Lonergan: Margaret (2011)

Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s three-hour-plus magnum opus, may well be the greatest film made about 9/11, not least because it was shot in 2005, but only edited into shape in 2011, gathering the entire momentum of the traumatised 00s in its wake. The sprawling narrative, and staggering ensemble cast, revolves around a single event – a bus accident, in the middle of Manhattan, which spirals out into a series of escalating intensities and complications. Lisa Cohen, a high school student played by Anna Paquin, is at the centre of it all – she helps cause the crash by waving at the bus driver, Jason Berstone, played by Mark Ruffalo, who waves back as she chases him along the street. Caught in the midst of this spontaneous flirtation, he doesn’t notice Monica Patterson, played by Allison Janney, until it’s too late. Suffused with grief, Lisa attempts to exculpate her trauma with the help of her mother, Joan, played by J. Smith-Cameron, her aloof father Karl, who lives in Los Angeles, played by Lonergan himself, her almost-boyfriend Paul, played by Kieran Culkin, her teachers Mr. Van Tassel and Mr. Aaron, played by Matthew Broderick and Matt Damon, and Emily, the victim’s best friend, played by Jeannie Berlin. Add to that Jean Reno as Ramon, Joan’s boyfriend, and Rosemarie DeWitt as Mrs. Maretti, the victim’s estranged sister, and we have a story of epic proportions.

Yet despite this ensemble sprawl, or perhaps because of it, New York City is the central character in Lonergan’s immense vision. The film starts with a series of slow motions of pedestrians walking along New York streets, subjected to dramatic alternations between light and shade, and occasionally glancing upwards, as if something unexpected has moved across the face of the sun. It feels like we’re watching the morning of September 11, since this is the last time, for a long time, that Margaret will permit us to even acknowledge that a skyline exists in New York, let alone provide us with a series of visual vectors up to it. As a relic of the already ancient past, this slo-mo sequence quickly gives way to a film that often feels as if it’s being played in accelerated motion, no small feat given its enormous running time, as escalating waves of post-911 volatility crest and break over Lonergan’s tableaux, evoking a new hyper-intensity to debate, discourse and the operation of the American public sphere.

In that sense, Margaret marks the end of a certain strand of theatrical New York cinema (or a belief in cinema as New York’s theatre) – films that typically revolved around apartments, , restaurants, vestibules and other cultivated spaces that conjure up the life of the mind and the East Coast intelligentsia. Traces of those spaces remain here, from Joan’s career as an actress, to the theatre of the high school classroom, where Lisa likes to hold forth. But this theatrical containment, and this commitment to chamber drama, is undercut by a new propulsive porosity, which Lonergan dates to September 11, the event that turned all of New York into a global stage, and in doing so collapsed its own internal boundaries between theatre and life. For 9/11 was perhaps the supreme act of theatre in world history, a global spectacle unrivalled before or since, powerful enough to turn an entire city and nation into a captive and unwilling audience to images that can never be forgotten. In Margaret, this has not only ruptured the theatre districts of New York, but placed cinema itself into question. The very length of the film is partly an effort to create something commensurate in response.

In place of that theatrical containment, Lonergan’s film brims with a new wound culture that confounds audiences and actors, and in which everything is open and raw. While much of the film does take place around the stage, it tends to devolve into merciless self-disclosure, epitomised by the director of Lisa’s high school production, who insists that everyone share their deepest traumas in a desperate effort to recreate this theatrical cohesion, only to end up reiterating it. Right when one of the actors has reached the peak of their venting, the score modulates to one of its many classical refrains, and Lonergan shifts to a silent sequence of the cast and crew caught in contorted and restless poses, suddenly prescient of a new volatility to public discourse. Similarly, while Joan may be comfortable on the stage, she seems gauche and disoriented during her first trip to the opera, with Ramon, unable to square her experience as actor and audience member in a coherent or legible way. The few traditional theatre scenes that we do see feel elegiac, like relics of a pre-9/11 world, as do all their adjuncts, such as the cosy café that Joan regularly sups at following her performances.

