Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Traverse City Film Festival 2012: Dispatch #1

What may have been lost, if it was ever really known, in the stories of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret’s lengthy, contentious postproduction, subsequent botched limited release, further subsequent rise as a critical pet cause, and eventual extended cut DVD, is that the movie plays. In a big theater with a sold out crowd, a rare occurrence for this film that a screening today at the Traverse City Film Festival offered, the movie is a symphony of crowd reactions: gasps, laughs, groans, and heavy silences. Sometimes, all of these reactions mixed together with slippery agility, as in the harrowing, horrifying accident that sets the tone of the film early on with its mix of precise acting, remarkable realism, and sly gallows humor. On a day that the festival offered many interesting films and a packed Q&A with Susan Sarandon, this was the must-see event.

The story of a teenager (Anna Paquin) who witnesses a fatal bus accident and then spends the next weeks and months grappling with the emotional fallout of the tragedy while life somehow trudges on around her remains powerful and messy. The ensemble is rich and delicately balanced with her mother (J. Smith-Cameron), the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), teachers (Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick), boys (John Gallagher Jr. and Kieran Kulkin), and an unlikely new friend (Jeannie Berlin), among others, playing their parts in her life story. Each character feels fully realized, even when in a plotline that feels edited down to evocative wisps or in a relationship – as in the sharply observed mother-daughter conflict - that slowly takes center stage. What’s most powerful about the film, what makes it such an emotional workout, is the way it manages to bottle a kind of whiplash self-important precociousness of adolescence where grappling with deep and powerful philosophical and emotional topics still unknowingly creates an incredibly self-centered point of view. This is a film about a girl who slowly begins to realize that others are not merely supporting characters in the opera of her life.

This is my second time through Margaret and I found it to be even better than I remembered. It’s an expertly written, breathtakingly acted, experience, a sort of interior epic that reconciles its lack of cohesion and conventional narrative within an emotional framework that makes intuitive sense. Sitting near the front of the theater with the towering screen revealing all the more strikingly the film’s visual powers – a scene in which a taxi cab is suddenly, subtly surrounded by buses felt nearly overwhelming – the film took on a precision that I somehow missed in my initial viewing. Though I really liked the film at the time, I have an even better appreciation now. How often can you sit and feel a big crowd wrestling with a film so emotionally and thematically dense and articulate, so deeply felt and so smartly filmed? The brilliance of Lonergan’s film is the way it invites us into the life of a character and is unafraid to explore, to allow plot points to exist and breathe like life events, to grow and develop, to wither or fade at their own paces.  It’s truly some kind of masterpiece.

Also screened:
            Christopher Kenneally’s documentary Side by Side is a decent primer on the history of digital filmmaking and its conflict with traditional celluloid. All arguments get their (sometimes surface-level) day in court here as the film follows our host and guide Keanu Reeves as he talks to prominent directors (Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, David Lynch, Robert Rodriguez, Danny Boyle, Lars von Trier, the Wachowskis, Christopher Nolan, James Cameron) and cinematographers (Michael Ballhaus, Anthony Dod Mantle, Wally Pfister, Vittorio Storaro, David Tattersall, Vilmos Zsigmond). The film’s a who’s who of modern cinema, filled with interesting, charismatic artists, which makes it all the more disappointing that it gets so carried away with its history lesson that it forgets to actually interrogate these artists’ theories, claims, and opinions. Instead of editing in a way that puts traditionalists, pioneers, and those in the middle in some kind of conversation, the documentary is content to be an overlong, occasionally repetitive, clip to show an Introduction to Film Studies class. That’s fine for what it is, I suppose, but it certainly doesn’t have the kind of depth I would have appreciated.

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