Certainly the strangest entry in the case files of Film 2011-12 is The Case of the Delayed, Chopped, Restored, and Overlooked Masterpiece. Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow-up to You Can Count on Me looked like ti would be released as early as 2007, but a long and extended wrangling (and legal battle) between Lonergan and Fox Searchlight led to a long delay for the film. Eventually Martin Scorsese and his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker helped cut a 150 minute version, which was released in theaters last year to mixed reviews. By the time Lonergan’s preferred three-hour cut was relased (on DVD, in July of this year), it was largely ignored. That’s a shame, because those missing minutes make all the difference. If it had been released theatrically in its full form, it would have been Film Editor Michael Dunaway’s clear choice for top film of the year. In the conversation below, Dunaway and reviewer David Roark discuss the film.
When I spoke with Mark Ruffalo in January 2011, Kenneth Lonergan’s then-unreleased film Margaret came up. Mark told me, knowing that I was a big fan of Lonergan’s You Can Count on Me, that Margaret made that film “look like it was made by an amateur.” He was being a bit hyperbolic, of course — You Can Count on Me is a brilliant film. I thought that maybe he was just being supportive of Lonergan, who is his dear friend.
But after seeing the extended cut of the film, damned if I don’t see exactly what he’s talking about. You Can Count on Me is a gorgeous character study, but Margaret feels like something else altogether. It feels bigger. It feels like a profound meditation on youth, art, grief, interconnectedness, remorse, beauty, and about a thousand other concepts. It’s a film I’ll be going back to over and over to keep mining its riches; I feel like I’m just at the beginning of a long relationship with it.
More in-depth analysis later of course, but for now I’m dying to know what you thought.
I know what you mean, Michael, and feel similarly (though you may be a bit more content with the cohesiveness lost in such a scope). In fact, since my relationship with Margaret is still so new (I’ve only watched each version once), it’s almost intimidating to make conclusions about the film due to its density. But I’m certainly willing to try.
As you’ve already noted, the film clearly has a lot on its mind. From death and grief to the worldviews with which we understand those things, there are enough ideas threaded throughout the story to give way for a number of different readings. For me, though, the most apparent and fascinating is the concept of suffering, specifically how we as humans make sense of it.
Interestingly, I’m not sure Lonergan takes an objective stance on the matter or presents a right way to view suffering. He, instead, seems to offer up several different options and leaves it up to us as the viewers to decide what we believe. For example: Emily represents a godless understanding of the subject, seeing no meaning in Monica’s death or the aftermath of it (she establishes herself as an atheist and says that she doesn’t want the event to be a “summation” of Monica’s life). Lisa’s classmate (a persistent young man whom we see in no other scene) represents the contrary: In discussing Shakespeare’s King Lear, he insists that human suffering is not arbitrary, but that we only come to that understanding because of our limited human consciousness. Lisa represents a view somewhere in the middle or, perhaps, someone caught on both sides, trying to make sense of the suffering she witnessed and her own personal suffering which the accident set in motion.
Again, by the finale, I don’t think Lonergan sides with any of these viewpoints. Maybe he is unsure of the answer himself, but whatever the case, I find this conclusion (or lack thereof) to be disheartening. I find it to be that way because it feels all too, for lack of a better word, safe and void of any moral code. That said, I’m open to the fact that maybe I’m missing the point here. Maybe the subjective approach to this theme has nothing to do with Lonergan’s personal convictions and everything to do with Margaret’s being a microcosm or a window into a New York City which is, in turn, a window into our world. Maybe it’s his simply way of signifying the world in grain of sand—by looking at how we all view and deal with suffering differently.
What do you think? Do you think Lonergan avoids taking a side? If so, is that a problem for you? Why or why not?
You’re right about my being comfortable with the lack of cohesiveness, and I think part of my comfort lies in the subjective nature of our experience, seeing the story through Lisa’s eyes. The adolescent brain has so many powerful chemicals washing over it in crazy eclectic combinations that change continually, and it often makes life feel disjointed and less than cohesive. I think the experience of watching the film reflects that, and brings Lisa’s perspective even closer to us.
