(Originally published in German, in Cargo #14)
A Goal For #teammargaret
Did a Twitter Meme Rescue a Flawed Masterpiece From the Bargain-Bin of History?
Since television seems to be the new cinema these days, allow me to begin with a metaphor drawn from the “one-eyed monster.” Imagine that, in the parallel Fringe universe, a random Oscar-bait mediocrity (let’s say, The Descendants) was held up in a legal battle for four years, subjected to multiple edits, and eventually sloughed off by its American distributor, Fox Searchlight, given the most cursory of releases. Meanwhile, Margaret, the sprawling but achingly literate sophomore film by auteur and playwright Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) was given a Gala screenings at the Toronto and New York Film Festival (in 2006 or possibly 2007), with red carpet appearances by Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon. A fall platform release followed, with mostly strong notices, and a concerted awards campaign by Fox. Margaret eventually netted an impressive five overall nominations, with two wins – Best Original Screenplay (Lonergan), and Best Supporting Actress (Broadway vet J. Smith-Cameron, in her breakthrough role). A modest financial success but a clear artistic triumph, Margaret firmly established Kenneth Lonergan as an important voice in American filmmaking.
But of course, back on our side of the Fringe bridge, that’s not how it happened at all. Lonergan’s second film wrapped principal photography back in 2005 and was mired in a very contentious post-production process, the details of which are mostly unknown. (Lonergan and his producers are involved in ongoing litigation, so non-disclosure is the order of the day.) What we do know, from backchannel rumors and disinterested third parties (including Martin Scorsese, who apparently worked with Lonergan at one point in the process, finding one lengthy edit a masterpiece), is that the filmmaker was contractually obligated to bring in a final cut under 150 minutes, and found it increasingly difficult to do so. The longer the process went on, the more Margaret attained the reputation in the press as being “damaged goods.” What’s more, Fox had gone through several regime changes from the time Lonergan’s film began production to the point of its completion. So when it dribbled out into North American theatres in September 2011, Searchlight obviously treated it as a write-off. There was virtually no promotion, no website, no mention of the film in Searchlight’s Twitter feed, and most of its commercial engagements ended after one week. As for festival inclusion, it was reported that Margaret wasn’t even submitted to Toronto. From this, we can assume from this that it probably wasn’t sent anywhere else either.
But a few people saw Margaret during that brief time window when it was on offer, were mightily impressed, and made it their mission to let the world know. Los Angeles based critic Mike D’Angelo, who covers Cannes for the popular A.V. Club website and has, let’s say, a bit of a reputation for being a curmudgeon, was one of those individuals who took to the Internet – Twitter in particular – and began a grassroots promotional effort for Lonergan’s film. “Team Margaret,” or, in Twitter’s hashtag code, #teammargaret, was born. But the promotional effort didn’t end there. At the end of 2011, with critics’ polling and Oscar balloting in full swing, it became even more apparent that Fox Searchlight had abandoned Margaret, in spite of a spate of solid notices upon release. (Granted, the film also received a number of lukewarm reviews as well, most of which echoed the “over-ambitious mess” meme. More on this below.) Several interest critics had not even had the chance to see Margaret yet, and wanted a crack at it before poll deadlines. Would Fox hold press screenings, or even send out year-end screeners, as they had with Martha Marcy May Marlene and Shame? Apparently not. So the next step was a public petition on Margaret’s behalf. D’Angelo elaborates:
When exactly the #teammargaret hashtag became a thing I don't remember -- it was long before the campaign proper, back when various critics were raving about it amongst ourselves. At some point around November, [Village Voice critic] Vadim Rizov started bombing Searchlight's Twitter account with Margaret-related frustration, and I idly suggested that it might be more productive to send them a petition asking for awards screener. Jaime N. Christley [who writes for Slant.com] saw that exchange and quickly created the petition on his own (which I likely wouldn't have bothered doing, so all credit to him). Didn't really help in terms of actual awards, but enough critics who missed the theatrical release (or never had an opportunity, being in the wrong city) subsequently saw it via online streaming (provided by Fox, to their credit) that it became a cause celebre of sorts and did very well in the Indiewire and Village Voice polls.
