Margaret: Connecting Through Art

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“I don’t think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away.” – Actor, writer, director Tom Noonan

“I hate the fucking movies, anyway. They’re just bullshit.” – Darren, Margaret

So those are two viewpoints, then. But at the risk of being overly confident in my analysis, I submit that by the end of Kenneth Lonergan’s messy, masterful Margaret, the film not only sides with Noonan’s view, but is precisely about it.

If you’ve never heard of Margaret, I’m not surprised: It was written in 2003, filmed in 2005, and evidently mired in post-production until Lonergan finally delivered a 150-minute cut that was given very limited release in 2011. Then a second, 186-minute cut was released on DVD (which Lonergan himself says isn’t necessarily “definitive”) along with the shorter theatrical release. For the record, I viewed the 150-minute version.

All of which is why I say “messy,” because you can tell a lot of material was cut out, and even still at 150 minutes there are pacing issues and the film feels a bit long. But there’s so much going on in Margaret that’s so fascinating, it’s hard to know where to even begin talking about it.

At a plot-level, it’s about a high school girl named Lisa who lives in New York with her mom, Joan, a Broadway actress. Early on, for silly reasons, Lisa distracts a bus driver, who then accidentally runs a red light and strikes and kills a woman. Much of the rest of the movie is about Lisa’s guilt, whether she tells the police what really happened, and whether she can get anyone to understand how she really feels about it all.

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Yes, but that’s just the plot-level. Because what Lonergan is really doing here is a lot deeper, more complicated, and more impressive than a simple morality tale about a guilt-ridden high school kid. Reminiscent of The Big Lebowski and The Social Network, what Margaret is often concerned with is language, how it’s used, and how human beings communicate with each other – or, as this film amazingly captures, how we so often try to but fail.

I’d urge anyone still reading this who feels any interest at all to seek this movie out, but be warned that spoilers follow from here.

By my count, there’s about 17 (give or take a few) major conversations the characters in Margaret have with each other where the topic of conversation is only half the point. Mostly, what we’re being shown is how, for a variety of reasons (we’re too distracted by our own problems, too lazy to make the effort, too angry at whoever we’re talking to, too afraid to say what we really mean…), people either partially or completely talk past each other.

Take the scene where Joan is about to leave to the opera with Ramon, an audience member she met after one of her plays and has begun seeing. As she’s stepping out, she suggests to Lisa that they should all go to the opera some time. What results is a passive-aggressive argument where much is being said without being said, and only half of it is being understood. They go from arguing about opera, to Joan’s play, to Lisa’s bad attitude, to Ramon, to a trip Lisa’s planning with her father, until finally Lisa explodes:

“I don’t care about any of it! It doesn’t matter! Your boyfriend doesn’t matter, your play doesn’t matter except to you, I don’t care about New Mexico because to tell you the truth I’m probably not even going, and you want to know something else, mom? There are more important problems in the world than our relationship! There’s a whole city out there full of people who are dying, so who gives a shit if I like your fucking boyfriend. It is so trivial! Why are you bothering me with all this! It doesn’t matter!”

And to all this, Joan can only say: “…Lisa, I don’t even know what we’re talking about.” And Lisa’s reply: “I know you don’t. That’s the problem.”

Boy, is it. “People don’t relate to each other, mom – we’re totally disconnected,” Lisa later concludes near the end of the movie. “I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, it’s just a general observation.” And it’s one that’s observed over and over again throughout Margaret.

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Probably my favorite example of this disconnect in the movie is a scene where Lisa’s English teacher, John, is discussing a line from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.” After pressing Lisa for her interpretation, she says it’s “pretty self-evident.” Another student agrees, saying it’s about how insignificant we are to the gods.

