Endings Part 4 supplement — “Ordinary Pain”

Vocalist Shirley Brewer, who sings the reply at the end of Stevie Wonder's "Ordinary Pain."  Image via  discogs.com .

Vocalist Shirley Brewer, who sings the reply at the end of Stevie Wonder's "Ordinary Pain."  Image via discogs.com.


On first listen, Stevie Wonder’s “Ordinary Pain” might resemble two songs joined together by a brief transition, but indeed it is one song.


The first two and a half minutes speak of the quiet heartbreak of unrequited love. 

When by the phone
In vain you sit
You very soon in your mind realize that it's not just
An ordinary pain in your heart


But with its extended ending, which starts at 2:43, the song suddenly changes singers and perspective.   In the album credits, the main vocal part, sung by Shirley Brewer, is labeled “reply.”  The musical vibe, which shifts to a nastier grind, and words she sings recasts the first part of the song from tender heartbreak to laughable naiveté.


You're just a masochistic fool
Because you knew my love was cruel
You never listened when they said
Don't let that girl go to your head


This unexpected ending suggests where the fantasies of a spurned lover can go.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 4 supplement — 2001: A Space Odyssey


Shots of the stargate through which protagonist David Bowman travels in the final minutes of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Images via www.collativelearning.com and www.sci-fi-o-rama.com.

A newspaper contest—probably the Washington Post Style section—once invited readers to send in alternate film endings that would have changed the history of film.  One of the winning entries said something like, “At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, something comprehensible happens.”

Near the end of the film, the film’s protagonist, David Bowman, an astronaut who is investigating a mysterious monolith, is pulled through something of a magic portal, a stargate.  (See the pictures above.) 

Soon after this we see him as an old man, looking up from a bed in an otherworldly chamber.

The ending can dissected in many ways, but Stanley Kubrick, the director, seems not to concern himself with whether his audience can explain what happened.  Instead, having pushed us out through a magic portal, he leaves us drifting through the weightless sensation that whatever awaits us is beyond our understanding.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 4 supplement — Magical Portals in Song

Sly and the Family Stone.  Image via   www.factmag.com .

Sly and the Family Stone.  Image via www.factmag.com.


One maxim of story telling is that the best endings feel both inevitable and surprising.  By feeling inevitable, they present something that resembles the workings of the world.  Through surprise, they leap ahead of our expectations.

Song is a narrative form, and sometimes a song takes a final leap that feels like an escape through a magic portal.


The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” makes such a leap.  Three and a half minutes into the track, right when we think the song has finished smashing its way through fields of “teenage wasteland,” the song takes a left turn and never comes back.  In this extended coda, the horizon is wider, the ride is faster and smoother, suggestive of an approach to a shoreline (much like the end of The 400 Blows).


Sly and the Family Stone’s “Stand” also takes a surprising leap at the end.

Just as we begin the third chorus, the song drops into a groove with a funkier edge, and the lyrical refrain “Stand” shifts from a tone of encouragement and affirmation to one of defiant celebration.  Notice how crucial the timing of this shift is.  The radical nature of this coda is partly informed by the sense that it arrived before we were ready.

It’s worth noting that the success of both endings lie in the fact that while they both feel surprising, they also feel inevitable.  Somehow we feel as if we were headed to these endings all along.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 4 — Magic Portals

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doniel.  Image via   inalonelyplaceencounterswithfilm.wordpress.com .

Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doniel.  Image via inalonelyplaceencounterswithfilm.wordpress.com.


Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows tells the story of young Antoine Doniel (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud), a Parisian boy whose dreams exceed the dreary possibilities at hand. Unloved at home, unsatisfied at school, he acts out and is eventually suspended, arrested, and, near the end of the film, sent to a juvenile prison. 

And then . . . 

Though the film has taken place almost entirely in Paris, this ending, Antoine's escape through the prison fence into the landscape of the seashore, feels both surprising and right.  The scale of Antoine’s freedom and the speed with which he attains it speak of his spirit and the soul-smothering life from which he has emerged. 

It also evokes the fact that sometimes, life provides us with a magic portal.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 3 supplement — Ending in the Shadows of the End

J. G. Ballard.  Image via  thequietus.com .

J. G. Ballard.  Image via thequietus.com.


In Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady, Or the Tiger?,” an accused man is brought into an arena and must choose between two doors.  Behind one is a lady, who will be his.  Behind the other is a tiger.  The plot is complicated by the fact that the protagonist’s crime is having loved the king’s daughter, the story’s protagonist.  She sits next to the king.