Lisa, and Paquin, encapsulate all this volatility, like a wound that is continually probing itself. She’s antagonistic from the first scene, when we see her greeting her teachers with sulky scepticism, and from there quickly pitches her performance somewhere between incredulity and hysteria, twitching and jerking with the sheer extremity of her feeling. Even before she witnesses (or causes) the bus accident, Lisa feels like a decisively post-9/11 subject, especially since Paquin’s acting is not especially convincing, and often feels like over-acting, breaking down the distinction between theatre and public existence in her very presence. These tendencies first crystallise at high school, the only place where Lisa can command an old-fashioned theatrical presence, but also the site where she has to address the connective tissue and cross-section of the city most vividly as well. Right off the bat, she clashes with a Middle Eastern classmate, who questions “has there ever been a good President of the United States?” and accuses Lisa of attaching to “a mythical version of America that never existed to begin with.” In modern parlance, Lisa is triggered by these allegations – she may be the first cinematic character to be truly triggered – prompting an escalating volatility that gradually alienates even her white classmates, as she takes the nation state entirely on her shoulders.

While these intensities are there from the beginning of the film, they’re thrown into almost unbearable relief by the bus accident, which plays as a cognate or surrogate for the destruction of the World Trade Centre. In the years after 9/11, directors grappled with all kinds of strategies for “representing” September 11, and Lonergan’s approach is to resist all direct citations, as if the building could only ever belong to the terrorists, and recapitulate the logic through a completely different kind of trauma. Like 9/11, then, the bus accident creates a sense of diffuse responsibility and ambient trauma, as Lisa and Jason are both the victims of attack and bonded in an unspoken conspiracy, much as September 11 threw the US into the spotlight as global aggressors even as a whole city entered the most profound mourning. Like 9/11, too, the bus accident is immediately surrounded by onlookers, producing an even more dispersed agency and a new anxiety about how to assign victimhood, which is everywhere and nowhere, somehow more urgent and yet more mercurial than ever before.

If Margaret is an epic, then Lisa’s quest is to sound out the depths of this trauma, find an edge to it, keep probing the wound. In practice, this means that she subsumes authenticity into immediacy, continually insisting on, or contriving, her own proximity to the incident, to the point where she blithely informs Emily, the victim’s best friend, that she feels the trauma more because she was there, privy to it, affected first hand. I’ve never found Paquin an especially convincing actor, but that actually works brilliantly here, since her character depends precisely on being immediate rather than authentic. All Paquin has to do is just play herself, or her actorly persona, since her slightly histrionic face and voice are perfect for the “mass of conflicting impulses” that emerges from Lisa’s need to be immediate above all else.

Watching Lisa continually insinuate herself into the aftermath of the accent is thus like seeing America longing for responsibility, certainty, closure, in the wake of 9/11 – seeking for an absolution that can’t and won’t come. The length of the film is critical to this emergent, ever-escalating, hyper-melodramatic awareness that closure isn’t possible, along with Lisa’s efforts to fight this inexorability. Her main strategy is attempting to get Jason arrested, distancing herself from his supposed criminality, and so stabilising her status as unequivocal victim. Even when the MTA agrees to pay compensation to Monica’s family, Lisa wants him fired; even when it turns out that running a red light isn’t a criminal offence, she decides to take on the burden of the case herself, contacting a lawyer and getting Monica’s family involved as well. The later stage of the film, and the scenes with the lawyer, take place against some of the most amorphous visual fields so far, typically shot from mid distance, against multiple planes of activity in the foreground, to capture Lisa’s fantasy of theatrical containment slipping away.

