Kenneth Lonergan, 2011
#3, 2011 Skandies
First, a technical note. This movie was filmed in 2005, but not released until 2011, apparently because the studio refused to release a cut that ran over 150 minutes, and the three-hour movie Lonergan made just couldn't be trimmed to that length without parts of it no longer making sense. And, indeed, reviews of the eventual 150-minute theatrical release noted that it was clear where chunks were missing — a character saying that she's going to the kitchen and then the film cutting to the bedroom, that sort of thing. I watched the three-hour "extended cut," so some of what I discuss below may not apply to the theatrical release.
I have not tended to be a fan of movies that are primarily about texture. When I read a review that says that a movie has no real storyline but is nevertheless brilliant because it's just so thrilling to watch the lead actor eating a steak — just look at the way that shot is framed!! — I know it's safe for me to skip. Nevertheless, as Margaret unfolded, I found myself feeling that there was something unusually good about it that I couldn't put my finger on, something textural. Gradually, I began to figure it out: somehow, it felt a lot more real than most movies. There were little, almost subliminal touches like… well, how about the fact that in this movie, people actually say "bye" at the end of phone calls? Or for a more vulgar example, consider the scene in which two characters are in the middle of a crucial confrontation, and one… has to go to the bathroom. And then we actually cut into the bathroom, and she's not doing the movie thing of psyching herself up in the mirror, but is just, you know, sitting on the toilet, complete with plopping sounds. Because that's something that humans have to do, often at inconvenient, stressful times. Much more importantly, though, the conversations in Margaret didn't sound like movie conversations. They went off the rails a lot. A couple of examples:
- A woman invites her attorney friend to lunch to game out a potential
The attorney mentions that because a witness has no financial stake in the
outcome of the case, she can't be impeached for bias.
At which point the woman testily asks what that means, and the attorney
patiently explains the concept and that what he's saying is good
But the woman won't let go.
"But do you really think we know what that means? Who are you talking to?
You know we don't know what that means!"
- A teacher is attempting to discuss the "flies to wanton boys" passage from King Lear with his class, and one kid (whom we've never seen before and will never see again) keeps insisting that his misreading (that Shakespeare is telling us not to question the higher consciousness of God) is the key to unlocking a play that has been misunderstood for four hundred years. It doesn't help that the teacher is caught flat-footed and can't explain to the student why he's wrong, instead just lamely repeating that, no, that's not what Shakespeare meant, and that it's time to move on.
It's almost as if these characters are people with their own agendas and preoccupations, rather than vehicles whose job is to efficiently further the plot!
I am happy to report that none of the above is just textural. (Pretty much nothing in Margaret is "just" anything.) The texture echoes the main theme, which I will attempt to tease out without giving too much away. Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a New York high school student of the "cheating on tests and smoking cigarettes shows that I have seen through this bullshit system unlike the rest of you drones" variety. One day she's walking down the street when, after a series of seemingly inconsequential actions, she suddenly finds herself in the middle of a hugely traumatic event, the most important and terrible she has ever been a part of, and a stranger named Monica dies in her arms. The rest of the movie is about where her life goes from there as she struggles to process this somehow. Was this a crime of which someone else is guilty, leaving her the duty to act as a righteous avenger? Was it a crime of which she is guilty, one for which she must find a way to atone? Or perhaps was it all just a sad accident, one in which she had the privilege of providing someone a final moment of impossible grace? "This is not an opera!", Monica's best friend Emily shouts at her after she makes the mistake of sounding a little too excited about being able to don this new mantle of depth. The lives of real people whom Lisa didn't even know have been shattered, and "I don't want that sucked into some adolescent self-dramatization!"
Margaret is wonderfully realistic, but while the realism is enjoyable in and of itself, it's not there purely for its own sake. Lisa's mother Joan acts in big-time stage plays, the soundtrack is full of opera, and the movie is about the disparity between real experience and the drama we attempt to fashion it into in order to come to grips with it. Look at how I described the incident that sets the movie into motion: I said that Lisa "suddenly finds herself in the middle of a hugely traumatic event, the most important and terrible she has ever been a part of." That line took a number of rewrites. Initially I wrote that it was "the most dramatic moment of her life" — but what does "dramatic" literally mean? Drama is a staged replica of events. The events of a drama are not authentically happening. "Dramatic" is therefore a very odd word to describe events that are really happening — not that they are here, because Margaret actually is a drama, but we do use the word to describe things that happen to us in real life, which is why it was the first word to spring to mind. So after I opted against "dramatic," what was my next choice? "Tragic"… but tragedy is just a specific type of drama! What does it say about us that our words for the landmark events of our lives are wrapped up with the concepts of inauthenticity and performance?
Off the top of my head, I would say that there are three characteristics of drama that lead people to employ the term "dramatic" in cases like this. One is that, unlike Margaret, most drama tends to leave out moments that are mundane or not pertinent to the story. The proportion of important events in drama is therefore so much higher than in real life that most people have a lot more vicarious experience of important events from having taken in a lot of stories than they have actual experience of important events actually happening to them. Second, most drama is characterized by heightened emotion; one thing that was impressed upon me when I started working on movies for a living was that while a few quiet, subtle moments are fine, ultimately one of a dramatist's main missions should be to raise the emotional stakes whenever possible. It's tempting to put these two together and say that, ah, so because Lisa had no previous direct experience with extraordinary events, she took a cue from the stories she had imprinted upon and ginned up this ersatz emotional response… but that's a little too schematic and isn't really what the movie or any of the characters in it are trying to say. As both the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem that gives Margaret its title and Ms. Not An Opera allude to, teenagers tend to have heightened emotional responses by nature. Lisa's cathexis, which seems to be staking a claim to relationships that she didn't have, may offend those who did have those relationships, but when they accuse her of being "dramatic," it means that she resembles the characters in a drama with their artificially heightened emotion, not that she's been influenced by them.
The third salient characteristic of drama is really just a variation on the first: drama has someone behind it chopping stuff out. Even a big ensemble drama carries the unspoken message, "These are the only twenty people in the world who are really important!" More often, there's an even narrower hierarchy: a protagonist, a handful of supporting characters, and however many extras. That's certainly the way Margaret works. But, as Emily in particular impresses upon Lisa, that's not how the world works: "We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!" This is an idea that Margaret returns to repeatedly: that this movie may be Lisa's story, but that hers is just one story of many — eight million in New York City alone. For instance, one early subplot involves Lisa getting asked out by the nebbishy guy who's been doing her math for her. She says she'll think it over, and a short while later we see them at a cafe — but what we hear is a long conversation between the two old biddies in the booth next to them, gossiping about a third old biddy's ugly dog. Finally we get close enough to Lisa's table to hear that she's trying to let the nebbishy guy down easy. My onetime Shakespeare prof Stephen Booth used to talk a lot about audience response to withheld information, and this is a classic case of it — we see the characters we want to know about, but the soundtrack frustrates us with the irrelevant gabbling of extras until, finally, the important information!! …Except, who ever said that this teenage relationship bullshit is important? I used to make part of my living grading SAT practice essays, and in that time I saw hundreds of variations on "I did not appreciate my boyfriend until he dumped me" and "I had this friend but then I didn't like my friend anymore so I got a new friend but then my new friend started hanging out with my old friend" and suchlike — it was almost as hard to take as the ever popular "swimming and/or rowing taught me that I am capable of more than I ever dreamed." Isn't the story of a crone afraid that someone is going to steal her dog actually more interesting? In any case, much as The Tree of Life makes a point of locating its story of an unremarkable Texas kid in the full sweep of time and space, Margaret locates its story of an unremarkable New York kid in the context of a city and a world full of other people. Scenes begin by sweeping across rows of windows in Manhattan high-rises, each with its own snippet of overheard conversation, before we finally locate Lisa. To the extent that the movie is about Lisa coming of age by realizing that the world isn't all about her, this device does bring home that theme.
But, I found myself thinking, isn't this kind of academic? The world may not have a protagonist, but the world is only experienced through individual consciousness, and each individual is the protagonist of her own life. That is, life as a person experiences it is actually closer to conventional drama than it is to this Total Perspective Vortex. Which brings me to the last change I made. My first rendition said that the traumatic event Lisa experiences is the most dramatic moment "of her life" — but of course the very point that Emily is making is that Monica's death doesn't belong to Lisa. The people close to Monica were much more profoundly affected, even if they're not teenagers and therefore don't lapse as easily into histrionics, and Lisa has no right to act as though Monica lived and died in order to teach her, a total stranger, a lesson about mortality. But who says? There is no cosmic ledger book assigning people the exclusive right to interpret events. If "object lesson about mortality" is who Monica was to Lisa, why is that invalid just because it doesn't match who Monica was to Emily, or to herself? Lisa is Lisa! Why isn't she allowed to just be herself with her own set of relationships?
(I have an answer to that, but first, a quick tangent. One of my high school friends, on whom I'd had an off-and-on crush for a few years there, recently posted that her mother had died. I left a comment saying that I was sorry and that her mother had always been very kind to me. Which she had. Though I didn't bring this up in the comment — it really was just that brief — I remember that one afternoon I had gone to this girl's house on some pretext and only her mother was home; she invited me in and talked with me about life stuff for an hour or so. Maybe she figured that I was a nice boy whom she knew full well her daughter was never going to go out with, so she could at least offer a sympathetic ear by way of consolation. Whatever her motivation, I never forgot what a kind gesture that was. But after I posted my comment, I worried for some time that it might have been inappropriate. Like Monica's interactions with Lisa, I doubt that this woman's interactions with me fell into the top ten thousand relationships in her life; who the fuck was I to allude to them among people to whom she was a close friend, or a mother, or a wife? I could hear everyone in The Dispossessed shouting at me, "Don't egoize!")
So — the question was why it's important to imagine the world through other people's eyes, when from birth to death you'll only ever be looking at it through your own. The answer the film seems to suggest is that the alternative is endless miscommunication. As noted, virtually every conversation in this movie ends up going off in a direction that someone didn't expect or want. "Oh my god, why are you so mad at me?!" Lisa squeaks at one point when Emily snaps at her — a question that reveals that Lisa's mental model of Emily was incomplete. One of the best movies I've seen in recent years is Summer Hours, in which a group of siblings deal with the death of their mother; we see that while they are all full of memories of her as a mother, they know little else of her life. I was reminded of this when Emily, suspecting that Lisa is really using her and Monica to act out issues with Joan, tries to get it through Lisa's skull that "I'm a human being" and "so is your mother" — that is, that while Lisa may see her mother as "the person whose role is to provide for me," that isn't who Joan is. This is what I had trouble with, in that there is no perspective outside of human consciousness from which we can determine who Joan "is" — but it's safe to say that "Lisa's provider" is not the entirety of how she sees herself. So, consider one of the early scenes, in which Joan, whom we've just seen on a pretty dismal date, comes home and decides to masturbate. (Realism!) She closes the door of her bedroom, lies on her bed, tucks her hand between her legs — and a moment later comes a querulous "Mom?" from Lisa and the door begins to open. Apparently Lisa is under the impression that her mother is on the other side of the closed door sitting quietly and waiting to attend to Lisa's needs, as that is her only role in life. This actually turns out to be a rare case in which insufficiently robust mental modeling of others doesn't send everything off the rails: Joan yelps "Just a second, please!", pulls up the covers, switches on the lamp, and says "Come in," then warmly says "Sure" when Lisa asks whether they can talk for a while. That's a pretty heroic response under the circumstances! (Lisa doesn't notice.)
Speaking of heroism, here's a tweet that recently popped up in my feed:
On the one hand, I get where he's coming from; it is indeed irksome to ask someone what she thought of a story and have her reply, "Well, I liked this character and that character, but not this other character…" Nothing about insights, nothing about artistry, just an accounting of how much she'd like to get coffee with each person in the story. On the other hand — of course my reaction to a story is going to be heavily influenced by how pleasant or unpleasant it is to give up mental space to the characters! So, I definitely admire Margaret; I have no argument with anyone who calls it a great work of art. It actually reminded me quite a bit of The Sweet Hereafter, which was my favorite movie for nearly a decade. And yet I didn't fall in love with it the way that I fell in love with The Sweet Hereafter, and I might as well fess up: to a great extent that's because Nicole from TSH was pretty much my dream girl, while Lisa was a chore to put up with. There's also the fact that The Sweet Hereafter was full of Sarah Polley singing like an angel, while, as noted, Margaret was full of opera singing. I don't like that kind of singing. I've thought this through for myself many times!