And not only did she know in which room stood the lady ready to emerge, all blushing and radiant, should her door be opened, but she knew who the lady was. It was one of the fairest and loveliest of the damsels of the court who had been selected as the reward of the accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of aspiring to one so far above him; and the princess hated her.

Her accused lover looks to her for guidance.

Then it was that his quick and anxious glance asked the question: "Which?" It was as plain to her as if he shouted it from where he stood. There was not an instant to be lost. The question was asked in a flash; it must be answered in another.

Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right. No one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man in the arena.

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

The story concludes as the narrator puts the question to his readers.

Her decision had been indicated in an instant, but it had been made after days and nights of anguished deliberation. She had known she would be asked, she had decided what she would answer, and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to the right.

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered, and it is not for me to presume to set myself up as the one person able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came out of the opened door,--the lady, or the tiger?

Frank Stockton — “The Lady, Or the Tiger?”

The story leaves us in the shadow of the ending, though the ending is unsure.  The story is freighted with heartbreak, but which type of heartbreak will befall the princess, the death of her lover or his marriage to her rival?

A more certain fate awaits Constantin, the condemned man in J. G. Ballard’s short story “End Game.”  Constantin has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, but in this society, death sentences are carried out at an unspecified time.  Constantine lives in a sequestered community with his executioner (his ‘supervisor’), Malek.  The spend their days together.  When Constantin falls briefly sick, Malek helps him recover.  They play chess.  Constantine learns that Malek knows the precise moment at which he is to carry out Constantine’s execution, though Malek will not divulge this information to Constantine, who must go on living never knowing which breath will be his last.

Drawing the lapels of the dressing gown around his chest, Constantin studied the board with a desultory eye.  He noticed that Malek’s move appeared to be the first bad one he had made in all their games together, but he felt too tired to make the most of his opportunity.  His brief speech to Malek, confirming all he believed, now left nothing more to be said.  From now on whatever happened was up to Malek.

“Mr. Constantin.” 

He turned in his chair and, to his surprise, saw the supervisor standing in the doorway, wearing his long gray overcaot.

“Malex—?”  For a moment Constantin felt his heart gallop, and then controlled himself.  “Malek, you’ve agreed at last, you’re going to take me to the Department?”

Malek shook his head, his eyes staring somberly at Contantin.

“Not exactly.  I thought we might look at the garden, Mr. Constantin.  A breath of fresh air, it will do you good.”

“Of course, Malek, it’s kind of you.”  Constantin rose a little unsteadily to his feet, and tightened the cord of his dressing gown.  “Pardon my wild hopes.”  He tried to smile to Malek, but the supervisor sttod impassively by the door, hands in his overcoat pockets, his eyes lowered fractionally from Constantin’s face.

They went out onto the veranda toward the French windows.  Outside the colde morning air whirled in frantic circles around the small stone yard, the leaves spiraling upward into the dark sky.  To Constantin there seemed little point in going out into the garden, but Malek stood behind him, one hand on the latch.

“Malek.”  Something made him turn and face the supervisor.  “You do understand what I mean, when I say I am absolutely innocent.  I know that.”

“Of course, Mr. Constantin.”  The supervisor’s face was relaxed and almost genial.  “I understand.  When you know you are innocent, then you are guilty.”

His hand opened the veranda door onto the whirling leaves.


—The conclusion of "End Game" by J. G. Ballard


Note the sense of a crescendo interrupted.  It suggests both Constantin’s death and the length of each second between now and that fateful moment.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 3 supplement — Interruptions

The final shot of  Thelma and Louise .  Image via opentravel.com.

The final shot of Thelma and Louise.  Image via opentravel.com.

Some endings present the sense of ending midair.


The final shot of Thelma & Louise stops with their car in midair. Sure, Thelma and Louise are about to die, but for interrupting this ending to freeze on this last moment of freedom evokes a sense of triumph.


Another example—the end of Finnegans Wake:

Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he'd come from Arkangels, I sink I'd die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There's where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

The final lines of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.

Difficult as Joyce's prose may be, one can get a sense of what ending mid-sentence does.  It conveys the sense of motion with a vividness that a concluded thought cannot equal.

Two musical analogs to these include . . .


The razor cut at the end of “I Want You / She’s So Heavy” evokes desperation, and this builds through the lengthy outro.  Interrupting the song brings home the sense that for this singer, everything is beyond his control.


Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Wasted Time” also ends with a hard cut, and this interruption gives weight to the song’s theme.  If time is a precious resource that must not be wasted, it may be gone before we have a chance to ready ourselves.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 3 — Ending In Motion

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman as Elaine and Ben in The Graduate.  Image via   quirkyberkeley.com .

Katharine Ross and Dustin Hoffman as Elaine and Ben in The Graduate.  Image via quirkyberkeley.com.


Linear art forms such as music, film, and fiction present pictures of change.  We start at point A and end at point Z.  One interesting twist on this is to end early, at point S, where we are pointed at Z and yet have a ways to go. 

This approach trades away satiation of the audience's expectations and leaves them with an anticipation of those expectations being fulfilled.

At the end of Mike Nichols’s film The Graduate, Benjamin comes to rescue Elaine from the world of their parents and their twisted mores.  Consider that the film could have ended a little later, as they arrive at some destination and perhaps try to have a life together.  Ending in motion by way of the bus ride emphasizes the film’s true theme: liberation.


The end of Good Will Hunting also dwells on escape.  Viewers know Will has decided to go find his former girlfriend Skylar, who lives on the other side of the country.  The film could have ended with Skylar answering her doorbell, finding Will on her front step, and their final kiss.  But the film's actual ending leaves viewers with anticipation of that moment, and this is important because more than he needs Skylar, Will needs to open himself to new possibilities.  This final wide shot of Will’s car disappearing down the highway emphasizes precisely that.  He is in motion as the whole world stretches out in front of him.

Thank you for reading.

Endings 2 supplement — The Truck Driver’s Gear Change

Macy Gray.  Image via   www.hollywoodreporter.com .

Macy Gray.  Image via www.hollywoodreporter.com.


One familiar move in pop music is an upward modulation of key so that the melody may be restated with a sense of increased urgency and reach.  (This move is sometimes referred to as the Truck Driver’s Gear Change because it suggests the climbing of a hill.)


“I Hear a Symphony” by the Supremes contains several such modulations, beginning at the 1:10 mark.  Note how each key change suggests a wider scope.  It is as if we can see more terrain from our higher perch.

Macy Gray’s “I Try” employs a slightly more complex approach.


The song starts in D major.

It changes keys (to F major) for the bridge (at 2:13). 

It returns to the original key for a final pre-chorus (2:38).

And then it steps up (to E-flat major) just before the final chorus.  Note how this elevation of keys occasions an elevation of energy.  As the song modulates upward, Macy Gray’s lead vocal reaches further.  She shouts and talks back to the song, as if she now addresses us from a perch with 360 degree vista.  The elevation of key helps create the sense of an ending that looks both forward and backward.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 2 supplement — The Baptism Scene

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.  Image via  theguardian.com .

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone.  Image via theguardian.com.


Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather leaves by way of the front door, or something that looks very much like it.  The film opens with Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) holding court in his office, where he is greeted as “Don Corleone.”  It ends almost three hours later with Vito’s youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) holding court in his office, a sign that the transition of power is complete.

The credibility of this moment is set up by something of a storytelling wide shot, the masterfully edited baptism scene.

Here we see a number of murders committed simultaneously around the city as Michael stands as godfather to his sister’s child.  Scenes of the fatal gunshots are intercut with Michael’s renunciations of evil at the baptismal font.   

Consider the importance of this scene’s panorama:

The editing shows Michael’s killers traveling to multiple locations, a demonstration of the geographic reach of his power.

That his enemies can be killed while he stands in a suit and tie demonstrates the insular nature of his status. 

The contrast of his calm demeanor in the church (including his lies to the priest) with the violence of the murders committed in his name marks his character’s evolution.  Earlier in the film, we saw a jittery Michael assassinate one of his father’s rivals and a corrupt policeman.  This panoramic demonstration of his power reveals to the audience how far Michael has come.  Once he begged to serve.  Now he presides.

The film has been building toward huge explosion.  Only after this can the film end in his office, where he is greeted as “Don Corleone."

Thank you for reading.

Endings 2 — The Wide Shot

Isaac Hayes.  Image via  galleryhip.com .

Isaac Hayes.  Image via galleryhip.com.


The final movement of Mozart’s Symphony #41, the Jupiter Symphony, cascades with counterpoint. 


One needn’t understand the mysteries of fugue to hear how Mozart’s melodies answer and wind around each other.  They pull apart and then collide to spectacular effect. By the end of this final movement, one has witnessed a vast fireworks show, a panorama of sorts.   As the symphony’s conclusion, it has the effect of leaving us with the sense that now we’ve seen it all.


