Movie Reviews
Thursday , July 27 2017
The Anti-Bildungsroman: An Appreciation of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret

The Anti-Bildungsroman: An Appreciation of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret

Spoiler Rating (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?):  8   

A Tale of Two Cuts  

Hopes were high after playwright and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan had experienced his first bit of critical and commercial success with his directorial film debut, You Can Count on Me (2000), including Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (Laura Linney). But the production and release of his follow-up, Margaret, would prove to be the stuff of movie legend.

It started with an initial script reported by Lonergan to be 365 pages, which attracted an impressive cast including Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janney, Jean Reno, Jeanie Berlin, and Lonergan’s real-life wife, J. Cameron-Mitchell.  The cost of the film was to be split between Fox Searchlight and co-producer Gary Gilbert (a co-producer of Garden State (2004)). Apparently, the deal provided that Lonergan would have creative control over the editing of the film with the stipulation that the running time be limited to 150 minutes. Principal photography ended in November 2005, but even after consulting with the other principals on the film, Lonergan could not assemble an acceptable cut of the film under three hours. Deadlines and extensions of deadlines passed. Dylan Tichenor (editor of Brokeback Mountain (2005)) was eventually hired and compiled a two-hour cut, of which Gilbert approved but Lonergan did not. Eventually, Lonergan produced a cut of the film within the time constraints, but by then, the budget had exceeded $12 million and litigation ensued. After over a year of debate, the principals agreed to allow director Martin Scorsese (who had purportedly seen the original cut and deemed it a “masterpiece”) and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker agreed to take a shot at editing the film free of charge. They eventually assembled a 160-minute version, of which Lonergan approved but Gilbert did not. Finally, in September 2011, Lonergan’s own shorter cut (now referred to as the “theatrical cut”) was released in New York and Los Angeles.  Thanks to an online campaign initiated by Jaime Christley, critic for Slant, the release was widened, although according to Box Office Mojo, it never appeared in more than 14 theaters in the U.S. at one time.  Suffice to say, the film did not even begin to recoup its costs. (For a more detailed account, see “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece,” by Joel Lovell, New York Times Magazine (2012).)

Of course, that was not the end of the story.  As fall of 2011 progressed into winter, a Twitter campaign (#teammargaret) lobbied for a release of Lonergan’s original vision of the film. From sources of various quality, Lonergan ended up assembling a 188-minute version of the film (referred to as the “extended cut”) included as a bonus DVD with the Blu Ray edition. Yet as the extended cut premiered in the summer of 2012, even the reactions of the critic-advocates of Margaret were mixed. On one end of the spectrum, David Edelstein of NPR argued that the extended cut “is as close to a masterpiece as any American film in a decade,” suggesting that the accompanying Blu Ray of the theatrical version be used as a coaster. But in a review that includes an extensive breakdown of the differences between the versions, critic Ben Kenigsberg ultimately saw the extended version as “rougher” and “more alienating” and concluded that although “I can now picture a perfect version of Margaret, [the extended cut] is not that version.”

Having originally seen the theatrical cut almost a year ago and the extended cut twice, my own opinion ultimately lies closer to Scott Tobias of the AV Club, who characterized the latter as “a much different experience, and an even better one, restoring balance and adding depth to a film that was once visibly scarred.” To the uninitiated, I recommend seeing the extended cut first for two reasons that relate to the thematic resonance of the film.  First, I found Lisa (Paquin) to be more acerbic in the theatrical cut, leaving me straining to find sympathy with her. Second, the extended cut includes more scenes involving Lisa’s mother, Joan (Smith-Cameron), which I believe add to her important role. (More on that later.)

But that is not to say that the theatrical cut is worthless. It is technically more polished. And if you are the species of cinephile who felt the need to break down Memento (2001) scene by scene the moment you stepped out of the theater, you might be inclined to assess why Lonergan made the choices he did in reducing the film’s running length since these choices went beyond merely excising scenes. (For example, there are actually shots in the theatrical version that are not in the extended cut.) That said, the remainder of this discussion focuses on the extended cut.

The Margaret We Mourn For

The title of the film is a reference to a character in the following 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 heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

In a recent interview, Lonergan clarified that the poem did not inspire the script.  Rather, after the script was already written, he came to the realization that the title of Margaret would be appropriate. “When you’re little, and you see a dead bird, or you see a lost dog, it eats you alive. And when you’re 30, and you see a dead bird or a lost dog, you just drive right by it, and you don’t care. And there’s something about the sensitivity to death that a child has or any adolescent has that I think is ultimately more correct than the getting use to it all of an adult.”  Lonergan’s long-time mentor, Patricia Broderick, had taught him the poem years prior, and in the film, her son (Matthew) plays the literature teacher who reads the poem in a scene that roughly cuts the narrative into halves – one set in the Teen World and one in the Adult World.

At the very beginning of the film, Lisa is asked by her math teacher, Mr. Aaron (Damon), to meet after class discuss the fact that she cheated (at least in part) on a test. When she asks why enduring the slings and arrows of learning geometry are necessary for life, Mr. Aaron counters, “Haven’t you ever been put in a new situation and found that after overcoming it’s difficulties you had developed a new set of skills or new experiences along the way?”  Lisa replies, “No, I really haven’t.”

Within a few scenes, Lisa is wandering the streets looking for a cowboy hat to wear on an upcoming horseback riding trip with her father who lives on the West Coast (Lonergan). When she notices the hat of a bus driver (Ruffalo), she attempts to get his attention by waving and running alongside the bus as he embarks from a stop. He playfully acknowledges her, but in doing so, runs through a red light right into a pedestrian in the cross-walk (Janney). In one of the most compelling scenes of any film this year, Lisa attempts to comfort the victim, who is delirious and mistakes Lisa for her own daughter of the same name (whom we find out later had died years earlier of leukemia). Two men feverishly attempt to apply a belt as a tourniquet, but it is obvious that she has been mortally wounded. Nonetheless, Lisa is compelled to insist that everything will be okay when she knows it will not. We are left with no colder a sight.

At the scene, the police question a frazzled Lisa, during which she exchanges a glance of recognition with the bus driver, and she ultimately tells the police that the light was green.

And so begins the precarious journey for the viewer through Lisa’s own “moral gymnasium.” Having been thrust into the emotional and physical carnage of the Adult World, Lisa reacts in two ways.

At first, Lisa attempts to hone and wield the only effective weapon she has – her sexuality.  Lisa is certainly aware that she is attractive and where she lies in the stratification of the Teen World (alternatively teasing and rebuffing her less attractive “best friend”, Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.)). Yet she also perceives a lack of experience necessary to brandish that sexuality. To overcome this naiveté and establish herself as an adult, she calls the cool stoner, Paul (Kieran Culkin), who she knows is attached to another girl, and asks him to relieve her of her virginity. And by the second half of the film, Lisa’s increasingly more flirtatious advances toward the uncomfortably quiet Mr. Aaron evolve into tracking him down at his sublet and seducing him.

By the second half of the film, burdened with the weight of her own guilt, Lisa takes an unguided expedition into the Adult World to directly alter the aftermath of the accident. She begins with an ill-conceived attempt to discuss what really happened with the bus driver by showing up at his home unannounced. Agitated, defensive, and ever cognizant of the presence of his suspicious wife (Rosemarie DeWitt), the bus driver refuses to acknowledge any “truth” other than the official story or indulge in Lisa’s need to relieve herself. (“You want to ruin my life … But you’re going to go back and do your homework, but I’m going to lose my job. And who’s gonna take care of my family?  You?”)  At this point, Lisa’s guilt is transmuted into righteous indignation, and her own redemption becomes contingent on bringing the bus driver to justice. But do-overs are not easy to come by in the Adult World, as she realizes that the police and the district attorney will not re-open the criminal case simply because she has had a moral awakening. She eventually reaches out to the bristly Emily (Berlin), who was the victim’s best friend and is the executor of her estate, who upon hearing Lisa’s confession of what actually happened, strains to acknowledge that “I know you are trying to do the right thing now” and joins in the pursuit of the bus driver (“We just want this prick to suffer!”).  Lisa and Emily meet with an attorney to discuss a possible civil suit, but because of the impeachability of Lisa’s inconsistent statements, there is no chance of success. But as luck would have it (as opposed to any of Lisa’s own efforts), the attorney’s own investigation reveals that the bus driver had two similar incidents in the last two years, but has been sheltered from the fact that his brother is a union “muckety-muck.” Alas, Emily has a legal case for negligent retention against the bus company, which Lisa hopes to leverage to cause the bus driver’s termination. By the third to the last sequence of the film, however, the beneficiary of the estate – a cousin who actually had a contentious relationship with the victim – opts to take the settlement money offered by the bus company to avoid bad publicity along with the stipulations that the bus driver’s fate be left alone. Unable to cope with the sting of the disappointment and irony, Lisa explodes and runs out of the office and onto the streets.

Rebuffed from the Adult World, she immediately retreats back to the Teen World, where she confronts Mr. Aaron and a female staff member exiting the school in one of the most jarring scenes in the film.

