“Margaret” (2011): the poem that breaks

5 April 2012

It’s ironic that, during this film of all films, I’d be sitting in front of loud talkers. It was two 60-something women, women who looked immaculately put together. I asked them to please stop talking; they didn’t. I tried turning around and glaring at them; I shushed them. Other people shushed them. One of them seemed to get louder, as if to spite us. Who does this? Who feels self-righteous about talking in a theater after being shushed?

Talking in a theater may be one of the smallest of rudenesses, but it’s ironic because Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret treats such a tangle of related topics I almost wondered whether the women had been planted behind me as a form of performance art. This film is a poem about guilt and self-righteousness, childishness and alienation, bad behavior and misplaced blame in a chaotic universe. Its subject matter is so apt for our world, encompassing everything from spats between mothers and teenage daughters to the very largest questions about 9/11 or Israel/Palestine, that I feel gutted upon leaving it.Lisa (Anna Paquin) is a teenage asshole in the vein of Rutgers student Dharun Ravi, whose lawyers recently tried to argue in court that he wasn’t homophobic when he set up a webcam to catch his gay roommate inflagrante with another man; rather, they argued, Ravi was only guilty of being a typical college-age asshole. That defense didn’t save Ravi from being declared guilty of bias intimidation. In Lisa’s case, being a typical teenage asshole means she’s accustomed to such mundane thoughtlessness that she has no idea what to do with the consequences of her own actions when they are shown, uncontrovertibly, to make her guilty of the most serious crimes.

It won’t spoil anything to tell you that very early on in the film, she witnesses — and is partly responsible for — the gruesome death of a woman crossing an ordinary street in New York. Like any typical teen, Lisa tries to suppress the event, returning to the usual business of an overprivileged private-school kid: lazy performances on tests and in her debate class, boys, snapping at her mother. But gradually that business takes on an edge it didn’t have before. She jerks around one boy by messing with a different one; her sharp-tongued takedowns of her mother have a bitterness she can’t control; her debates in class turn vicious. Lisa becomes the human manifestation of Dr. Doolittle’s pushmi pullyu, simultaneously grasping for and pushing back at everyone around her. It’s so frantic, this pushing and pulling, that it starts to look almost sociopathic.

That neurotic quality of her own behavior is not lost on her. So she belatedly decides to mourn the woman who died in her arms, and those feelings ultimately morph into something more complicated — feelings Lisa clearly cannot handle. Does she want some kind of retribution? Is it enough to drag other people along with her on these emotional highs and lows? Will she feel better if she just wins a few arguments with her mother or in her debate class?

You can’t help but fret when she forms an attachment to the dead woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) — a beautiful woman about the age of Lisa’s mother with an appealing, deliberate pattern of speech that contrasts sharply to Lisa’s patter. Is it the woman’s grief that draws the teenager, or is it the illusion of calmness in her carefully-chosen sentences?

One of her teachers asks her early on whether she’s ever found herself suddenly fascinated by something she’d never shown an interest in before. “No,” she says, like the asshole she is, like the teenager who feels bound and determined to be contrary, independent. Yet something eats away at her edges. When her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) reads the Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall/ To a young child,” we see a glimpse of something — is it interest, or is it recognition?

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.

Does she hear that poem, its warning words about mortality, about self-recognition, about the cruel side of such understanding? When her teacher asks her to comment, she snaps back at him that she has nothing to say.

Between Anna Paquin’s talent and Kenneth Lonergan’s perfect dialogue — this man has reproduced teenager talk like no one I’ve ever heard — you find yourself spending 150 minutes with a person who is, unlike Hopkins’ Margaret, neither truly a child nor very likeable, yet still somehow riveting to watch. She’s so reckless with that force of will, so angry. No one escapes her lash, least of all herself. You can’t watch this film without decrying the fact that Paquin has settled in for wallowing in all that campy True Blood TV nonsense (and let’s not forget the blonde dye job and the nasty tan), because in this role she shows a crazy genius for being way too smart and mean and unhinged, so much so that she comes close to despising herself.

Perhaps the most famous thing about this film (and the reason for its stingy limited release to only a few theaters in the U.S.) is the battle between director Lonergan and the distributors at Fox Searchlight. After completing the film in 2006, Lonergan embarked on a years-long battle with the distributor over its length. Whereas the director’s cut was nearly 3 hours long, the distributor demanded that it be cut by at least 30 minutes. Only after the intervention of Martin Scorcese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who together produced a 150-minute version that the director signed off on, did the film finally get released late last year — and then only in a tiny number of theaters. A grassroots movement of critics quickly grew up to keep the film in theaters and earn it a wider release (to limited success).

Even if I hadn’t known this back story, I would have noticed the film’s choppiness. I opened by calling this film a poem about guilt, and I mean it seriously — but it is a broken, choppy poem whose breaks and abrupt transitions feel increasingly messy as the film moves along. Anyone who knows and loves Lonergan’s perfectYou Can Count On Me(2000) knows that he is capable of laser-like poetic focus, unity, and subtlety, perhaps more than any other director you can think of. This is a broken poem, one that forces you to see its jumps and awkwardnesses.

But how is it possible that the film’s editorial choppiness nevertheless has a poetry of its own? It somehow nails down the film’s overall themes, and underlines them. Someday I want to see Lonergan’s own director’s cut; I can only hope he finds a way to release it on DVD when the time comes. But no matter how beautifully that version might flow from scene to scene, I won’t forget the way this version told me something else about the emotional pinball engendered by traumatic events, and the way a person might intermittently compartmentalize her own responses to the world around her.

My greatest fear is that Lonergan’s fight with Fox will embitter him to the screenwriting and directing he’s so extraordinarily good at. And if there’s anything I learned from watching Margaret, it’s that we need Kenneth Lonergan to help us through our ugly world. The film’s conclusion (resolution?) is so real, so simple, that it cut through the loud, rude chatter of those women behind me, such that I couldn’t muster much more anger toward them. Life is too short; as the heart grows older it will come to such sights colder.

Advertisements

6 Responses to ““Margaret” (2011): the poem that breaks”

  1. Ness Says:

    I’ve come across your blog couple of days ago and read every single post since! You are doing wonderful job. Thank you.

    Ness

  2. servetus Says:

    Wow, this film sounds amazing. Any filmmaker who finds a way to quote Gerard Manly Hopkins and not be oxy about it has my vote.

    • Didion Says:

      I know, right? And somehow, watching Paquin’s face absorb those words while she’s undergoing her own turmoil, even as she’s determined to keep her game face on in the middle of a school day… spectacular.


  3. […] Don’s freewheeling artist girlfriend in Season 1; in a bit role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; and most notably as Anne Hathaway’s soon-to-be-married sister in Rachel Getting […]


  4. […] Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: