Fenster writes:

Critics just can’t seem to get enough of re-appraising the long form Heaven’s Gate.  In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Ty Burr added to the buzz with his own long form article, the chief benefit of which was that he used the space to take apart most of the claims to the film’s greatness.  I admire that view but continue to wonder why the fuss when the 219-minute version was available on VHS a few years after the 1980 theatrical release, and with a brief foray back onto the big screen in 2005.  It made me despair of all the talk of greatness revealed if only we could see the Great Artist’s unsullied vision.

Then I secured a DVD with the “extended cut” of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, and revised my cynicism about unsullied work by the great artist.  The three-hour Margaret was, for me, an astonishing experience.

This is the long version that Lonergan was unable to cut back to the 150 minute maximum he had been allowed by the studio.  Martin Scorcese and Thelma Schoonmaker were brought in with scissors to do the deed, with the shorter version seeing theatrical release.

I haven’t seen the theatrical release and don’t know what was cut.  To be fair, the long  version does include lots of subplots, minor character development and musical/visual interludes that one could argue could be cut with little loss of narrative power.  Indeed, one could argue that a conventional narrative would benefit from a fair amount of trimming.  But Lonergan does not seem that interested in  a conventional narrative, and bully for that.  I found myself luxuriating in the meandering and meditative quality that is in ample supply.  I know the old adage about good writers needed to kill what they love with the editor’s pen, but I for one am extremely pleased he spared as much of his vision as he did.

Lonergan’s dialogue is distinctive.  Pinter is a master of the pause and Mamet the fuck-you.  Lonergan is the master of the missed connections in conversation, and of people talking past one another even as they struggle to address the other.  On its face, conversation is about character’s expressing themselves through verbal exchange.  In fact, our own life conversations are all-too-often stunted, running off in unclear directions since the interlocutors are often not clear about what it is they actually wish to reveal, or to express. Good conversation–healthy conversation–is cumulative and iterative.  Many of Lonergan’s characters show a tendency to serial monologues while in apparent conversation.  They just have to say what they have to say.

The performances are stellar.  I don’t usually like Anna Paquin and, truth be told, I didn’t like her here that much.  All the better for that slightly obnoxious and overbearing quality–it is the heart of her character Lisa.  Lisa’s mother is played by Lonergan’s real-life wife, J. Smith-Cameron, a stage actress of apparently some repute (I have never seen her before) who brings the right nuance and depth to the role.  Elsewhere–well, where else will you find Jeannie Berlin, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Allison Janney, Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick?

I don’t risk spoiling the plot, such as it is, to at least say what it is about.  It’s Woody Allen terrain–Upper West Side.  Lisa, a 17-year old high school student, finds that her way-too-advanced cognitive and intellectual abilities are way outmatched by life.  She witnesses–well, she more than witnesses–a terrible accident, and is set to grapple with the meaning of the event, and her part in it.   Yes, she is a drama queen, and you cringe when she acts out.  Still, there is something gritty and admirable about her struggling, as she tries over and over again to counter the senselessness of events with the few inadequate tools at her disposal.

When called out by an older friend for being a drama queen, her response:


You think I am making this into a dramatic situation because it is dramatic?. . .


I think you are very young.


What does that have to do with anything? If anything it means I care more than someone that’s older.  Because this kind of thing has never happened to me before.

And as it turns out, there is some truth to what she is saying.  The adults don’t have a ton to add to her learning, save to point out that life involves a certain getting used to.

Daniel Kahneman has written, “the world makes much less sense than you think. The coherence comes mostly from the way your mind works.” In a sense, Margaret is just another coming of age story, though it is one that shows quite plainly what is gained and what is lost in the forging of mental constructs we refer to as maturation.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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9 Responses to “Margaret”

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Nice write up. I liked it too. I took it as a an attempt to do a “city symphony” movie, though it’s much more emotional-psychological than CS movies tend to be. (I guess he’s trying to nail the emotional tenor of the city? Something like that, anyway.) I thought that was a pretty original insight, then was dismayed to find some critic had already expressed something similar. I intended to write something about it, but that would probably necessitate watching it again. It’s a big hunk of movie.

    What’d you think of the more showy “cinematic” moments in the movie? That 360-degree pan, for instance? I thought they were some of the few sour notes in the picture. I felt as though Lonergan was intending to prove that he’s a movie guy in addition to being a theater guy.


  2. Fenster says:

    The musical interludes for the most part worked for me but I like Wagner overtures and Strauss’ last songs. I agree though that the one that didn’t work so well was that 360. Not sure if there was anything to it, other than your suggestion that it was just about establishing cinemah chops.

    I think one reason for the deserved length is that Lonergan wanted to take one movies’ worth of stuff to be all about her narcissism and then to take another movies’ worth of stuff to show that her drama is inevitably nestled in a much wider web, one that extends to the many characters and from there to the whole city and from there to everything. The whole big world and one little soul in it.


  3. Sax von Stroheim says:

    I like the theatrical cut just about as much as Lonnergan’s version: some of the subplots are trimmed, but it leaves in much that a more conventional movie would have left out (the 360 degree pan – which I loved, all the shots of crowded streets, redundant characters). I think it’s rare to find a movie that places all these live-wire, theatrical performances in a story with a novelistic scope. Or rare to find in an American movie, at least.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      In a way it reminded me of Edward Yang. I think it’s the mix of delicacy and expansiveness, though the novelistic quality you mention also plays into that.


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  7. Judith Sears says:

    4 yrs later, picking up the conversation: I wanted to like Margaret so badly. You Can Count On Me is one of my all-time favorite movies, maybe my #1 – hey – that’s from 2000 – it should be on that list, too! Anyway, I was really looking forward to Margaret – have watched both the long & the short – and didn’t get it. Not really. I keep telling myself I will try again, but like Fabrizio says, it’s a chunk of movie, so I haven’t gotten back to it, yet.

    I’ve heard some good things about Manchester By The Sea. Hurry up, November!


    • Fenster says:

      I am wondering what he will do with Manchester-by-the-Sea. I live near Boston and the town is a nice day trip: Singing Beach, a cute little downtown and some lovely old mansions from the era in which the Brahmins made a retreat from Boston to the North Shore, vanquished by the Irish. Because of that lineage it has always had pretensions. In fact, it has become the butt of a lot of reverse snobbism jokes in these parts. It was simply Manchester until it opted for a tony name change redolent of the English countryside in 1989. The story goes that it felt the need to distinguish itself from the larger and much grittier industrial city of Manchester NH some miles to the North. People kept getting the two places confused and we just can’t have that now, can we?

      Anyway, I am wondering if Longeran will mine the combination of old seacoast town and Brahmin pretensions of if it will just be a title and a setting.

      Lonergan is a New Yorker but he does have some feel for the class aspects of New England. In your fave film You Can Count on Me the Terry character (Ruffalo) is from my hometown, the always forelorn Worcester, or Wista as the locals would say. He captures it quite well–sorry Wista.

      A tiny apartment with a bed, chair, table, fridge, and not much else. One window has a broken pane and an old sheet neatly thumbtacked over it to keep the wind out.
      TERRY PRESCOTT comes in. He is twenty-five years old: a real mess with a certain natural appeal. He wears old jeans, very old hiking boots, and a lumberjack-style coat. He takes a wool hat off his head. His hair is longish and dirty.


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