But John quickly gets into an argument with another student about what Shakespeare really meant. “Maybe he’s saying there’s a higher consciousness that we can’t see – that the gods’ perception of reality is so much more developed than ours that, compared to their perception, our perceptions is like comparing flies to boys,” suggests David, the student. At first John politely accepts but brushes off his point, declaring that Shakespeare was really getting at “a very dark view of the arbitrary nature of human suffering.” But David refuses to concede the point, insisting that “maybe he’s comparing human consciousness to divine consciousness, and that even though it seems to us that human suffering is just arbitrary, that’s just because we’re limited to our viewpoint.” There’s something about the precise amount of smarmy, know-it-all arrogance in the way David makes his case – as if he’s so clever to see this when no one else does – that captures exactly how hair-pullingly frustrating it is to argue with someone you know is wrong about something but refuses to see it. John’s exasperation by the end is laugh-out-loud funny.

And it’s this aspect of Margaret that I – like others (plus a hat-tip for the Noonan quote) – found so riveting: the way it so viscerally captures what it feels like to try to communicate with other people when you’re just not on the same page. So many of the conversations in this movie literally had me squirming in my seat, and then I realized I was doing it in the same way you sometimes would when playing a fucking racing game, thinking that leaning one way in your chair will actually have any effect in getting your car to turn the way you want it. You can see what these characters are trying so desperately to say to each other, but they just keep missing it. And what’s most frustrating of all is that it’s really through no one’s fault in particular – it’s just the way we are.

So, very soon after the Shakespeare scene, when Lisa is on the phone with the detective assigned to the bus accident, Joan tries to interrupt her, and Lisa shoes her away with a wave of her hand – like swatting away a bothersome fly – I couldn’t help thinking again of how David insists to interpret that line from King Lear. Like flies to wanton boys, so often are we to each other. We’re all operating on different waves of consciousness, too often missing what we’re trying to say to each other because we’re too limited in our viewpoints.

Ah, but there exactly is the revelatory point that I think Margaret is ultimately making: for as much as we can’t help but misinterpret each other in day-to-day conversations and communication, it’s ultimately through art that we can say to the world exactly what it is we want to say, and better understand the world around us. In its exquisite ending sequence, Lisa joins Joan at an opera; she had tickets before Ramon suddenly had a heart attack and died, and she needed someone to attend with her. As the curtains lift, and the singers begin, Lonergan cuts from one member in the audience to another, all enraptured with the performance. And for the first time in a movie so full of frustrating misunderstandings and misinterpretations, you get the sense of an entire auditorium full of people, hundreds of them, who for this moment are all on the same wavelength. Lisa – overwhelmed by what she’s been through? moved by the beauty of the performance? – breaks down in tears. Witnessing this, her mother breaks down as well, and also for the first time, she finally seems to truly understand and connect with what Lisa is feeling.

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I was reminded of the sequence in The Shawshank Redemption where Andy, in a moment of artistically inspired rebellion, plays an opera recording over the prison’s PA system. Sweeping shots show every person in the prison caught in awe. “I tell you, those voices soared,” says Red in narration, “higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away. And for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.”

These are the revelatory feelings great art can sweep us into. Plays, movies, literature, music – whatever your preference, these are the things that carry the power to cut through the noise and distraction and misinterpretations and misunderstandings and every other damn thing of everyday life and provide genuine moments of connection. I can’t imagine how anyone could get through it all without them.

Or, perhaps this is just what I took out of Margaret because these are things I’ve often felt already, and now I’m like David, arrogantly imposing a view onto the work that Lonergan never intended. So no, as that very scene serves to show, even great art isn’t immune to being misunderstood. But the fact that Margaret explicitly acknowledges this suggests to me that my reading is not entirely off-base. Not to mention the fact that the movie takes its title from a poem, which in one scene seems to have a profound effect on Lisa: in Margaret’s sorrow, she seems to briefly better understand her own.

So, in another scene in the back half of the movie, I think Joan again misunderstands where her daughter is coming from. Ramon asks Joan if she thinks Lisa would have any interest in acting. “No, I don’t. I think she has a lot of contempt for it, actually. Anyway, I think it’s the age.”

“She would prefer the world with no plays, no films?” he asks, rhetorically.

By the end of Margaret, I really think she wouldn’t. Because damn, imagine what a horrible, difficult world that would be. Like Noonan, I believe art isn’t an escape – it’s in fact the only way to make any sense of this world at all. And as if to cement the point, so many of the conversations in Margaret had me thinking of lines from a different poem:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”

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