Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We Live in Public: Brief Thoughts on "Margaret"

I saw Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret last Thursday (along with a small group of other film writer pals), its final show in New York City. I went in with a mixture of heightened anticipation, thanks to the endorsements of many other writers of good taste, and some trepidation, thanks to its complicated post-production story. Once the film unspooled, however, I was elated to discover, as did so many others (but not enough of them, alas) that it’s a marvelous movie – in particular, a great New York movie. And frankly it deserved better from this city.

There have been, and will be, a lot of very smart things written about Margaret. (Consider Glenn Kenny’s very astute appreciation, here. And Mike D'Angelo's brief but equally astute appreciation, here.) Indeed, I’m a little wary of wading into this whirlpool. There’s so much to tackle in the film, and it probably requires a couple more viewings before I myself can say anything particularly smart about it.

However, I will say this. Better than almost any other film I can think of, Margaret nails something very distinct about New York: the very public nature of life in this city. We do everything in front of other strangers here. We eat in front of them, we cry in front of them, we have our moral debates in front of them. Heck, we even die in front of them. It’s just part of the ecosystem of the place. Everything is a potential intersection, a potential quandary, and everyone a potential ally or an enemy. And for the most part, all these strangers ignore each other; in his review, Mike correctly notes all the various shots of people not listening to each other in the movie.

But that apathy is matched in turn by the kind of judgment these characters render when they do occasionally pay attention: whether, for example, you’re pretentious if you yell, “Brava!” or “Bravi!” at the opera. You’re invisible – until suddenly you’re not, and then all of a sudden you want to be invisible again. This is the texture of life here, and something very few films truly get. The King of Comedy, by Lonergan’s mentor Martin Scorsese (who also apparently tried his hand at editing Margaret at one point), is probably the only other true contender in this regard.

The sheer number of bystanders and extras that Lonergan’s camera captures is astounding, with even their voices often intruding noticeably on the soundtrack. The city and its eyes and ears -- its total openness – feels present in every shot. There are no lonely streets in this film. No empty restaurants. And just about everybody somehow manages to navigate this world with remarkable ease. In one scene, while Lisa (Anna Paquin) is in her bedroom with a boy after politely requesting that he take her virginity, the front doorbell rings. She goes and opens it. It’s her younger brother. He walks in, she greets him casually, and then she drifts back to her deflowerer/non-boyfriend in the bedroom, who sits on the bed casually smoking a joint. The body language in this scene is remarkable: Everybody’s at ease. We sense no panic, no frantic cleaning up, no Oh-my-god-you-have-to-get-out-of-here-now moment. The constant presence of others is just the background noise of life.

At first the surprising length of the interstitial cityscapes peppered throughout the film – shots of buildings at night, pans across densely developed neighborhoods, long takes of Lisa walking on the street -- seem to be a byproduct of the epic battles waged in the editing room. (David Edelstein said it made him want to ship Lonergan back to film school.) But I found myself falling in love with these moments: In many ways, they are the movie. And they’re strangely mesmerizing, despite not being ostentatiously stylized or beautiful. I feel like I could easily watch them on an endless loop. {Insert wise-ass joke here about Lonergan’s film being said endless loop.}

I have no idea if these things add up to anything more than just some artful coloring on Lonergan’s part. But there may be something here. Consider the fact that, in the film’s final act (which some have found problematic), our heroine’s final confrontation in her epic struggle to get a bus driver removed from his job happens over the phone, with the woman who is the object of her rage reduced to being a voice on speakerphone -- many miles away, out of reach. Or maybe just this: That Lonergan allows perhaps the most sympathetic major character in his film – one person who never quite fits into the constant, ever-present public-ness of the film’s milieu -- the dignity of a lonely death. Far away, it seems, from the other characters, offscreen and out-of-mind.


  1. matthew david wilderOctober 21, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    Your take on this movie is unique--your take is always unique. I didn't see the movie as about privacy. Maybe it is pointed, then, how remotely and isolatedly Ruffalo and his missus live their lives.

  2. Thanks. I'm not sure though to what extent it's *about* these things. Rather, I feel like that's kind of the texture of the movie, and maybe it develops other themes around it.

    Glenn argues that it's about the private self vs. the public one, and makes a compelling argument for it. I need to see this thing again before I can make a forceful case for anything. But I just loved the fact that it "got" that aspect of life in NY so well.

    And I always appreciate a film that makes it clear I need to see it again to really untangle it, but is simultaneously so lovely and compelling that it *invites* me to see it again.

  3. I read this when you first posted it, but glad to have come back for a second read. You captured an amazing amount of detail in your initial observations. Terrific job. I'm sure Lonergan would be pleased.