MARGARET (the movie), are you grieving? Gerard Manley Hopkins, and KENNETH LONERGAN, too-

March 21, 2013 § Leave a comment



MARGARET is a hard movie to watch.  I watched the director’s cut first, and then the theatre version.  I had to take time out between the two.  And default to the IMDb’s online summary to jump-start my review of this, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s brain child.  I was feeling wimpy.

Margaret centers on a 17-year-old New York City high-school student who feels certain that she inadvertently played a role in a traffic accident that has claimed a woman’s life. In her attempts to set things right she meets with opposition at every step. Torn apart with frustration, she begins emotionally brutalizing her family, her friends, her teachers, and most of all, herself. She has been confronted quite unexpectedly with a basic truth: that her youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world. Written by Anonymous

Great.  Except for the part where a summary can’t possibly capture the real time agony one experiences while watching this gutsy, gory, enthralling, enranging, tear jerking OPERATIC piece of film.

I’m not sure, in the end, that I liked it.  IT IS HARD TO LIKE.  Maybe because I was a girl and I am now a mother,  I relate to the roller-coaster emotions of being not just human but female, and wince and don’t want to relive them.  And MARGARET captures them all.

It captures teenage girls and the brutality of puberty and the irrationality of youth almost too well.  Almost unrealistically.

I understand that poor Mr. Lonergan wanted so badly to tell this tale well that he came upsides of the production company for taking too long at it and had to shorten it for theatres, and to his great artistic dismay.

“Dismay” is an apt word for MARGARET.  Also, “dismal”, “disturbing”, “direct.”  The movie “goes there” with an unthinkable accident; with the tragedy of a woman’s mistaking a girl with her daughter’s name for her own daughter as she fades into death; with the consequent lying and anger that accidents cause; and then with the FEMALE POWER games, like sap rising poisonously, which include sex with the wrong adult, remorse come too late, litigious angst and suits and settlements and palpable greed, and… if that’s not enough to make you grab your stomach and moan… finally an ending akin to the heart breaking scene in GODFATHER 3 when Michael’s daughter is shot by mistake in her virginal white dress as she reaches out, surprised, and the blood stains her chest and the BG music (thank you google) “Cavalleria Rusticanna, intermezzo” plays, and the sheer unreality of it all…

Well, having watched that much of the movie with me, very tolerantly, as he’s not into teenage drama of any sort, with which MARGARET is definitely rife, my HUSBAND finally points out, “Hey, this thing’s OPERA,” and leaves the room.

Thank you Sherlock.  And, yep.  He’s right.  Turns out Lonergan deliberately leant towards the grandiosity of opera, considered what is operatic in life in this telling of what he hoped would be a post 9/11 summation of American despair in the face of changed realities.

He filmed in New York City.  To drive home his point.  The movie came out six years after filming.  And apparently died on the vine due to bad blood between Lonergan and the powers that drive popularity and ratings.  I think that means the producers.  Don’t quote me.  I just watched the film. Twice.  On the advice of my favorite staff member at our neighborhood film store, the NARO, Norfolk, VA.  He also challenged me to figure out why the movie’s titled MARGARET.  Hint:  Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Let me refer anyone truly curious over real life drama involving this film’s history to a 2011 article, Why is Fox trying to bury Margaret? | Film |

Another “why.”  Why am I reviewing MARGARET on a blog about women in film?  Well, one look at the cast and the answer starts.  The line-up was chock full of good to great actresses, like Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron,  Jeanie Berlin, even Renee Fleming!  And the parts for them, what can I say?  Go watch the movie.  I have NO COMPLAINT WHATSOEVER over the portrayals of women in this film.  The female roles are on steroids, though.  Grendel’s mother, the Valkyrie, no fainting violets.

One issue I have with the IMDb’s summary is important to mention.  Particularly since I’m about to recommend this film with whole heart.