Yet these later scenes are simply one iteration of Longeran’s general inability, or unwillingness, to draw clear boundaries to his tableaux. For all Lisa’s desperate attempts to achieve just the opposite, no space in Margaret is ever entirely sequestered or self-contained. Sound continually intrudes into the frame, whether in the form of the continuous low-level ambient hum of traffic and car alarms, to whole chunks of arguments and conversations. Many planes of the city are interspersed between the audience and the screenplay, turning Lisa into an antenna for the post-9/11 flux of the city, a quilting-point for an unbearably escalated public discourse. It’s like watching someone experiencing the sensory shock of Twitter, or Instagram, before they had the luxury and catharsis of posting themselves – the torture of being a mere recipient, or passive observer, of social media, which is really how most of us actually experience it. Lonergan anticipates this new stage in the network by mediating even the most critical scenes through this omniscient chatter, especially in and around Lisa’s apartment, where dialogue often breaks through from the residence next door, and the camera often drifts across every window on her floor before arriving at our real focus. In a later scene, the ambient noise of a restaurant gets louder as we pan into Lisa and Joan having dinner, indicating that this all-encompassing mediation can’t be completely traversed.

Insofar as this ambient flux has a shape, it tends to map onto Broadway, a symbol of theatrical containment, but also a gash across the grid of Manhattan. The tension between Broadway as a street and as a site, as an affirmation of the stage and a scar across the grid-stage of New York, coalesces around and finds its most acute expression in the bus accident, which takes place there. Yet Broadway also becomes a general volatility-engine across the film, appearing at most of the key points when Lisa tries to rein in the city’s public sphere and reinstate herself as victim zero. Lonergan pointedly frames her with the Broadway subway station when she takes the train to see Jason in Bay Ridge, while her body language grows more contorted and angular when she walks down Broadway too, as if she has absorbed the dissonance of the street into her very physiognomy. This actually induces Lonergan to return to the slo-mo style of the opening sequence, as Lisa becomes-Broadway by squeezing herself into tortured postures to avoid touching strangers as she makes her oblique passage down the Manhattan street that contorts itself in exactly the same way, trying to avoid a rupture it’s already made.

As the film follows Broadway, its theatrical spaces tend to dissolve around classical music, and opera in particular. The ambient classical score recurs whenever Lisa grows anxious, like a fantasy of restoring boundaries and thresholds, while her monologues reach their histrionic pitch, and crescendo into an aria, right when she resists going to the opera with Jean. It’s as if she has already absorbed even the most vivid operatics into her regular public self, inducing Emily to tell her that Monica’s death is “not an opera,” and that she’s not a “supporting character”. Not only has public discourse absorbed the import of theatre, but it has bundled in classical music and opera too, leaving the characters of the film awash in a sea of melodramatic intensities without any clear edge or shape to them. In this reading, the perpetrators of 9/11 committed a kind of gesamtkunstwerk on the United States, a totalising work of art, part opera, part music and part theatre, that debilitates the capacity of any single medium to combat it. Among its many other imports, the sheer length of Margaret is a testament to Lonergan’s desire to respond with a gesamtkunstwerk in kind – if not by fusing disparate media into a synthetic whole, then at least by evoking their escalating dissolution. 

Lonergan coalesces this ambitious project into an idiosyncratic city symphony that gradually and tentatively opens up the spectacles of New York reawakening after 9/11. It’s in this respect that the film most approaches music, or fuses with its classical score, as Lonergan beautifully and mercurially nurtures our gaze until we feel comfortable looking up. Showing the skyline of Manhattan was a traumatic prospect when the film was shot in 2005, at least outside of superhero films, and so Lonergan initially opts for ground level shots and modest pans, mostly of older buildings, while only permitting us high-angle shots of the narrowest slices of streets. There’s barely a skyscraper in sight, and the camera never gazes to the south. Only when the film briefly falls back upon an older kind of apartment film, with the informal wake for Monica held in Emily’s apartment, does Lonergan feel confident to embark upon the present. We now cut to another streetscape, but the camera holds it longer this time, and then pans up, following the avenue as far as it will go, almost allowing us to reach the horizon, and our first sight of skyscrapers. From there, Lonergan shifts to our first low-angle shot of sky and, momentously, our first plane, which gets larger and larger, gradually filling the frame.

