal and functional than he has thus far, proven capable of), or at least as responsibly as he can. I would consider the end of Silver Linings an insanely happy one, and one that - far as I can tell - follows Arndt’s dictum to the letter (“kamikaze moment of commitment,” setbacks, triumphs), though the climactic sequence, perhaps as a result of some weighter dialogue-reliant moments, lasts four minutes instead of two.
Pat and love-interest Tiffany have just achieved their dance goal and the Eagles have won, but they’re not out of the woods, yet. Pat’s Kamikaze moment (though we don’t realize it yet) is his walking away from Tiffany towards Nikki, and - just as things worsened for Luke immediately following his decision to listen to Obi-Wan’s voice - Tiffany sees what looks like the writing on the wall, Raging Bull looks disappointed, and Tiffany bolts. But Pat knows what he’s doing: he triumphs philosophically by tying up loose ends with Nikki and making clear he no longer needs her love or approval, then triumphs internally with a fully, and finally, reciprocated hug and “I love you” from dad. and then (after we see Tiffany walking down the sidewalk into the Philadelphia winter and Pat yells “hey” and I bust up crying and laughing like a maniac) Pat chases Tiffany down and triumphs externally by sealing the deal with the woman who sees and accepts him for who he is. Pat can’t accept Tiffany’s love until he has transcended his need for Nikki’s love (which might be said to represent his yearning to actualize the normal and dominant “healthy” person values of his universe), but Tiffany’s love has required and will continue to require that he bear his psychological burdens with some degree of “normal,” healthy responsibility; he must synthesize the value systems of the potential futures that are, and will continue to, compete for his attention.
Upon a second reexamination, it occurs to me that perhaps the more useful interpretation is to regard Pat Sr.'s admonishing "I'm telling you, don't fuck this up," as the return of the mentor (Obi-Wan voice), after which Pat kamikazes, racing off like Luke, the goal now clear; this cuts the finale from four to two minutes, which better explains why it works as well as I say it does. The philosophical triumph comes first: his line, "the only way you could meet my crazy is by doing something crazy yourself. Thank you. I love you." He has fully accepted himself for the first time, and by embracing it, embraces the underdog values of the universe, Next comes, "...you really love me?" "Yeah, I do." His internal journey is complete. He has opened himself back up to the possibility of love, in contrast to his midpoint declaration, "I don't feel anything." And lastly, we get Jennifer Lawrence in all of her effortless brilliance, falling into Pat's arms, and he has succeeded externally, securing the connection most epitomizing not what he thought he wanted, but what he needed. Despite how perfectly this aligns with all of Mr. Arndt's insanely great ending guideposts, I stand firm in my belief that the end of Silver Linings constitutes a synthesis more than it does a triumph.
In another David O. Russell happy ending, The Fighter, Mickey must bring the competing sets of values in his life (one set represented primarily by his loving but sabotaging mother and brother, and the other his girlfriend – who would initially, if she had her druthers, have him drop his family entirely) into synthesized harmony; this harmonious synthesis is his only path forward if he wants to be his best self, in and out of the ring. The initially dominant values of Mickey’s world are not defeated so much as they are synthesized and integrated into Mickey’s life. It is a greater triumph for him to bring these competing values and philosophical forces under one roof, into harmonious synergy, and to have them all at his heroic fingertips moving forward than to simply triumph over those forces he deems antagonistic; this is what makes characters like these redeemers and not simply winners. The perceptible triumph for a mature audience is not to simply vanquish one’s philosophical foes, but to learn to live with them – to learn to cohabit the existential landscape together and to even – at times, recognize the valuable and necessary contributions of those philosophical foes even if the hero’s evolution requires that he transcend the constraints of the initially dominant values; the phrase “restore balance to the force,” comes to mind. Even Luke’s place in the world wouldn’t be the rightfully righteous position it is without a counterbalance to make him and his friends appreciate what it is they’re actually up to.
If I were to take my argument regarding The Graduate an imaginative step or two further, I’d say that Benjamin Braddock’s larger victory might not come during the 107 minutes of the film, but might be imagined to come some time after he and Elaine have escaped and eloped, when he might be able to more sufficiently empathize with, and accept, those characters who occurred to him so antagonistically during his on-screen journey. Some time later he might find more empathy in his heart for the Robinsons, and for his parents, despite – and with full acknowledgment of – their misguided but well-intentioned hopes that their children might adopt the same sorts of lives as them, perhaps oblivious to how comparatively empty their lives might be (or perhaps not, and filled with jealousy, i.e. Mrs. Robinson). This is the victory of synthesis, when your hero can first transcend, and then come to accept, the dominant values as being not only a part, but a sometimes necessary and useful part of life. Or perhaps I'm being too generous to Benjamin and Elaine's folks.
