Stasis and Catharsis in Ten Contemporary Films

In Paul Schrader’s 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film, the renowned filmmaker/theorist (with a Christian background… he went to Calvin) outlined his theory for how transcendence is achieved stylistically in cinema. The ultimate embodiment of the transcendent, he thinks, is in something called stasis: “a frozen view of life which does not resolve the disparity but transcends it.” Stasis often occurs at the end of a film, and often in the final shot—when the conflict or “disparity” is not completely resolved, but “frozen” into stasis. “To the transcending mind,” Schrader writes, “man and nature may be perpetually locked in conflict, but they are paradoxically one and the same.”

This “Oneness” is a sort of resolution of the unresolved—an arrival at peace in spite of and because of a deep unsettledness within the soul. I think the concept has echoes of G.K. Chesterton’s notion of “divine discontent”—the idea that we should feel ill at ease with our human situation, and as such more aware of the divine other that will one day right every wrong. Discontent can be divine—and transcendent—when we view it as a sign of the perfect Source (God), apart from which all else is unresolved tension.

Thus, Schrader keenly points out (and I agree), that films exposing glimpses of the transcendent are often those that end on a note that is at once satisfying (catharsis) and whole (stasis), but also still in want. “The static view,” Schrader writes, represents a world “in which the spiritual and physical can coexist, still in tension and unresolved, but as part of a larger scheme in which all phenomena are more or less expressive of a larger reality—the Transcendent.”

Some examples Schrader uses to flesh out this idea include the final, lengthy shot of the vase at the end of Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), or the shadow of the cross that becomes the final shot of Diary of a Country Priest (1950).

I’ve been thinking about current films (films of the last six or seven years) that Schrader might point to as pictures that exemplify stasis—that encapsulate a oneness or transcendence that leaves the viewer wholly affected and frozen in time. These are the films that, upon fading or cutting to black, leave you utterly breathless and emotionally (perhaps spiritually) wrecked. I’m not talking about tearjerkers or films that have shocking trick endings where everything changes in the final shot (don’t get me wrong, I love M. Night Shyamalan). I’m talking about films that leave you both devastated and satisfied, with a final image that is burned into your mind’s eye. Here are a few that are still burning in my mind (warning: spoiler city!):

A.I. (2001): The ending of this film was widely criticized by many for being both too drawn out and too sappy. But for me, it was the perfect, haunting ending to a film that remains remarkably affecting each time I watch it. It is devastating to witness Haley Joel Osment’s sentient little robot boy being forced to live for thousands of years without the human love from which he has come to derive his meaning. In the last scene, he gets to live one last day with his reincarnated mother, before they both cease to exist forever. I’m not sure what it is about this ending (perhaps the immense weight of time, mortality, and existence, which we are forced to consider), but as the camera pans back from the two going to “sleep,” something aches in the pit of my stomach.

Before Sunset (2004): Not all evocative, stasis endings have to be downers. In Richard Linklater’s marvelous Before Sunset (the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise), the ending—while certainly not providing “Hollywood” closure—offers a breezy, life-affirming catharsis that is both ambiguous and perfectly settled. As Ethan Hawke sits on a couch in Julie Delpy’s Paris apartment, we watch as she playfully mimics a flirty Nina Simone. Then the scene just joyfully fades to black. I can’t recall a film that left me so wholly satisfied, despite not knowing exactly how the story ended up.

Capote (2005): Sometimes the stasis of a film is reinforced by some postscript that comes onscreen after the film’s final image. In Capote, an already wrenching final image (of Philip Seymour Hoffman in a plane, looking forlornly out a window) is enhanced by the words that follow as the screen goes black: “In Cold Blood made Truman Capote the most famous writer in America. He never finished another book. The epigraph he chose for his last, unfinished work reads: ‘More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.’”

