Plenty has been said about Kenneth Lonergan’s second feature film, Margaret. It sat in development limbo for five years before finally being released in 2011. Even then, it garnered little publicity and recognition from the critical community. Thanks to an enthusiastic British response, a few loud critics, and a large-scale Twitter campaign (#TeamMargaret), Margaret was finally given a new, longer, more experimental cut and released on Blu and DVD this month. After waiting a year to see it, I finally got my copy and watched both versions back-to-back. Margaret is as complicated as its biography.
The movie is clearly a reaction to 9/11. New York could be considered Anna Paquin’s co-star. Margaret takes great pride in its city, providing a wealth of admiring images as much about the millions of people who call it home as it is about the buildings and roads and traffic lights. We follow Lisa, played by Paquin with astonishing virtuosity and vulnerability, a high school student attempting to cope with the emotional burden of having been partially responsible for a tragic bus accident. The title references a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem which is read at Lisa’s private school, only one of the several settings that Margaret inhabits. We step in myriad plot holes and long strands of operatic drama are ultimately left dangling in the air. But the disorientation (better articulated in the rocky “extended” cut) is the point and Lonergan’s numerous opera references are deliberate — articulating the narcissistic agony and ecstasy of every moment after a tragedy while the world outside never stops spinning. The final scene is at a performance of Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann where Lisa and her mother share a moment of connection amidst an enormous sea of heads, all feeling and enduring their own drama.
Lonergan’s script is a masterpiece. As pure drama, it succeeds brilliantly. More than one scene forces deep discomfort into the audience. Margaret is inhabited by characters (some drawn better than others) who share extraordinarily complex connections with each other. The amount of emotional baggage that Lonergan manages to distill into brief conversations is startling. And, luckily, the script is backed by a slew of inspired performances. J. Smith-Cameron’s Joan and Jeannie Berlin’s Emily are powerful characters in a story where, refreshingly, women dominate the screen. There isn’t a single shallow performance. Guilt, fear, discomfort, and urgency are explored in a rich theme & variations with Lisa and everyone connected to her.
Strictly as a drama or literature, Margaret is nearly perfect. But as a film it is less convincing. Lonergan is clearly a director who was brought up in the theatrical tradition. He has a tendency to utilize flat middle shots with surprisingly little depth. This is particularly upsetting because as he pulls away into a wide shot or pushes in for coverage the images become arresting, angular even. Some of his close-ups, like the one on Lisa in the shower washing the blood off of her body, are framed with exquisite imbalance — just enough to signal a crooked psychology. The same is true of his wide shots, like when Lisa and her friend are seen smoking pot in the park. Much of his facility with these wide shots comes from a willingness to experiment with sound. As Broderick’s Mr. van Tassell is walking away from the girls, we hear them quietly making fun of him. But it is made hyper-sensitive by the sound mix as the camera cuts away to only him. We hear what he is imagining. This experimentation is abundant in the “extended” cut — probably its biggest advantage over the theatrical release. Nico Muhly’s score mostly accompanies the New York montages (including one with particular impact showing a plane, high in the sky, passing behind the buildings in the foreground) and some later dialogue sequences. The music is capable of quality but rarely influences the drama.
Regardless of Margaret‘s visual shrug, it is a story of enormous force written with breathtaking control by Kenneth Lonergan. What some may misinterpret as messiness is really an example of precision that approaches genius — a one-of-a-kind portrait.
A mysterious and ballsy picture like Taste of Cherry defies my usual ‘capsule review’ style. It’s mystery is derived from an apparent disregard for convention that is made obvious every few minutes. However, no subversion can match the poetic coda — a weird nod to itself as a critique of cinema. It’s a gutsy move on the part of Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian director who carries a reputation today that isn’t far from Godard’s in the 70′s and 80′s. It’s a pleasure to add that, no matter how good or bad the film, it came out of Iran, a place with a politically desperate climate and a crowd of creatives with electrifying imagination.
