There’s a Kickstarter going around this week by a guy who wants to digitally erase the rat from the final shot of The Departed. Martin Scorsese’s decision to end his movie about the dueling schemes of a mob infiltrator in the police and a police infiltrator in the mob with [SPOILER ALERT] a shot of an actual live rat was too corny, in the opinion of the Kickstarter guy, and for a budget of $4,000 he’ll burn his own Blu-Rays with no rat.
Meanwhile I went to see Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera, and Act Two made its way to its stunning resolution, when [SPOILER ALERT] the statue of the murdered Commendatore comes alive and enters Don Giovanni’s house and confronts him to demand he repent, and Don Giovanni proudly refuses and lets himself be dragged, in agony but unbowed, to Hell. It was tremendous. Luca Pisaroni’s voice had sounded a little small, to me, in Act One, for someone who was supposed to be domineering and seducing everyone else though Mozart’s chopped and stacked layers of singing, but after the intermission he was musically and theatrically forceful, all the way to his final, prideful self-immolation. We had pretty good seats and I could feel the heat from the erupting fireballs on my face as he sang and then screamed his way down through the floor of the stage.
And that, decisively, should have been that, drop the curtain, good night. But no, then it was time for all the less interesting characters to prance back onstage and sing about how this all showed that sin doesn’t pay, and to explain what they were going to do for the rest of their lives, or the rest of the day. By the time the libretto gets to Donna Elvira announcing she’s retiring to a convent, and Zerlina and Masetto responding that they’re going to dinner, it’s clear that Lorenzo Da Ponte didn’t want anyone to think he really had his heart in it.
In fact, the Royal Opera website explains, the happy moralizing disappeared from the libretto between the Prague and Vienna premieres, and remained in dispute, coming and going or being abridged, thereafter. The practice of ending the opera when Don Giovanni himself ends “was popular throughout the 19th century and into the 20th,” so that the Romantics could have him as “a defiant individualist and the prototype of the Nietzschean superman.” With or without Nietzsche, though, it’s clearly where the opera wants to be over.
This brought me back to The Departed, or really beyond it, to the much better movie of which it was a remake: Mou Gaan Dou, or Infernal Affairs. The correct intervention for The Departed, as my old coworker Samer Kalaf put it in an email about the Kickstarter, would be to just digitally erase the whole thing and swap in Infernal Affairs. Yet Infernal Affairs has its own ending problem, which has haunted me since I first saw it, until my rejection of the ending has become ironclad headcanon—like Don Giovanni, it is a masterpiece that reaches a true and heartless and artistically correct conclusion, only to tack on a falsely uplifting coda.
Here’s how Infernal Affairs completes itself [SPOILER ALERT]: as in The Departed, the deep undercover officer (Tony Leung) has captured the criminal mole (Andy Lau) and is about to bring him down in an elevator, as a hostage, to turn him over to the police. A second, younger officer shoots Tony Leung and tells Andy Lau that he’s a fellow mole, and they’re criminal brothers. On the way down in the elevator, there are more gunshots. The elevator arrives, and Andy Lau steps out into a lobby full of police, with two dead bodies behind him, holding up his I.D. badge. “I’m a cop,” he says.
I’m a cop. The puzzle box snaps shut: the two men’s handlers and everyone else who knew about either side of the dueling infiltrations are all dead; the evidence has been destroyed; Tony Leung’s identity as the real police agent is lost forever; Andy Lau is free to be whatever he claims to be. I’m a cop. Roll credits as he walks over to join his fellow officers.
Instead, the movie jumps forward six months, with explanatory titles saying that Tony Leung’s true identity was discovered in police files and he was given a hero’s funeral. Amid the mourners, Andy Lau salutes his tombstone, and a final title quotes the Buddha saying, “He who is in Continuous Hell never dies. Longevity is a big hardship in Continuous Hell.” That’s fine but the whole movie fully arrived at Continuous Hell two minutes before. Now it’s just trying to make the audience feel better about it.
To comply with Chinese Communist Party standards of social order, the Hong Kong filmmakers produced an even worse alternate ending for the mainland market. In that one, Lau steps off the elevator and is immediately handcuffed, as the cops announce they know he’s a criminal. This is why you can’t make honest art in an authoritarian state. And yet: it is also [SPOILER ALERT] basically the same thing Martin Scorsese did to the end of the story, before deploying the live rat: Matt Damon, the Andy Lau mobster-turned-cop character, gets assassinated in his apartment by the pure cop Mark Wahlberg, as extrajudicial payback. Crime does not pay. Questo è il fin di chi fa mal.