The cinematic scope of Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” befits its original purpose as a film soundtrack.  In the context of a discussion about endings, consider that the song builds on it self.  Notice how the slow introduction of elements suggest tiers . . .

Guitar note via wah-wah pedal
Low notes on piano
Organ and brass
and so forth until the arrival of the vocals (lead and background). 

All of which takes us to the songs final moments, when the orchestral breaks expose, once again, the hi-hat and wah-wah pedal guitar.   One way to view these breaks is to hear them as highlighting the first elements of the arrangement.  Consider that if it does that, it also highlights all of the other elements, too, because we are jumping down from the highest tier, where all of the instruments play, to the 2nd lowest tier, where the guitar sits atop the hi-hat. 

Or, to rotate from an image of verticality to one of horizontality, the arrangement cuts between wide shots of the whole orchestra to tight shots on the hi-hat and guitar.  That contrast gives us a sense of all that has come before, as if we look back on the knowledge we have accumulated over the past four and a half minutes.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 1 supplement — Earth Wind & Fire’s “Burnin’ Bush”

Jerry Peters.  Image via  youtube.com .

Jerry Peters.  Image via youtube.com.


Songwriter and pianist Jerry Peters grew up in the gospel tradition, and one can hear in the beginning and end of the arrangement for his song, “Burnin’ Bush,” a paired invocation and benediction on the electric piano.


Notice how these moments bookend the song.  As the song begins, the smallness of the lone electric piano suggests an incense-filled antechamber that opens up into the full majesty of the arrangement, decked out in orchestral splendor.  And then, as we leave this grandeur behind, we exit through that same small chamber with the electric piano. 

It’s a spiritual and musical analog to what deep-sea divers do.  After swimming along the ocean floor, they must stop to depressurize before resurfacing.  Likewise, this arrangement's final moment allows us to collect ourselves before exiting into silence.

Thank you for reading.


Endings Part 1 supplement — Ending by reentering

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in  The Producers .  Image via  theguardian.com .

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers.  Image via theguardian.com.


The Mel Brooks film The Producers tells the story of a Broadway hustler, Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel), and his accountant, Leopold Bloom (played by Gene Wilder), who decide to stage a flop and keep their investors’ money.  They get their hands on an awful musical, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, and oversell shares to investors, confident they will never have to pay them back.  Little did they expect that the show’s awfulness is misread by the audience as brilliant irony.  The show is a success, and now the two, who now owe the play's profits many times over, are in trouble.

The story ends with the two sent off to jail.  As the credits roll, the two are seen selling shares of a new show, Prisoners of Love, to their fellow inmates and the warden.  The story thus ends by reentering the building it just left.  It as if the front door is a revolving door, and those attempting to exit are simply thrown back in.

This is a familiar comic device, one that plays on the idea of people’s inability to learn their lessons, a riff repeated several times in this Abbot & Costello routine.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 1 supplement — “Cactus Tree”

Joni Mitchell.  Image via  nogoodforme.com .

Joni Mitchell.  Image via nogoodforme.com.


One way of hearing Joni Mitchell’s “Cactus Tree” is as a series of loops along a longer path.  The main path is defined by the opening riff, and the loops are the individual verses, which are separated by more stretches of the main path, the riff.  Each verse adds another face the list of relationships recounted in the song.


The repetition of this riff at the end and the suggests many more loops to come, thus invoking the meditative quality of a labyrinth walk.  We are not here to find answers, only to turn over the questions.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 1 — Leaving Through the Front Entrance

Randall Wong.  Image via  YouTube.com .

Randall Wong.  Image via YouTube.com.


Some art works as a chapel in which to reflect.  We enter, lose ourself in listening or viewing or reading, and then leave by way of the door through which we entered. 

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.  Image via   www.math.nus.edu.sg .

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.  Image via www.math.nus.edu.sg.

It is not a puzzle to be solved, like a maze.  It is more like a labyrinth, a vehicle for meditation.  It differs from a maze in that a labyrinth walker doesn’t need to decide whether to turn left or right.  She simply follows a carefully marked path that winds around to the innermost point, at which point she turns and retraces her steps.  The point is not finding the destination—she'll end where she started—but the walking.


“The Blue Bird,” (music by Charles Villiers Stanford and text by Mary Coleridge) rendered here to stunning effect by the San Francisco vocal group Chanticleer and soprano Randall Wong, might be heard this way.   In the final notes, one recognizes the beginning, and that recognition sharpens our sense of the space contained between the beginning and the end.

Thank you for reading.