Last Concern

  Taste of Cherry

Introduction August 2022: This essay was originally slated as the penultimate chapter of the first, much longer draft of my book Mysteries of Cinema (2018/2020), a collection of my major essays from 1982 to 2016. However, in that context, it read – despite my best intentions – as a melancholic ‘signing off’ from my life’s work as a film critic (which is still, I hope, far from over!); it took on a funereal aspect that I did not want. So I reconceived the ending of the book (as well as, in fact, its entire structure), and saved the piece for here and now, as it intersects with much other material on this website.



In cinema, isn’t death a synonym for ending?

– Serge Grünberg (1)


“It’s over. You’re finished.” And then, after a pause: “Goodbye”. These are the last five words uttered by Christopher Walken in the concluding scene of The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983). His character, Johnny Smith, has been tormented, up until this point, by an unusual gift that has made him the ostracised loner within his community: if he grips someone’s hand, he can foresee the moment of their death. If they take his advice, they can alter this destiny; but many, considering Johnny to be a nut or a freak, ignore it and suffer the consequence.


In the film’s finale, Johnny takes the initiative of hiding out in a hall where a political rally is being hosted, and then firing a rifle shot at a political candidate, Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), who he knows will, in his right-wing insanity, lead the world to a tragic, nuclear apocalypse. Stillson doesn’t die on stage, but he performs the gesture that derails his campaign – grabbing a baby and using it as a shield – and hence the world is saved from destruction. It is Johnny who, in instant retaliation, receives a fatal bullet. To Stillson (whose imminent suicide he previews after grasping his hand) he says: “It’s over. You’re finished.” And to his lost love, Sarah (Brooke Adams), who tearfully bends over his body: “Goodbye”. We cannot tell whether his consciousness lasts long enough to register her reply: “I love you”. The ultimate image of the film shows the two of them, he on the floor and her bent over him, his hand falling into a position signifying lifelessness.


It’s over, you’re finished. As dramaturgy, there is something deeply Christian about this ending – a veritable echo of Christ’s own “It is finished” spoken during the Crucifixion, marking both the ending of a story and the fulfillment of a mission. Johnny Smith is certainly a sacrificial hero, dying for his love of the human race. The same “it’s finished” line, or close variations on it, recurs often in narrative cinema. In Maurice Pialat’s Le garçu (1995), a man visits his dying father in a bare, cheap hospital back in the village of the family’s home; the old man is already beyond the capacity of speech, and merely scrawls on a piece of paper, not long before dying: “This is it”. Logically enough, we hear the Biblical phrase spoken again, rendered more reverentially this time as “It is accomplished”, in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) – but with the added embellishment, here, of the film strip seemingly flaring out, chromatically, to a white void, as if it cannot bear to contemplate this momentous death for one frame longer.


Scorsese makes explicit, in this reflexive gesture, the equation between the consciousness of his divine hero and the whole apparatus or machine of cinema itself. The end of a life – the élan vital that has guided and driven the entire story – spells the end of the filmic work; and it also can gesture to the end (grand or tragic) of something larger: a mission, a way of life, a world.


Seven years after The Dead Zone, Christopher Walken is fading away once more in a final scene: but this time as a more ambiguous kind of Christ figure, the megalomaniac gangster Frank White, paradoxically both bloody-minded master-crook and community benefactor, known as the King of New York (Abel Ferrara, 1990). His demise follows the path of those unreal, slowly-bleeding-away guys who have staggered out of the Billy Wilder classics Double Indemnity (1944) and Ace in the Hole (1951) and into the contemporary context including The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976), Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995) and White Material (Claire Denis, 2009): a shot has been fired, we don’t quite know if it made contact, so the plot continues until a hand reaches inside a shirt and reveals the seeping blood … Frank White keeps running until he can run no further, stuck in a traffic jam, abandoned by his taxi’s driver, surrounded by an armada of cops. We tense for the big shoot-out – but it does not arrive. Instead, same signifier of the end of a life, providing the final shot: Walken’s limp hand, this time in close-up, lifelessly holding a gun.


There are no tears, no symphonic surge on the soundtrack here, as in The Dead Zone. King of New York presents itself, dispassionately, as the flickering-out of the strange, largely unreadable, opaque subjectivity of its Thin White Duke: back from the dead (his prison term) and out in the world for a fleeting moment, Frank White gazes, moves and acts only as long as his body holds out; the moment his consciousness is extinguished, the film too is gone, like a motor suddenly shut down. In its kinetic, nervy register – Ferrara even turned the snap of Walken’s dead hand into a funky, rhythmic motif for his clip of Schoolly D’s King of New York theme song – it resembles the endings of Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984), Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993) or Heat (Michael Mann, 1995), but without the oceanic waves of sentimental regret bathing those films. King of New York substitutes something else in place of personal elegy: the sense or intimation of a collective, urban, social crisis. A world in collapse, evoked in the sheer cut-to-black from Walken’s hand.


When the heroic (or anti-heroic) consciousness is extinguished, bringing a film to its abrupt or elegiac conclusion, everything seems to end at once. Francis Ford Coppola played on the grandiloquence of this device, once again within the terms of the gangster genre, in his The Godfather series, whenever a Great Man (Marlon Brando in Part I of 1972 or Al Pacino in Part III of 1990) carks it, out in the garden after playing with kids, or just falling off a chair at the end of his time. A generational line ends, or an empire, or an era. After this, there is nothing more to be seen or heard except the pure blackness or whiteness of the screen. (At least until the credits roll.) It can feel like an apocalypse for the film’s viewer, even if an actual or possible apocalypse does not (as in The Dead Zone) figure anywhere in the storyline.


Indeed, ambitious films (beyond the routine disaster-movie blockbusters) that dare to imagine a real apocalypse – from the bracing pulp-fiction of Miracle Mile (Steve De Jarnatt, 1989) to the cataclysm of both society and the five human senses in Perfect Sense (aka The Last Word, David Mackenzie, 2011) and the cosmic metaphysics of Melancholia (Lars von Trier, 2011) – almost always conclude with these shock-cuts to either black or white. Music composers, performers, producers, engineers and mixers speak of “sudden death” endings: a simply logical cut-off, where a phrase or a segment ends, rather than the “big finish” rave-up consecrated (sometimes ridiculously so) by live rock.


Some films have gone even further along this sudden-death path: the odd in medias res shut-off of Limbo (John Sayles, 1999) while a fairly normal shot unspools and much remains to be resolved; or the absolute run-out of the film reel – no credits, no black strip, no nothing – after the devastating final scene of L’Enfant secret (Philippe Garrel, 1982), in which a woman (Anne Wiazemsky) confesses to a lover her helpless return to heroin addiction.


In his book Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze described the ending of this director’s subsequent short, Rue Fontaine (1984) starring Jean-Pierre Léaud, in these terms: “He kills himself, his body toppling slowly over in a long image to become one with snow, as in a posture which has no end”. (2) In truth, the philosopher betrays a fanciful faculty of memory here: all that happens on screen is that Léaud falls swiftly out of frame, and the film cuts to black – no toppling, no snow. But this mysterious “posture that has no end” speaks imaginatively to a way that we often experience – or want to experience – the endings of films: as a necessary act of mourning, a leave-taking that is either going to require a long time, or indeed “no end” whatsoever, that somehow keeps resonating in our heads beyond the material movie. This is exactly what Deleuze went on to theorise in his reflection on Garrel: these “irrational cuts” in narrative-based cinema to the black or white screen which allow the phantom sense that “the series of anterior images has no end, while the series of subsequent images has no beginning”. (3)


Theorists of narrative in several media speak about the thresholds at the start and end of a story: those phases where our attention is still with the material situation or condition of opening and inspecting a book, or getting into our seat in the cinema; or, later, when we are just beginning to emerge from complete immersion in the story, involving a reorientation that can sometimes be highly disconcerting (all that bright sunlight out in the street beyond the cinema, how rude!). At such liminal thresholds, we can be very aware of the highly theatrical gestures of the work itself – the myriad ways it can show us into, or guide us out of, the particular, ephemeral bubble of sensation and intellection it has created.


