Every now and again in this life, if you’re lucky, you get the chance to work on something near and dear to your heart. The issue you’re about to read—tens of thousands of words about one single film—is just such a thing to me. The goal here is twofold, one perhaps more noble than the other: to call focused attention to an important film that far too few have seen, and to absolutely geek out over something we love, as a kind of reward to ourselves after working tirelessly to put out 40 issues of this magazine over the past 3 ½ years. If we’ve done what we set out to do, this issue should be both an opening into the film for the uninitiated, as well as a gift to all the passionate Margaret fans who’ve embraced the film since its release in 2011.
It’s an almost tragic irony that one of the very best films of the past twenty years is also one of its most underseen. Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a true masterpiece of the new millennium, is an utterly unique, stubbornly sprawling, fiercely compassionate film that attempts nothing less than to capture an entire world in its three hours. That, to date, more has been written about its struggle to be released—a lengthy battle between Lonergan, Fox Searchlight, and one of the film’s producers, which dragged on for more than five years and ended with the studio unceremoniously dumping a truncated version of the film into a handful theaters without any marketing or promotion—is a true shame. This issue, then, is our humble attempt to tip the scales ever so slightly on that account. Because what matters most, as the studio interference and legal machinations continue to recede further into the background with each passing year, is that the film itself—or, at least, the “extended cut” that Lonergan was finally allowed to put together for the DVD release, and is the only one he now fully endorses—is that rarest of things in the cinematic world: a true work of art. And true art, thankfully, lasts—long after the struggles to make it have faded away.
I’m not going to make any attempt at hiding my bias; Margaret is one of my favorite films on the planet. However, I came to that opinion honestly, drawn in by the theatrical version—which no doubt has its merits—only to be bowled over by the extended cut. Given the room to stretch its wings and fully breathe, the three hour and eight minute version of the film, surprisingly, seems to move much more quickly than the shorter theatrical cut ever did. Several scenes are drawn out and expanded, unspooling in the real-life rhythms which Lonergan had always intended; missing puzzle pieces of the film’s multifaceted plot are restored, allowing relationships between various characters to deepen and cohere; a thematic marriage of content and form, which the earlier version often hinted at, bursts forth in full resonance. What emerges, then, is nothing short of a masterwork—an opinion echoed by a handful of prominent critics, a passionate base of cineastes (#TeamMargaret represent!), and a growing group of ardent admirers. And now, it’s your turn to join the conversation.
Before we dive in though, I want to give you a quick overview of the issue and its structure, since it’s quite unlike anything we’ve attempted before. The issue started out, as most things do at Bright Wall/Dark Room, as a small flicker of an idea. Some never spark, others sputter out, but a few catch flame and refuse to let us go. This is one that managed to catch fire. About a year ago, I’d wondered what it would be like to try and build an entire issue around a single film, gathering a multitude of perspectives from several different writers all sitting down to wrestle with the same movie. It seemed interesting, but quickly led to an obvious question: what film could possibly sustain that kind of coverage, or warrant such focus? What movie would allow for a wide enough range of angles and interpretations to not bore a reader out of their mind? But in nearly the same moment in which I asked that question, an answer also emerged. Why, of course: Margaret.
And from there, things began to take shape. Over the course of the past few months, I’ve interviewed Kenneth Lonergan and several of the film’s cast members (Matt Damon, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, J. Smith-Cameron), as well as one of its most vocal champions, playwright Tony Kushner. Each of these interviews is interspersed with four different but overlapping essays on the film. We start off with Matt Brennan’s essay, which explores the many ways in which Lonergan’s language shapes the landscapes of both Margaret and his previous film, You Can Count on Me. Next, Lauren Wilford tackles her initial reluctance to embrace the film, followed by all the ways in which it opened up to her upon a second viewing, and then unpacks how to make sense of that. Then, Charles Bramesco discusses the film through the lens of crisis, discourse, 9/11, teenagers, and New York City. And finally, Sean Nelson looks at Margaret in light of identity, privilege, struggles to communicate, and the election of Donald Trump.
And so, here it is. We sincerely hope that, after reading this issue, you’ll be encouraged to seek out the extended cut of the film, which just recently, thank god, became available to stream via Amazon, after falling out of print earlier this year. Or, if you’re already a Margaret fan, we hope this issue provides you with yet another way in which to engage with the film. It’s been a dark month in American history and we’re all feeling its unsettling effects, but we must never forget that great movies, especially those engaging compassionately with the human condition, matter more than ever in times like these. As the late, dearly missed Roger Ebert said back in 2005, “We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”