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Interesting Failures #1: “Margaret”

July 10, 2012

The title of the blog you’re reading (I hope) is a very loose paraphrase of Francois Truffaut’s famous quote from his book The Films in My Life. In it, he wrote, “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between, I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.” That’s a pretty stringent critical standard to apply to movies, and given how often I disagreed with him as a critic (he being an auteurist, while, as I’ve said before, I tend more towards the Paulette side), I’d probably apply it in different ways than he did. And as Pauline Kael pointed out in her essay “Fear of Movies” (from her collection When the Lights go Down), this leaves out silly movies that don’t have much to do with cinema but can be fun anyway (I don’t know, for example, what the Jackass movies have to do with cinema or film, for example, but I must admit I laughed a lot at the first one). And it also may seem to leave out genre films that don’t transcend their origins but are fun to watch if done well (The Lincoln Lawyer, which I recently re-watched, qualifies here ). But for all intents and purposes, I agree with the sentiment, particularly the one expressed in the last part of the quote; “I am not interested in all those films that do not pulse.”

My interpretation of what Truffaut wrote goes something like this. We all are told by industry professionals, filmmakers, and media “insiders” how no one sets out to make a bad movie on purpose, and that may be true to some extent. Nevertheless, there are many movies that come to theaters that give off a whiff of being what William Goldman once called “Cash Register pictures” – only made to make money. And those are the movies that don’t interest me at all (along with movies that offend me on some level, or movies that seemed destined to insult my intelligence, but that’s for another discussion). On the other hand, movies where you can detect some kind of passion involved, a reason to make it other than it seemed like it would make a quick buck, are the ones I do respond to.

Admittedly, you can go too far in the other direction, assuming all you need to make a film is a personal vision to make a film great, by which rights Ed Wood would be a great filmmaker (by comparison, this reminds me of what I hate so much about sports announcers, when they talk endlessly about an athlete or team’s “heart”. Yes, it that helps, but it also takes talent!). And yet, when a filmmaker clearly has a passion for a project, but their reach exceeds their grasp, the end result can be what I call an “interesting failure” (failure may be too harsh a term, but it’s the best I could come up with; it’s a failure in the sense it didn’t reach its goals, not that it’s a complete failure). I obviously wish the movie was better, and try to point where I think it could and should have been better, but I’m not sorry I saw it, and find it more valuable to watch than any of those “Cash Register” movies. Unfortunately, in this day and age, the “Cash Register” movies are often treated by critics and audiences (or, at least, the audience members who comment on reviews) with a collective shrug, as if to say, “Okay, we know this is bad or, worse still, boring, but what can you do?”; meanwhile, “interesting failures” generally get treated by critics as if they’re some disease that needs to be stamped out without prejudice.* I don’t know about you, but I find that incredibly disheartening.

There are, of course, exceptions to that harsh treatment (to my mind, of course) of interesting failures, and one such exception was  Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, which comes out on DVD today. Granted, this film is somewhat of a special case; Lonergan shot the film in 2005 and Fox Searchlight, the studio, had test screenings of it in 2006 (which is how I first saw the film), but Lonergan, Fox Searchlight, and Gary Gilbert (an independent producer best known for being co-owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team) fought over the final cut of the film The version I saw ran for three hours; the studio wanted two hours, and maybe would have settled for a little more than that. Finally, with the help of Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker, all parties found a version they could live with, at two-and-a-half hours, and the film was released in theaters last September. Unfortunately, Fox Searchlight put very little publicity behind it (perhaps being weary of the five year battle), and only gave it a limited release. It’s always crapshoot how films that have been delayed for a long time will do with critics, but in this case, there was quite a lot of support for the movie, and even critics who didn’t like the movie – like A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Andrew O’Hehir of Salon – recognized this was a movie with a pulse. And last night, Indiewire sponsored a free screening of Lonergan’s cut of the movie, with playwright Tony Kushner moderating a discussion afterwards with Lonergan and members of the cast.

(As an aside, and in the interests of full disclosure: back when I worked at the late and lamented World of Video – located in the West Village – one of our infrequent customers was J. Smith-Cameron, who not only appears in the film, but is also Lonergan’s wife in real life. She was always pleasant enough when she came in, and whenever she did come in, I would always ask her about the status of Margaret, mentioning to her I had seen a rough cut and was anxious to see it in finished form. Each time, she would politely tell me the movie was still in limbo, and she couldn’t really say much more. Finally, on the eve of the film’s theatrical release, she came into the store again, I told her how glad I was the film was finally getting released, and she graciously thanked me. She also added while she of course wish the release version had been Lonergan’s original cut, it was a version both of them were okay with. At the screening of Lonergan’s cut last night, I didn’t get to talk to her for long, but I did tell her how nice it must be to finally have his version available finally, and she smiled and said yes.)

Margaret (the title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall”, which John (Matthew Broderick), an English teacher, reads aloud) is, briefly, the story of Lisa (Anna Paquin), a hyper-articulate high school student who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a divorcee and stage actress. While she has a rebellious side – she’s caught cheating on her math test by her teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) – she generally seems to be an okay person interested in normal teenage things. One of them is getting together in the future with her father Karl (Lonergan), who lives in California, and since they’ll be horseback riding, she wants to buy a cowboy hat. After fruitlessly going to stores to find one she liked (Krysten Ritter, best known for her current ABC sitcom Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23, appears briefly as a sales clerk), Lisa is outside a store window when she spots a bus being driven by Maretti (Mark Ruffalo), who’s wearing a cowboy hat she likes. She runs after the bus as it drives slowly, calling for the driver, and Maretti, confused but intrigued, looks out at her and tries to respond. As she calls out to him, asking where he got the hat, and he tries to hear her, we can sense a playful banter being set up between them. Then tragedy strikes. The traffic light Maretti is coming up to turns red, but the bus doesn’t stop in time, and hits Monica (Allison Janney), a woman who was walking across the street, and runs her over, which ends up killing her. Lisa, completely distraught, holds her hand as she dies.

The rest of the movie, in general, deals with Lisa’s state of mind after that tragedy. Initially, when asked about happened, Lisa says the bus had a green light, and Monica just happened to walk in front of the bus, so it was an unavoidable (if of course tragic) accident. But soon after, she starts to change her mind. She tries to convince Detective Mitchell (Stephen Adly Guirgis), the detective investigating the crash, to find Maretti at fault. While trying to find Monica’s family (the only one she finds is her estranged cousin Abigail (Betsy Aidem), who wants nothing to do with Lisa at first), she connects with Emily (Jeannie Berlin), Monica’s best friend, and tries to help her sue the city and Maretti for the crash, even though she does have qualms about hurting his family, especially after she goes to his house in Bay Ridge to confront him. She starts acting out in class, especially in her civics class when talking about 9/11 (more on that later). She goes out of her way to snap at her mother, who is nervous with a new play and a new boyfriend, Ramon (Jean Reno), a software designer. She decides to lose her virginity to Paul (Kieran Culkin), a slacker classmate she is as indifferent to as he is towards her, even though Darren (John Gallagher Jr.), a nice classmate who’s declared himself to her (she sends conflicting messages to him). She even snaps at her father on the phone when he ends up cancelling the horseback riding trip. In short, she does everything except confront her own guilt about what happened, and yet just about everything she does or says is under the surface a way of expressing that guilt.

The end of the film involves Lisa and Joan attending a performance of the opera Tales of Hoffman, and in the Q&A that followed, Lonergan said the opera music featured in the movie (more of it added as background music in his cut) was a way of underscoring the fact the characters of the movie, particularly of course Lisa, were turning their lives into an opera, with all the passion involved. In one of the conversations with her father, Lisa claims she’s not trying to turn the accident into her own moral gymnasium (an allusion to George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman), but in fact, that is exactly what she’s doing; several characters, especially Emily, end up calling her on it. But although Lisa is an extreme example of this, she’s not the only one; Abigail, for example, only comes back into caring about Monica’s death when Emily and Lisa decide to file a wrongful death suit against the city, meaning there’s money involved (though to be fair, Lonergan implies her family has been struggling in several ways).

