Excerpt from Fred Camper Mad Genius: The Films of Christopher Maclaine (The Chicago Reader)
The End certainly has a center: six stories of people on the last day of their lives. Most are about to commit suicide, or some metaphorical equivalent, but the mushroom cloud with which the film begins and ends reminds us that, as Maclaine's voice intones on the sound track, we await "the grand suicide of the human race" — his conceit is that his characters have reached the end of their personal ropes the day before a nuclear holocaust.Throughout the film he compares the dehumanizing effects of mass culture to the dehumanizing effects of personal despair, weaving these two threads together until the mannequins he films in store windows, the anonymous people he films on the street, and his characters all seem variations on the same half-living, half-dead persona. In this film Maclaine bridges the longtime split between socially or politically engaged film-making and more poetic, or self-referential, work; The End simply takes as a given that societal and personal sicknesses are inextricably intertwined. Partly a response to the homogenized, white-bread 50s, the film has plenty of black humor (a murderer recalls his mother telling him again and again, "They'll hang you yet, Charles"), reminding me of the dark jokes we used to make in elementary school about how hiding under our desks was going to save us from the bomb.
The film's stories are told in six numbered sections, with Maclaine serving as narrator. Much of the editing is radically disjunctive, subverting the usual mode of narrative filmmaking in which characters inhabit continuous spaces we're encouraged to enter, a universe disrupted only by the occasional dream sequence or other cutaway. The End constantly pulls the rug out from under us, but the editing is less intended to alienate the viewer than to reinforce the film's push-pull dynamic. A shot may establish some empathy as the narrator tells us the character's pathetic story, yet time and again a cut to a seemingly unrelated object breaks whatever connection Maclaine has established. Going beyond mere toying with the viewer, the film at once plays on our human sympathies and shatters the very possibility of such involvement. This formal effect is echoed in the narratives themselves: as we're constantly reminded, these characters — among whom we're encouraged to find ourselves — are all about to die.
Maclaine's first story revolves around Walter, "our little friend," who mooches off his pals until they dump him; like all the stories in The End, this one seems somewhat autobiographical. Shots of Walter running around San Francisco emphasize its hilly, spatially unsettling topography, a motif throughout the film. Years before Hitchcock took San Francisco's verticality as a metaphor for inner turmoil in the great Vertigo, Maclaine made even more radical use of the city, tilting his camera to rotate a steep street into a vertical line, then going beyond it until it seems people and cars should topple off.
Still more disruptive is Maclaine's editing. Film history offers many models of what a cut can do. In a conventional narrative, cuts between shots often represent sequential accretion, the visual equivalent of "this happened, then this happened." In more poetic films editing can be additive in a different way, piling image on image as if weaving a tapestry — a metaphor made explicit in some of Brakhage's films. In Eisenstein's films, editing is often syncretic, fusing two shots into a new entity in the viewer's mind: in October (1927), he cuts between Kerensky and a statue of Napoleon, fusing them into a single idea of a tyrant who would rule Russia. The editing of Eisenstein's more radical colleague Dziga Vertov calls attention to the differences between shots, differences he called "intervals," and what they tell us about each image.
Maclaine offers a style of editing unanticipated by previous filmmakers and rarely pursued since: a kind of "destructive" cutting in which the cut pulls two shots away from each other and pulls the viewer away from both. A cut from the first section, for example, shifts from black and white to color, from far to near, from the geometrical to the organic. In the middle of a black-and-white shot of a tiny silhouetted figure atop a huge mass of steps whose lines fill the frame, Maclaine cuts to a color close-up of pink flowers, then back to a black-and-white shot of the steps. A later cut in the same section juxtaposes two shots with more movement: a color shot shows one of Walter's friends doing a handstand — seen close, her figure is sensual, but the shot also parodies the idea that Walter's friends are adults. Maclaine then cuts to a black-and-white shot of Walter running away from us down a narrow street; the buildings that frame the street provide a geometrical contrast to the shot of the woman, a disjunction that underlines the split between Walter and his friends.
Maclaine's editing constitutes neither accretion nor fusion but a kind of visceral tearing, questioning not only the unity of our culture but the possibility of a unified consciousness, anticipating many postmodern theorists who seem unaware of his work. For Maclaine, each character's existence is a discontinuous flood of often unrelated thoughts. (Murphy quotes a psychiatrist who knew Maclaine on the effects of speed: "All the ideas come out" in a rush, he said, "like putting tomatoes through a strainer.") But The End is a powerful, even ecstatic experience not because it's disjunctive but because it establishes a tension between emotionally engaged and alienated modes of thinking, a tension that pervades the imagery, editing, and sound track. Just as the pink flowers pull us away from the concrete steps, so the first section ends not with Walter's suicide but with his murder: the narrator tells us that the murderer, "for reasons we know nothing about, .... decided to blow the head off the next person he saw." And just as the pink flowers are compelling in themselves, so Maclaine speculates on the sound track that the murderer must also have a story worth telling.
The viewer is also divided by Maclaine's often crude, sometimes hilarious, ultimately deeply affecting narration. Sometimes he explains the imagery, increasing our involvement by telling us stories that the images seem to illustrate; just as often his narration pulls us away from the imagery and makes us aware of our presence in the theater. Some long sections of narration are accompanied only by a black screen; denied any imagery, the viewer is stuck in an uncomfortable self-consciousness made even worse by such lines as "The person next to you is a leper." In what is perhaps the film's most ecstatic moment, at the beginning of the fifth section, Maclaine asks us to "write this story" as he shows us an especially disjunctive group of images — the protagonist (Maclaine himself) with a knife, a woman's feet walking over a street grate, a group of pigeons — accompanied by the "Ode to Joy" section of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "Here is a character," the narrator says. "Here is the most beautiful music on earth. Here are some pictures. What is happening?" In a characteristic shift, Maclaine then tells the story himself, explaining how this protagonist was "a good boy...up to no good." Later in the section, but still to the strains of Beethoven, Maclaine cuts from a rather grand color image of waves crashing on rocks to a black-and-white shot of tiny dancing puppets, announcing a theme that will become more prominent in The Man Who Invented Gold: that magic can be found not only in grand things but in fleeting perceptions — a theme he also perpetually mocks.