The lead, IMDb suggests, realizes that her:

“…youthful ideals are on a collision course against the realities and compromises of the adult world.” 

The summary, thus intimating that the adult world of is reality and compromise, sets our lead up, and her ideals, as the better thing.  The thing of dreams.  The place where we only remain as long as we don’t grow up.

Nope.  Watch the movie carefully.  Lonergan is as caring in his portrayal of the adult hard choices, which are closer kin to measured, mature decision than thoughtless compromise, as he is sensitive to the fact that an audience will expect, however subconsciously, second chances for an ethically and emotionally immature young woman.

MARGARET is no simple movie.  MARGARET is almost bigger than life.

We all need the heroic, the tragic, the terrible and the hard, played out safely in a well crafted art form, so it doesn’t really hurt us; to help us remember who we are.

And MARGARET is ART.  It’s a wild ride.

When the movie ends, likely you’ll appreciate your own life more.




February 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

courtesy Va Opera's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, photography by David A. Beloff

courtesy Va Opera’s A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, photography by David A. Beloff


Does Tennessee Williams’ stage play, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, work, at its barest, down to the simplest of storyline nudity, essentially stripped of its dramatic setting, New Orleans, where heat and desire and sweat and discomfort and jazz are all part of the scene?

Can a Chekhovian styled stage set, perhaps even a Chekhovian operatic take on America’s deep South, work?

Virginia Opera is taking the risk that it can and does.

Of Chekhov’s stories, Virginia Woolf (THE COMMON READER, 1925) notes:

“But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and (we then) proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed…we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony.”

For me, Willams’ play works, period.  Bare bones, it’s about three people.  A mentally and emotionally unstable woman moves in with her newly wed sister.  The woman and her brother-in-law quickly grow to hate each other- she degrades him at every turn, he sabotages her last chance at happiness with a suitor by digging up proof of her tawdry recent past- and, to stamp “approval” on that recent sexually tawdry past, he rapes her.  Her mental state shatters, she tells her sister about the rape.  The sister cannot afford to believe it and instead has her removed to an asylum.  Where, it is clear, she now belongs.  Where she will, again, have to “rely upon the kindness of strangers.”

In any setting, that line, Blanche’s last, whether sung, screamed or whispered, works.

In VIRGINIA OPERA’S production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, playing at the Harrison Opera House, Norfolk, VA through Sunday, February 24th, that last line, sung by Blanche, leaves us devastated as the curtain falls.

But does the rest of the play, as opera, work?

I found it hard to watch the opera without recalling two things.  First, the Brando movie; and second, the play’s setting, New Orleans.

Because the stage set is deliberately sparse, the actors directed to let the music drive the emotion (here, I can’t help but recall the angst in a Vivene Leigh closeup, her lips pursed, ready to tear into Brando’s Stanley with sugar sweet insanity), and the music itself unfamiliar, which requires listening (yes, I know that’s dumb), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE as opera, composed in 1995 by Andre Previn with libretto by Philip Littell and directed for Virginia Opera by Sam Helfrich with Ari Pelto conducting, well, it’s a little hard to get your head around.

I was, however, privileged to be seated beside (and talk about interactive media opportunities at a cultural event) THE ARTISTIC ADVISOR for the #VirginiaOpera, Robin Thompson.  He held out a hand and flat out introduced himself.

Also an author and producer, Thompson has been instrumental in the development and growth of both the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center and the LA Opera at the Music Center of Los Angeles.  He now is charged with, among other things, the herculean task of staging operatic productions which ignite interest in and inspire ticket sales from the folks in Virginia who don’t support opera.

Why?  Well, aside from the financial answer, there’s the fact that opera is an art form worthy of support.   So he thinks, as do I, and so it can easily and passionately be argued.

So, Thompson is trying out Previn’s STREETCAR.  Brave.  He’s hedging the bet that this opera, based on one of the best American stories ever staged, will interest the Americans out there who don’t routinely don black tie, dine out, valet park and then sit still for a three or four hour gig.

