Ray Carney and Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret

by Andrew


Kenneth Lonergan Margaret Ray Carney

Margaret, by Kenneth Lonergan

Ray Carney’s writings on what he calls the Pragmatist Aesthetic are the most influential pieces of film criticism and theory I’ve read, and to a large extent have informed what I think about my life, not just my relationship to art. At the heart of Carney’s work is the idea that the slippery, shifting nature of experience belies our typically fixed, subjective views of ourselves and others. He sees mainstream film as constantly idealizing and conceptualizing the people, places, and things it chooses to show and not show, thereby creating “deep” meanings for practically everything that appears on screen. C.F. Kane’s house on a hill is not simply a house on a hill, but rather a palace of isolation. Norman Bates is not simply a motel worker but a box of illicit ideas and feelings to be summarized and psychologized at film’s end.

When Carney gets to his point in the essay I’ve linked, he discusses the alternative, what he calls the Pragmatist Aesthetic, and the tools used by filmmakers like John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Vittorio De Sica, Tom Noonan, and many others. What they have in common is an attention to the physical world and a reckless abandonment of the subjective viewpoint. Intentions are tossed out the window. Clearly articulated desires and achievable goals are passed over in favor of circuitous, fluctuating narratives that often feel full of dead ends and relational misfires.

The practical result of this approach can be positively world-changing, in that it forces the spectator’s worldview out of the subjective interior and into a world of others. It demands that the viewer forget the simple (and almost unavoidably simplistic) wants of the protagonist and instead engage in a constantly shifting, ungainly world in which each individual holds a living, breathing position with its own responsibilities, most of which have nothing to do with the primary narrative.

Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret was released yesterday after an extraordinarily long time in post-production, not to mention the courtroom. It is an absolutely breathtaking piece of work, and probably the greatest pragmatist work made in my lifetime. But it succeeds so phenomenally not just because the scenework is superlative (it is), but because its style is born of its content, and its content is born of Lonergan’s incomparable understanding of his subject – otherness itself.

Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, a seventeen year-old girl who distracts a New York City bus driver just long enough for him to hit and kill a woman, played by Allison Janney. Though the ambiguity of who did what to whom is fundamentally engaging, Lonergan’s subject is neither the facts nor the ideas they drudge up, but Lisa’s revelation of the inherent fallibility and ultimate irrelevance of her subjectivity to the world at large. And the shock of the knowledge revealed, to borrow a phrase from Carney, is not one of information handed down but of experience, frustration, dead-ends, circuity, fumbling, stuttering, and flailing.

Lonergan fills out Margaret with an array of impossibly rich characters, all of whom have something else better to be doing than what the narrative asks of them. Their lives are occupied and splintered, and the specificity of the choices Lonergan makes in both backstory and action for even the tertiary characters in the film are simply exhilarating. (A scene in which an older Jewish woman tries to both flirt with, command, and condescend to a young, black lawyer whom she’s known since long before he went to law school is startling in its detail and dynamic range.)

The camera work, though superficially muddy, grainy, inconsistent and flat in places, is, as in the works of Cassavetes, Elaine May, and Barbara Loden, constantly filled with additional, equally important action behind, or sometimes in front of, the primary action. The repeatedly surprising deferrals and outright rejections of subjectivity and insistence on profiles, oblique angles, and separated coverage at points of growing intensity and typically “direct” confrontation are unexpected almost to the point of being disorienting. Lisa is so firmly thrust out of the immediate, flattering, woe-is-me world of teenage dramatics that even a shot of a busy avenue awash with taxi cabs late at night can offer an eerie, unsettling reminder that the world is churning, multifaceted, glorious, and worth knowing.

This is dizzying, deeply affecting work. The understanding of the world that Lisa grows into is neither despairing nor necessarily optimistic, nor is it cynical. It is an affirmation that the world of others is complex, and refuses to bend to the histrionics of the interior world, teenaged or otherwise. Her phony deepness and facility with emotion become the forces that she grapples with most aggressively, and like any adult she will have to leave them behind if she wants to stop floating through the world.