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Ellen Alperstein

Atonement scene

When my out-of-state visitors go to the movies here, they often comment on the localsí habit of sitting all the way through the final credits before getting up to leave. In L.A., a movie isnít over at the fadeout; we want to see who was the best boy, who stood in for Julia Roberts and who got the catering gig. For Angelenos, the movie isnít over until the Dolby Sound System logo has appeared, and the house lights have come on.

I used to believe L.A. movie crowds watch the credits with as much interest as the story action because they want to see how many people they know making below-the-line appearances. To recognize names, to claim relationships, is a gauge of professional status in an industry town; itís a competition as much as a curiosity satisfier.

Iím sure thatís true for some people, but Iím equally sure thatís not the only reason people everywhere linger in the dark while the credits roll.

Take "Atonement," a film with a complicated story that packs a breathtaking emotional punch. Almost from the beginning, the audience is obliged to pay careful attention to the narrative only to be whipsawed into an acutely powerful parallel reality when what we hear, what we see, isnít really what happened, forcing us to experience both extremes of the human passion that informs each version.

So when the final scene unfolds, and weíre awash in the wrenching what-iffery of possibility lost, we need those few minutes of darkness to recover, to ruminate, to collect all the little pieces of ourselves strewn over a two-hour trail of tears and outrage. Sure, itís about reading the credits for that kidís name again, the actress whose black magical reality sets the story in motion; itís about learning the name of the gorgeous English estate where the story was filmed; itís about confirming that no animals were injured in the filming of the war scenes. And when I saw it, it was also about reclaiming equilibrium.

Which is why an audible gasp arose from the audience when, moments after director Joe Wrightís name popped up at the fade to black, the house lights blasted on in full illumination. We all squinted into the unwelcome brilliance, jaws collectively dropped, gob-smacked. We felt violated, cheated. This movie might be over but our feelings were not resolved, and it was going to take the privacy and safety of darkness to revisit them, and reject or accept them. This takes a few minutes, and thatís how you know a movie is really good.

Watching the final credits isnít always about information, about Angelenos reinforcing our insider status. Sometimes itís about processing what youíve seen and felt. Never again will I make fun of moviegoers who remain seated until the ushers throw them out. Unless, of course, theyíre watching another sequel to "Jackass."

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