8 August 2012
A film based on a poem.
I guess that’s what they’d call “high concept” in Hollywood.
True, Margaret, which had a (very) limited release last fall and is just out on DVD, is about as far from a Hollywood film as you can get—which just goes to show that abstract ideas and art are not necessarily antithetical.
For, Margaret is about as coherent an expression of an abstract idea as is consistent with art, as opposed to polemics.
What’s the idea at the heart of Margaret?
It’s the proposition that growing up means learning other people are real.
That Margaret is a film of ideas is already signaled by its title, for Margaret is not the name of the heroine. Her name is Lisa, and she is played (brilliantly) by Anna Paquin (above).
Rather, Margaret is the “young child” addressed by the narrator of the famous poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), the great English early-Modernist and Jesuit priest (right).
The poem—one of the most profoundly moving and strange in our language (see below)—expresses the simple idea that when we mourn each other, we also mourn ourselves.
The film illustrates the truth of Hopkins’s idea, and adds the further idea that this is a condition we must struggle to overcome—that overcoming the natural narcissism of youth is the essence of moral maturation.
And that is an idea that is about as far from Hollywood as is imaginable.
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Those of you who follow such things will know that Margaret is supposed to be a mess.
Kenneth Lonergan (below)—director of the astute and affecting You Can Count on Me (2000), and also a noted playwright—had a contract which specified that Margaret could be no more than 150 minutes in length.
The cut he initially turned in way back in 2005 was apparently considerably longer than that. After six years of editing and legal wrangling, the theatrical cut that was finally released last year ran exactly 150 minutes. (A 186-min. “extended-cut” version is included along with the Blu-ray release, but I haven’t seen it.)
I don’t just mean it is a relative success, given its enormous ambition.
I mean that Margaret is an original and thought-provoking film with moments of transcendent beauty (such as the sublime ending) that provides an intensely involving and pleasurable cinematic experience.
It’s not quite up there with Melancholia, The Tree of Life, or The Turin Horse—the certified cinematic masterpieces of 2011—but it is an enormously satisfying exploration of a hideous moral quandary faced by a contemporary American teenager.
Lisa, the protagonist, is a perfectly ordinary person who’s been deluded by her upbringing and her entire culture into thinking she is someone so special she deserves to occupy the center of the cosmos.
And the hand that life deals her makes her see, over the course of the film, that she’s just an ordinary mortal, like everyone else.
What makes Margaret a great movie is the way it combines an utterly true sense of lived reality with an extraordinary (for American cinema) seriousness of moral purpose.
Above all, it’s a magnificent film about growing up—something that we Americans need to think about carefully.
In a word, Margaret is the anti-Juno.
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* * *
Spring and Fall (1880)
To a young child
Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins