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So where do you end this story?
Our filmmakers' dilemma.
Note: this post contains extremely mild spoilers for several movies that came out 25+ years ago. If that’s a problem for you, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Also, Rosebud was the name of his sled.
There are lots of ways to end a story.
The 1995 Richard Linklater film Before Sunrise, one of my all-time favorite movies, tells the story of two young people—American traveler Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French student Celine (Julie Delpy)—who meet on a train and spend a day and night walking around Vienna, knowing full well that they’ll have to part ways at the end of their 24 hours together. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here, seeing as how this is a quarter-century-old movie that’s had two sequels made, but the story ends on an ambiguous note, with the would-be lovers promising to meet up again in six months. Will they follow through? Will something keep them apart? The film leaves us wondering. (Until that question is answered in the 2003 sequel Before Sunset, at least.)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are films that leave no detail unclear, lest we be left to our imaginations. A staple of the loosely-based-on-a-sort-of-true-story action movies of the 1980s was a detailed, explicit epilogue, letting us know the eventual fate of each character in the story via on-screen text.
In between those poles, there are stories that wrap up cleanly while leaving the door wide open for a sequel—a movie executed flawlessly in the original Back To The Future, a film that could easily stand alone. Having completed the arcs of all of its characters neatly, the film is about to end on a happy note when Doc Brown appears in a burst of light and informs Marty and Jennifer that it’s your kids! Something’s got to be done about your kids! a perfectly audacious and craven jump to the next chapter in the story.
Then, of course, there’s the stories that wrap up neatly with no loose ends until 30 years later when someone decides there’s more money to be made by cracking the plot back open, so they explain away the things that clearly happened to open the door for absolutely needless sequels. But you’re not here to hear me bitch about Star Wars.
(The dead speak, my ass.)
So, where do you end this movie?
The pandemic has been the overarching storyline in all of our lives for more than a year, and I think early on, many of us assumed—or at least hoped—that there would be a clear ending, a moment when we could emerge from hiding and embrace in the streets, safely casting our masks aside and standing five feet apart from each other.
Of course, life doesn’t work quite like the movies, and there’s rarely a clear ending to any story.
I received my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday, a day I’ve eagerly anticipated for months and am deeply grateful to finally see arrive. There are many, many things to criticize about the way the pandemic has been handled in this country, but if nothing else, we’ve shown the American ability to buy our way out of a problem with a vaccine rollout that has—despite some bumps and glitches and regional disparities—been nothing short of remarkable. My side effects have been minimal (I’m several inches taller, and now have a beautiful singing voice), and though I doubt there are many vaccine skeptics reading this, I encourage you to pursue vaccination at your earliest ability.
For a long time, I had imagined that reaching this moment would be an emotional climax. For many friends and acquaintances who’ve also received their shots, it seems as though it has been; tears of joy in modified stadiums or pharmacy parking lots have been common. I assumed I might be similarly overcome by emotion in that pivotal moment, but to be completely honest, I wasn’t. I walked into a CVS, got jabbed, then spent 15 minutes milling around the cereal aisle just in case my arm fell off (it didn’t) before getting in my car and going back to work. Don’t get me wrong; I’m overjoyed to have reached this point, and just as joyful to see the rapidly-increasing number of vaccine selfies filling my social media feeds.
The moment itself was anticlimactic, though. It didn’t feel like an ending. Of course, I’m not the protagonist of reality, and the pandemic is still far from over, so it’s not an ending. From my own standpoint, even, I won’t reach the fullest immunity the vaccine confers for a couple of weeks. I’ll continue to wear a mask in public for the foreseeable future, too, because it’s the right thing to do, it’s not hard, and I’m not an asshole (at least not in that regard.) Millions more people in this country and billions around the world will need their chance at the vaccine before we can put this awful chapter fully behind us. But it’s natural to search for places we can start to wrap this story up.
Last night, I made a stir-fry for dinner (this recipe was really good), and I reached for the bag of rice in the pantry. Back in February 2020, this 25-lb bag of Basmati rice was the first purchase I’d made out of concern as stories of the looming pandemic grew, a “just in case” move that presaged the absolute panic-buying of two to three weeks later. I didn’t touch the bag for the first several months, when buying groceries was a fraught process and supply chains were absolutely wrecked; it was just there if we needed it. As someone who’s grown up with enough privilege to never truly experience food insecurity, those early weeks of the pandemic were a small but visceral lesson in what it’s like to worry about where your food is coming from, worry about if you’ll be able to feed your family, to worry about tomorrow in real, immediate terms.
Slowly, though, things stabilized, and I opened the bag and started using it.
Twenty-five pounds is a lot of rice for two adults and two kids, but last night’s dinner used up the last cup. It was a surprisingly poignant moment for me, staring at this empty burlap sack, thinking about how much I’ve learned in the last year—how much we’ve all learned—how easily our daily lives can be disrupted, how tenuous our social safety net is, how some people can’t be bothered to do the bare minimum to look out for their neighbors while others will willingly upend their whole lives on the off-chance it’ll save a stranger’s.
This can be a place to end a story, too—the moment that the characters in a story are changed. Things are not over. We don’t quite know just how this story will end. But we can see how different we all are for having been through this.
Or, we could simply look at this as the ending to Independence Day. We’ve figured out how to blow up the aliens’ ships, and word is spreading; the tide has turned in our existential battle. We can smoke our victory cigar (or perhaps have a victory donut), but at some point we’re going to have to clean all this shit up and reckon with the fact that we dropped a nuclear bomb on Houston.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)