Happy endings are presumed to belong to the realm of fantasy. In real life, after all, even a thumping electoral victory is generally more a first act than a last; what ensues, much too often, is disappointment, broken promises and even murmurs of a recall. When the believer, in any faith, tells us that the reward for bloody sacrifice is eternal joy, the nonbeliever is often tempted to think that the believer is merely trying to justify the ways of God to man. On earth at least, the end of life is death.
America, though, is the spiritual home of new beginnings, which may be why it has always had a soft spot, a special gift, for happy endings. We speak brightly of ''closure,'' as if the most difficult things in life could be wrapped up as neatly as a gift package; we speak of people ''passing on,'' as if the end of life were just a passing phase. America, in fact, could almost be defined as the place that chose not to root itself in the tragic cycles of the Greeks and others from the Old World (even Shakespeare, after all, in his early comedy ''Love's Labour's Lost,'' ensures that we leave the theater with the memory of a sudden death uppermost in our minds, and the central courting couples failing to pair off as comic convention decrees).
Maybe that's why so much of the world has always looked to Hollywood, America's official dream factory, for the provision of happy endings and to coach us in the special logic of the happy clinch under the closing credits. When the happy ending is spiked with just a little sadness or uncertainty (as in ''Casablanca'' or ''Gone With the Wind''), we can convince ourselves that we are being served an even more grown-up fairy tale, in which romance has been seasoned with a pinch of realism.
In recent times, however, Hollywood has been reneging on its side of the deal more and more. Look to this year's Academy Award hopefuls, and you'll see that almost every film asserts its seriousness by shying away from easy conclusions....
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