When I'm watching a movie, I watch it all the way to the bitter end. I sit through all of the increasingly endless scroll of credits until the house lights come up. Even at home, I won't change the channel until the scroll is done.
Why do I do it? I hadn't thought about a reason until I read a post last week at the Portland Mercury, featuring the complaints of movie theater usher Erin Sullivan, whose peeves include patrons who try to order ice cream, teens who demand receipts for their concession stand purchases, and bitter-enders like me who are the last to leave. "Unless you just witnessed a documentary on the Holocaust or Darfur," writes Sullivan, there is no need to 'take it all in.'"
Well, I do need to take it all in, and so do other bitter-enders. And more and more, it seems that filmmakers are catering to us by making the end-credit scroll not only a piece of art that complements the rest of the movie, but also, sometimes, a hiding place for essential information. Or sometimes, as is the case with this week's release 'The Other Guys,' both, since the end credits to that film contain both a virtual seminar (told via jazzy infographics) on the current Wall Street mess and, at the very end, a lengthy, funny outtake.
Why do I sit all the way through? Part of it is a prosaic desire to see who did what. OK, I don't need to know who the key grip and the caterer were, but I do want to know who played all the parts, who wrote and performed all the songs, and other things I'm too impatient to wait to learn until I get to my computer and fire up IMDb.
If you watch a lot of credits, you will see certain names appear over and over again, and you can trace their contributions to the film, however otherwise unheralded. For instance, if you watch a lot of credits from Meryl Streep movies, you'll keep seeing the name J. Roy Helland. He's been her personal hairdresser for pretty much every movie she's done over the last 30 years, and if you consider how important Streep's coifs are to creating a character (think of that formidable platinum swirl she wore as the fearsome fashionista in 'The Devil Wears Prada,' or the variety of hairdos she needed for the multiple male and female characters she played in 'Angels in America'), and you'll start to smile whenever you see his name scroll by. (Still wondering, though, what his contribution was to 'Doubt,' where Streep played a nun who kept her head covered the entire movie.)
How did I get on the credits kick? It probably started with the 1980 movie 'Airplane!,' which is full of hilarious fake tidbits buried amid the real names and job titles. Alongside gaffer and best boy, there are "Worst Boy ... Adolf Hitler" and "Author of 'A Tale of Two Cities' ... Charles Dickens." Plus, if you sit through to the very end, you'll get one last gag, featuring anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis (the hapless taxi passenger that protagonist Ted abandons at the beginning of the film), still sitting in Ted's cab and deciding to wait another 20 minutes, but no more.
Of course, the 'Airplane!' end titles were making fun of what, by 1980, was already a serious issue: credit creep. Up through the late 1960s, there were no end credits; there would just be a title card flashing 'The End' (usually, a gorgeously hand-lettered title card, but still nothing more than a curtain-dropper). Credits for key personnel, including the top behind-the-camera folks who did makeup or set design, would all air during the beginning credits.
Soon, however, we just got the names of the "above the line" talent (the actors, writers, director, producers, composers, and cinematographers) before the movie, while everyone else came later. By the late 1970s, an increasingly complex set of union rules determined whose name appeared when, and also demanded that pretty much everyone who worked on the film, down to the star's dog-walker, be listed somewhere during the end titles. No wonder the credits grew so long (and so annoying to the Erin Sullivans hoping to have time to clean the spilled Pepsi off the floor before the next show).
As long as we were stuck with lengthy end credit scrolls, however, there was no reason they couldn't be made entertaining as well. Best early example, from the mid-'80s, was 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off.' As the names scrolled by, we still got to watch Principal Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) suffer more humiliation. Finally, after the last name had appeared, Ferris himself (Matthew Broderick) came back to scold us, as if we were partygoers who'd stayed too long, urging us to go home.
Some of my favorite credits date from this period. There was 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension,' where all the characters got together for a little parade. There was 'Repo Man,' which is one of the few movies I've seen where the credits scrolled from top to bottom instead of the other way. There was 'This Is Spinal Tap,' full of more side-splitting improv from the characters. And there was 'She's Having a Baby,' full of cameos from celebrities who weren't even in the movie, each with a suggested name for the baby born at the end of the film.
These days, there are four kinds of credits you really need to stay for. The first kind features outtakes. Those are your Jackie Chan movies (where you see exactly how painfully real the stunts were, and how crazy/foolish/brave Chan really is), your Will Ferrell movies (where you get a hint at all the unused jokes that will later show up as DVD extras), and some Pixar movies (full of funny fake cartoon outtakes, like those in 'A Bug's Life').
The second kind features spoilers. That includes most Marvel movies, which feature surprising revelations about the superheroes and villains after all the names have rolled past. Also the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movies, with little revelations of their own at the very end of the credits. The all-time champ here, however, is 1998's 'Wild Things,' whose credits are interspersed with flashbacks of the scheming characters that help fill holes in the thriller's twisty plot.
The third kind involves musical numbers, song-and-dance routines that provide rousing finales even to films that aren't musicals. Examples: 'The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,' 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' and 'Slumdog Millionaire.'
Finally, there are the credits that have been artfully designed and animated in a way that makes them of a piece with the rest of the movie's artistry. There's the sepia-toned drawings and watercolors that illuminate the closing scroll of 2009's 'Sherlock Holmes,' or the continuing stylized animation of 'WALL-E' (and many other Pixar end-credit sequences), the sprinting-vampire's-eye-view of the landscape at the end of the first 'Twilight' (accompanied by some dazzling Radiohead music), the splattery comic-book art of '300,' and the sleek, zig-zagging intersecting grids of 'The Bourne Ultimatum,' which evokes simultaneously the film's urban setting, its high-tech spy circuitry, and its precursor in the opening credits for Hitchcock's spy classic 'North by Northwest.'
Not all credits are so artistic or essential, but I still find myself sitting all the way through, just in case. Besides, sometimes you just can't leave; I remember that the whole audience sat as if bolted to our chairs after 'Schindler's List,' not because the credits were at all special, but because we were too floored to move. (As Sullivan noted, there's special dispensation for movies about the Holocaust.)
Even at home, though, on my couch, I still want to watch the whole credit sequence. And I still grumble when channels fast-scan through it or squish it to the side or the bottom to make room for a promo, as if the credits are something the network is grudgingly obliged by contract to air, but is damned if it's going to make them the least bit easy for you to read. Yeah, I get it, most viewers find credits boring, and the station doesn't want to risk having viewers lose interest for even a moment, lest they click to another channel. But they're not just shortchanging the hardworking movie folk who deserve an instant of recognition for their hard work; they're shortchanging those of us who do consider the credits to be an integral part of a movie's whole experience, those of us who do (sorry, Ms. Sullivan) need to "take it all in."
By the way, if you do miss the old-style "The End" title cards that closed classic Hollywood movies, there are some wonderful collections of them on Flickr (here, here, and here), as well as here.
What about you? Do you stay to watch the end credits, and which ones are your favorites?
•Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.