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When Mr. Beaks Met MARGARET!!

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

Love, love, love. It’s in the air right now. I’ve seen at least two of the big studio summer movies that I am head over heels kooky in love with that I can’t write about until this weekend, so I’m floating around just gooey from thinking about them, and now Beaks hits us with this big warm wet kiss of a review of a script that we may never see realized onscreen. And after reading what Beaks has to say... well, that would be a bad thing...


One of the more remarkable trends of American cinema in the wake of 9/11 has been this seemingly collective resolve to not address it, even tangentially. This is probably a good thing in most respects, as Hollywood generally can’t tackle a troublesome subject without trivializing or whitewashing it, while independent filmmakers generally can’t tackle much of anything without turning it into something singularly unwatchable. To date, I have seen only five films directly influenced by the event, three of which – LOVE ACTUALLY, IN AMERICA and 11”09”01 – were foreign productions (though the latter, an omnibus comprised of ruminations on the attack, did include a rather weak segment directed by that infamous American dissident, Sean Penn). Of the other two, only Spike Lee’s magnificent 25TH HOUR came at the subject head on, while David Mamet’s SPARTAN couched what I read as a searing critique of the country’s post-9/11 actions, particularly the invasion of Iraq, in the confines of a heady political thriller that could be enjoyed without considering its weightier underpinnings. Meanwhile, there have been moments in some pictures that strike me as an acknowledgment of the inflicted psychological trauma – e.g. THE FOG OF WAR, IRREVERSIBLE and, yes, FINDING NEMO – but they were mostly hunting different thematic game.

It’s been particularly odd to see the normally brazen New York directors shying away from the calamitous event. Save for Lee, the town’s heavy hitters – Martin Scorsese*, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Abel Ferrara, Darren Aronofsky and… jeez, are there really that few bona fide New York City filmmakers left? – have assiduously avoided the day and how it has changed us as a country (to be fair, a number of these guys have had zero luck getting *anything* made since 2001), and this avoidance has left a huge cultural gulf where challenging, reflective art should reside.

Finally, though, one of Gotham’s own has seized up the gauntlet and grappled not only with the way New York City’s consciousness has been altered by the day, but America’s as well. That writer/director is Kenneth Lonergan. The script is MARGARET. And the film doesn’t appear to be getting made.

The screenplay hinges on a single tragedy: a bus accident that claims the life of a middle-aged woman. Her death is, in part, the inadvertent result of a bit of innocent flirting between the bus’s driver and a seventeen year-old girl named Lisa Cohen, the tale’s protagonist. Lisa, like many girls her age, is an awkward piece of work, managing the transition to womanhood with the requisite violent mood swings and wild carnal yearnings that make parents wish they’d thought twice about the whole child rearing thing. She’s nurturing two verboten crushes – one on the spoken-for school stud Paul and the other on her handsome math teacher – carelessly breaking the heart of one who loves her – an angsty sad sack named Darren – and driving her divorced mother, Joan, crazy with self-absorbed antics. The accident, written vividly on the page so as to suggest Lonergan plans to shoot an unflinchingly bloody spectacle, amplifies all of these emotions, and emboldens her with a misplaced sense of purpose that threatens to destroy the lives of all those unlucky enough to be pulled into her orbit.

What the hell does all this have to do with 9/11? Let’s start with the accident, which Lisa observes, partially causes and hangs around to observe the nasty aftermath. Lisa holds on to and comforts the woman as she expires, and, as would be the case for anyone, it’s a massively traumatic experience that renders Lisa a shaken, cranky mess as she talks to the police. When Lisa is asked what color the traffic light was when the bus passed under it, she responds indecisively, which ultimately leads to the case being closed with no criminality being assessed on the part of the driver. But as Lisa stews on the accident, and, most importantly, on the social drama inherent to any high school class system, a sense of righteousness washes over her, and she inserts herself into the life of one of the deceased woman’s friends, awakening in her a desire that justice be done. In other words, Lisa is magnifying her minor, personal tragedies through the lens of a far more serious event, thereby escaping necessary self-examination through the prosecution of a party guilty for crimes not inflicted directly on her person.

That’s roughly the skeleton of the story, and I’ll allow that it might sound relatively modest in scope, but that’s only because Lonergan’s script is not meant to be synopsized. Like his first feature, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, and his several plays (THIS IS OUR YOUTH, THE WAVERLY GALLERY and LOBBY HERO), Lonergan prefers to follow in the erratic missteps of his emotionally malfunctioning characters, which is to say that his narratives are unpredictable in an honest way. Because this tale has largely been harnessed to a seventeen year-old girl, it’s a particularly wild and digressive ride. Lisa wants so much – love, sex, revenge, family, understanding and, most fatally, a cowboy hat – with such urgency that she often seems a manipulative bitch. But, at that age, it’s hormones; the girl can’t help it. And it’s this unstable rage that so perfectly serves as a metaphor for the United States’ current foul and self-destructive mood.