Most of Taste of Cherry takes place inside of Mr. Badii’s Range Rover. Kiarostami fills the final third of the film with pretentious long takes of undeniable beauty but little force. The most arresting images come from inside that car. In addition, it provides a source of marvelous drama in a gimmicky picture. Badii roams the countryside looking for someone to bury him after he commits suicide. We don’t start out with that information. Roger Ebert famously took issue with this, but I found it to be the source of urgent drama – What is this guy doing? The performances, by non-professional actors, conjure the ambiguous spirit of Italian Neo-Realism. Most importantly, we are given a striking portrait of Iran through the windows of Badii’s Range Rover. Especially as a Western viewer carrying unavoidable baggage in regards to anything Iranian, this was especially poignant. Everything from workers looking for labor to out-of-focus portraits of the Iranian countryside provides an arresting critique of how we see things — and, above all, cinema. This is made very clear during the coda, but most of the imagery deftly awakens our cinematic awareness. Always looking in on something or out at the world, Badii functions as our surrogate, desperately trying to find evidence of something in an enormous world.
But there is ample evidence against Kiarostami as a prophet of the movies. His avoidance of dramatic convention (after we discover what Badii is looking for) is, at times, deliberately subversive in a silly, rebellious way. Especially toward the end of the film, we are expected to stare at relatively static imagery and be overwhelmed by its beauty. Kiarostami has an extraordinary gift for silent storytelling, but his own awareness of this talent makes him approach pretense. In addition, Taste of Cherry isn’t particularly creative in exploring the tired subject of suicide. The seminarian and old man deliver well-treaded arguments against death. His first passenger, the shy military trainee, is most convincing in his rejection and fear of the subject. The old man, Mr. Bagheri, is like a ghost. His introduction is magnificent, appearing in the car after a startling jump cut. And his words haunt the entire ending — a strangely weightless affirmation of life and living.
Is it all pretentious trash? A stunt? I wholeheartedly encourage you to see for yourself. The New Iranian Cinema is producing some work of ecstatic vigor and subversive intellect. No matter the storytelling value, Kiarostami’s images are composed with thought and taste. They’re amazing to see. Sublime, even. Taste of Cherry walks a strange line between masterpiece and dirt. But it is an undeniably evokative modern poem about cinema and those who watch it.
Either 92.5 or 39.3333, I’ve yet to decide.
Historically, Mad Men has put a lot of weight on the eleventh episode of each season. Each season has had a highlight in that spot. “Indian Summer,” “The Jet Set,” “The Gypsy and The Hobo,” and “Chinese Wall,” are all memorable episodes and served as a type of crux in setting up the seasonal endgame. Last night, the eleventh installment of the fifth season, called “The Other Woman,” aired.
To say the least, it holds up to them all.
In fact, I would posit that the back half of “The Other Woman” is some of the finest Mad Men to be produced.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.To recapitulate, the episode opens on a torpedoed SCDP board room full of tired copy writers working on the Jaguar campaign that Don promised to win. Elsewhere, Megan is preparing for another audition and Peggy is getting sick of being treated like an animal. That’s basically where the episode begins. Certainly not where it ends.
The primary impetus for “The Other Woman” rests in a dinner conversation between Ken, Pete, and Herb, some slob from Jaguar management. He asks them if he can sleep with Joan. However, he doesn’t want to work for it. He doesn’t want to ask her, either. Sure, she’s married and has a baby, but all women are really just prostitues, right? Pete, being the slime that he is, actually propositions Joan the next morning at the office. She says, “I don’t think you could afford it,” obviously flustered. Who wouldn’t be? Later, a partners meeting occurs where Don leaves in a huff, the only one opposing the idea, and the others basically vote to solicit Joan. It’s all just a lowly state of affairs. Long story short, she eventually accepts after Lane offers her a partnership and 5% of the company.