Lisa:                  “Hey, did you guys know I had an abortion last week?”
Mr. Aaron:      “No, I didn’t know that.”
Lisa:                  “Yeah, it cost $400.”
Mr. Aaron:      “Do you want to tell us about it?”
Lisa:                  “Yeah, I do.”  [long silence]
Mr. Aaron:      “Okay, go ahead.”
Lisa:                  “Well-“
Mr. Aaron:      “Go ahead.” [long silence]
Female staff:  “Do your parents know about this, Lisa?”
Lisa:                  “Yes”
Female staff:  “Have you told the father, honey?”
Lisa:                 “No, there’s a couple of people it could be.”
Mr. Aaron:     “Well, I think you better tell them, whoever they are.”
Lisa:                 “No … No, never mind.  I’m sure he’s sorry whichever one he is -“
Mr. Aaron:     “I don’t see that it makes any difference at all if he’s sorry.  That doesn’t matter.”
Lisa:                 “It’s okay.  I gotta go.  It doesn’t matter about the father because the whole thing was my fault, so -“

And Lisa slumps away in embarrassment.  Throwing her emotional weight around ends up being counterproductive.

In my first experience of the film through the theatrical cut, I had an extremely negative reaction to Lisa in this scene primarily because I suspected that she was lying. But in a prior sequence added to the extended cut, Lisa reveals the results of a pregnancy test to her mother, which is followed by a rather harrowing scene in the waiting room at an abortion clinic seen through her mother’s eyes. Within this context, there is true pain and legitimate resentment beyond the simple need to lash out after the disappointing legal settlement.

The final sequence of the film begins with Lisa standing outside the opera with her mother.  She asks her mother to wait as she inspects an approaching bus.  Sure enough, it’s the bus driver, and they exchange a glance of uncomfortable recognition as he speeds by, punctuating the reality that nothing has really changed in the Adult World as a result of Lisa’s efforts. For just a moment, Lisa’s mother has to hold her up.

During the intermission, Lisa’s mother approaches Lisa, and in a reversal of her position of the merits of opera in a previous fight they had, comments, “Well, so far it’s not the greatest opera I’ve ever heard.” Lisa casually replies, “What do you mean?  It’s okay.” But as they both settle into their seats, the music envelopes the soundscape, the camera alternates focus on the performers, and in the midst of the beautiful expression of the opera, Lisa and her mother succumb.

To be sure, Lonergan does not always make it easy to sympathize with Lisa, especially in the theatrical cut.  There is a key scene where the relationship between Lisa and Emily begins to fall apart, as Emily voices her suspicions of Lisa’s interest in the case and exclaims, “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!”  When I first viewed the film, I felt like Emily was speaking for me. But I am a veteran of the Adult World.  And when I saw the film again, remembering the image of Lisa all alone holding the body of Emily’s best friend, I realized that maybe Emily and I were both short-changing Lisa.

Perhaps the entry point to empathizing with Lisa is her mother – the only character other than Lisa that the camera follows.  We are granted even more time with Lisa’s mother in the extended cut, and in several episodes with her new suitor Ramon (Reno), she questions the absurdity of the machinations of the Adult World – the pretensions and the pretending, as well as the suppression of expression of any genuine emotion.

Perhaps her character suggests that we never completely lose our inner Margaret.

By the end of the film, the announcement of intentions in the opening sequence proves to be ironic. Notwithstanding the heavy use of dialogue and familiar touchstones (such as sexual accomplishment) that often defines the coming of age genre, the film fails to provide the typical emotional payoff. Lisa is not necessarily a better person at the end of the film. Lisa’s loss of innocence is not bittersweet – it’s just bitter. It is the Adult World that is corrupted with cold moral compartmentalizing. And like Lisa and her mother, all that we can do at the end of the day is hold each other and cry.

Communication Breakdown

One undeniable aspect of both the Teen World and the Adult World, emphasized throughout the film, is the failure of communication. That is, we tend to talk in order to emote or perpetuate social convention, as opposed to truly engaging for the purpose of empathizing. And Lonergan is adept at reflecting this theme in most of the film’s conversations, although at times his methods border on the heavy-handed.

One of Lisa’s primary problems is her propensity to verbalize everything she feels (her insecurity about having sex for the first time, her suspicions about why the police refuse to react to her whims, her observation that Emily is “strident”), which invariably proves to be futile in the Adult World.  And most of the teens (not just Lisa) tend to speak like they are participating in a drama they saw on TV.  (Darren assumes, for no apparent reason, that Lisa is reluctant to date him is that she has been hurt in the past.)