As it happens, the resurrection of Margaret didn’t end there. Slowly, and without much fuss, the film even began a theatrical second wind, starting with a one-month return to a single screen in Manhattan at the end of 2011. Fox Searchlight has been slowly opening the film in one city, then another, ever since. Film Comment magazine, along with the Film Society of Lincoln Center (hosts of the New York Film Festival – better late than never) hosted a gala screening of Margaret, with Lonergan joined by several cast members including Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. And, in what must be considered the most substantial vindication for #teammargaret, if not Lonergan himself, Fox Searchlight will release Margaret on DVD and Blu-Ray in North America on July 10th, and it will feature both the theatrical edit and a 186-minute director’s cut.
Granted, this outcome is not exactly as felicitous as the one we could imagine transpiring in the alternate film-universe. (Over there, one would hope, a major film distributor wouldn’t squander its resources on a piece of self-regarding claptrap like Shame.) However, it is clearly as close to a happy ending as we any of us – Lonergan, the movie’s other creative personnel, and its ever-increasing coterie of admirers – were likely to receive after Margaret’s difficult journey to the screen. As D’Angelo put it, “People know the film exists now. And that many people don't consider it a disaster – that’s a victory in itself.”
“Though words of wanwood leafmeal lie”
So now, as Margaret begins its theatrical rollout across Europe, it has one more year under its belt and, indeed, an entirely new chapter added to its gargantuan prologue. Although at this point it was never really possible for Lonergan’s work to appear in front of eyes and ears completely devoid of prejudice, it now at least has some positive baggage to balance out the negative. But of course, none of this matters in the end. Margaret must stand on its own, and for the time being, it must do so in its 150-minute theatrical edit. Unlike many early signatories to the petition (including Mark Ruffalo, incidentally), I myself did not see the film until quite a bit later. So it was quite a relief to discover that, yes, I was on the right #team.
Let it be said, Margaret is an easy film to hate. But this is absolutely by design, and although it is a flawed work and one that displays uncertainties about its overall form, it is in fact one of the boldest, most original American art films of the previous decade. But it has so many strikes against it -- in terms of the present state of film culture and our usual viewing habits -- that for it to fully connect Lonergan would have needed to have every opportunity to calibrate each moment, each element just right. The longer cut will be revealing, but the present “distributor’s edit” is fairly well tuned all the same.
First, there is no character named Margaret. This throws off most viewers (indeed, most critics) from the outset. The title is taken from the poem, “Spring and Fall” (1880) by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is read aloud in a high school English class. The teacher (Broderick) simply presents the poem, we catch glimpses of our protagonist, Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) in her desk, and as soon as he’s finished, the scene is over. There is no narrative purpose to the scene. However, it encapsulates the film’s primary theme – not just coming into maturity per se, but the eventual dulling of youthful emotion into tempered responses that are at once more jaded and more socially useful. (“Ah! As the heart grows older / it will come to such sights colder”) The film, by tracing the journey of its very self-involved central character, explores the problem of how we process the world outside of us, whether we treat it as a photosensitive plate for our narcissism or actually engage it on its own terms.
