Well that seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t, because Margaret is without question one of the very worst films ever made.
Let’s be absolutely clear on this point. There are all sorts of bad films. Some merely disappoint by failing to live up to their expectations.
Some are baroque monstrosities whose preening narcissism offers a soi distant soupcon of cinematic pleasure.
Some are bad in a fun way.
Others are so wacky as to be utterly delightful on a semi-surrealist level.
Margaret is something else entirely. To begin with the title refers not any character in the film but rather to a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins
“Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like 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 héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.”
Why would one choose such a touchstone for a film? Ask writer-director Kenneth Longeran.
Go ahead, ask him — I don’t have the strength.
“Born in the Bronx, New York City, New York, Lonergan began writing in high school at the Walden School (a defunct private school in Manhattan with a strong drama program).
His first play, The Rennings Children, was chosen for the Young Playwright’s Festival in 1982 while he was still an undergraduate. Lonegran matriculated at Wesleyan University where he trained as a playwright and director; he would go on to graduate from the NYU Playwriting Program.”
Aha — a “boy genius.” Very Jerry Salinger.
“After graduating from NYU, Lonergan worked as a speechwriter for the Environmental Protection Agency. He also wrote industrial shows—long-play commercials—for clients such as Weight Watchers and Fujifilm.”
After the commercial disaster of The Recognitions William Gaddis took to writing catalogues for corporations before his comeback with J.R.
However Lonergan isn’t Gaddis.
“Lonergan’s film career began with his screenplay for the gangland comedy Analyze This (1999). He was subsequently offered a job writing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000).”
One commercial success (of no particular distinction), one commercial failure.
“Lonergan directed his own screenplay for You Can Count on Me (2000); the film, which was executive produced by Martin Scorsese, went on to be nominated for and receive numerous writing awards; he went on to contribute to the screenplay for Gangs of New York (2002). In 2005, filming took place for his second film as writer/director, Margaret (2011), starring Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, and his wife, J. Smith-Cameron. The film spent over five years in post-production, with Lonergan, the producers and various editors unable to agree on its final cut, resulting in multiple legal disputes.”
Re. those disputes as this 2009 L.A. Times piece explains–
“Because of the litigation and a confidentiality agreement among the lawyers, all of the principals central to the film declined to be interviewed for this story. But conversations with a dozen people close to or familiar with the production, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an endless post-production cycle that left Lonergan and Gilbert clashing and Fox Searchlight sitting on what might be an unreleasable movie.
A number of producers and editors — including Rudin, Pollack and Martin Scorsese’s legendary editor, Thelma Schoonmaker — have tried but failed to help Lonergan complete his movie, court documents and interviews show. With his financing from Gilbert and Fox Searchlight cut off, Lonergan borrowed more than $1 million from actor and close friend Matthew Broderick (who has a small part in “Margaret”) in an attempt to complete the editing of the movie, according to a person close to the production. (A Broderick spokesman said the loan was a private matter and disputed the dollar amount but did not provide another figure.)
The film’s lengthy post-production sparked two lawsuits, which are scheduled to be tried in June and September. Last July, Fox Searchlight sued Gilbert and his production company, claiming he failed to pay the studio half of the film’s production costs. Two months later, Gilbert’s Camelot Pictures sued Fox Searchlight and Lonergan, alleging that the studio and Lonergan thwarted Gilbert’s many attempts to finish the movie, forcing Camelot to pay for “a clearly inferior and unmarketable film” that Lonergan, several people say, will not support.
The quandary surrounding the $12.6-million “Margaret” comes at an awkward time for Fox Searchlight. The studio is riding high from the success of the global smash “Slumdog Millionaire,” a best picture Oscar winner that the studio acquired as a largely completed film from the defunct Warner Independent Pictures. But Fox Searchlight, whose president, Peter Rice, just left to run Fox’s television network, has a spottier record when it comes to movies it develops and finances, such as “Margaret.”
Several people who have seen versions of “Margaret” say that, while the lengthy movie is not necessarily commercial, it does contain several great performances. Anne McCabe, who cut “You Can Count on Me” and was one of “Margaret’s” editors, said Scorsese told her a 2006 version of the film was “brilliant, a masterpiece.”
That’s not the version I saw last night at a special screening arranged by Fox Searchlight for critics who this awards season have unaccountably asked to take a look at the thing — DVDs being unavailable.
The horrendous traffic accident in which Allison Janney dies in Anna Pacquin’s arms makes for a reasonably interesting start. Pacquin is racked with guilt as a conversation she was trying to have with the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) so distracted him that he ran a red light and hit Janney. Wanting to know what comes next seems logical. When she meets with a close friend of the deceased (the marvelous and too-seldom seen in films, Jeannie Berlin) and decides to instigate legal action in order to get Ruffalo’s driver fired from his job narrative interest continues. But then scene ofter scene and character after character is added on, magpie fashion, until the film swells, buckles and keels over. Thanks to the actors there are passable moments. While her character is maddeningly undefined (was she the deceased’s lover?), Berlin is consistently excellent, and as a high school Lothario, Kieran Culkin (Igby Goes Down, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) continues to deliver performances and speak lines that sound as if he made them up right on the spot. But nothing is done with him, and even less attention is afforded Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. Mrs. Longergan (J. Smith-Cameron) has what begins as a promising part as our heroine’s actress mother. But her scenes with Pacquin, which start as mother-daughter conflict on a standard scale quickly devolve into hysteria so severe as to inspire a longing for the return of Ruffalo’s bus in order to run them both over.
