Ath Chronicles: Movie Endings and the ‘Other’


Leaning against the Athenaeum podium as movie clips projected behind him, screenwriter and Northwestern University department of Radio-TV-Film chairman, David Tolchinsky, spoke to a packed Athenaeum about the value of movie endings on Monday April 1st.    From “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” to “The Graduate” to “Fruitvale Station,” the selection of movie endings displayed diverse plot structures, characters, and variations of the kind of ‘other’ they worked to depict.

In between excerpts of movie and TV endings, Tolchinsky launched into a pithy analysis and posed probing questions. He defined the ‘other’ as a broad, all-encompassing phenomenon that often takes the shape of marginal groups in society or individual outsiders.

He asked the audience to consider historical context and the underlying intentions of the storyteller as key factors in shaping a film’s ending. He argued that oftentimes, the screenwriter’s perspective or initial idea is skewed by the more profit-oriented role of the producer and studio.

Sitting at a side table, I found myself enthralled by the notion of the ‘other’. Why is it that we really don’t care about the abductors in “Taken” or the evil terrorists in “Die Hard”, but feel for the ‘bad guy’ in other scenarios? What is it that creates a connection between audiences and characters? It struck me, then, that empathy ultimately plays the pivotal, underlying role in so many films.

In his selection of movie and film endings, Tolchinsky captured this nuanced and complex nature of empathy via depictions of the ‘other.’ His talk brought into question the legitimacy of personal perspective and unique lived experience.

The Q&A section following the talk continued this conversation. Numerous students wondered about the limitations of empathy in depicting the ‘other.’ Some asked if white male characters or screenwriters might be constrained by their perspective and privilege. Perhaps, they seemed to suggest, empathy might not necessarily be enough to capture the authentic experience of POC’s or other minority groups. Yet, recent movies like “Moonlight” or “Call me by your name” clearly capture the plight of the ‘other’ and have received high praise for doing so.

After leaving the Athenaeum, I reflected on our practical orientation here at CMC and the desire so many students have for more creative outlets. Boasting a packed Ath–with attendees gathering in the back to listen–Tolchinsky’s talk garnered much student attention. I wondered if there might be a way to promote creative conversation – perhaps even screenings of classic films – outside the classroom setting. Creative outlets seem to be awry at CMC, but if Tolchinsky’s Ath talk proved anything, it is that creative curiosity isn’t lacking in the students, but rather in the opportunities here on campus.