In a galaxy far far away, Peggy accepts an offer from Teddy Chaugh as Head of Copy and a $19,000 salary. The episode ends with Don being crippled by the news after Peggy basically tells it to him in a thoroughly prepared sales pitch of a speech. The closing image is her smiling face as she gets on the SCDP elevator one last time (?) to the sound of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. The final music choice was, as is usually the case, a brilliant mixture of irony and earnestness. It was jarring to say the least, but it left the taste in your mouth that inspires some extra inspection.
Before speaking about the evident thematic stuff, it is right to give unusually high praise to the production/costume design of this episode — especially centered around Joan. Her red hair is mentioned a couple times and is complimented by the blood red robe worn by Herb and his blood red bed. Her emerald necklace is matched by the most ravishing robe anyone has ever seen, wearing it when she walks out to touch Don’s face.
Is this how women get ahead? We need not consider Peggy’s future at the moment. At least further than the fact that she has left SCDP. We see her liberation and her pride as she steps into that elevator to the beat of The Kinks. Weiner&co. have set up two different examples of progress in Peggy and Joan. Where Peggy gets a charming Chaugh and some Kinks, Joan gets Herb. Are we meant to understand one type of progress as more genuine than another?
There was a startling moment at the end of the episode. Just after Peggy gives her speech to Don, he thinks that she is kidding and says, “You know I can’t put a girl on Jaguar,” and “Is this about Joan being a partner?” Those two comments were shocking to hear come out of his mouth because it alerts you to the volatility built into Mad Men. In one episode, everything can change. And, here, it has again. Don’s words to Peggy install more meaning into her choice to leave. CGC seems to represent equality and all that is progressive in the ad world. Of course, I can only assume that things will not play out that way. But in Don’s moment of desperation, he proves to himself why she is leaving. All season, we have been seeing how similar Peggy and Don can be. Again in “The Other Woman,” Peggy is given a moment of spontaneous genius, talking to a perfume company on speaker phone. She even spits a nasty insult at Ken. Both of them knew it was out of place, but we knew it was just Don speaking through her.
The portrayal of women in this episode didn’t stop at Peggy and Joan. Megan’s friend is shown crawling around on the board room table, giving Ginsberg the revelation he needs for the Jaguar tagline. Megan is treated like property at home and like meat at auditions. This is nothing new, but there is no reason for her to feel any type of security when walking into those auditions. She does get one step closer this time, and we see Don react to the prospect of her extended leaving. Don is clearly being impulsive when saying, “Well, forget it.” But there’s something genuine, or genuinely ill, about his desire for her. This season has repeatedly shown that Don is the weak link in his string of failed relationships. He is slipping into an unhealthy, albeit different, type of relationship with Megan. Nothing new on the Draper family front this week, but his mental health is starting to spin out of control.
Don and Peggy’s last interaction recalls “The Suitcase,” where he also kisses her hand in the same office. Jon Hamm and Liz Moss imbue that scene with sandbags of regret and nervousness. It might be Peggy’s liberation, but it is only an element of Don’s ruin. His disappointment in Joan’s prostitution is what led him to speak with Peggy in the first place. It all seems to pile onto him. Does he deserve it? This isn’t like the situation with The Sopranos where Tony deserved pretty much whatever he got. In fact, when Joan touches his face she says, “You’re one of the good ones.” Heartbreaker of a line. So is, “Don’t be a stranger.”
While Don and Peggy’s scene was a behemoth in its own right, it was dutifully matched by the obvious, but still deft, intercuts between Joan’s evening with Herb and Don’s pitch to Jaguar. “What behaviors would we forgive?” he asks in the presentation. The slogan, crafted by Ginsberg, (Don, still a mess at work) is “Finally, something beautiful that you can truly own.”
