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.
Christopher Maclaine, a beat poet of the 1940s and ‘50s living in San Francisco, made only four films in his lifetime; the first and longest two — The End (1953), which is 35 minutes, and the 14-minute The Man Who Invented Gold (1957) — present the profoundest challenge to viewer identification I know of. Avoiding the extreme (though brilliant) conceptual anticinema of such filmmakers as Maurice Lemaître, Maclaine tells stories based in social reality but in a manner so profoundly fragmented, so unnerving, as to give even viewers who’ve seen the works many times a series of perceptual shocks. Among the greatest films I’ve ever seen, these twin fables of doom and redemption are also unlike any others I know. After perhaps 20 viewings of The End over the past 30 years, I feel as if I’m only beginning to understand its greatness.
Yet Maclaine and his films have received scant recognition. According to the films’ sole distributor, in the past decade The End has been rented twice… read more