Wednesday, 15 February 2017

A return to MARGARET - Max Berghouse ponders Kenneth Lonergan's current success and revisits the director's troubled previous film

Margaret (2011), Kenneth Lonergan (Director and Scriptwriter), Sydney Pollack, Gary Gilbert and one other (Producers), Ryszard Lenzewski (Director of Photography), Anne McCabe and Michael Fay (Editors), a Camelot Films Production distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Cast: Anna Paquin ("Lisa Cohen"), J. Smith-Cameron ("Joan Cohen"), Mark Ruffalo ("Gerald Maretti"), Jeannie Berlin ("Emily Smith"), Jean Reno ("Ramon Cameron"), Kieran Culkin ("Paul Hirsch"), Matt Damon ("Aaron Caije") and Kenneth Lonergan ("Karl Cohen").

I decided to watch this film having seen and written about the director’s current film, Manchester by the Sea.  That film polarised viewers. So first, the editor of this blog, a most perceptive cinephile, considers Margaret a masterpiece, whereas I am rather troubled by it.

The film was produced in 2005 with a scheduled 2007 release. It was finally released, and even then in a very limited program, in 2011. This version ran for 150 minutes. Subsequently in 2012, a "director's cut" was released on DVD and runs for 180 minutes. My review is based on the commercial release. 

In Margaret, there is no Margaret. She is the subject matter of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ from 1880. Hopkins was an upper middle-class Englishman, a convert to Catholicism, who trained for the Catholic priesthood and had a thoroughly miserable life as both cleric and poet. He was misunderstood by his superiors and was almost certainly (a closeted) gay. Objectively as a poet he is probably a major, minor poet whose work is quite consciously difficult. You don't read a Hopkins poem, you carve out a section and try forcefully to render it into meaning. The choice of this poem by Mr Lonergan must be considered deliberate by the director and I think refers not only to the major character, Lisa but also to the whole film, namely that one must expect, at least in some films, to work hard to find meaning and indeed beauty, rather than to be continuously fed images and meaning in a totally passive way.

Anna Paquin, Margaret
In the two films, the director makes use of well-known classical music (as well as original music). I can't be sure of the reasons for particular choices but again it would seem that as viewers, we must be prepared to work out what the director is trying to achieve. In Margaret, the first classical piece is "Memories of the Alhambra" for guitar by TarrĂ©ga, a soulful yet lyrical piece, in essence lamenting the decline of the Moorish palace and what it represented. The last piece of music is the baccarole, "Beautiful Night, O Night of Love" from "Tales of Hoffmann" by Offenbach. The first prepares us for loss and the second for renewal – or so it might be argued.

The major problem to overcome in appreciation of this film is its length. I can't say whether the longer version is better, or worse, but I can say that the editing in the 150 minute version is pretty much exemplary. There is hardly any sense at all of gaps in the narrative or emotional arc of development. Very occasionally one scene changes to another just a tad too sharply, but that's all. It has often been my experience that "commercial editors" generally working to the dictates of some Hollywood front office, can truncate a director' s work, with such professionalism that the meaning and quality of the film remains intact: it is just not what the director wanted.

Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Margaret
This production was beset by a number of years of litigation caused by the director's intransigence as to what was to be released. Again one has to infer that Lonergan very much wanted, and wasn't prepared to accept readily, any truncation of his vision, his 180 minute edition. Because this must have been deliberate, it seems warranted to analyse why. I would like to use an analogy from classical music. Up to the early 19th century, music was "classical", that is intellectual and controlled. The predominant trope throughout the 19th century was "romantic" which privileged emotion. Considering that the "headquarters" of Romanticism, at least in music was central Europe, where many of the early luminaries and producers of cinema, especially Hollywood came, at least by descent, it's no accident that Romanticism is a vital means of understanding cinema. Amongst the earliest of the romantic opera composers of central European extraction was Weber, criticised in his own day for his later operas being too long: about three hours, sometimes more. Weber was however a man of the theatre and knew extremely well that the patience of his audience was going to be severely tested by an opera almost double the "standard" length and yet persisted because his vision required an opera of that length – regardless of consequences. Mr Lonergan is also a man of the theatre, a very well regarded playwright. 

Much of the above commentary may be considered perhaps irrelevant as it focuses on bases for making judgements rather than judgements themselves. There are good/bad films and the judgement on these relates to such matters as fidelity in acting, quality of production, cinematography, arc of development, et cetera – in short, "production type" things. There is an equal basis for judgement being like/dislike which relates to the degree of emotional resonance one may have to the subject matter of the film. I am challenged in the former because of the length of the film, and in the latter because instinctively I am not terribly much interested in the subject matter of the film.

Now to the film itself. Lisa Cohen is a 17 year old scholarship girl at a New York high school, liberally brimming with "issues". She is resentful and unsettled, living with her divorced mother, a stage actress and younger brother. She is witness to and indeed is the co-author of an accident between a bus and pedestrian, resulting in the female pedestrian's death and Lisa's ongoing spiral of rather destructive behaviour in an attempt to find "justice". Her behaviour becomes more frenzied, unpredictable and bluntly destructive as the film develops and it is only towards the very, very end with a "reveal" that comes from a "hook" which should have been apparent from the very beginning, that enables "joining up the dots", tracing all her behaviour to her unrelieved sense of guilt and need for some sort of punishment to assuage it. It's pretty clear that she is feeling guilty, but it's not at all clear that even within the reveal, that she is self-aware. The preceding scenes, often apparently wildly divergent from the main matter, are like real life. In individual life, we gain broken shards of the truth and it requires effort and time and further opportunity, generally, to work out what's going on.

Pretty much each of those scenes is in itself faultless. Extremely convincingly acted and appropriately staged, although I did think that Lisa oftentimes had dialogue rather too mature for her apparent age. I rather think that the director as playwright, was not getting quite the right tone as the director of a film. Ms Paquin plays the role extremely well. There has been some criticism of her performance because, as she then was, about 24, she looks much older than 17. But I can scarcely imagine any 17 year old having the maturity to perform as Ms Paquin does. Incidentally most of the "young" actors were themselves much the same age – mid 20s and all acquit themselves very well indeed.

(Neither Lisa, her mother (J Smith-Cameron) nor her father, (Kenneth Lonergan), looks the remotest bit Jewish as one would expect from a name like "Cohen" but it does bring to mind the old Hollywood adage that to be successful in Hollywood "you must be Jewish, as long as you don't look Jewish"!)

Each scene passes by as in real life. Nothing appears to have been done to manufacture effect, in particular enhancing some sense of passing time. So it would seem to me that the director achieved his aims. I can't say that I found this entirely comfortable. It is rather like some mid-19th-century, particularly French opera, where the "Dandies" (the aristocratic male leaders of social society) came into the opera after the overture, stayed for part of the plot, left during the ballet (for a champagne with the mistress) and then returned for the curtain call. I mean by way of comparison that because the film is constructed as in real life, one can afford to miss – or at least not to concentrate exclusively on each individual scene, and still pick up what is going on, with both its intellectual and emotional intensity intact.

This is one film in which I would very much like to see the extended version. Not because it would necessarily give pleasure. It would give me a chance to have a full understanding of the director' s intentions and to work out whether or not he felt he had realised his aims.

Finally. …The actress Jeannie Berlin, clearly Jewish and clearly speaking with a New York accent, and whom I have not seen in a theatrically released film in ages, is absolutely superb. She was recently in the television series The Night of and I was struck then that her cinema performances were now mostly half a lifetime ago.
Jeannie Berlin, Margaret

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