Running Time Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2014-07-12 14:00:00 No comments

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I finally watched the "short" version of Kenneth Lonergan's much-debated Margaret earlier this week, and I can't remember the last time I saw a film that I simultaneously liked so little and admired so much. I admired its ambition and scope, but I disliked how all that ultimately translated into a story that was too baggy, too sporadically volcanic, too fundamentally undisciplined to really work. It's more interesting for the story behind it and for the ideas it touches on than for what it actually pulls off. (No, I haven't seen the longer cut yet, but I have the feeling the movie's problems started at the screenplay level, not in the editing room; more on that in a bit. I may do a full review if I see both cuts, but it's honestly not a high priority right now.)

What I found most striking about the movie is how it attempts to be more like a novel than a film — the sort of thing modern long-form TV is attempting to do, and the sort of thing that has been attempted before in film with wildly varying results: Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles comes to mind, along with 1900 and The Leopardthe latter itself being an adaptation of a novel that isn't even all that long. I'm also tempted to include Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander as well, although technically the long versions of those films were TV productions and not theatrical ones — you see how the nitty-gritty of categorization so often gets in the way?

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But a movie isn't a novel — not just because a movie tends to be more narratively compact, which explains why many good novels often make poor movies and vice versa. It's also because the kind of storytelling that takes place in a novel, where a single sentence can hint at a whole lifetime's digressions, isn't something you can transpose seamlessly to a movie. Right now I'm reading Devdasa novel of maybe thirty thousand words that has been filmed countless times in Bollywood, and on closer inspection I find the spare style used in the book conceals great depths that would be deceptively hard to either depict or dramatize.

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It's tough to be that open-ended in a film, because that too often leads to the kind of bagginess and lack of focus that plagued Margaret. Lonergan's original screenplay apparently ran to some three hundred fifty pages (Syd Field is thrashing around in agony somewhere, I'm sure), and even the shortened version of the film hints at how he wanted to include five too many things about this girl's life. And yet I am hesitant to say this could not have worked at all — there are far longer films that didn't make me squirm or grow impatient (Once Upon a Time in America), so perhaps it was more a matter of directorial handling and screenwriting finesse than it being a case of a project that should never have been made. A shame, too, because I wanted the movie to work, if only to put the lie to the idea that a movie can't and shouldn't do such things.

Tags: Kenneth Lonergan adaptation editing movies novels