Although Margaret is a film that cuts a broad swath through a great many things, it is chiefly a miniature coming-of-age story about Lisa, whose frustrations and precocity finds a laser-sharp focal point when she witnesses (or, in her mind, indirectly causes) a horrible bus accident. The driver (Ruffalo) runs a red light, mowing down a stranger (Allison Janney) in the crosswalk. Lisa holds her while she dies. The accident comes to obsess Lisa, as she insinuates herself into the life of Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the victim’s best friend, with the two of them trying to sue the New York MTA and Lisa trying to hold the driver personally responsible. The sprawling quality and disjointed compositional mode that characterizes Margaret’s first half tends to settle down into a highly subjective semi-procedural in the second, focused on Lisa’s quest for justice. (I must admit, to my mind this made the film far less interesting. I’m curious to see if the director’s cut will change this regrettable narrowing of emphasis.) But Lonergan keeps even this catastrophic event and its aftermath in dialogue with Margaret’s larger theme of innocence and experience, solipsism and sociality. As Emily scolds Lisa, in one of the film’s pivotal moments, “this isn’t an opera. And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life.”
Margaret is a film that thinks laterally. For example, in Hopkins’ poem, the meter results in the girl’s name being pronounced “mar-guh-RETTE.” And so, inferentially, the title of the film is officially pronounced this way too. Almost nobody pronounces it this way, but a few sticklers have insisted on doing so. In this way, Lonergan has built a problem into the very form of his film that is addressed explicitly elsewhere in the diegesis. Lisa’s mother Joan (Smith-Cameron) is a New York actress having some success with her latest comedy. (From what Lonergan shows us, it looks like a sub-Mamet exercise in office screwball.) She has begun dating Ramon (Reno), a wealthy South American telecom businessman. Ramon, an operaphile, takes Joan (a neophyte) to the Met to see Bellini’s Norma. At the end, someone shouts, “Brava! Brava! Bravi!” On the way home, Joan asks Ramon if he doesn’t consider this behavior a bit pretentious. Yes, it’s “correct,” as Ramon icily points out (“bravo” is male, “brava” female,” “bravi” plural), but in an American context, isn’t the guy just being a bit of a show-off? And what does any of this have to do with anything?
That’s just it – Margaret operates like a broad canvas that contains elements that are in some senses just “there” because the characters engaging with them are alive and thinking and processing things. (People who favor the “economy” of three-act storytelling will find Margaret hopelessly digressive, if not outright inept.) But at the same time, Lonergan includes them because, once they enter his work of art, they become ineluctably subject to the dominant thinking, the reigning theses, of the work itself. (For instance, isn’t Joan just dealing with her own insecurity by identifying overcompensation in another?) If we are all potentially trapped within our own subject positions, seeing everything and everybody through the lens of our own personal narrative, doesn’t narrative film function the same way? Can we truly allow Lonergan to drop in bits of “unrelated” business – as life tends to do – or does the cognitive process of watching, and the filmmaker’s process of scripting and editing, condemn all elements to some grand scheme? Or, as per those critics who decried Margaret as slack or overly ambitious, if elements truly “don’t fit,” will we simply ignore or discard them?
To make matters even worse for Lonergan, he is not a filmmaker who exactly waves the freak flag of postmodern meta-cinematic inquiry. Many of the problematics I tried to detail above are, in their own fashion, examined in Margaret with a rigor similar to that found in, say, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, to say nothing of Fellini’s 8 ½. But for the most part Margaret plays in a low-key, realist register, furled in a matte-finish, functional cinematography that depicts a visually uninflected Upper West Side familiar from mid-period Woody Allen or all-period Paul Mazursky. Margaret is a “screenwriter’s film,” at least on the face of it, very much like You Can Count on Me. It’s only through very careful viewing that Lonergan’s compositional schemes begin to surface. Long shots of the Manhattan skyline, or slow, lengthy shots of New Yorkers moving through the streets in slow motion, are accompanied by Nico Muhly’s subtle orchestral score. These passages, which initially seem like transitional afterthoughts, are crucial to Margaret’s overall shape. Whereas most art films these days privilege the visual over the auditory, Lonergan’s film is organized according to musical rather than painterly principles. When Lisa, hothead that she is, achieves one of her many crescendos, Lonergan’s city passages both provide a cool-down and re-insert her overly asserted singularity into the total fabric of life, the world that both cares about her and does not, cannot know she is there.