It’s for that same reason that Lonergan’s own seeming unwillingness to take a stand on some of the big questions he raises doesn’t bother me at all. I don’t think making grand pronouncements is his aim here. I think he’s exploring what life and death and art and meaning and transendence must look like through the eyes of a precocious (and yet dizzyling self-obsessed, at times) seventeen year old.
All that said, I also love your metaphor of the film as a window into New York City, especially given the crowded, overlapping-conversation nature of the environment Lonergan creates, even to the point of having us literally look at or through windows very often. But to me the underlying purpose of all that immediacy is to reinforce how Lisa has such a wealth of perspectives and opinions and life experiences being thrown at her, seemingly all at once.
You’ve certainly made a sound argument for the film’s lack of formal cohesiveness, and I agree that Lonergan likely intends to match Lisa’s ambivalence tonally and even thematically. But where I differ in opinion is in the execution of that aim—I don’t think it totally works, and that’s why, despite the immense imprint that Margaret leaves on you, I still consider the film to be flawed in spite of being deeply profound.
I say that it doesn’t totally work because after watching the film twice, I’m still left with a sense of dissatisfaction: The story doesn’t feel complete and ends rather abruptly, and there’s still a lack of coherence to the incoherence. That latter point may seem contradictory, but I think it’s a necessary paradox. In other words, a great film must possess a fitting vehicle for its content, and Margaret accomplishes this standard, but that fit should be seamless and subtle and, thus, contribute to the overall solidity of form.
Either way, you’re probably right about this approach contributing to Lonergan’s decision to avoid “grand pronouncements” and answer the numerous questions that he explores. That said, if Lisa’s story serves as a symbol of New York’s story in that it portrays a mosaic of ideas and attitudes, I still find it unfortunate that Margaret doesn’t take a stance on any of these matters, and yes, I believe that it could have without compromising its function as a microcosm. I know many moviegoers may consider this an unfounded, merely personal critique, but for me the greatest art not only reflects culture but also shapes culture, and through his subjective angle and the moral vacuum which that creates, Lonergan restrains Margaret from such a feat.
Anyway, if I go on anymore about my frustrations, it will start to seem as if my overall thoughts of Margaret are negative, and they aren’t; as I already noted, I uphold the film to be a distinguished work of art and, to borrow Richard Brody’s words, a cinematic wonder. Which brings me to another point that you mentioned: the way Lonergan portrays Lisa’s place in New York City via the apparent crowdedness of scenes and the overlapping of conversations—in the extended version, we hear a bystander’s conversation on the phone, couples arguing in their apartments and other similar conversations.
Through this technique, Margaret visualizes a truth about New York City and, moreover, our world, which is how despite our connectedness as humans we are simultaneously disconnected—we walk the same streets, eat at the same places, live in the same houses, we do all these things while remaining very distant from one another. Perhaps no scene displays this reality more than a diner scene (in the extended version), where we hear two elderly women take part in the most mundane conversation, while at a table behind them, Lisa spills her guts to Darren, telling him that she doesn’t like him, a moment that appears trivial yet leaves Darren scarred.
Specifically in the additions of the extended cut, Lonergan communicates this idea vigorously and, in turn, he really helps us sympathize with Lisa. As the viewer, we know what she is going through—we know her suffering—but those surrounding her either ignore her or look right over her humanity.
Exactly right, and Lonergan pulls off a neat trick there. He really puts us right into Lisa’s head and heart — we feel her frustration and confusion. But at the same time we’re aware of more universal issues that he’s speaking too about disconnectedness, busyness, isolation, solipsism. It’s rare that an artist can be so personal and so universal simultaneously.
The acting is uniformly superb (and Paquin is a wonder), the camerawork is gorgeous, the use of music is sublime, and there are a thousand other things to praise about the film. But that personal/universal balance at Margaret’s core is what excites me so much about this film, and what will keep me coming back to it.
Thanks for having this conversation with me, and I look forward to our continuing it with readers in the comments section below!