Clearly Margaret wins the Pinth-Garnell a walk.
As SNL fans well recall, Leonard Pinth-Garnell was invented by Dan Aykroyd. A cultural commentator speaking in ultra-ripe supercillious tones, Pinth-Garnell anayzed the “Bad” in every artistic endeavor. Alas Loren Michaels has kep SNL clips off of You Tube. but there is a transcript of a segment on “Bad Cinema” in which his Pinth-Garnell
chats with John Belushi’s Truman Capote
and Larraine Newman’s Lina Wertmuller
“T. Lazlo de Wizzen…..Julian Bond
[ open on title slide: “Bad Cinema” ]
[ Music: classical piano – “March of the Lunatics” ]
Announcer: And now it’s time for “Bad Cinema”, with your host — Leonard Pinth-Garnell.
[ music fades, as the scene dissolves onto Leonard Pinth-Garnell seated in a director’s chair surrounded by film reels ]
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: Hello, I’m Leonard Pinth-Garnell, and welcome once again to “Bad Cinema”. We have a terrible film for you tonight. Before we actually roll the film, I’d like to introduce our distinguished panel. We have, uh, with us — we’re delighted to have — author Truman Capote, who joins us tonight fresh from his debut as a bad actor. [ Capote smirks and nods ]
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: And with us, also, tonight — just joining us — Hello, Lina.
[ Laraine Newman enters the stage late ]
Lina Wurtmuller: [ quietly, due to not having a lapel microphone ] I’m so sorry.
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: That’s quite alright. Do you have — do you have the proper amplification? A microphone?
Lina Wurtmuller: Sorry.
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: I think there’s a small microphone on your chair. [ Lina grabs her lapel microphone and clips it on ] Thank you. If you could just clip it on.
Lina Wurtmuller: Very good!
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: Ah! With us, is Italian filmmaker Lina Wurtmuller, who, if she is given a few more years and continued complete artistic control, may well turn out to be one of the world’s leading BAD filmmakers. And we also welcome T. Lazlo de Wizzen, cinema noir critic for Jet magazine. He also holds a chair at Viscount College, where he teaches a workshop in BAD lighting.
[ Wizzen shakes his fist in triumph ]
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: I feel confident… that tonight’s selected bad film really BITES it! It was one of the worst works of Henri Heimeau, one of the very worst of the new breed of bad filmmakers to come out of Le College de Cinema Movec. Poorly conceived, dreadfully executed, we are proud to present Henri Heimeau’s “ooh-la-la! les legs!” Let’s roll the film, shall we?
[ Leonard Pinth-Garnell starts up the projector ]
[ dissolve to the film’s opening titles: a couple dancing before the Eiffel Tower, groups of people dancing around statues, various close-ups of Suzi’s legs, etc. ]
“ooh-la-la! les legs!”
un film de Henri Heimeau
Avec “Suzi” et Les Six ]
[ dissolve back to the projector as the film finishes ]
[ wide shot reveals Leonard Pinth-Garnell clapping, as members of the panel can be heard blowing raspberries ]
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: Terrible! Terrible! That wasn’t so good, was it? Panel. Truman.
Truman Capote: Yeah. Well, that was dazling turgid. A gem. A gem. It’s a treasure. Tell me, Leonard, where on Earth did you find it? Some of the WORST Heimeau I have ever seen! “ooh-la-la! les legs!” is a classic! It’s exquisitely bad! In Heimeau’s two-year search for his isi, he dredged up a perfect little actress — Suzi! She was the pits!
Lina Wurtmuller: Yes. You know, I know Heimeau very well, and his most dominant theme in his work is the twisting woman motif, in which he never fails to nauseate me thoroughly. And you must understand, I can tell you he chooses a girl he knows will be hostile and cooperative and disrespectful throughout the entire production! Adn the colors! He really knows how to abuse his pinks, it was nauseating!
T. Lazlo de Wizzen: Well, uh, Leonard, I don’t know if I have anything to contribute because my speciality in cinema critique is bad 3-D insect fear films of the ’60’s… and… this was one of the WORST 3-D insect fear films that I have ever seen.
Truman Capote: Oh, Lazlo! I didn’t know you were into, uh, bad 3-D insect fear films. Quelle coincedence! Oh! I just happen to have a VAST collection of bad 3-D insect fear films! Why don’t you come over for a private screening sometime?
Leonard Pinth-Garnell: I’m sure you gentlemen can work something out. Thank you so much, panel. I’m sorry that Henri Heimeau could not be with us tonight to view his film. I’m pleased to tell you, however, that he is presently employed as a chef at the Hotel Blaine Schiller in Paris, and is reputedly the worst cook in Paris. Next week on “Bad Cinema”, join me for an even worse film — Udja Corrada’s “Love on a Pin”. Until then, this is Leonard Pinth-Garnell saying good night.
[ he drops the film reel into a wastebasket near his foot ]
[ dissolve to title slide: “Bad Cinema” ]
[ fade ]”
And the faster all traces of Margaret fade, the better.
Dusty Springfield will sing us out with a really great song from a really bad movie