Agree or disagree with that assessment, you have to at least admit that our national discourse has grown unusually hateful over the past three years, a phenomenon Lonergan captures beautifully in a series of recurring sequences set in a high school history class, which, hilariously and without fail, disintegrate into personal attacks over the Israeli/Palestinian question. Characters make broad claims, which are then broadly mischaracterized and spat back as even broader indictments of the other’s inhumanity. Tune in HARDBALL, CROSSFIRE or HANNITY AND LIBERAL GUY SO SPINELESS THE LEFT WON’T CLAIM HIM on any given night, and you’ll often see the same dubious level of debate. This brand of arguing plays perfectly to Lonergan’s unerring ear for the way we often talk past each other as we hammer home our own selfish agenda, and he does not recoil from such ugliness. Commendably, no one in the script is immune from such fiery speech; even Ramon, a compassionate, measured Latino gentleman who courts Joan, lets slip a slightly anti-Semetic slur in the frustrating heat of frenzied rhetorical combat.

Americans have never been terribly skilled when it comes to accepting each other’s differences, and a big part of Lisa’s discomfort stems from that classic need to fit into a societal norm. She needs to get deflowered, needs to do drugs, needs to have a fucking cowboy hat when she vacations in New Mexico over the summer with her father, so, as she confesses to a saleswoman, she’ll at least look like an “authentic ass” when she’s trying to ride a horse. But that need to fit in conflicts with an equally powerful need to feel special, to be a part of something bigger than everyone else around her. She gets that from the accident, which, apart from being an emotionally satisfying vehicle of blame, is often handy as a unique experience about which she coarsely brags to her friends (“Check it out! There’s still blood on my boots.”)

The title of the script is taken from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, which is read in an English class during the course of the film. It goes as follows:

Margaret, are you grieving

Over Goldengrove unleaving?

Leaves, llke the things of man, you

With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

Ah! as 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 will weep and know why.

Now no matter, child, the name:

Sorrow's springs are the same.

Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed

What heart heard of, ghost guessed:

It is the blight man was born for,

It is Margaret you mourn for.

After this recitation, the teacher asks Lisa for her thoughts. Lonergan, however, cuts away before we can hear them, leaving us to interpret the piece on our own. The script ends on a similarly ambiguous note, which calls to mind American cinema’s last monumental (and open ended) epic of misunderstanding, Spike Lee’s DO THE RIGHT THING. Lonergan’s MARGARET is its equal; his New York City is a microcosm for America’s shifting identity just as Lee’s Bedford-Stuyvesant was a microcosm for the country’s ever turbulent race relations. The difference here is that Lonergan, rather than throw his hands up (this is not to denigrate Lee’s film, only to acknowledge that those two conflicting quotes at his film’s close were hardly a note of conciliation), works in a cathartic grace note, which reads like it’s intended to be the big cry after a vehemently divisive row. MARGARET is a lot of things – a coming-of-age drama, a metaphor for our country’s growing pains after having our terrorism cherry popped, one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read – and it speaks to myriad issues haunting the country. But most of all, it seems to be saying that we, as a country, need to have it out now before this shit festers and turns us against each other. We need to reject the polarizing influence of our news media – which is neither liberal nor conservative, but capitalistic (i.e. ratings driven) – and its simplifying, radically political pundits (that means stop leaning on disingenuous hucksters like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore for bunk ideological comfort food), cease using 9/11 as an excuse to exert a non-existent moral superiority over the rest of the world, and get down to the business of assessing our faults with complete and utter honesty.

Of course, there is no panacea. There’ll always be segments of our population trying to turn back the clock, laboring, for instance, to impose a particularly stringent religious belief on the rest of us. But just as the majority of the moderate Muslim world struggles to throw off the shackles of barbaric extremism, we need to identify what we have in common, consign the fanatics to the fringe where they belong, and, quite frankly, stop acting like a goddamn seventeen year-old girl.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

P.S. The project is currently in some mode of development at Fox Searchlight after being announced back in October of 2003. It still seemed to be moving along as recently as March of this year, with Mark Ruffalo talking it up during the ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND junket (at my roundtable, he seemed to be trying to convince co-star Kirsten Dunst to take a part, though there’s not really a major role in it for her). If Fox Searchlight does not make this movie, it’s official: they’re being run by Satan or some equally nefarious being (i.e. Josef Stalin, Pol Pot or Butch Davis).

* - From my DVD Journal ( review of GANGS OF NEW YORK: “Conceived before the attacks of 9/11, Scorsese closes the film with a montage of dissolves of the city’s ever changing skyline that ends with the World Trade Center still standing before fading to black. Scorsese has defended this choice by stating that his characters helped set the stage for the creation of the skyline, not the destruction of it. It’s a sound argument, but it also inadvertently suggests that the history of New York City, the one still churning and honking and bustling at the end of the closing credits, ended on September 11, 2001; that the contributions of the film’s characters only apply to that point, and thereafter gave way to a landscape created by the terrorists. However, as the city prepares to rechristen its skyline in tribute to those who unexpectedly gave their lives that day, it’s clear that the same indefatigable survival instincts, the ones that brought fist to stomach, club to skull, and knife to stomach, live on. The finest compliment Scorsese could’ve paid the city would’ve been to suggest that it doesn’t matter how bloodied and battered the city’s physiognomy gets; it’s still New York City, and it’s going nowhere.”


That’s one of my favorite Beaks pieces in a long time. That sort of passion for something you discover is exactly what keeps all of us writing for the site. Thanks, man. I hope Fox Searchlight does right by this one.

"Moriarty" out.

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