The baby floats in a translucent bulb toward Earth and the film ends, offering no concrete and singular finality. “2001: A Space Odyssey” confused me as a sophomoric teenager, and continues to do so as a slightly less sophomoric twenty-something. The concept of ambiguity escapes the unconscious viewer, or the non-critical viewer, often leaving them bellyaching for more details. For some reason, the average viewer has difficulty letting their imagination run wild. While “2001” is a well-studied movie and goes beyond the canon of easily digestible films, a conversation appears due to its consideration. Does film have to answer your questions?
The final episode of “The Sopranos” is worth mentioning as well. “Made in America,” is regarded by many as the sore thumb of the show. The bell rings, Tony Sopranos gazes to the door, and just before you may (or may not) see him get shot, the screen cuts to black. The viewing public has expressed feelings comparable to losing a yawn. Did Tony die? Did he get indicted? Did nothing happen? The answer is yes.
It’s immaterial what I think happened to him, or even what did happen. What is important is that “The Sopranos” brought that same ambiguous feeling that “2001” had to the television screen. Instead of lubricating the wheels of the cookie cutter television machine, it stuck a wrench in, forced the world to lock eyes with the late James Gandolfini one last time, and then said “no.”We weren’t allowed to experience a concrete and tangible finish. Instead, we were forced to accept our own version of what happened.
A work of fiction can only answer the questions it proposes. Take the movie “Liar, Liar” starring Jim Carrey for example. He’s a man who lies and neglects his family and is shown the err of his ways through the mystical removal of his ability to fib. The question is if a truant father can show up on time, and the answer is — sort of — yes.
But consider the cinematic version of “American Psycho.” Its commentary on male sexuality, violence, and consumerism is easily overlooked when distracted by Patrick Bateman’s murderous outbursts and his confused perception of reality. If these concepts are overlooked, and we’re left with a horror movie, what is the question it poses? It could be: if Bateman is a murderer, what is his punishment?
The answer may be in a statement from the author, Bret Easton Ellis, or the novel itself. While speaking on his opinion on the film adaptations of his novels, he said, “American Psycho was a book I didn’t think needed to be turned into a movie. I think the problem with American Psycho was that it was conceived as a novel… with a very unreliable narrator at the center of it and the medium of film demands answers… You can be as ambiguous as you want with a movie, but it doesn’t matter — we’re still looking at it. It’s still being answered for us visually…”
In short, it doesn’t matter if Patrick Bateman murdered anyone, if Tony Soprano was killed or not, or what the context of the flying baby was. What is material are ideas and narratives that can’t be satiated with one last final shot, the consideration is supposed to continue in your head, and you walk away with your own answer.
Film can’t always answer your questions, but just because they sometimes don’t it doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. It might just mean you don’t get it.