5 July 2012
Kenneth Lonergan’s second film Margaret finally gets a cinematic and DVD release in the UK. It’s also the most baffling and frustrating movie experience I’ve had in years.
I’ve just spent a perplexing three hours watching the DVD release of Kenneth Lonergan’s much lauded film Margaret – a piece of work with a history so tortuous and controversial that it probably deserves its own making-of movie, and something that I’m struggling to form a coherent opinion about. It’s one of the most frustrating movie-watching experiences I’ve had all year, and such an extraordinary example of an honourable failure that it simply demands to be written about.
Lonergan is a native New Yorker and a well-known playwright (though rarely performed in the UK), who wrote and directed a fantastic film about 12 years ago called You Can Count on Me: a wryly funny drama about a brother and sister orphaned in childhood and reuniting as adults after years of estrangement. It was one of the best films of its year and a great example of the new wave of American indie cinema coming out in the early 2000s: sharply drawn complex and believable characters, low-key realism and an eloquent and sometimes cynical take on human relationships and their limitations. It had the rhythms and slightly sluggish feel of real life, honed into something finer and more memorable by Lonergan, who observed his characters critically but sympathetically and found magic in the every day. The film pushed its star Laura Linney from well-regarded supporting character actor into name-above-the-title leading lady, and made an instant star of her co-lead, the seriously shaggable Mark Ruffalo. Like many other people who loved the film, I couldn’t wait to see what Lonergan was going to do next. Perhaps unfortunately for him and everyone else, his next project was Margaret.
In a disorienting twist which is typical of the movie, there is no Margaret in Margaret: the lead character is Lisa (played with nostril-flaring ferocity by Anna Paquin), a smart, brattish, self-dramatising teenager living in the opulent Upper West Side, who witnesses and indirectly causes a horrific traffic accident involving Alison Janney, a wheelie bag full of fruit and a bus driven by Mark Ruffalo. The randomness and gruesomeness of the accident sends Lisa spinning out of control for the rest of the film, trying to cope but mostly not coping with the experience, pursuing a case against the bus driver with the messianic fervour that only a guilty co-conspirator can muster, having casual sex with a Culkin, seducing her teacher Matt Damon, and having Olympian-effort arguments with her self-involved and distracted actress mother (played very well indeed by Lonergan’s real-life wife, J. Smith-Cameron).
Margaret was filmed in 2005, but if its tone of heightened drama and nervous hysteria is anything to go by, the script seems to have originated from the frazzled period of American consciousness immediately following 9/11 – a time that’s been mythologically characterised by a disavowal of irony, an embracing of raw unmediated emotion, and an unusual degree of thoughtfulness as Americans contemplated their place in world politics and the possibility that the rest of the world didn’t like them. It’s a big, messy, ambitious movie, that attempts to dramatise life in a state of chaos, and ponders big Dostoyevsky-like questions about guilt and redemption, moral responsibility and the nature of pain and suffering. That’s quite an undertaking for any work of art, but again that feels in synch with the post-9/11 landscape, where writers and artists started interrogating their work for signs of relevance to their uncertain times.
In a parallel universe, Margaret might have been the definitive movie of the 2000s: a dramatised version of the post-traumatic stress order that seemed to afflict most of America in the dark early days of the new century. Unfortunately for Lonergan, Margaret had a particularly protracted and ugly gestation, which has been extensively and exhaustively chronicled. For those interested in the full backstory, I recommend Joel Lovell’s article “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece” in the New York Times.
To make a long and very painful story short, Lonergan was approved to make the movie provided that it was no longer than 2 1/2 hours, but struggled to bring it in under 3 hours, prompting extensive bickering with his producers. Rumours circulate that Lonergan’s friend, the actor Matthew Broderick (who has a cameo as one of Lisa’s grumpy, exhausted-looking teachers) lent Lonergan the funds to keep going when times were tough. Martin Scorsese attempted to broker a solution by producing his own edit with his brilliant editor Thelma Schoonmaker, which was also rejected by the producers, who, according to those in the Lonergan camp, were sick of the movie and had a deathwish for it and for Lonergan.
After years of wrangling, a Lonergan-approved edit of just over 2 1/2 hours was released in a couple of cinemas last year, interestingly timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It had a longer run in London, where, goaded by rave reviews from the Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw and others, it ran in a single Odeon cinema for almost two months, and bagged a surprising Best Actress award for Paquin at the London Film Critics’ Awards in January this year. With lawsuits still pending against Lonergan, the DVD has now been released, in Lonergan’s “extended” cut running at just under three hours.
Clearly it’s not destined to be a commercial success, but critical opinion on the film has been wildly divided. Its fans, including Bradshaw, have hailed it as a masterpiece and one of the decade’s best films. Lovell’s NYT article uses the film and Lonergan’s travails as a chance to essay a now well-worn argument about how the greed and conservatism of the movie business conspires to cripple and destroy artistic freedom, and celebrates Margaret as a piece of genius salvaged from the wreckage of a brutalising corporate machine.
The negative reviews have been equally as passionate in the other direction. In a funny and generous and flummoxed review, Salon.com‘s Andrew O’Hehir admires the film’s ambition and shambling brilliances, but writes:
Rarely has a film with such a great cast and so many moments of terrific writing and such high dramatic goals … been so messy and disorganized and fundamentally bad. And by “rarely” I believe I mean “never. ”Watching Margaret is rather like going to a friend’s house for dinner to discover that they’ve apparently had a breakdown, and bought all sorts of delicious ingredients with no recipe in mind: Ice cream followed by lentil soup followed by sashimi followed by uncooked root vegetables, with half-kneaded bread dough dumped in your lap and Pinot Noir poured over your head.
