a bonobo humanity?

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution


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Going to the Palace-Nova cinemas late on a Monday night in the middle of winter has proved a surprising experience. I expected to be confronted by a desert of dark carpet with a half-asleep attendant womanning the ticket booth cum choc-top fridge, but instead it was wall to wall people and a long, glacial queue. It gradually dawned on me that this must be the cheapie night, and it seemed I was the only one in town who didn’t know it. The bumper crowd may also have been due to some newly-released ‘blockbusters’ such as ‘The Dark Knight, sequel 2’ or What You Will.

I get weekly emails from Palace-Nova, and I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully of late, to see a film a week. The email links me to currently showing flicks, with synopses and trailers, so that I can pick out the most appealing-looking feature, taking into account viewing times. I generally prefer to go in the quiet afternoon, usually mid-week, Wednesday being a free day. However, last Monday I felt the urge all of a sudden, and though the film I chose, ‘Margaret’, didn’t start till after 9pm and ran for nearly three hours, I was up for it.

The crowd certainly wasn’t there for poor old Margaret. There were only about five people in the cinema with me. This was good of course; I got to spread out and make myself at home and to feel enlightened and superior to all those lemmings in Cinema Batman nearby. But enough; the movie.

Margaret, the movie, has a story almost as troubled as that of its principal character, Lisa [Anna Paquin]. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, it was filmed in 2005-6, and was due for release in 2007, but was held up in post-production for over four years, while the various stakeholders wrangled about editing and the final cut, with consequent lawsuits and attendant dramas. Lonergan preferred a three-hour version while others insisted on a limit of 150 minutes. Eventually Lonergan approved a 150-minute version, with editing assistance from Martin Scorsese among others, but the producer refused to accept it, etc etc. It really is a case of life imitating art, considering the highly disputatious and volatile natures of many of the film’s characters.

It’s a coming-of-age tale, of sorts. Lisa Cohen is a teenager whose irritating qualities are only just made bearable for us by the flawed and variably irritating natures of all the other people she interacts with. She has fierce fights with her long-suffering single mum, her fellow students, and various authority figures; she flirts carelessly, takes advantage and behaves with all the casual cruelty and insensitivity of the worst of adolescents. She runs hot and cold with a sensitive schoolmate who’s clearly attracted to her [one has to wonder why], then impulsively offers up her virginity to a casual older acquaintance who’s been introducing her to the drug scene. She’s far too self-absorbed to feel much in the way of empathy for her mother’s tentative steps towards a new romance, or to really understand in any depth, or to feel, the lives of others – teachers, relatives, possible or passing sexual partners, or those caught up with her in the central event of the film and its consequences.

The event is a bus accident which causes the death of a middle-aged female pedestrian. In the moments leading up to the accident, the impulsive heroine was rapping on the door of the bus and distracting the driver because she was interested in the sombrero-style hat he was wearing. The driver, clearly too easily distracted for his professional position, missed a red light and ran the woman over. She passes away in Lisa’s arms in a bizarre and slightly unreal death scene. It’s a life-altering moment for Lisa, and the events she subsequently sets in motion have unintended consequences that lead to further frustrations and crises.

Arguably one of the weaknesses of the film is the overall, on-balance sense of the intransigence and insensitivity of humans in general. It depends on whether you agree with the writer/director about that, and it’s hardly a black-and-white presentation, but there are plenty of characters in the film that you just feel like shaking some sense into. The film also has much to say about the complexities of adult life, and the strange unintended consequences of impulsive or thoughtless acts, threads that too few people in the film are willing or able to follow. In many ways this is what the film is about, individuals preoccupied with their own worlds and their attempts to balance self-gratification and social life. For example, it’s difficult for an outsider to see why Ramon [Jean Reno], who works in computers, ‘falls in love’ with Lisa’s mother Joan [J Smith-Cameron], and fatally regards her as the one woman who could make him happy, when they appear to have so little in common. Yet we know this kind of thing happens often enough in real life. It’s as if people are living out narratives in their lives, narratives which can come crashing around them as they clash with the narratives of others, as happens with Ramon, and with Lisa on several occasions but most painfully when she clashes with Emily [Jeannie Berlin], the best friend of the deceased accident victim, over their memories and their ‘ownership’ of the person who brought them together. It’s a world of knocks and shocks, frustrations and resentment, and the coming together of mother and daughter at the end of the movie is far from being a moment of resolution, it’s more a ‘shelter from the storm’ moment, a brief burying of one’s pain and incomprehension in the arms of another sufferer, who, being family, has at least some glimmer of understanding, and much in the way of empathy.

It was a long movie, but I certainly didn’t find it over-long, being quite absorbed in its true horrendousness. Lisa’s teenage antics and indiscretions and neediness will be familiar to us, as will be, for example, the frustrations of the school English teacher [Matthew Broderick] when confronted with an intransigent teenager’s take on King Lear, another nicely observed example of worlds colliding. Hell is other people, yet we cannot help but be drawn to them, like moths to a flame. I try to keep my distance, generally.

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2012 at 9:59 am

One Response

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  1. There were too many lingering shots of NYC skylines to avoid thinking this film was meant as a comment about NYC itself. When Emily accuses Lisa of self-dramatising, of trying to co-opt others into an opera centering on herself, we can take this as aimed at the people of NYC in general (and perhaps the Jewish members of that community in particular, but don’t tell Emily I said that). However, never having been to New York, I just took the characters at face value.

    I loved Emily, with her mastery of instant-offence and insightful putdown, and because, no matter how savage the finality with which she demolished you, she always gave you the right of reply – if you were agile enough to grab it. Lisa had found a good mentor.

    What the student trying to defend his interpretation of Shakespeare had yet to learn was that an argument is a bloodsport in which to win a point you have to attack not merely your opponent’s words, but also their intellectual, emotional and existential credibility.

    As for poor Ramon, didn’t he read the signs on the freeway from the airport? “Welcome to New York – anything you say can and will be held against you in a conversation.”

    Michael Robertson

    August 12, 2012 at 11:17 am

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