“In this great human perversion he had learned that to live on earth it was required he hate and murder, and he would neither hate nor murder, but he wanted to live, as all men did. There was no room for an innocent child trying to walk as quietly and peacefully as possible through all the noise produced by stronger men fighting for their favorite toys” – Christopher Maclaine as narrator
The threat of nuclear warfare brought about many cinematic takes on world obliteration in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s before people went back to doing what they do best, ignoring problems. Jack Arnold’s The Mouse That Roared handled it comically, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb pushed absurdity to the max, Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe depicted the same crisis with deadly seriousness. Prior to all these, experimental filmmaker Christopher Maclaine chose the tactic of implicating the entire human race in the suicidal insanity.
Maclaine asks the audience to put themselves in the story, to see themselves in one of his six characters who are living the last day of their life. His gamble is we’ll do exactly the opposite with the first three. Their lives are bleak and their loneliness and desperation has led them to measures that cause this to be the end of the line for them.
In some form everyone can identify with them. I mean, we’ve all been misunderstood and rejected at some time or other. Maclaine’s editing technique works overtime to deny our empathy and sympathy. No matter how tragic their stories we are constantly distracted by cuts to images that have nothing to do with the sad sack. They aren’t in these images or viewing them, which keeps us from developing any emotional identification with them. Maclaine’s poetic narrative is potent and from the heart, but he forces us to identify with the film most when he speaks to us over a black screen. In other words, when it’s least a film.
I was taken right away by the audacity of Maclaine’s editing decisions. The narrator says, “Let us visit our first friend on his last day” then the video comes up from black to a rapid montage of men, women, foliage, dancing puppets, an expired parking met that’s a metaphor for man’s remaining time on earth. Repetition of images adds meaning and importance to them. Eventually we realize all the main characters were in this opening, and some of the images we don’t understand initially turn out to be flash forwards so to speak as we’ll reach a point when they come in contact with the character. But this is not a puzzle; it’s a kind of rhythmic mosaic of life on earth if there’s an earth to have life on.
Disorienting techniques shouldn’t be confused with randomness. By quickly cutting to images of disparate color and texture that often don’t match the narrative our entire state of being becomes tumultuous. Restless editing can have the effect of making it difficult to not want to do something. Maybe it’s simply giving up on the film, Maclaine hopes it’ll be changing the world so it can continue. Certainly The End is not a work you can watch passively. Maclaine practically makes you jump out of your seat when he says, “the person next to you is a leper.” This isn’t a horror film, but the surprise and shock of those words coming from the narrator provides a legitimate scare.
“You have not seen yourself you say. These people are all violent and suicidal! You are none of these. And yet you sit there quietly awaiting the grand suicide of the human race just as if you were not part of humanity at all. Just as if you had not asked for oblivion just as openly as these poor frightened souls you see dissolving before your eyes.”
The people in the second half search for love and happiness and try to choose peace. They may question the possibility, but they haven’t given up. They still have restraint and willpower. But it’s not enough. It’s meaningless if others don’t as well. They can’t force even a leper to reciprocate, much less another country or the entire planet.
The world is torn apart by the impossibility of happiness when things are inflicted upon everyone. The images Maclaine shows when he cuts away from the character the current story is about are taking place more or less at the same time. We see people, places, plants, animals, and mannequins. But there’s disunity in this world. The birds, plants, and oceans look like they always do, but the zombiefied humans are different from the mannequins largely in the fear and insanity they display. Technological advances and mass marketing techniques have eliminated human dignity and peaceful coexistence.
A running motif is just that, a man running. The End could alternately be called The Futility of the Long Distance Runner. He never stops because there is no refuge, and he knows it. In the brilliant opening the atomic bomb goes off, we see a man racing downhill until he passes the camera and disappears off screen, The End (the title screen though we are meant to take it literally) comes up, then all is black for a while.
The audience can see themselves, to a certain extent, in the characters of the second half because they theoretically choose to live. These characters may be are less desperate. Their attitude may be better, and they may be at peace. But in a few hours what will it matter? Maclaine’s entire point is they are no different from the people in the first half except that they don’t realize they’ve chosen death. So in the end, we don’t want to identify with any of these people.
Maclaine eventually gives us Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, a man, a building, a mannequin, geese, knives being thrown at a board, and asks us to write the story ourselves. Of course, Maclaine kind of tells it anyway, just in a less structured way. In this story the man has a chance to kill, but chooses not to. Still, all the characters are desperate solitary individuals until the sixth story where a man meets a woman. The music is upbeat, they seem playful and happy. Everything is joyful, then the world is nuked! The End!
Beat poet Christopher Maclaine may have the smallest body of work of anyone who directed a masterpiece. He only directed four films as far as anyone seems to know. Starting from The End’s 35 minutes, his works grew progressively shorter until his 7 minute Scotch Hop. His entire body of work is shorter than Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante. Like the characters and world he depicts in The End, his existence seems to have been inharmonious and Methedrine took his mind long before his life.
Maclaine experiments with time, memory, narrative, and audience reaction through the editing primarily. The soundtrack which includes bagpipes and other traditional music for the people who try to resist or ignore the changes of the 20th century and narrative play their parts as well. The End is one of the rare films that seems personally addressed to everyone who watches it, which one appreciates more and more in a time when sitting in a theater seems more like a passive acceptance of the incoming assault.
His aesthetic may be that of a home video complete with microphone imperfections on the soundtrack. If The End wasn’t made over thirty years before its existence one would say the creator must have watched too much no Music Televison. But who cares? It’s the kind of film Guy Maddin could get a few ideas from. It’s extremely creative and full of character.