Monday, December 12, 2011

Not in theaters: Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret

Posted By on 12.12.11 at 02:20 PM

Margaret1.jpg
The day after I got to see Kenneth Lonergan's barely released Margaret (thanks to an internet-based campaign to rescreen the movie for critics before awards season), I happened to catch up with Bridesmaids, which I kept missing when it played in theaters over the summer (and in spite of J.R. Jones's persuasive rave review in the Reader). I was surprised by how much the films had in common: they're both male-directed movies about the emotional crises of female characters, frank but not exploitative in their depictions of female sexuality, and uncommonly accepting of how messy adult life can be. They also contain the strangest editing of any American movies I saw in 2011.

Margaret's editing issues were well-known long before the movie was released. Nearly every review I read of it seems obligated to mention its troubled postproduction history (I don't feel like recounting it again, but you can read about it here); and even critics defending the film tend to describe it as a mess or an unfinished work. On the other hand, few reviewers seemed to mind how choppy Bridesmaids generally feels—and neither did audiences, who made the movie a big hit.

Maybe that’s because the virtues of Bridesmaids are evident in spite of its editing issues: Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph are candid with each other in a way women are rarely allowed to be in a Hollywood film, and the pervasive sympathy of the characterizations (a regular merit of Apatow Productions, which produced the film) is irresistible. Yet the movie arrives at these ends through a cut-and-paste aesthetic that I could never quite get past. Director Paul Feig adopts Judd Apatow’s regular method—letting actors improvise around scripted dialogue, then selecting the funniest lines in postproduction—and this results in scenes much like Apatow's, in which every edit seems to jump to a different take. As funny as they are, Apatow's movies are hardly models of comic timing, and in terms of spatial orientation they can be downright amateurish.

J.R. Jones has likened Apatow to Albert Brooks in a blog post, and I’d agree that both men have developed recognizable and highly personal approaches to movie comedy. But as filmmakers they’re polar opposites: Brooks’s long takes and careful sound design express ideas about comedy through film form, whereas Apatow regularly sacrifices form to content. Likewise, the calculated distance of Brooks’s style encourages ambivalence towards his characters—if not outright contempt—while Apatow encourages the viewer to love his characters as much as he does. That’s not to say Apatow is incapable of moral complexity: witness the moment in Funny People where Eric Bana’s character suddenly restrains himself from beating up the man who just slept with his wife. Yet moments like these seem to exist in tiny vacuums in Apatow movies—the experience of watching them is like inspecting Seurat paintings up close.

Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids
  • Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph in Bridesmaids

A close-up of a Georges Seurat painting
  • A close-up of a Georges Seurat painting
Apatow’s faith in improvisation to yield human truths has notable precedents in stage comedy, namely LA’s alternative stand-up scene of the 1990s and the sketch revues of Second City. Indeed, one of the most enjoyable things about his movie is seeing how this stage-bound humor interacts with film form. The improv makes the movies feel spontaneous, and editing gives the improv structure and purpose. This can lead to brilliant results, such as the early diner scene of Bridesmaids where Wiig and Rudolph laugh about their bad sex experiences. It’s liberating stuff, like Bill Hicks’s stand-up routines about porn, and much of its impact comes from the sense that it’s extemporaneous. This is comedy as talking cure.

Does that amount to great filmmaking? Yes, in that it documents certain sensibilities—of Wiig and Rudolph and the generation of women they represent—that are seldom expressed so fully in movies. I'm undecided, though, about the editing style that allows for the revelatory content. Is it a breakthrough in the grammar of film comedy, like Brooks's discomfortingly drawn out scenes, or simply a hurried means to an end?

The compromised editing of Margaret is also inalienable from what the film communicates on the whole. The movie is mainly about Lisa (Anna Paquin), a spoiled, selfish Manhattan teenager who tries to change her life after she watches a woman die in a traffic accident. Lisa’s quest for epiphany is often indistinguishable from teenage recklessness: her many mistakes include losing her virginity to an arrogant jerk she hardly knows and worming her way into the life of the dead woman’s best friend.

Like Funny People, Margaret questions the conventional wisdom that trauma forces bad characters to better themselves. But there’s another, more troubling aspect to it—call it the film’s cosmic perspective. Lonergan intercuts Lisa’s story—and often without warning—with that of her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a successful stage actress who’s getting back into the dating scene. He also devotes several minutes to scenes that most filmmakers would sum up in a few shots: a political argument in Lisa’s prep school history class, a phone conversation with the dead woman’s cousin. This creates the uncanny feeling that the movie could shift focus at any time and be about one of the minor characters. As Lisa’s search for enlightenment fails to bring order to her life, Lonergan accumulates scenes but never validates them with a reassuring narrative pattern. This is deeply atheistic filmmaking, much in the way that Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is deeply spiritual filmmaking, and I think most viewers would rather call it a mess than contend with the implication that life itself lacks a comforting, organizing structure.

Margaret_cabs.jpg
I doubt that Lonergan’s preferred cut of Margaret (which is reported to run more than three hours) is any less disorganized than the two-and-a-half-hour version I saw. But it probably lacks the awkward cutting that presently mars quite a few of the dialogue scenes. In an apparent effort to bring the film to its contractually obligated running time, the editors (who they were, after five years of postproduction, I can only guess) snipped at the lengthy conversations, often covering up the patches with exterior shots of Manhattan. Some people find these moments distracting. I happen to like them—they reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu’s beloved “pillow shots” or the transitional moments of Frederick Wiseman’s great documentaries. Like both of those examples, Margaret’s exteriors take the viewer out of the human narrative to consider the world surrounding it. Yet where Ozu and Wiseman use these shots to convey a sense of continuity between individual and society, Margaret finds only further disruption.

Lonergan has made a pointedly frustrating movie experience. Even his direction of actors goes against the grain of popular narrative film: no matter how long they’re actually onscreen, every cast member behaves as if he or she’s the protagonist, hinting at epic character arcs that go tantalizingly unseen (and since nearly every character is a world-class neurotic, this strategy makes perfect sense). At present Margaret itself remains invisible to most audiences. Let’s hope the current advocacy effort brings it back to theaters.

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