Trying to explore this mindset means going through several figurative minefields, and I don’t think Lonergan completely avoids them. For starters, there’s the look of the movie. While the storyline and characters are operatic, as is the music, the camerawork by Ryszard Lenczewski (who also shot the little-seen gems Intermission and My Summer of Love), as befitting a dialogue-heavy film, is more restrained – except for a few slow-motion crowd shots which are done well – but sometimes clumsily done. Lonergan’s version makes Lisa’s confession scene a little better played than it did in the theatrical cut (and, if memory serves, the test screening version), but while the power of that scene remains thanks to Paquin’s performance, it still looks weirdly shot, and doesn’t quite do her justice. Lonergan also added more shots of airplanes and helicopters flying overhead as a way of illustrating the mindset of New York after 9/11, and in the Q&A, Lonergan allowed he might have been a little heavy-handed with that. I’m afraid he’s right, and even accounting for the fact this director’s cut involves old work prints that weren’t completely processed, they don’t feel integrated into the rest of the film (Lonergan may not have been trying to invoke the battlefield metaphor John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood and Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon, to use but two examples, but I couldn’t help thinking how those films handled their helicopter shots better). The abortion subplot that felt so truncated in the theatrical version is more fleshed out here, and well-handled, but the scene where Lisa tells Mr. Aaron about it still feels weird, especially since it comes after the confession scene; if Lonergan had intended Lisa to feel contrite, it doesn’t come off that way. Finally, while it becomes clearer in the version how much Lisa has in common with her mother – while Joan is of course much more mature, she does share many traits, including the hyper-articulate nature but also a certain self-centered nature – and Cameron-Smith gives a very good performance, the relationship between Joan and Ramon still feels like it belongs in another movie. I know part of the point of the relationship is Ramon feels more for Joan than the other way around, but she and Reno don’t quite connect, and the way the relationship is resolved, while it ties in to the theme of characters learning their own troubles aren’t as important in the larger scheme of things as they think, it still feels off somewhat.

Nevertheless, this is still a powerful movie, even upon a third viewing. One reason is how well it captures the city. Most of it takes place in the Upper West Side (because of the opera, Lincoln Center of course plays a big part) and the Central Park area, though there’s also that scene in Bay Ridge I mentioned before. It seems more and more these days movies and TV shows set in the Upper West Side take that area to be lily-white and noise free. Margaret is a firm rebuttal to that mindset. Lonergan mentioned in the Q&A how he wanted the noise in the city – from people talking in a coffee shop where Lisa tries to tell Darren she doesn’t think of him that way, to the noise outside while, at an outdoor restaurant, Lisa and Emily are meeting with a lawyer, and even to the noise of an elevator Joan takes – to emphasize how there was a world beyond Lisa’s problems. But it also has the side benefit of making the city feel alive in a way New York movies (and shows) these days don’t always. As for the other part, while the main characters are white, we not only see how mixed a city New York truly is among the crowd scenes, or even in smaller-scale scenes as when Joan is waiting for Lisa, there are also African-American and other minority characters who play small but important roles, from Dave (Michael Ealy), the lawyer Emily and Lisa first meet, to the assistant teacher in Lisa’s civics/history class, to Angie (Hina Abdullah), the Syrian-American classmate of Lisa’s who ends up having the most vociferous debates with her about 9/11 (I do wish her character had been more dimensional; I don’t know if it’s the writing or the performance, but in the script’s parlance, she comes off  as too strident).

I have mentioned 9/11 a few times in the review. While Lonergan got the idea for the movie well before that (the bus accident was a story told to him when he was younger), 9/11 did become part of the story while he was writing it, and while as I said before, I think the visual metaphors invoking that day are overdone somewhat, I do think the movie works as a parallel way of showing how people dealt with the grief of that day, and in how they deal with grief in general. Lonergan described in the Q&A how Lisa was basically filmed to the brim of her life with the accident after it occurred, which is how people often feel after a tragedy; the difference with Lisa is it takes her quite a long time to let go, and as I mentioned before, she deals with it mainly by the way she acts out towards others, and in how she’s both arrogant and defensive at the same time, especially in the few times she gets called on her behavior. I don’t need to dwell on how we saw a bit of that after 9/11, but, to be fair, that can happen after any tragedy, no matter what the scale.^ How much of Lisa’s behavior is due to her being a teen is left open; the movie does show, as Lonergan also brought up in the Q&A, how teens are often self-centered and tend to dramatize everything, but also how adults can be somewhat complacent.` It must be said, though, Lisa’s guilt weighs heavily on that self-dramatization.

