Thursday, January 12, 2012

Margaret (2011)

Anyone following a film critic on Twitter has seen the hashtag: #teammargaret. Since early December, Team Margaret has been shaking its pompoms on behalf of Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret, which was shot in 2005 but released only last year. According to the Los Angeles Times, the movie was held up by a protracted legal battle centered on efforts to get a cut than ran for the contractually specified time of 150 minutes. A two-hour-twenty-nine-minute version of Margaret hit a few theaters last fall and promptly vanished. A group of critics requested, via a petition started by Jaime Christley, that distributor Fox Searchlight provide them with an opportunity to see the movie.

So Team Margaret was born, and lives, and Margaret is getting a second chance in a few venues, including the Cinema Village in Manhattan, where the Siren got around to seeing it. Margaret is being championed by people the Siren respects, and the Siren does not, as a matter of temperament or habit, enjoy being the grumpy contrarian who rolls her eyes over the pet hamster everyone else thinks is adorable. But one word that recurs even in Margaret raves is "mess." The Siren concludes that she lacks affinity for mess.

From the opening shots, warning bells sounded for the Siren, along with the plucking, plaintive score. The camera shows people crossing the street in bouncing, wave-like slow-motion that highlights every flaw in movement and appearance. There are eight million stories in the naked city, check out the faces of a few. As prologues go, at least it's honest; this one story out of eight million will be going by at the same slow, unflattering gait.

In the opening scenes, teenager Lisa (Anna Paquin) is accused of cheating by a teacher (Matt Damon). She responds with a sullen I'm-not-the-only-one defense and gets off with "don't do it again." She meets a gangly boy, supposedly her friend, who's trying to ask her out, and Lisa demonstrates the generosity of spirit she will show throughout by refusing either to accept his invitation or to give him a graceful means of ending the conversation. Lisa goes home, brushes off her younger brother and digs an impressive wad of cash out of her dresser so she can shop for a cowboy hat. She goes shopping for said cowboy hat and gazes in shop windows. The shopping trip will change Lisa's life, but even at this point there are overextended scenes and marginal characters.

The accident that precipitates the rest of the action is caused by Lisa spying a cowboy hat on a bus driver and asking him where he got it, as she canters alongside the moving vehicle. Instead of ignoring her, the driver tries to respond--whereupon he slams through a red light and into a pedestrian played by Allison Janney. Few pay such a hideous price for a fleeting moment of stupidity, and during the agonizing minutes it takes the pedestrian to bleed to death, as Lisa holds her and two passersby try to help, Margaret briefly takes off. The film offers no better acting and no sharper observations about the behavior of ordinary New Yorkers than in this scene. The confusion and numb shock of the police's arrival and questioning, and Lisa's shattered attempt to bypass her mother when she arrives home, are also well done. So are the moments when Lisa showers off the blood while her mother tries to clean her daughter's boots in the kitchen sink.

At first Lisa lies to protect the bus driver, concerned that he might have a family and could lose his job. Later she goes to visit him and, upon observing that he does indeed have a family and is clearly afraid of losing his job, she decides to retract her statement; later still, she spearheads a lawsuit. Anyway, Lisa's shower marked the end of the Siren's hopes for Margaret. Despite Lisa's total self-absorption and complete lack of self-knowledge, despite her failure to empathize with anyone in this crowded movie save her own spoiled self, it's clear Lonergan loves his heroine, loves her past all reason; indeed he cannot bear to part with her. No walk she takes from point A to point B is too mundane, no phone call she makes too dreary or static for inclusion. What could be Lisa's lone meeting with a police officer is stretched into two or three, plus an encounter with his colleague and some phone chats. Lisa and the accident victim's best friend meet with an attorney--twice--only to be told they require a different sort of attorney. So Lisa and the friend meet with him a few times.

If you do not love Lisa--and the Siren wanted Veda Pierce to eat the girl for breakfast--good luck. There's Jeannie Berlin as Emily, the victim's friend, a real, recognizable performance. And there's a marvelous little scene where a bright student questions English teacher Matthew Broderick's interpretation of a line from King Lear and the teacher responds with lordly annoyance. Otherwise the many--way too many--supporting characters offer scant respite. Some, like Lisa's chilly father, played by Lonergan himself, are merely dull. Some, like Lisa's mother (J. Smith-Cameron), are as nerve-shredding as Lisa. Others are stereotypes, like the mother's boyfriend, a foreign businessman played by Jean Reno with courtly gentleness even up through the scenes where people start arguing over whether he's an anti-Semite.