Hence all those luxurious prologues for tales of aristocracies, from The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) to The Great Gatsby (Baz Luhrmann, 2013) via the collected works of Wes Anderson – usually replete with voice-over narration, genealogical trees, and a guided tour of mansion grounds – and those equally extended epilogues which are (as Simon Frith once pointed out) like a pop song fading out as if moving off into the distance and hence farewelling us, as the camera withdraws and rises, the image slowly fades, and the music “plays us out” …


This is the classical type of “character walking out of the story and into their uncertain future” trope that Charles Chaplin perfected long ago, and that comes relayed through the endings of The Searchers (John Ford, 1955) and a thousand other movies, all the way to the final shots of roomier or more experimental narrative films like Up Down Fragile (Jacques Rivette, 1995), Blue is the Warmest Colour (aka La Vie d’Adèle – Chapitres 1 & 2, Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013) or Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (Chantal Akerman, 1994). In every case, the camera comes to a halt, placing a pictorial parenthesis around what it records, while the performer moves, increasingly smaller in the frame, toward the far horizon, whether in a desert or on a suburban street.


In a fertile dialogue with Raymond Bellour, the French psychoanalyst Guy Rosolato (1924-2012) remarked on this style of ending in cinema, particularly in certain films by Alfred Hitchcock (Suspicion [1941] and Notorious [1946]), giving the matter a Lacanian inflection: the film as vanishing object, a specific, charged object of perspective, “simultaneously enigmatic and very symbolic”. (4)


I wonder if in Hitchcock’s films there isn’t something like a summary of the plot in the last sequence, something which tends towards disappearance, towards loss, towards that which the film will become for me – a sort of forgetting which will make the film itself disappear, thereby giving it its reality through my illusion. […] We separate, left only with this last memory of the film. This puts us in touch with the manner in which the film itself is really a vanishing object, and it simultaneously points us toward another film, yet to be made, yet to be seen. (5)


Then again, that perspectival technique was characteristic of the regime of classical cinema. Beginning in the mid 1980s, a particular, quite contrary fad arose in popular movies (it’s still around today), especially its light-comedy genres: the fun just couldn’t be stopped while the end credits played, or even beyond them – and this also points, in a new way, to “another film, yet to be made, yet to be seen”! So, in zany, hyperactive films including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) and Married to the Mob (Jonathan Demme, 1988), as well as more run-of-the-mill romantic comedies like Legal Eagles (1986), we were treated to a cavalcade of outtakes, flubbed lines, technical gaffes, Polaroids of cast and crew (perhaps as children), and even glimpses of plot intrigues and subsidiary characters shot but not included in the final cut. Ferris B’s very last moment on screen – exhorting anybody still left in the theatre (or still watching the tape or disc) to “go home” – is the commercial entertainment industry’s way of playfully acknowledging and prolonging its direct aim-to-please contract with the audience.


The numerous ways in which films can bid farewell to us as viewers is a topic worthy of long study by scholars, for it is a scarcely understood or appreciated area of cinema aesthetics – and yet, at the same time, something that all good filmmakers already know well, intuitively or otherwise. (Such, in a nutshell, is the history of film in relation to film criticism!) Let us consider, for example, a screen phenomenon that, to simply speak it or write it in a script, must seem preposterous: characters/actors literally waving goodbye to us (i.e., to the camera) at the end of their story. An extremely literal, obvious way of signalling the end of a movie, to be sure; but what a powerful reservoir of emotion it unleashes when expertly wielded by Hou Hsiao-hsien, stretching the gesture out over several minutes in the final scene of The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982); or Eugène Green in his ultra-Bressonian La Sapienza (2014), where young and middle-aged couples send each other sunny smiles and greetings; or John Cassavetes, as he sadly flops his hat up and down in what subsequently became immortalised (albeit inaccurately) as his final screen moment, the last shot of Love Streams (1984).