Lonergan’s dialogue is also a strong reason why the movie works. In a recent interview he gave, Lonergan mentioned how he’s tired of films where the characters explain everything to the audience, not just in terms of plot but in terms of the emotions they’re feeling, and said people don’t talk like that. Lonergan showed his ability for illustrating how people really talk when expressing their emotions in his first film, You Can Count on Me, and he does so again here. He also uses the dialogue, as Ruffalo pointed out in the Q&A, as a way of revealing character and distinguishing character, which is my favorite kind of dialogue, and an art that’s increasingly lost today. Obviously, when Lisa and Maretti are having their big confrontation scene, they talk differently because they come from different backgrounds, but even characters of similar backgrounds have that distinction. It’s clear, for example, even though Lisa gets a lot of her hyper-articulate nature from her mother, Joan’s maturity level (except when Lisa pushes her buttons) makes her speech distinctive.

Finally, there’s the performances. Another thing Lonergan mentioned in that interview I read was his criticism of how Hollywood movies today don’t give the supporting characters any interior life, and he and the supporting cast don’t make that mistake here. Smith-Cameron and Berlin obviously have the most to work with (aside from Paquin), and they both present their complex characters very well. Broderick  and Damon are nicely contrasted in their teacher characters; whereas John, despite his passion for his subject, is somewhat imperious (brought out in the scene where he comes across Lisa and her friend Becky (Sarah Steele) smoking marijuana in Central Park, and also in the scene where a student has an interpretation of King Lear John doesn’t agree with), while Mr. Aaron, while he makes a bad decision involving Lisa, seems more content with himself and what he does. And both actors bring that out in their limited screen time. With only a couple of scenes, Ruffalo is also able to convey his character’s working-class nature, with the defiance and vulnerability that comes with it. But the movie rests on Paquin’s performance, and next to Michael Fassbender’s work in Shame (though wildly different in approach), this remains the bravest, most honest performance I saw of last year’s movies. Lonergan’s version of the movie makes her character slightly more modulated – it includes a scene in Lisa’s theater class midway through the movie where Lisa tearfully reconciles with both Becky (after they had a tiff) and Darren (after she turned him down), which leads to Lisa seeking out Monica’s family – but mostly Paquin plays Lisa on the higher level of someone lashing out as a way to deal with her guilt. This could be an unbearable performance in the wrong hands – and some critics, such as O’Hehir and Scott, couldn’t bear it in fact – but without unnecessary bathos, Paquin also constantly shows us the grief and vulnerability behind her actions. In addition to the critical support, Margaret also had a Twitter campaign behind it (called “Team Margaret”), with supporters calling it a masterpiece. As I hope I’ve made clear here, I’m not one of them, but Lonergan’s movie clearly is a movie that pulses, and I hope with its release on DVD today, more people will give it the chance it deserves.

*Even worse is when critics, or bloggers, try to act like the “Cash Register” movies are art, just so they can justify trashing the interesting failures.

^My sophomore year in high school, for example, a senior student was killed in a drunk driving accident, and while I didn’t know him very well – he was a friend of my neighbor, a junior,   and though he had a weird sense of humor, he was nice to me – his death hit me hard, probably because it was the first time someone of my age or close to had died (both of my grandmothers had died, but I think I had gotten into my head that people die when they get old, and while I was of course sad, I wasn’t as distraught as when my friend died). And while I didn’t act out on the scale Lisa does in the movie, I wasn’t always easy to deal with if people ever mentioned the accident.

`The cast at the Q&A included Berlin, Broderick, Culkin, Gallagher, Kevin Geer (who has one scene as a cop), Ruffalo and, as I mentioned before, Smith-Cameron. The latter two were a little late coming in, and Ruffalo ended up sitting next to Lonergan. I did find it nicely ironic, however, when, as Lonergan was talking about adults being somewhat complacent, Ruffalo changed seats with Smith-Cameron so she could sit next to her husband.

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