Margaret (2011) – 15/15 stars

Watched Kenneth Lonergan‘s Margaret last night, and was thoroughly rocked. Thought it was superb.

I had huge expectations (and perhaps huge patience?) because I deeply dug his 2000 film YouCanCountOnMe.

To me, Margaret was everything I want from a Woody Allen movie. I’ve wanted to like several Woody Allen movies, but I can never get past my disgust for the main character. NEVER. Margaret has tons of interesting hard core new york characters. Its a love letter to new york in many ways. But it has no painfully neurotic schlubs who are desperate to cheat on their wives. and it also has very little goofy/neurotic/whiny humor.
it is still full of very hate-able characters. i guess. They just reminded me more of the snobby rich bitches in Black Swan than the snobby jerks in all those god damned woody allen movies.

I’ve read some reviews where people say Margaret was a very Cassavettes sort of movie. but to me, Cassavettes offered more of a “lets share a raw (amateurishly shot) deep dive into the suffering of some ugly losers.” I think his movies were impressively honest, and it was interesting how he focused on characters nobody else was focusing on. But I also find his movies very boring and anti-entertaining. (maybe i need to watch more? ugh).

Margaret struck me much more like a carefully crafted poem. It rides right along the edge of magic realism several times, without ever crossing over. Despite some reviews saying it was really about 9/11, and despite the repeated focus on the opera, I feel the core of the movie was obviously the poem they recite in one scene – “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (which directly name-drops the title. and seems to encapsulate the main character’s arc). It’s a movie about the lonely struggle to connect with other human beings, and finding a way to live within the strange inherited structures of our society (from dense legalese to dense shakespeare). And its a coming of age story for this sexy self centered drama queen.

I’d seen the trailer, so the opening slow motion shots of various people using crosswalks had me on the edge of my seat. Right up until “the event” I was waiting for a random …event. (I hesitate to describe it. because it would be rad if someone chose to see this movie and had no idea what was coming).

All in all, it struck me as nearly perfect movie. I guess I remember being distracted by some of the dialogue early on, which was sometimes overly verbose (forced). And I guess it was a very long movie (bloated? Epic!). And it occurs to me that one guy was maybe horribly miscast (against nationality?). but.
when the movie was over, I spent the rest of the night thinking through ways that different story elements echoed each other, and really couldn’t think of any flaws with the production. It seemed to perfectly nail what it wanted to be. Any flaws I mention now are only bubbling up after excessive over thinking.

but then i looked on IMDB and discovered it was a troubled production,
where the main Financier and the studio sued each other over how long it was taking to finish. Apparently Fox Searchlight didn’t want to outright fire Lonergan for exercising his final cut option (so instead they just stop paying for post production? apparently he had to borrow money from Matthew Broderick to finish it?).
In the end Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker came in and did the final edit (to which Lonergan gave his approval? whatever that means. I thought he paid to finish it himself? wha?).
so. that’s weird.
it makes me second guess how much I enjoyed it.
Maybe the choices I thought were surprising or daring were just experimental editing to cover major problems. ? hmmf.

Anywho. as filmCriticHULK says – film is a magic trick. it doesn’t matter what you think later on, if it totally worked in the moment.

– I vividly remember one excessively designed shot, which I’m sure was intended to be the final image (but was used earlier). In slow motion, we stare at the back of a matured (closed off?) Lisa, as she walks away from camera and gets lost in the rush of new york pedestrians. Camera tilts up to reveal the endless series of Don’t Walk signs. Endless opportunities to get hit by a bus. Endless signs impeding your journey (reminding you that you can’t get what you want). Camera tilts up further to explore the surrounding towering structures.
(then it awkwardly cuts to a plane or something. but i expect this shot was meant to fade to credits. perhaps covered by opera music, as several earlier static shots of the city had just hung around, covered by music).

It almost seemed silly, how forced this shot was. to me. but it’s also pretty subtle? so. Curious if it stuck out for anyone else.

– The choice to end the movie with mother and daughter embracing in the audience of the dramatic opera offered a more intimate emotional tone. And it kept the focus on this idea that Lisa was struggling to make her life an “opera” (an otherwise odd insult from the older Jewish woman she worked with to pursue the court case).
The opera ending certainly made me think about the ways we all struggle to force drama into our lives, and our inability to connect with the swarms of people all around us. I was really struck that we were seeing a way that the overly dramatic opera we pull around ourselves can still serve a purpose for those that look at it right.
Plus, I feel like anytime you show curtains pulling back on a stage, you are forcing the movie’s audience to remember that they are ultimately watching a movie here. (is it fair to call this a Brechtian “Epic Theatre” device?)

– I was also struck by the two stiff camera moves when Lisa confronts Mr. Aaron (the Matt Damon character). He is first framed in the middle, between young Lisa and his older teacher lady friend, and he seems trapped. But as the conversation plays out, the camera abruptly shifts over to place the random woman between them. They seem more like equals, separated by a dark line (which reminds me of another shot earlier in the movie, which showed central park with a strong dark line down the center of screen. was this the lawyers office? can’t remember) (… i guess this also echoes Lisa’s talk with the bus driver and his wife, on their front porch. except the wife was never framed as a foreground divider in that scene). This second framing enhances the war that they are playing out, sparring over whether they’re really going to talk publicly about their secret shared experience (sex). And finally the camera shifts over to show Lisa as trapped and small between Mr.Aaron and his friend. He has called her bluff, and Lisa caves.

I’m guessing this scene was meant to say something about how her quest to make the bus driver admit his wrongs has changed Lisa. Either she’s realizing that the whole situation is her fault, or she’s lost her drive to make the man pay. Or she’s realizing that she can’t win in these situations (which seems a core theme of her whole story. struggling to understand and fix unsolvable human problems. and the lonely distance you feel when you realize nobody else wants what you want, for the same reasons that you want it).

– I had to look up the word “strident” to understand why it was such an offense. Probably a sign that this movie wasn’t made for me. but even if much of it went over my head, I was deeply moved anyway.

Final Thought
I kind of hate poetry, because it often strikes me as an exploration of the failures, accidents, and limits of language. like the Emperor’s new clothes, I have trouble believing people are genuinely engaged by most poems. It is very similar to the way I struggle to believe that people can actually enjoy Woody Allen movies. But despite being so mired in hate for these two things, Margaret pulled in parts of both knocked me on my ass. So I deeply love it.

p.s. oh holy shit, the bluray is 26 minutes shorter than the DVD-only Extended Cut. WANT.

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