Even when a conversation achieves a semblance of the rapid, rambling, funny way that New Yorkers actually talk, the movie is so arrhythmic that all humor withers--the Siren's fellow audience members were silent as the tomb. Some classroom arguments center on whether America Deserves What Was Done to Us, a clumsy and slanted way to focus on Lisa's nebulous guilt twinges and how sometimes violence just happens to innocent people. Other classroom interludes bring up apposite literary quotes (such as the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gives Margaret its title) in an overdetermined manner that made the Siren wish Lonergan would just throw up an epigraph like Michael Curtiz.

The Siren never warmed to the choices made for script, camerawork or editing. A late, head-scratching reference to an abortion seems worth a smidge more exposition in a movie that finds time for crash courses in Mideast issues, personal-injury law and the correct way to shout approval after an opera. The cousin of the accident victim comes to town and she, Lisa and Emily discuss their intent to sue over the accident. Lonergan puts this on screen--but for the culmination of the suit, the cousin is on speakerphone. During one meeting between Lisa and the luckless police officer who's dealing with her, you get two cuts to the parking lot outside the police station. But when Lisa makes a (reciprocated) pass at Matt Damon, the camera bolts away as soon as she starts to dive for his crotch. Maybe the Siren is a pervert, but she would much rather see how that proceeded than wonder why the hell she's looking at a parking lot.

That question--why am I looking at this?--is one that's seldom asked during a great or even serviceable movie. And that question came again and again. The camera stalls to offer a ho-hum view across Central Park, which is like a ho-hum view across Sophia Loren. The Siren lost count of the pans across buildings. Two highflying helicopters circle, the anxiety of that image diminished by the fact that the movie is still preoccupied with tort law. A boat drifts down the river during a legal meeting; moments later, puzzlingly, the backside of the boat disappears behind a building. Part of the goal, the Siren supposes, is to tie Lisa's dilemma to the larger one that 9/11 gave New Yorkers. But Margaret dawdles so much, its through-line is so slack and its heroine so selfish, that scotch-taped city cutaways can't give the film any connections it hasn't earned.

(Revised slightly 5/12.)


The Siren said...

Note: Due to day job constraints I won't be able to respond to comments on this one until tonight.

Philip Concannon said...

An excellent review, even though it's funny how many of the criticisms you highlight are things I really liked! I guess I just tend to respond to the kind of ambitious messiness that Margaret displays, but I agree that some of Lonergan's storytelling/editing decisions are puzzling, and the film is visually flat.

One point I definitely agree on is that Lisa suddenly blurting out the revelation of her abortion doesn't work at all, and that point needed to be either developed further or cut completely. Interestingly, I saw a comment from Paquin in an interview recently that suggested they did actually shoot an abortion scene, so I guess there's a 3hr-ish version out there somewhere that probably provides a more rounded, satisfying experience, and I hope to see that some day.

glennkenny said...


Sorry. Had to.

I find the less I think about 9/11 when contemplating Lonergan's cityscapes, the happier I am in general. In any event, I opted to look at them as emblems of the world indifferently going its way as Lisa presses on with her mad crusade. And I didn't "love" her at all, and I don't think Lonergan necessarily did either. Her maddening but not unusual perversity—adolescent, you might call it—did make her a compelling character, by my lights. Have a good day job day, Siren!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren, you cannot imagine how pleased I am that you were not taken in by this Naked Celluloid Emperor.

Here's my take, posted awhile back. It's been really lonely out Here Thanks for the company.

Kenji Fujishima said...

Mr. Ehrenstein: I read your take when you posted it a while back, and I'm sorry if this threatens to unbalance what I'm sure the Siren hopes is a civil discussion about Margaret, but how does that even qualify as "criticism" at all, especially compared to the Siren's far more detailed takedown?

As for Margaret itself: Far be it from me to argue that Lonergan's film isn't flawed and messy—though, as Philip suggests above, whether that's by design or simply a result of the studio-mandated demand for a 2.5-hour cut is an open question. But there's so much that the film gets right, for me, that I still love this film, for all its problems. Among other things, I've never seen a film that so vividly suggests how the full weight of one's own personal experiences can affect the way one responds to art—as evidenced by the final scene set at the Met Opera House, where Lisa—previously resistant to even the idea of seeing opera—suddenly finds herself connecting emotionally with Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman in a way that makes complete sense in the context of all we have seen her go through in her ultimately fruitless quest for some kind of personal justice/redemption. The adult world may disappoint Lisa in the end, but at least there's the possibility of actual beauty in this world, art and/or otherwise.

At least, that's what I got out of it, and is what I found deeply moving about the film, warts and all. But I suppose, if it doesn't work for you, it doesn't work for you. Surely not everyone seeing The Tales of Hoffman at the Met that night had nearly the same impassioned reaction to the famous Barcarolle. (If anyone's interested, I articulated my own take on it here.)