I don’t fancy any of what I’ve said so far to be particularly insightful regarding the value of story, or acceptance, or about what stories should be about - Michael Ardnt's tutorial handles all of that for me - but I do think the distinction between synthesis and triumph is one with applicably useful value in how one conceptualizes the ending of their story, and what ultimate sense of meaning one would like their audience to glean from it. If, as David Mamet suggests, "everything must tend towards the punchline,” then we better be clear on precisely what the punchline is: a philosophical triumph, or a synthesis. Clearly, as evidenced by his work, Michael Arndt has no problem delivering masterfully nuanced, poignant punchlines, and I am certainly not here to question his storytelling instincts, but simply to suggest that there is a small, but profound (in my estimation) nuance worth adding to our consideration and understanding of endings. I’ll also reiterate that I think this nuance is present in the entirely esteemed Mr. Arndt’s films; Olive does synthesize the world’s value systems by taking the stage, as opposed to the possibility that she might denounce the worldly practice of pageantry wholesale. Though – as stated earlier – she isn’t able to synthesize the value systems until she has transcended the dominant system, which is the triumph Ardnt focuses on in his tutorial; perhaps we are at purposes less cross than I am intimating. Similarly, Benjamin does want to marry Elaine which, in many ways, could be construed as a rather conventional, conformist, dominant-values desire, but that can’t happen until he’s blown up the constraints of normalcy that threaten to swallow his and Elaine’s truth and happiness. The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, also by Arndt, is obviously an example of a story about triumph more than synthesis. Perhaps in my follow up to this, I’ll take a look at another film of Arndt’s – Toy Story 3 – and do my best to parse out the degrees of synthesis and triumph that are achieved, respectively.
I’ll also follow in Mr. Arndt’s footsteps by reiterating what might be obvious: that I am not suggesting films need be about philosophical syntheses. There are some – Star Wars or The Hunger Games, for example – in which the triumph does seem to represent a victory of one set of values over another more than it does a synthesis of the two. It goes without saying that there are plenty of abundantly moving, thought provoking, and revelatory stories told this way. There are also – as Mr. Arndt suggests – plenty of other stories that don’t fall into either camp exactly. Stories can be told any number of ways, but on the topic of “insanely great endings,” and especially those that might make an audience “insane with happiness,” as Arndt set out to do (and achieved, I submit) with Little Miss Sunshine, I’d argue that the toppling, transcending, or synthesizing of the dominant values of the universe is as effective a means to driving an audience insane with happiness as any, though there is a useful distinction to be made between philosophical synthesis and philosophical triumph and it is one that can make a difference in the way one writes their ending and consequently, determines the entire meaning of their artwork. Neither is better, they are simply different ways of shaping the meaning of the preceding dramatic phenomena.
Mr. Arndt’s ending elicits maximum emotion because Olive’s philosophical synthesis isn’t judgmental of pageants but is actually both empathetic to people’s compulsion towards pageantry as well as honoring of her own authentic self. Olive’s choice to take the stage is, as I described earlier, an enactment of mature tolerance, and an acceptance of the place that dominant values do have in the world as much as it is a triumph over them. Olive’s action serves to heal the divides within her own family which wouldn’t happen (at least not in any lasting way) if it were simply a unidimensional triumph of good values over bad values. Her decision is one that makes space for the dominant values, in a permanent way, even if it’s clear that her sense of worthiness will no longer be determined by them. I think this distinction between synthesis and triumph is a subtle but potentially profound distinction that can, if wielded effectively, make for a more sustainably moving ending. In many cases, the ultimate evolutionary trajectory of the hero is to first transcend, then synthesize, accept and tolerate the coexisting, competing value systems, and this – I argue – is actually what makes the endings of many films, Mr. Ardnt’s Little Miss Sunshine among them – so insanely uplifting: it instructs us to embrace the contradictions of the world rather than attempt to defeat them.
Last thought, reiterative best thought: neither is better or worse, but it'll serve a writer well to to get clear - at some point in their process - on whether their ending is one of synthesis or triumph.
*** If you've made it to the end, here's your treat: The original post date for his lecture is listed as October 17th, which happens to be my birthday and which I regard as being astoundingly synchronous, given what a gift this thing of his has proven to be...and stuff like this has been happening A LOT lately...and I'm here for it. I'd like to include here, as well, a deeply appreciative shoutout to Bryan Davidson for bringing this tutorial of Mr. Ardnt's to my attention!