Variety‘s Justin Chang described Margaret as “a heartbreaking cautionary tale on the pitfalls of inflated expectations and sophomore overambition” and “a hopeless dramatic muddle”, suggesting that the film might have been better never to have seen the light of day.
In the end, I’m pleased that Margaret did get a DVD release, if for no other reason than to allow me and other curious cinephiles to get to see what all the fuss was about and make up our own minds. Although for me at least, that’s where the difficulties set in. There’s a lot to admire about Margaret, particularly in Paquin’s and Smith-Cameron’s performances, which are played at full throttle and without vanity: their fight scenes, which make up a good deal of the film, feel realistically codependent and are often quite wrenching to watch.
Margaret’s greatest success appears to be the creation of an authentically bratty, hyper-articulate and emotionally live-wired teenage girl, who’s pushed further into the realms of unlikeability than any American film in recent memory. If you weren’t the kind of breathlessly emoting, melodramatic, insecure and affectedly ironic teenager that Lisa is, you’ll probably write off her character as unrealistic and affected. If you were, then, like me, you’re likely to watch most of Paquin’s performance cringing in painful recognition. We were really once that pretentious and self-absorbed? Did we once throw back spite and nastiness when what we really wanted was love and understanding? Did we really once hate our parents that passionately, and find all other adults lacking in moral fibre? Was life as a teenager actually that terrifying? If Paquin’s performance is anything to go by, the answer to all of those is an embarrassed “Yes”.
In the Variety review, Chang praises Paquin’s commitment to the role but notes the exhausting spectacle created by her “devolving into flailing hysterics”. “During more than one of Lisa’s tantrums”, he writes, “the impulse to slap her is overpowering”. Never a truer word was spoken, though the extremity of the writing and the performance does make me feel a grudging admiration for Lonergan’s apparent lack of concern about being liked. There are also just enough signals throughout the film – some more awkward and obvious than others – that Lisa isn’t getting any meaningful support from her self-involved parents or the other adults in her life, and that she is, at heart, still just another neglected and vulnerable child.
In one of the few emotionally satisfying scenes in the film, Lisa gets bawled out by the grieving friend of the traffic accident victim, who accuses her of playing the accident and its aftermath for kicks and for treating other people like supporting characters in the “opera” of her life. As written and played, it feels exactly like what Lisa needs to hear, and what many frustrated audience members will have wanted to scream at her since the film began. Viewed from another angle, the scene makes you realise how self-absorbed and unprotective the adults in Lisa’s life are, and how noone seems to have the moral strength to be able to guide her through her crises.
That being said, Lonergan doesn’t help his own cause much, with a filmmaking style that’s by turns impressionistic, lumbering, vague and slow, sometimes painfully mannered dialogue, and wildly melodramatic eleventh hour plot twists. There’s an overweening sense of pretentiousness to most of the action, which grates rather than illuminates.
The operatic intensity that most of the characters work at becomes exhausting after a while, and gives the characters nowhere to go in terms of light and shade in their performances. As Chang argues, “Margaret feels bent on saying it all, in a very loud voice. Antagonism is the default conversational mode in Lonergan’s New York. Everyone speaks in a testy, combative, highly literate idiom”. He’s right – it’s wearying to watch. Lonergan seems especially fond of classroom debate scenes where Lisa screams incoherently at classmates about 9/11 and Muslim terrorists, and there’s a well-timed glass of water thrown in someone’s face in a restaurant during an argument over Palestine. It seems to be part of Lonergan’s agenda of showing a New York still devastated by 9/11, but adds little to the drama and just creates more incoherent babble for the audience to plough through.
The most irritating affectation of the film is Lonergan’s long-running commentary on the purpose and usefulness of art. Lonergan gives almost all characters long speeches in which they dismiss poetry, plays, films and opera as a way of giving shape to human experience or providing catharsis. At one point, Lisa berates her mother for worrying about the play she’s appearing in, saying that art doesn’t matter in a world where people die every day. But Lonergan wants to have it both ways: trashing art that attempts to provide a “quick fix”, while trying to make the case for his own film as a more authentic form of emotional expression. As a result, the film is full of Lonergan’s leaden-footed attempts to show us that Art Is Important. Lisa discusses poetry and plays in her high school English class which have uncanny and deep significance for her current crises – the film’s title comes from the recitation of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall”, where the author remonstrates with the teenage Margaret not to take her youthful observations of grief too seriously. (Could this be a message for our Lisa? Is she our modern day Margaret? The mind boggles!)
In the beautifully filmed but exasperating final chapter, Lonergan stages a messy reconciliation scene between two characters, set in – of all places – an opera house. Like much of what’s gone before, it plays like a direct appeal to the emotions. It’s a bold move – having blasted art for being bourgeoise and unaffecting, he’s now offering the audience his own art as a genuinely moving experience, the catharsis as a reward for following his bloated odyssey. I’m sure some audiences will find it moving, but to me, the finale was cheap, overwrought and unsatisfying.
If you have three hours of your life to spare, you could do worse than to watch Margaret. If for no other reason than as a cautionary tale for artists. Here’s what happens when your collaborators will turn against you, and the bloody remains of your artistic process is exposed for the world to see. Sometimes it’s good to watch an artist try and reach for the big one and come back with a turkey. It keeps us all humble, and hopefully inspires us to try to do better.