Children of Men (2006): In the case of Children of Men, the most affecting stasis comes from the aural denouement—the voices and sounds of children playing which bookend the film. As Kee and Theo drift out to sea, quietly and away from the chaos of the previous two hours, all appears lost. Theo is bleeding, and soon succumbs. Kee is alone with her newborn baby. Suddenly the rescue boat (“The Tomorrow”) appears, and our hopes are renewed. But instead of providing a full resolution, the images stop there. “CHILDREN OF MEN” flashes against a black screen, with the children’s laughter heard faintly in the background. It’s ambiguous. It’s disturbing. It’s uneasy peace.

L’Enfant (2006): Many of the films by Belgian directors the Dardenne Brothers contain endings in which some sort of cathartic resolution is achieved, but quickly halted (as in, the screen goes black in the middle of some intense, penultimate scene). This is the case in L’Enfant, a film about a man (Jeremy Renier) who does unspeakable things in order to make financial ends meet. The power of this film’s ending is in its juxtaposition to the emotional distance of everything preceding it. Not until the final few minutes does Renier—having been completely broken down—show any emotion at all. This scene provides a stunning catharsis, but very little resolution. And as the screen abruptly goes black, the unifying power of that final image is left for the awestruck viewer to mull over.

Lost In Translation (2003): Sofia Coppola really leaves us hanging at the end of this film. The two main characters (Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray) share an intimate few whispers as they say farewell, and we don’t have a clue what they say to each other! Oddly, though, this unanswered question gives the film’s somber ending a wonderful sense of uncertain hope. Maybe they’ll meet again, maybe not. One never knows with these sorts of evanescenent encounters. As the Jesus and Mary Chain song (“Just Like Honey”) plays over a montage of the empty streets of Tokyo at dawn, and the characters go their separate ways, a morning-after mix of bittersweet joy and existential ache abides. Another day. Life goes on.

The New World (2005): “Life goes on” is a good way to look at the theme of this amazing film from director Terrence Malick. In the film, Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) is put through the ringer, being relentlessly battered by love, change, regret, and ultimately death. Through it all, though, Malick reminds us of new life—of nature, and trees which grow always ever upwards, even when branches fall off. The final shot of the film, then, is a profound encapsulation of this theme. After a stunning closing montage (to the music of Wagner’s swelling Das Rheingold), the final shot looks upwards at a tree, stately and shining in the sunlight. The music stops, a single leaf falls to the ground, and the screen goes to black. Amazingly, the credits roll over silence (initially), which amplifies the meditation over stasis even more.

Nine Lives (2005): This little-seen, remarkably conceived film is really a collection of nine short films—each shot in solitary, 12 minute camera takes, and each with its own stasis ending. Each story is a snippet of one woman’s life, and as such we know neither where they’ve come from nor where they’re going. Because of top-notch writing, directing and acting, however, we invest in these characters enough to be jarred when their segment flashes to black and the next one begins. A couple of the episodes end on especially moving notes (the episode with Robin Wright Penn in a supermarket, for example), but the final one with Glenn Close and Dakota Fanning takes the stasis cake.

The Pianist (2002): The ending of this film is pure catharsis. After two and a half hours of death and horror, our protagonist (Adrian Brody) is finally redeemed, and over the end titles, he performs Chopin’s magnificent Grande Polonaise for piano & orchestra with the Warsaw Philharmonic in a concert hall. Like the beautiful music played throughout the film, it is both sad and triumphant—equal parts emotional release and spiritual requiem for lost beauty and innocence. Very few films’ end titles are so riveting that not a single audience member leaves for five+ minutes. But this was the case when I saw The Pianist.

United 93 (2006): This was the best film of 2006 for a number of reasons, not least of which is its incredibly intense climax and subsequent catharsis ending. After 100 minutes of heart-pumping, visceral filmmaking (the soundtrack is literally rhythmic heart-pumping) we are brought to final ten minutes—a stretch which affected me physically (as in, sweaty palms, rapid heartbeat) more than any film I can remember. Then, when the plane finally crashes and the music reaches its haunting home chord, the chaos is silenced and a numb sense of shock and lamentation takes over. I found it hard to move in my chair during the credits.

These are just ten examples that I thought of off the top of my head, but doubtless there are many more. What films do you think of when you think about powerful stasis or catharsis endings?