Indeed, there lies the indisputable theme of the episode, neatly tucked into the Jaguar campaign. Women are moving up the ladder. But at what cost? These women are paying with their personal lives. Peggy is forgoing one entirely. Joan is being solicited. We can all see the ramifications of Megan’s achievement. These ladies have a special bond and it is in the forfeiture of their private existence for any amount of respect in the workplace.
The question then becomes — is it worth it?
[EDIT] For the last few minutes I’ve been imagining Weiner&co. strolling around the Internet this morning, shaking their heads as everyone wigs out about Joan soliciting herself while so many have praised Draper for doing the same thing to exponential ends over the last 5 years.
[FURTHER EDIT] Re-watching this episode only serves as a reminder. Mad Men is the most thoughtful and well engineered show on television. Every line seems (and is) packed with significance.
Originally published 26 May 2010
On a morning in February 1965, John Coltrane entered the studio with three of his most intensely focused collaborators. A few hours and only a couple takes later, they emerged with A Love Supreme. Immediately celebrated, it was both a commercial and critical success. As spontaneous and ecstatic as its subject, the piece was carefully composed and hosts divine symmetry, but was recorded in a fabulously perplexing period of time. Halfway around the world and about a millennium earlier, an anonymous group of Indian artists constructed, painted, and sculpted a shrine of Kandariya Mahadeva. It features a group of ‘The Heavenly Bands’, hundreds of women lined up in voluptuous beauty. The religious and sexual obsession of this pattern is staggering, barely equalled in the best Gothic cathedrals. Another great masterpiece of obsession lies in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Unarguably a turning point in his career and arguably his greatest achievement, it is a theme and variationson the psychological deterioration of man.
All the arts of medieval India were informed by one constant idea, derived from some very very very very old performance practices – to awaken and reconcile traces of the powerful emotions felt during the consistent rebirth that Hindus and Buddhists believed to have experienced. Rasa is the blissful union with Brahman, the ultimate state of being. The Indians believed that the experience that brings one closest to Rasa is sexual love. This is illuminated most thoroughly in the ecstatic celebration of ‘The Heavenly Bands.’
The eroticism and sexuality of the figures, barely clothed and highly exaggerated, is one of architectural obsession. The figures (all female) form a complex theme and variations in each small section. Especially in the crooks between posts. Check out the several permutations of meditative posture and focus. The rhythm of the work is one of ecstatic love of the divine. The fixation runs so deep that the artists were willing to carve similar figures over and over and over until they ran out of room. Perfection is set aside in favor of pure adoration.
When Coltrane and his crew walked in to record A Love Supreme, they knew exactly what they wanted. The album, only 30-some minutes long, is broken up into four sections. As a whole, it is meant to be an expression of Coltrane’s recent religious reawakening in light of his addictions and a general release of spiritual ecstasy. Beginning with a primordial whack on the tam-tam and major key wigglings that invoke creation itself, the bass then enters with the “A Love Supreme” mantra. Part one under way, Trane plays an inventive but subdued (for him, at least) solo. At both 4:15 and 5:05, he plays the primary 3 note motive in all 12 keys. This is obsession. Also a musical pointing out of God’s omnipotence. Like the solo, there isn’t anywhere He can’t go. The groove loosens and instruments are set aside in favor of a vocal chant of the “Love Supreme” mantra. Part two starts with just as the first ended, with a bass wandering around in double-stops. The Coltrane solo contains several variations on the first theme, as the whole piece develops to suit that characteristic. Tyner plays a ridiculous piano solo here, uninhibited fingers and uninhibited joy. He takes control of the progression, turning a fairly comprehendible chart into a chromatic shower. Echoing that, Coltrane hops in and performs more in line with his later years drinking Ornette Coleman’s kool-aid. The album is reaching a climax.
