Asking for a Miracle

Asking for a Miracle
A look at the miraculous happy endings of A Muppet Christmas, A Tale of Winter, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood & Licorice Pizza

Once everything is wrapped up in The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)—Scrooge has been visited by the ghosts, he’s seen light, and he’s brought a huge Christmas dinner to poor Bob Cratchit—the narrator, Gonzo as Charles Dickens, reminds us of “Tiny Tim, who did not die” as he turns to camera; in case there was any concern of the slightest crease in our happy ending. There are certainly more narratively coherent ways we could have been told this, but maybe no more satisfying ways that this: a pure revel in the contrivance of not just a happy ending, but a miraculous one.

Eric Rohmer spends the whole of A Tale of Winter (1992) setting up the pieces for his contrivance, his miracle. It’s one thing in Rendezvous in Paris (1995) to set the stories around a contrivance, building from them, it’s another thing all together to have it end with one, one that lines up so perfectly with the main characters far fetched desires. The Muppets could get away with it in part because that story is so reified, everyone knows every beat of a Christmas Carol, we know Tiny Tim doesn’t die and he’ll never die. Rohmer has a much greater challenge, which he accepts with all seriousness and rigour.

The demand of a miracle is, to Rohmer, a spiritual one, and whilst Félicie, as she bounces back and forth between two men whilst dreaming of a third, Charles, the father of her child she only met once, is not exactly a devout catholic—she finds her way to church only in her own hour of need—there is a deeper sincerity. That trip gives her the clarity to leave the dull hairdresser Maxence, if not the clarity to not go straight back to the more intellectual but no more desirable Loïc.

As with all of Rohmer’s characters, how they describe their beliefs aloud is filtered through thick layers of self-delusion, Félicie almost seems to be mocking Loïc as she describes why she found the statue of Hermione coming alive in the production they saw of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale so moving, but as she watched Leontes’ desires magically made flesh, she cried. It’s beautiful when Charles suddenly reappears in part because Félicie’s faith is complicated, it’s flawed, she is rewarded for trying her best not for being some perfect symbol; in a way Rohmer pushes the miraculous even further by finding a way to situate it in the real world, in the life of a real person.

In Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (2019) Sharon Tate is saved not by faith but by the hand of Quentin Tarantino himself—in his own words: “because of the movie […] I don’t think she is defined by her victim status [anymore]”—simply because he can, because to him the beauty of movies are in their fantasy. A fantasy that reduces Tate to an only symbolic figure, representative of all that is good in beautiful in those golden days, happily stripping her of most all interiority. (He makes her watch her own terrible movie The Wrecking Crew (1968) with a shallow, patronising joy as if this smart and serious woman would be so satisfied with her short career mostly making things far beneath her.)

When Tarantino breaks the history we all know, when the macho heroes movie-star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth beat up the Manson kids who murdered Tate, maybe we are supposed to wonder what it would be like if she had lived, but mostly we’re asked to wonder what if things didn’t have to change? What if we could stay in those good old days? The only figures representative of the future, of change, are the stupid and evil Manson family. This is the miraculous ending as pure rightist fantasy.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza (2021) is a much more complicated case. In some ways it’s as nostalgic as Tarantino’s film, you can’t help but want to run through the streets of the San Fernando Valley with young huckster Gary Valentine and his almost-girlfriend, twenty-something Alana Kane as they sell air mattresses or open a casino parlour. But Anderson’s vision isn’t so sunny, we meet two characters not unlike Rick and Cliff, Sean Penn’s William Holden-inspired actor and Tom Waits’ drunken old director, who we see at the dinner table, the former on a date with Alana, sword fighting one another with their cutlery. Their machismo is childish and pathetic and they surely are not heroes.

In many ways the film is about immaturity, hence why the much talked about age gap romance is so central. Alana is an adult who acts like a child and so she falls for Gary, who despite literally being a child, makes a good attempt to pretend to be an adult, often copying ticks that project maturity and emptily replicating them. When she eventually gets disillusioned with his childishness she tries to instead do the most adult thing she can imagine: work on a political campaign. But the City Counsellor she’s working for, Joel Wachs, acts like a little boy, he doesn’t really know how to live in the world, just how to be a somewhat wonkish politician, in part because he has to hide so much of himself as a closeted gay man.

In the end Alana gives all that up and runs back into Gary’s arms, if everyone is immature, why not embrace it? On some level it feels good, we like Gary and Alana, we even like them together, but it is still a slide back into the nostalgic, also hoping a moment never has to end, that neither of them have to grow up. It’s not a miraculous ending in the world of the film, it’s easy to imagine why Alana would make that decision, but it’s a miraculous one dramatically and unlike Rohmer, Anderson doesn’t put in the hard work to justify it; he seems so aware of how it doesn’t make sense, but chooses to ignore it, to go for his happy ending anyway. Which to me is disappointing, but for some, seems to be what makes it so beautiful.


Notes:

1 — In his ‘novelisation’ Tarantino goes in great detail imagining where Rick Dalton’s career goes after the end of the film, but doesn’t seem much interested in Tate’s. To be fair, this could be out of respect, but in another scene he does describe her “long bare legs” and “large bouncing boobs”.


Originally posted on Substack on January 28th 2022