Then there are the movies which seemingly refuse to end, and gesture this not cheerfully (as in the comedies) but frantically: by keeping the story moving on, even in a rapid acceleration, as if to beat back those inexorable, rolling credits. This is particularly characteristic of horror movies in the manner of Dario Argento and crime-mystery-thrillers in the vein of Claude Chabrol: both these filmmakers would keep a certain frenetic aftermath – the arrival of police, the discovery of a corpse-strewn crime scene – going during the official name-parade, giving us the feeling that we are surely missing something, and that the labyrinthine plot is, once and for all, overflowing the boundaries of script and screen. This is quite different to the Brian De Palma trick, used in Sisters (1973) and Snake Eyes (1998), of stretching out the final shot, under the credits, as if to slowly drain its last vestige of life, the camera leisurely zooming or panning, seemingly with no particular goal in sight – until, at the very last second of the image’s existence (and before the stark production company logo), some small, forgotten, hitherto hidden but absolutely essential detail is revealed, such as a bright green jewel  just poking out of a concrete slab.


Cinephiles love to talk about the thrill of pure cinema – the jolting joy of the spectacle that only the medium of film can give us. Some find it in Alfred Hitchcock, others in Andy Warhol. I found it in the last place I expected it to be: in the difference, the transition between the two final scenes in the Iranian film Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997). It is a film about – above all else – endings.


Its premise is unusual: a man, Badii (Homayon Ershadi), seeks to die, to kill himself. But he cannot do it alone; he needs help, and so he asks virtually everyone he meets to assist him. The movie is the record of his chance encounters, as he drives around streets and work sites of Tehran: one person tries to talk him out of it, reasonably; another flees in panic, perhaps suspecting a gay pick-up. Finally, Bagheri (Abdolrahman Bagheri), who needs the money, agrees to fill up the already-dug grave, if there is a deceased Badii in it, the following morning. So far, the film is already remarkable: both obsessive and patient in its slow, steady, accumulating minimalism, and in its threading together of the random and the fated, the contingent and the destined.


Eventually, we arrive at a scene that does not really survive the transition to VHS or DVD, a scene that must be seen in a giant, darkened cinema. As Badii lies in his desolate hole, flashes of lightning punctuate the total blackout of night – and illuminate the movie theatre, too. The sound of the thunder rumbles our seats and our souls. With its unbearably poignant mystery of this man’s destiny, the scene takes us close to an absolute experience of existential negation – more powerfully than any horror movie. It is an ultimate experience of the very limit between life and death, which only cinema could evoke in this precise way.


Then Taste of Cherry breaks off and leaps to yet another level. We pass, in a cut, to the airy lightness of a lo-fi video. We see the director, the crew, passing soldiers, fields. Louis Armstrong’s “St James Infirmary” fills the soundtrack. It is not a Brechtian effect, no mere unmasking of the illusion of fictional film. It is, in fact, a breathtaking transition from one level of reality to another – one in which life, mundane and beautiful, is still possible, a world in which the taste of cherry remains something extremely wondrous.


Once it hits this plateau, the movie just floats, with no deadline on its mind – like Serge Gainsbourg said of love, the pleasant life-force here lasts simply “to the end of the song”. The last concern of so many films – death, apocalypse, catastrophe – becomes, for Taste of Cherry, a cheerful shrug: the least of its concerns.




1. Serge Grünberg, David Cronenberg (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1992), p. 37. more


2. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 199. more


3. Ibid., p. 200. more


4. Raymond Bellour and Guy Rosolato, “Dialogue: Remembering (This Memory of) a Film”, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Psychoanalysis & Cinema (Routledge, 1990), p. 201. more


5. Ibid., pp. 200, 202. more



© Adrian Martin November 2015

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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