That climax comes with Part three, one of the most blistering examples of hard bop in recorded history. And one of the most intense expressions of faith known to man. Coltrane’s design of mirror symmetry begins to unfold as he enters with a melody similar in structure and harmonic motion to the first movement – moving angularly around a static focal point. Tyner solos with a rhythmically potent left hand and leaves it to Trane with a magnificently articulated variation on the theme at around 4:15, giving room for one of the great recorded demonstrations of saxophone intellect and filthiness. 6:10 marks one of the great moments in jazz as Mr. Coltrane develops this little motif and somehow manages to formulate a mind-bending crescendo after what seems like a cool off. He rips into a variation of the theme followed by the theme itself. The movement ends just as the second began, enhancing the symmetry. The final movement (titled “Psalm”) is a return to the primal opening. The harmony shifts so little that we are left to hear Trane pray through his instrument, literally. The improvisation is based on a “psalm” that is given in the liner notes of the album. His emulation of human speech is on par with some Verdi recitatives and better than many. I recommend following along with the poetry syllable by syllable. Musically, the pattern is charmingly simple. They follow blue lines and use vibrating and earthy backup textures. The bluesiness is an homage to African-American preachers, like the composers’ grandfathers. In the end, the work is a testament to the simplicity of The End and the Beginning, both. The symmetry and use of theme and variations leaves one in a state of resignation, like many great meditations on infinity.
Vertigo was made in the later half of 1957. Originally deemed so-so, it now ranks as one of the most baller films of ever. The plot is complex and strategically revealing, much due to the masterful pacing of Hitchcock, but it boils down to an exercise in theme and variations and symmetry. It begins with 5 of the most rapturous minutes in cinema. Hitchcock introduces two of his most common devices in the film, extreme close-up and gradual close-up. Also, he states the theme of color shifting and geometry that characterizes psychological fantasy throughout the movie. Check out Bernard Herrmann’s score. Crazy intense, right? It cycles through this nice andante figure and some obsessive double time variant. In fact, this motif doesn’t return until a scene where Madeline is getting her hair dyed about 3/4 of the way through the film. And even then for only about 10 seconds. It involves a close up on the face. Much of the psychological deterioration of Scotty comes from his preoccupation with his disorder (vertigo, if you didn’t catch on) and his self-blame for the lives it ends up costing. Hitchcock simulates this sensation by simultaneously pulling back the camera and zooming in. Beyond description, watch it here.
The theme and variations that echo from art in the previous two cases are established in Vertigo with even more virtuosity. First of all, the film is based on the simple tailing of a female heroine. Hitchcock manages to develop even the driving scenes (you know, the usually lame Seinfeldy green-screen face-shots) into a crescendo of distress. The first “following” is marked by a slight curiosity. The same following scene is repeated with variations 4 times in the next hour. Each time gaining intensity. This motif peaks when the two characters, tailer and tailee, end up in the same car. That sequence involves some serious gradual close-up action, as do most of the remaining scenes with those two characters. Also, Hitchcock uses the theme and variations to toy with mysticism. First introduced in the absolutely perfectly executed Ernie’s scene, the camera develops a murkiness in certain ethereal situations involving psychological confusion or ambiguity. Profiles were his thing. That music is the basic love theme that comes back regularly and obsessively, eventually being perverted into a Wagnerian exercise in chromaticism and diminished chords. One kissing scene toward the end in a hotel room actually being a shameless rip-off of Tristan und Isolde.
I mentioned the symmetry because of this fact alone: Hitchcock takes breaks (or full cuts to black) at almost identical intervals into the film and out of it. He begins with about 35 minutes of straight cinema, and ends with the same amount. Those values get smaller and smaller until in the middle of the picture he uses 3-4 minute scenes for a while. Who thinks of that stuff?
I wish I could talk about this movie forever. Having seen it once before, I would happily claim it as one of my top ten. It is full of totally irrational kissing, Midge (who disappears halfway through the film and has the most awkward relationship ever with Scotty), obsession, angled camera work, gradually darkening lighting (the end is almost invisible), and so many other things I’m not yet able to pin down.