Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Dogs Go on With Their Doggy Life: Some Notes on Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret

On Sunday evening, we were a little early for our anniversary-dinner reservations at Fruition on 6th Ave. (which was excellent, by the by), so we stopped into Video One's new location down the block. Video One, which used to be situated in a seedy strip off Colfax, feels, even in its new incarnation, like it hasn't been updated since the '80s. Almost everything is lumped into the "New Releases" section regardless of release date, which is interesting in that you end up browsing through an utterly random selection of movies. We ended up taking home Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore and Margaret, the latter of which initially looked to me like the kind of post-2000, overproduced, overserious trash that Hollywood churns out only to keep the awards season going. But then I saw that it was directed by Kenneth Lonergan, a playwright whose only other movie, You Can Count on Me, is one of my all-time favorites.

Not knowing the tortured story of the movie's production -- or that we had popped in the "Extended Cut," whose running time is over three hours -- we watched it last night. This morning I read up on the history. You can read the long version here; the TL;DR version is that it was filmed in 2005 (which I actually guessed based on the skirt Anna Paquin wears in the first scene; I used to have one just like it), then got stuck in post-production for years due to legal battles, funding problems and an inability for interested parties to see eye to eye on how long it should be. Searchlight finally released it in a very limited run in 2011, and the extended cut was released to DVD earlier this year.

It's one of those movies that you want to talk about after seeing, so I'm going to "talk" about it a little here. If you have three hours to kill this weekend, it would be awesome if you rented it so we could "talk" about it too.

* The film has been called a "masterpiece," or "Kenneth Lonergan's masterpiece," by a number of critics. While I think it's a really interesting movie that's very successful in some ways, this instinct to overlaud Margaret in comparison to You Can Count on Me kind of irks me. YCCOM is less ambitious, certainly, but it's kind of a perfect movie, a focused and fully realized film. Margaret is sweeping, epic -- but also bloated and self-indulgent. It's very easy to think of scenes that could have been cut without losing much, if anything, in terms of plot, character, atmosphere. I don't understand why people love this kind of movie so much, the Big Expensive Mess. It reminds me of Magnolia. Viewers get swept up in the sweep of the thing and feel compelled to forgive all flaws as some inextricable part of the auteur's vision. Can't we just admit that some of the acting sucks and it didn't have to be that long?

* That complaint aside, it's a fascinating movie in many ways. It revolves around a young, female protagonist, which is unusual in itself considering the scope of the movie. To boot, she's a pretty detestable character, really admirable in some ways but also selfish, self-important, attention-seeking, and downright mean to her mother. This has commercial failure written all over it! If audiences are ever going to accept a three-hour-long character drama (as opposed to an action or superhero flick) it better at least be about a guy. Anna Paquin does a good job of playing the character (whose name is Lisa, by the way, not Margaret) such that you both sympathize with and hate her. You sympathize because it's unclear how much of her behavior can be attributed to a kind of PTSD brought on by the bus accident in the first scene, and how much is just her innate personality. Aside: Why is Paquin always typecast as a vaguely intelligent bimbo? I've seen her play the same character (well-spoken, half-broken seductress) in so many films I'm starting to think she's not a very good actress.

* The title of the film is taken from this poem by Gerard "Manley" Hopkins:
Spring and Fall: 
to a Young Child 
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
There's a scene where Lisa's English teacher, played by Matthew Broderick (Lonergan's best friend), reads this poem in class and she is obviously moved by it. However, another poem (for me) haunts the movie: "Musee de Beaux Arts" by W.H. Auden:
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. 
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
The film is edited in such a way that you realize a big part of Lonergan's project was to convey that Lisa's story -- however earth-shattering it seems to her -- is really just one person's story among millions, billions (at one point Matt Damon's character tells Lisa that there are 7 billion people in the world and they're not all bad). This is perhaps most pronounced in a restaurant scene where Lisa sits with one of her best friends, who has just asked her out on a date, and she struggles to tell him that she's not interested in him romantically, obviously conflicted about how this will affect their friendship, and still haunted by visions of the accident she witnessed perhaps a day or a few days before. In this scene, shot from a high angle some 20 feet from the table, the ambient restaurant noise and surrounding conversations are pitched louder than Lisa and her friend, so you're only half-able to focus on them over anyone else. Later, a character explicitly yells at Lisa for trying to make a stranger's death all about her. The movie is constantly telling us that what happens to her, and how she feels about it, is both very important and not important at all.

Have any of my movie-buffy friends seen the flick? Adam perhaps?


  1. Haven't seen this (well, goes without saying, have seen v. few movies) but just wanted to second your views on the overrating of movies (and books, and such) that are large-scale/ambitious, regardless of whether they in fact deliver on their epic swagger. I have a particularly intense distaste for Kurosawa's Lear adaptation, about two-thirds of which seems to consist of Significant wide-angle shots of clouds.

    1. Ha ha, this movie has the equivalent -- shots of New York skyline with airlines passing overhead, slo-mo street crowds, urban sunsets, set to opera.

    2. Yes, the entirety of even Aer Lingus flying overhead would be almost redeemingly weird.

      un film du Sarang

      [Extended cut]

  2. Haven't seen the movie Margaret, though your post about it here intrigues me.

    It's kind of a tangent, maybe, but your mention of the Auden poem (and quoting it here) took me a couple of places. Adrienne Rich (if I'm remembering right) quoted the first two lines of the poem in her last book.

    And, a couple of weekends ago I saw, at the Minneapolis Art Institute, a traveling exhibit of paintings by Rembrandt and by various of his students, painters in his workshop, painters who were working at about the same time, etc. I look into the faces of the figures in Rembrandt's paintings, the great moral gravity gathered in the substance of the faces and bodies, and that incomparable lighting -- "About suffering they were never wrong,/ The old Masters..."

    I really liked Kurasawa's Lear adaptation.