But the adults barely fare any better. Lisa’s mother falls from the higher ground of parenthood more than once in her jousts with her daughter. A literature teacher eventually loses his composure in the face of an intransigent student. And then there is Emily, who not only tends to talk over whoever she is involved in a conversation with, but even snaps at her lawyer for using legalese (inexplicably telling him to “concentrate”).

Nowhere is the artifice of the Adult World’s modes for communication more evident than in a scene included in the extended cut where a teacher concludes that “there has been a lot of shit going on between the people in this room” and makes the pop psychology decision to compel the students air out their differences. Of course, the sincerity of any communication between the teens is undermined by the prying eyes of all of their peers.  It’s all a show that is literally performed on a stage.

As is evident from the sound design of the extended cut, the collective of words exchanged frequently devolve into nothing more than a din. In several scenes, conversations between major characters are shared and eventually drown out by conversations of the surrounding diners, pedestrians, and neighbors. At one point where Lisa decides to tell her mother what really happened at the bus accident, we are taken out of the room and outside the windows of the neighboring apartments, where we become privy to a trivial argument between a couple, only to return again at the end of the conversation when her mother suggests that it might not be a good idea to ruin the bus driver’s life.

Within this cacophonous world, however, Lisa and her mother are finally able to connect in the midst of an opera. The music, rather than the words they literally don’t understand, fuel their shared experience. If life is not an opera (as Emily is so keen to remind Lisa), it certainly feels like one. And maybe that common feeling is where our real connections lie.

The Time and the Place

Some viewers have suggested that Lisa’s journey, which begins with an abrupt and bloody scene erupting on the streets of New York City, represents an allegory for the identity of post-9/11 America.

With respect to the political dimensions of the War on Terror, there is a scene where Ramon argues with Emily over the “Jewish position,” and another where Lisa turns up a radio report of the Palestinian conflict to drown out the sound of her mother talking on the phone.  There are also scenes set in a civics class where Lisa and another student of Syrian descent, Angie (Hina Abdullah), argue violently over the U.S. versus Arab positions in the world, respectively.  To Lisa (who qualifies herself as only “half-Jewish”), the issue is reduced to the murder of 3,000 New Yorkers for no reason, and for Angie, it’s about America “unilaterally invad[ing] two Muslim countries” and “drop[ing] bombs on women and children.”  That said, another scene included in the extended cut suggests that Angie may simply be prone to anger and resentment (like a lot of teens), regardless of her political views.

For those prone to such interpretations, however, there are subtle visual clues, such as a flag prominently hung outside the bus driver’s brownstone and more specific echoes of 9/11.

But considering that Lonergan grew up in the same neighborhood where the film is set (the Upper West Side) and has used the setting in his previous works (the 1996 play, This Is Our Youth), I am not sold on the proposition that these aspects rise to the level of allegory. Rather, I believe Lonergan is simply portraying a specific anxiety that current fuels our failure of communication.

The Final Analysis

Margaret is a refreshing change from the class of dramas within which this film will inevitably be classified. Lonegran characterizes teens as they are – often times ugly.  We would all prefer to think back on our teenage years with the rose-colored goggles of a John Hughes movie, but Lonegran challenges us to consider the real contradictions of that age. Teens voluntarily ride emotional roller coasters. They do not think before they speak. And while meandering into the Adult World with the benefit of their last few Childhood Innocence tokens, they do tend to use the world as their moral gymnasiums without much forethought or consideration for the collateral damage they cause. That said, they are not so jaded as to blithely disregard that need to pursue truth, justice, and redemption. And their psyches are fresh meat devoid of the scar tissue of their adult counterparts. As such, Lonergan has made a messy film to examine a complex part of life, and he pulls no punches – not for the teens and not for the adults.

That said, this particular cinematic examination includes a number of character-building episodes, very few of which have any direct connection to the bus accident. This structure would not be an issue if all of these subplots and relationships were adequately developed, which unfortunately turns out not to the case. (The relationship between Lisa and her friend, Becky (Sarah Steele), certainly lacks that development.)  In a perfect world, a script of the original size and quality of Margaret might have been realized through a cable miniseries along the lines of Todd Haynes’ Mildred Pierce (2011), a format that would have allowed the viewer more time to commiserate with the characters. But we are not in a perfect world, and the film we do have is an imperfect masterpiece.

Grade:  A

About Steven

Expressing an appreciation (or lack thereof) for all sorts of films for over 25 years.

2 comments

  1. I really appreciate the “Time and the Place” section of your piece. Level-headed opinions are hard to come by, keep it up.

    I’ve only seen the theatrical version myself. It’ll probably be a few years before I decide to revisit it, but when I do I’ll try the longer cut.

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