In art as in life there’s something about beginnings and middles, but endings are what get this humble scribe really going. Not long ago I came home from an extended time away, and after giving Cat the Ripper a quick cuddle I wandered through the house as if expecting to find it turned inside out. Realising that nothing at all had changed, I unzipped my backpack and put on three loads of washing. With the machine sloshing away nicely, I found the twenty Polaroid photos I’d taken of my travels and Blue-tacked them up in the loungeroom and the kitchen, stuck one to the bedside table, and then scattered the rest around my study. I wanted reminders of where I’d been and what I’d done. But I also wanted to reclaim my home, to let it know that I was back, that we were together again.
It got me thinking about one of my desert-island films, Bill Forsyth’s completely wonderful Local Hero. The story follows a Porsche-driving North American oil executive whose boss instructs him to go to Scotland to purchase a seaside village and replace it with a refinery. As he negotiates with the suitably eclectic – and eccentric – characters of Furness, Mac finds himself falling for the village, and a certain happily married woman. Needless to say he returns to Houston a changed man.
The film’s final moments are spellbinding. Mac opens the door of his high-rise apartment, turns on the lights, walks past his hi-fi equipment, his fine paintings on the walls, his slim-line timber furniture (the film was made and set in the early 1980s), and pins to a noticeboard photographs of the place and people he’d gotten to know so well back in Scotland. Then, as if he doesn’t really want to but feels compelled, he steps onto his balcony and watches the blue light of dusk spread insidiously across the skyline, the wail of sirens in his ears. The sense of anonymity is overwhelming, and it collides with the deep knowingness Mac had experienced abroad. For the penultimate shot the filmmaker takes us back to Ferness with a still of the little village, our eyes coming to rest on a bright red phone booth. And then the phone booth begins ringing out across the sea…
Literature too, of course, has provided us with endings that pack a punch. One of the best occurs in Tolstoy’s short work The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The story, which we are told is ‘of the simplest, most ordinary and therefore most terrible’, concerns a bright and likeable member of the Supreme Court in St Petersburg who endures a painful illness which ultimately consumes him. After navigating his memories, and achieving a level of understanding about how he’d lived, as well as enduring days of screaming agony, Ilyich arrives at a critical moment: ‘And all at once it became clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not go away was suddenly dropping away on one side, on two sides, on ten sides, on all sides.’
As the final sentence, Tolstoy so precisely, so devastatingly, but so beautifully, gives us this: ‘He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out and died.’
Endings – and homecomings – don’t get much better than this.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, July 26 2008)