It's no wonder that the very term "serious art" is so completely misunderstood, the art it names so often dismissed and laughed at, when reviewers and arts journalists seem so often not to have a clue as to what it actually might mean. This article in the Boston Globe is a good example. Ed Siegel tells us:
It often seems that there's as big a gap between so-called Hollywood movies and "serious films" as there is between red states and blue states. Hollywood movies cater to adolescents and families at megaplexes, while what are loosely, and usually inaccurately, termed independent films cater to those looking for more celluloid thoughtfulness in art houses.
What is particularly interesting about the serious film as opposed to the Hollywood movie is how there are traces of Hollywood in even the most serious of films, whether they're the brainchildren of auteur directors, playwrights, or Booker Prize-winning novelists.
Of what do these "traces of Hollywood" consist? Apparently it is in the "happy ending," which, according to Siegel, even "serious" filmmakers can't quite resist:
In Hollywood films of old, the leading man almost always got the girl. But as girls became women and directors in the 1970s started subverting the Hollywood film, escapism became a thing of the past in serious films.
Now the aesthetic has become: The guy may or may not get the girl. Thus "Sideways" ends with Miles knocking on Maya's door. This implies some ambiguity, but the opinion on the way out of the theater seemed to be that they would get together.
It is striking that in differentiating serious films from "Hollywood" films Siegel can only point to the way in which these films conclude. (He does speak of an "emotional honesty to all these films that make the quasi-happy endings something between forgivable and desirable," but it isn't very clear what he means by this.) The unhappier the ending, the more serious the film? Because this implies a more "serious" view of life? It's not a bed of roses? No matter how slipshod or dishonest the rest of the film might be, if you tack on an unhappy ending this redeems the whole enterprise?
I'm sure that Siegel did not intend to imply such things (or I hope not), but it's what happens when the "seriousness" of a film (or any work of narrative art) is reduced to what the "moral" of its story seems to be. And this is essentially what a fixation on happy/unhappy endings amounts to. Of course one could dispute that such films as Sideways or Closer, upon which Siegel bases his analysis, are particularly serious films to begin with, but surely even these films display features that separate them from run-of-the-mill Hollywood product: Narrative ingenuity? Attention to detail? Care in composition and camera work? Directorial style in general? These sorts of things can even be brought to bear on films with conventional happy endings. Is an unhappy ending all that a filmmaker needs to provide to be taken seriously?
Ultimately Siegel's focus on how the story turns out is symptomatic of much criticism of both film and fiction. It is finally a way of reducing a film or a novel to its story. I suppose that when story is everything--as opposed to the artful ways in which stories can be told, or even to the attempt to get by without "story" in this most simplistic sense--the ending is going to take on extra gravity. In determining what is "serious" about films or novels, however, such a consideration is more often just dead weight.