Kenneth Lonergan shot his film in Margaret in 2005, and then entered six years of hell – he had trouble editing it into shape and there were endless disagreements over its length, the producers sued each other and him, and the delays kept bleeding resources he didn’t have. It finally came out at the end of last year, in a two-and-a-half-hour version, and although it had some passionate supporters – some called it a masterpiece, the year’s best film – it made pitifully little money. It’s now available on-demand and on DVD – the DVD also features a three-hour director’s cut, but I’ve only seen the shorter version.
I don’t think I’d quite call it a masterpiece, but it’s a fascinating film, entirely engrossing, with a texture recalling the great mature American cinema of the 1970’s. Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a Manhattan private school student, living with her mother, a successful theatrical actress. On a quest to buy a cowboy hat for an upcoming vacation, she sees a bus driver wearing the perfect model; trying to get his attention, she distracts him, he runs a red light, and kills a woman crossing the street. Lisa, the only witness, initially tells the police the light was green, but she later regrets it; when her revised statement can’t get the case reopened, she looks for another course of meaningful action. It opens up a legal and ethical tangle, something that for all her mouthiness, she lacks the sense to orient herself within. Through numerous classroom scenes where the students debate literature, America, and the shape of the post-9/11 world, her personal confusion reflects a broader incoherence, the lack of any clear frames of moral and ethical reference.
The film makes its greatest impact in spurts, in moments of squirmingly real interaction – Jim Emerson on his Scanners blog said: “I've never seen a film that dissects with such precision just how hard it is to have a meaningful conversation, to actually communicate what you want to say to another person, and to hear and process what they are saying.” Of course, this is a near-universal condition, the raw material of a thousand alienated teenager movies, but Margaret (very finely acted by all) is at times almost eerily attuned to Lisa’s psyche, from her self-conscious would-be eloquence at certain times, to her incoherent rages at others.
In a New York Times magazine article titled “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece,” the writer Joel Lovell says: “There’s something in the very conception of Margaret, in the themes it most ambitiously pursues, that defies perfection…ever-widening and interconnected circles of lives, their private dramas constantly thrumming and colliding. Yes, it’s a big, messy, problematic film. And it’s one that, with a precision and insight and empathy and large-heartedness you almost never find in movies anymore, captures the bigness and messiness and problematicness of life, and does it in a profound and lingering way.” But I’m not so sure. My favourite moment in the film comes during one of those classroom scenes, where a teacher played by Matthew Broderick leads a discussion of Gloucester’s remark in King Lear – “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods, They kill us for their sport.” He slams into a pupil who insists on the unknowability of the gods’ motives, and of whether human activity occupies any of their attention, rather than on the teacher’s more conventional version of its meaning, reflecting their conscious misuse of humanity. The teacher retreats into near-wordless anger, gripping his juice box as though he’s received a glimpse of hell: the playing field suddenly seems to have become vast and frightening.
For the most part though, Lonergan struggles to maintain such an existential charge. The film features rather too many slow-motion shots of Lisa walking, and rather too many pans across city architecture, as if it could invest itself with meaning by taking a deep breath and waving it in. Near the end, Lisa tells two of her teachers she had an abortion the previous week – something we haven’t seen depicted in the film, and which we don’t objectively know to be either true or false. The longer version apparently features a scene in the abortion clinic, confirming her story: omitting this information from the film seems to extend the theme about the malleability of truth, even allowing the possibility that Lisa might have lost her marbles completely. But obviously, the truth about the abortion isn’t inherently unresolvable in the way of a moral or ethical question: it’s just that the movie artificially withholds it from us, as if in a case of a wanton boy toying with flies – a ploy better suited to a detective thriller than a serious contemplation. For all the time it took to get the movie out, it still feels in the end like Lonergan might have been about to give the pieces another shuffle.
Can it be saved?
The final – rather flat - scene takes place at an opera, which seems to indicate something of the film’s intended scope, but I couldn’t help thinking of other sprawling films that have struggled to be seen as their creators intended, such as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. That film (originally released at 149 minutes; later restored to a 229 minute version that still feels weirdly truncated in places; now extended to a 269 minute version) seems to spawn potentially endless oddities and complexities – it certainly deserves the term “operatic.” For another reference point, I thought of the astonishing behavioural pirouettes and narrative swerves of a film like John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (why has the dog suddenly seemingly changed into a man?). It’s not fair to Lonergan no doubt, but still, Margaret seems overly linear and earthbound by comparison, certainly stepping up to “the bigness and messiness and problematicness of life” – and you truly have to admire it for that – but fairly completely defeated by it (even allowing that anyone would be).
Still, it’s easily one of the contemporary films most deserving of your time. I saw it the day after the shooting at the Colorado movie theatre showing The Dark Knight Rises, as Warner Brothers was canceling its Paris premiere and suspending its reporting of box office results, as if this indicated any meaningful respect for victims of urban sickness, when the crucible for the event (not its direct cause of course, but hardly a random venue for it either) was a showing of a massive commercial investment in an enterprise that whips people up into an anticipatory frenzy for narratives of sickening present-day violence and mythic vigilantism. The whole thing, coupled with the hypocrisy of Obama’s banal “life is very fragile” reaction, while refusing even to devote a token sentence to gun control, just about turned me off the whole industry. If it deserves to be saved, films like Margaret provide a large part of the reason.