Their Own Private 9/11
Margaret’s DVD and Dust Bunnies rescue the elite
By Armond White
Advance word on the DVD release of Kenneth Lonergan’s film Margaret hailed it as a “masterpiece” yet no one calls it a good movie because it isn’t even that. It’s the latest event from our era’s perverse herd mentality. A group of media cronies with similar interests and goals have rallied around Margaret which Lonergan filmed in 2005 but was shelved for legal reasons: Lonergan failed to meet the distributor’s established running time (he refused to alter his three-hour-plus director‘s cut), until eventually enlisting Martin Scorsese’s help in re-editing the excessive footage to a contractual length.
That remedy is ironic since Scorsese has been unable to deliver a good or brief film of his own for more than a decade now (at least since he hired Lonergan to do re-writes on the overweening Gangs of New York). And Margaret suffers many of the same excesses as recent Scorsese–primarily its unfocussed story of Upper West Side New York private school student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) who witnesses a fatal bus accident then laboriously seeks to have the driver (Mark Ruffalo) sued, fired, penalized or punished.
This plot suggests ethical conflict as in the recent Iranian tug-of-war A Separation but Lonergan structures Margaret like HBO miniseries episodes; a scandal and monologue every 15 minutes. He neglects Lisa’s moral sense while stumbling over the very issues and situations he devised. He turns Margaret (title from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall to a Young Child”–the first of several high-toned references) into a presumptuous allegory for 9/11 fear and guilt.
In one sense, the movie never recovers from its early symbolic image of bloody public disaster. The clumsily-staged gore is not as damaging as Lonergan’s calamitous concept; he inexpertly combines Lisa’s innocence and arrogance with on-the-street happenstance and theatrical overstatement. Avid Anna Pacquin is like Jean Simmons reborn but she’s set opposite broad, hysterical death-bed acting by Allison Janney.
Lonergan’s gang of New York media friends indulge Margaret’s self-aggrandizing dramatization of a simple urban event. A New York Times Magazine puff piece (shamelessly titled “Kenneth Lonergan’s Thwarted Masterpiece“), several New Yorker Magazine online log-rolls and lotsa bent-over media blitzes ensued. Reviewers have failed to critique its sloppy montage and static dialogue in favor of a specious premise that simultaneously inflates the interests of their social class. Margaret becomes a morose version of a Woody Allen film, cosseting UWS peccadilloes without a perspective that supplies moral accounting–the underappreciated triumph of Todd Solondz’s more authentic 9/11 film Life During Wartime (a more likely a true masterpiece). Lisa is as selfish, neurotic and vengeful as the people she annoys in her quest–her distant divorced father (played by Lonergan), self-involved actress-mother (J. Smith-Cameron) who teases an anti-Jewish European bigot-lothario (Jean Reno), an inveigled instructor (Matt Damon) and a vindictive Manhattan matron (Jeannie Berlin). Margaret’s crusaders recognize themselves in these denizens which makes the movie no different from other egotistical indie movie conceits.
But this leads to a second sense in which Margaret proves most offensive. Conflating a bratty teen’s obnoxiousness with 9/11’s spiritual depression begs too many political presumptions. Classroom scenes where 9/11 arguments are shouted between conflicted students and biased faculty members are not complex; they merely expose Lonergan’s own confusion. As a dramatist, Lonergan doesn’t carry 9/11 panic through to his character’s consciousness. He ignores yet leans-upon the historic event.
Lonergan lacks the cinematic skill to convey a credible feel of New York living (which was the richest element of Oliver Stone’s great 9/11 epic World Trade Center). His playwright’s habits restrict every scene to an actor’s showcase, whether his obvious proscenium blocking of the opening pupil-teacher seduction or the inexplicably “big” moments given to each actor (only Berlin’s first appearance–a comic/ironic eulogy at a memorial service–has successful subtext). Plus, Lonergan breaks my one cinematic rule: No movie over two-plus hours should use slow-motion and Margaret has many pointlessly palsied shots of New Yorkers trudging along crowded sidewalks. (Trudging? In Manhattan? Cliché!)
Instead of visualizing the existential stasis of a culture that suddenly feels catatonic, or citizens forced to grow up and out of their complacence (the things Antonioni mastered in real speed and that Stone’s film vividly evoked), Lonergan presses the poetic fallacy of art quotations (Shakespeare, Shaw, Bellini, Offenbach) to do the work of feeling and philosophy he cannot. On the same trite level, Margaret bears unfortunate resemblance to Stephen Daldry’s maudlin Incredibly Loud and Unbearably Close, the city-based 9/11 coming-of-age drama also produced by media-hustler Scott Rudin but entirely made and released while Margaret was gathering dust.
Note Margaret’s marginally interesting dust layers: Several bloggers drummed up curiosity only among themselves, circulating “masterpiece” memos in weak attempt at consolidating “critic” power on the film’s behalf. They commandeered a few year-end movie polls–which is like a workplace clique’s Secret Santa hat-pull. Yet Margaret fell through the cracks of last year’s New York Film Critics Circle’s suddenly-changed voting period and went no further during awards season. While confirming how ineffectual and irrelevant critics’ routines have become, this media botch yet positively demonstrates how some filmgoers still desire a 9/11 summary–their own.
Too bad Margaret’s quasi-legend created by its dust bunnies only reveals the manipulations of the film industry’s coerced-and-coddled networking. That’s how critics “consensus” has devolved. (Remember the media rallying behind Adrian Lyne’s now-forgotten Lolita?) It misuses the poignance of 9/11 experience for a risible mirror portrait of New York parochialism. Dust bunny comparisons of Margaret to David Fincher’s Zodiac infer a nihilistic sense of futility. This self-satisfied vagueness is what prevents Lonergan’s story from attaining a moral reckoning. When Lisa’s sojourn comes down to being about her sexuality, abortion and money, it’s like the dire Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days–a mere p.c. distortion of history.
Margaret fits into New York City’s peculiar elitist political biases. None of the dust bunnies seem to realize how Lisa’s vanity caused the initial accident or that Lonergan’s awkward dramaturgy delays her responsibility just for a sentimental climax.
Lonergan was unaccountably celebrated for his bland debut film You Can Count on Me–and New York’s liberal establishment certainly does. They attempted rescuing his latest misbegotten movie which no amount of cutting or restoration can save, let alone make relevant to 9/11’s lingering anxieties. One could read Lonergan’s vain, mawkish ending, which omits the bus driver’s agony, to be the ultimate dismissal of the working-class by the Liberal, opera-going middle-class. Margaret should have been re-titled, It’s All About Me.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair