Friday, June 29, 2012

On the Implausibility and Enormity of Tragedy

"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."

Spring and Fall to a young child
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Lisa, a girl in mourning, who thrashes about rending her quotidian relations with those who love her or could love her, as with her surroundings, lives melodramatically, speaks implausibly, and suffers with enormity. She is the central character in Kenneth Lonergan's MARGARET, a film which has before been reviewed here by Gabe Toro and is aptly called by him a "white whale" as well as "cosmetically choppy". It is a film which has gained significant traction with passionate critics as a "flawed masterpiece", or rather as a recent New York Times' article suggests, a "thwarted masterpiece".  And yet, how can a film be simultaneously named a 'masterwork' and identify itself as also 'thwarted', 'choppy', or even as I overheard audience members voice...'fuzzy, sloppy, and magnificent'?

The film's general plot is hardly enchanting, and descriptions of what the film is about can only truly fall short, because this is the type of film that needs to be experienced in order to be then idealized, and discussed. I will, however, quickly recall the plot, only because its straight forwardness and even simplistic vagueness can perhaps shed some light on the double nature of this feature. MARGARET is a film about a young woman, who witnesses a fatal bus accident and is therefore caught up in the aftermath as she questions her involvement in it as an intentional or unintentional actor. The question of her involvement and intention, though logically limited to herself, becomes in fact a questioning towards other actors involved in the accident, and ultimately towards the world, in its private and public spheres. Therefore, what is superficially described as an internal inquiry of personal motives and circumstances is rather a process of external inquiry, as if in fear of a sense of self knowledge which could bring guilt Lisa needs to derail this type of  'circumstantial evidence' and instead thrash at others and question their involvement. 

This could be said in a much simpler way. In an interview with The New Yorker's Richard Brody, Kenneth Lonergan describes how his personal experience influenced MARGARET, particularly when it comes to portraying the way a young person finds out about the ways of the world as the ways of institutions and compromises. Lonergan says the film was "about somebody who's not up against evil or injustice particularly, but who's just, you know...The world is too big to have it improved or affected by you--that's something that most of us find. Some of us, the remarkable people in the world, find that they can do something to change things, but the rest of us tend to make the opposite discovery." Indeed,  the film is not about some mythic fight against a wrong done, but rather about finding out the way the human sphere seems to resist change and inquiry. Lisa's question is not first, "how did such a fatal occurrence happen?" because that question points straight back at her personal involvement. Her first question is rather something like, "why does the world deal with such occurrence the way it does?" or to put it more bluntly: "Why does the world not mourn?". In this sense it is her questioning which moves the plot along and becomes a net that traps all other characters and forces them too to thrash and rend, which is ultimately depicted as a sort of prosecution on the adult world of indifference. 

What is, the world, after all? The greatest thing about MARGARET is that the film, in conjuring up a world, does it while also not determining it. The world is indeed "too big". This vastness and enormity is both the root of the film's naturalness and incompleteness. In its encompassing nature, MARGARET cannot help but depict absences. That is not to say the film feels ambiguous, inconsistent or unfinished but rather that it doesn't feel closed off. There could always be more. Yet, if all was vastness, enormity and grandeur, the film would fall to pieces. There is a definite structure, and Lonergan, again in his interview with Richard Brody, expresses it rather paradoxically:

BRODY: One of the things that amazes me about the movie is how abstract forces are brought to life. There is the sense that law is sort of in the air—the police are doing their work, lawyers are doing their work, courts are doing their work, and suddenly not only is Lisa involved in it, but you feel the vectors of these authorities.
LONERGAN: That’s been my experience with them, and the experience of a lot of people I know. I mean, I don’t have anything to do with the law or the police, but on those occasions when I do, there is this huge moving train that you step onto. It’s got a long history of its own and a huge existence of its own...I mean, there are as many different situations as there are people, and that’s something you get struck by when you go into a new situation—a legal situation or a medical situation. They start speaking this language you don’t understand, and then you try to catch up and follow along, but it’s one of the reasons why it feels like it’s difficult to anything done when something goes wrong.

The paradox lies in that Lonergan here describes a character's misunderstanding and complete alienation in a completely new situation and yet it is that scenario that gives the film its structure. He describes Lisa's questioning as being an action akin to stepping into a huge train in motion. This image, from the character's point of view, fills her with awe at the enormity of the machine, the eternal movement of the law and its stifling, constricting,  incomprehensible and simple-minded limits. Anybody can experience the surreal awe when confronted with the incomprehensible simple-mindedness of a law. In unveiling the process through which the law constricts, limits, and forbids perpetual 'mourning', Lonergan gives us a pure cinematic treatment of what tragedy consists of. Tragedy, in this sense, is simple of plot, grand in dramatization, and nearly implausible in its natural vastness. It is in this tradition, that rightly so, Lisa evokes tragic heroes of old. 

Let's keep in mind that tragedy does not need end nor begin with death, but is rather a 'mourning'. What is mourned? Is Lisa, ultimately, like Margaret, "grieving/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?" or is it also that she mourns herself, and all of us? 

PS: MARGARET is no longer in theaters, but a dvd/blue-ray will be released in july, which includes the theatrical version of the film and a director's cut, which is longer and has been speculated to be the one "complete" version of MARGARET. I feel there can be no 'complete' or concise version of the film, given its nature.

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