X. Trapnel said...

"Other classroom interludes bring up apposite literary an overdetermined manner that made the Siren wish Lonergan would just throw up an epigraph like Michael Curtiz."

Sigh. How much our present-day auteurs could learn from Curitz generally about pacing and telling a story. When the Siren describes
Loneragen taking two meaningless minutes to have a character cross a hallway, or whatever, I think of the airport scene in Casablanca, roughly six/seven minutes, in which we get Rick and Ilse's farewell, Rick's "explanation" to Laszlo (which may be glossed, "I bonked your wife last night. Thought you'd like to know"), the shooting of Strasser and "Round up the usual suspects," Renault's renunciation of Vichy done in a matchless visual metaphor, and the "beautiful friendship" finale. All of this done with brilliant editing, acting, writing, and telling visual incident.

The Siren's description of Margaret confirms my suspicion (voiced here, I'll admit, too many times) that so much contemporary
film is just a visual realization of competent and disposable "literary fiction" in which bland a-to-b verisimiltude substututes for artistry and imagination.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Different strokes Mr. Fujishima. My blog is quite different from my usual form of discourse -- being that it's a collage.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As for Tales of Hoffman, J'adore P&P!

Yojimboen said...

Torn as I always am between my Scottish grandmother’s edict and Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s embroidery, I’ve resolved for the rest of the week to let grandma hold sway and settle for agreeing with X.
Up to a point: Your ‘a’ to ‘b’ thesis is optimistic, my friend. I’ve now seen pretty much everything this silly season has to offer; The Help is reasonably effective story-telling and makes it to ‘c’. The rest don’t even reach ‘a’ and a half.

I suppose I’ll have to take a look at Margaret; really, how bad can it be?

X. Trapnel said...

No aspersions on Grandma MacThumper, but A.L.R. could be the muse of all moviegoers, for what is art if not the gossip of eternity.

X. Trapnel said...

er...make that A.R.L.

The Siren said...

All righty, I'm back. Thanks Phil--I am always so grateful when people disagree so nicely, and that's almost perpetually the case here. The abortion--I mean, I could feel the whole audience jerk back. I think that scene should have been cut. I can't imagine watching a three-hour version, though Margaret fans would universally welcome a director's cut, I think.

Kenji, by the time the opera scene rolled around I was too exhausted and peevish to get any emotion out of it, despite my love for Offenbach, and Renee Fleming for that matter.

The Siren said...

David, I knew that I had your company on this one. Tales of Hoffman struck me, when I saw it on a screen, as exquisitely beautiful but possibly the least accessible of all Powell/Pressburger films. I loved it, though. They can do no wrong.

The Siren said...

Glenn, Kris Tapley's interview with Lonergan today definitely supports your view of the cityscapes as a "life goes on, and the city is indifferent" trope. I do think that the 9/11 theme is part of it too, however. I just found most of them jarring at best and downright intrusive (like that boat) at worst.

I think that the poetic reference of the movie's title alone tends to support the view that Lonergan loves Lisa, or at least has vastly more tender sympathy for her than I do. One thing that occurred to me was that maybe Margaret's jagged editing on some level was supposed to echo Hopkins' "sprung rhythm;" Lonergan's an intellectual guy and this didn't seem out of the question. I was weirdly pleased with this batty idea, because I think good filmmaking is often very like poetry, for reasons I won't ramble on about here; and at least it was an aim I could get behind. But then I recalled that in addition to the theory being something I couldn't even begin to rationally back up, also I never did like Hopkins' metre; and I dropped it.

The Siren said...

XT, Curtiz's astonishing economy of storytelling is something I'd love to see more often, I will say that.

Yojimboen, on the one hand, I am always most eager to hear your opinion on anything I see, and even more eager than usual because I know my reaction to Margaret, notwithstanding David E's having my back, is such an outlier compared to most of my critical friends that basically I'm out there orbiting Pluto. You could be a sort of control. It's playing Cinefamily in your neck of the woods as of Jan. 27. I know this from Twitter. :)

On the other hand, my no-frills, Longworth-blunt answer to your last question is: You have no idea.

DavidEhrenstein said...

P & P's Tales of Hoffman is one of the three films Josef Von Sternberg declares he most admires in his memoir Fun in a Chinese Laundry. The other two are Last Year at Marienbad (no surprise there) and Marco Ferreri's El Cocechito ( a genuine "outlier")

Shamus said...

Siren, XT,

Curtiz's storytelling is astonishing rapid in that passage but he is also content merely to film entire songs leisurely (my favorite scenes in the movie) and labour over agonizingly long close-ups of Ms. I. Berg. But do you think any audience now might accept such deft narrative: they might consider it too "sketchy" or whatever.