Finally, the side of Lisa’s apartment comes into view, and we start to hear the plane, whose drone fuses with the ambient murk of the film as a whole, which now feels like a way of keeping out the sound of aircraft – as traumatic, at this moment in time, as the spectacle of the New York skyline. This fuzzy space between plane and world, and the gradual dispersal of the 9/11 planes into the film’s soundscape, ushers in a new terrorist era, starting with Lisa turning a radio up out of the murk to hear about a suicide bomber on a bus in Israel. Confronted with the rawness of this emerging world, Lonergan, and the film, retreat to literature in lieu of theatre, opera and classical music, as we cut to Lisa’s teacher reading Gerald Manley Hopkins “Spring and Fall,” the poem that gives the film its name. Yet this just ends up reiterating the diffuse victimhood of the present, evoking, as it does, a character who is both mourner and mourned, both witness and victim: “Márgarét, áre you gríeving/Over Goldengrove unleaving… It ís the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for.”

The tortured beats and contorted rhythms of Hopkins’ poesy fuse with Paquin’s own beats and tics, and with the film’s dissonant and diffuse public sphere, but the sheer synergy of these syncopated strands enjoins Lonergan to continue his city symphony, which now expands to the first panoramic skyline of Manhattan. Taking in the view calmly, the camera settles tentatively on the first skyscrapers in the film, silhouetted against the horizon, and then backed by a plane, as the coordinates of September 11 start to come into focus. Lonergan then shifts back to the streetscape, where the camera tracks Lisa from behind, before pulling back suddenly, and deflecting all this horizontal motion into a dramatic upward pan, as if finally discovering the strength to look upwards, and confront the skyscrapers of Midtown, as well as the yawning sky surrounded them. It’s a beautiful and plangent vision of Manhattanites daring to look up for the first time since 9/11, after weeks, months or even years of keeping their eyes doggedly fixed ahead of them, repressing everything above them. The last touch is Lonergan cutting to a pair of helicopters dancing dexterously in the air, a fleeting vision of delicacy amidst trauma, and the slightest of hints that a future might exist.

Now attuned to the basic syntax of 9/11, the film is content to spend its third act immersed in Midtown (if never Battery Park) and to inuldge in the full verticality of New York. But this security only lasts so long, quickly expanding into an even more ambient trauma that gives the third act of Margaret (or fifth or sixth act) a remarkably diffuse quality. The ensemble cast now bleeds into a looser and broader ensemble, as Lonergan provides us with a cross-section of Manhattan traumas, most of which only connect tangentially to Lisa’s story. Whether it’s the other mourners at the funeral of Ramon, who dies quite suddenly, or the other women in the waiting room where Lisa goes to have an abortion, Lisa is now decentred from her own narrative precisely when it’s most important for her to secure privileged victimhood. The film starts to disperse, Margaret is both mourner and mourned, and Lisa finally realises that she will never resolve or repress the trauma hanging over the city, but can only return to it over and over again – that is what wound culture is all about. In the final straw, she sees Jason driving the same bus again, but, unlike her, with no interest in returning to that fateful day.

The film thus ends – if it can be said to end – as it must, at the cusp between an older theatrical space and the neoflux of the post-9/11 city. In the closing scene, Lisa meets Jean at a performance of The Tales of Hoffmann at Lincoln Center, but arrives late, condensing the streetscape into her labyrinthine passage through the bowels of the theatre (now empty) and into the audience. As the opera begins, and then reaches its second act, Lonergan starts to absorb mother and daughter into the audience, cutting from face to face, before shifting back to Lisa and Jean one last time – clutching hands, welling with tears, finally accepting themselves as the audience to an unbearable collectively shared truth that no amount of acting, no determination to take centre stage, can ever assuage or alleviate. And we end in the same position, trapped in our seats, forced to accept an unwilling spectatorship, an ambient trauma, that the film performs, evokes and allegorises, but refuses to ever resolve.

About Billy Stevenson (848 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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