Ditto, the violence in 'Blanc or Maltese Falcon (Bogart knocking Lorre out cold with a single not-too-convincing-blow). No blood?- Completely unacceptable. Now, we want slow-mo's of women's heads exploded by shotguns (poor Christina).

The new "realism" means that violence and pain and loss (and narratives that linger over such moments) are emphasized. Possibly to compensate for the ridiculous plots.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Off-topic, but. . .

Last Night's LAFCA (Los Angeles Film Critics Association) awards dinner was quite the deal. Doris Day was being honored for lifetime Achievemnt. She wasn't there in person, but in contact via Skype. Unfortunately that didn't work out as well as we;d hoped. She could see us but we couldn't see her. Norman Jewison spoke The first movies he made as a director starred Doris -- and he told of how much she helped him. Doris cried.

Also present -- and awarded: Alexander Payne, Dante Feretti, Michae Fassbender (who's quite short -- compute that in relation to the goods) Jessica Chastain (glows in the dark!)and the great Christopher Plummer.

I asked him about Nick Ray. He said he was there for the beter part of Wind Across the Everglades and was almost always drunk. That wasn't the real problem. The REAL problem was his grilfriend du jour. "She was a drug dealer -- and I mean Hardcore!
One day she tried to kill him. I'm not kidding -- she drive her car right into hsi trailer." I told him about Gavin Lambert's boo "Mostly About Lindsay AndersoN," which he hadn't heard of. The Non-"Mostly" part is entirely about Nick Ray and their professional and personal relationship. Plummer knew Gavin, of course, as he was around during the shooting of his great Inside Daisy Clover -- in whcih Plmmer plays a film producer who's a tree-way cross between Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick and Satan.

Now in his 80's and looking splendid beyond belief, we can expect many great Plummer perfomrances to come.

Ben Alpers said...

I haven't seen MARGARET yet....though all the talk is making me think that I should...but that I'll probably hate it. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME was a very nice little film, which really did live up to its hype (at least for me).

As for P&P's ToH: I agree, Siren. The least accessible Archers film...but well worth the struggle to "get" it. Once you meet it on its own terms (which took me three attempts, none on the big screen, unfortunately), it's wonderful. I've always loved the fact that it is one of George Romero's favorite movies....and that Scorsese fell for it through repeated movie-of-the-week viewings on his family's small b&w tv. Given how much ToH relies on color to communicate its emotions and themes, it must take a true cinephile to recognize its virtues in b&w (one might as well watch it with the sound turned off)!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Marty is nothing if not a true cinephile.

gmoke said...

Since Tales of Hoffman and Ludmilla Tcherina have come up, I will reiterate my call for a revival of "The Lovers of Teruel."

PS: Saw Hugo and The Actor and was bowled over by neither for the same reason. Both very well done but lacking a certain vibrancy and unpredictability.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I second that call. Th elOvers of Teruel is truly demented. It's P & P on acid -- cut with psycilocybin.

Oliver said...

To be said in a Joe-Pesci-in-'Casino'-voice:

"Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should have been perfect. I mean he had Tony from Italy, Pollack the Polack and Thelma the Cutter watching his ass. And he had fifteen million dollars, final-cut rights and every star on the lot in his pocket. But in the end, Lonergan fucked it all up. It should have been so sweet, too. But it turned out to be the last time that somphomore directors who got it in their heads to put the Great Post-9/11 American Novel on film were ever given anything that fuckin' valuable again."

Buttermilk Sky said...

Did I understand you to say that in a two-and-a-half hour movie, Allison Janney appears just long enough to be hit by a bus and die?

Like X. Trapnel, I was moved to paraphrase "Casablanca": "How extravagant you are, throwing away actresses that way. Some day they may be scarce."

MrJeffery said...

i actually loved this movie. i hope they release a director's cute.

Oliver said...

Notice how everyone in 'Margaret' is either irascible, or long-winded, or both? For all the film's ambitiousness, it's as if Lonergan's characters are providing us, unconsciously, with a representation of his own behaviour in the editing room.

Or, as Stephen Saito puts it, "It's so odd to see that with all the legal stuff brought in at the end of the story and Lonergan playing an estranged and distant father, it's a film that somehow predicted its own fate."

Janet Wootten said...

After the first hour, I remained hopeful. After hour number two, I was just plain angry that I had been subjected to this miserable experience. And after 2 hours and a half, I got up in disbelief that I'd sat through the entire thing. OMG! I think what I found so troubling was that this DITZY teenager had CAUSED the accident -- but neither she -- nor any other character in the movie pointed to her direct responsibility -- and this is something that I didn't see in the reviews either. She ran alongside the bus for at least a block, banged on the side, and yelled and screamed. How can the film -- her character, and the array of adults he populates the film with -- fail to confront that responsibility.