I think he has done a tremendous and risky thing here.  I hope multitudes attend and consider it as deeply as I have done.  And I ain’t no professional, just an audience member.

There are supremely beautiful moments in Previn’s STREETCAR.  The love between Stella and Stanley is clear.  Their duets (forgive my ignorance of terminology) and stage-directed sensuality work well.  Track.  I get it.  I adored Soprano Julia Ebner’s Stella.  So fresh, so clear.  She SOUNDS like a woman in love.

David Adam Moore, as Stanley, bravely strips to briefs in the glaring light that Blanche despises, right before he rapes her, and cudos to David both for his Baritone  voice and for deftly maintaining the poise an operatic voice must surely require while wearing naught but skivvies.   The ladies wear slips a lot, but it’s not the same.

Blanche.  Sung by Soprano Kelly Cae Hogan.  A difficult role.  For most of us, she’s not just being Blanche but also Viviene Leigh.  And, even setting aside that prejudice for a moment, for Blanche’s part to work operatically she has to be convincingly southern, egomaniacal, and borderline nuts.  All the while pulling off that poise the operatic voice must maintain while the body wears whatever the costume designer dreams up.

Kelly’s voice is full and satisfying, Blanche has arias and duets that allow it to soar.

And the pathos of Blanche’s demise in Act III, her exit, led off stage in the hands of strangers, the rest of the cast and we, the audience, left on stage wondering, “What did we do to our sister?”  Okay, that works.

But where is the sweat?

I kept thinking about PORGY AND BESS.  I was weaned on Porgy and Bess’s soulful, refined, lyrical, very American operatic sounds.  My otherwise uptight mother adored that opera.  It was, for her, the doorway through which a wary, conventional musician of the fifties could step into darker, deeper, yet still operatic places.  She felt safe enjoying something brand new to her ear because it presented itself as an old friend, operatically, yet brought along rhythms, sounds, uses of melodic line that were distinctly its own.

I did not, while sitting beside him, know that Robin Thompson wrote a book, THE GERSHWINS’ PORGY AND BESS:  THE 75TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION.  Gulp.

Thankfully, I did not ask him about Porgy and Bess, fearing a show of my ignorance.  Maybe Porgy and Bess really isn’t an opera.  ??  Instead, I watched, listened, longed for STREETCAR to break out just a little more, just a tiny bit further, let ‘er rip at least once or twice into full tilt orchestration that tasted like real New Orleans Jazz.  Break a sweat.  Don’t allude to it.  This play is set there, by god.

Sweat and discomfort and desire and death by heat and hate are what Tennessee William’s entire story drives on.  If the play were a streetcar, its tracks would be slippery and hot.

Perhaps slippery and hot are too muddled and tawdry for the highs and lows and grandiosity that make up the fine art of opera.  Perhaps, in opera, we must ultimately be inspired, not dragged down into the New Orleans dirt with the likes of a Stanley Kowalski, left sitting on a sofa in a slum.

Perhaps the opera, A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, attempts to take the story beyond its setting.  Perhaps it succeeds and I’m just one audience member hampered by my memories of Brando and Leigh’s version.

Perhaps to interest a wider audience in opera, we should not force it to take on new forms but educate about the art as it is.  Avoid the trap of “Brando and Leigh” versions.

Back to Virginia Woolf’s question:  Did the tune stop short without “the expected chords to close it?”  Which chords did we expect to hear?  The guttural ones of America’s deep southern insanity and New Orleans post war jazz, or the powerful, Wagnerian ones of tympani as an opera drums to its close and the audience breaks into applause?

Go see the production.  Dress up and treat yourself.  Much to wonder over, I promise.

And then, as if in answer to my questions, I learn that at least two more contemporary movies have been made into opera, DEAD MAN WALKING (2000) and DOUBT (just premiered at Minnesota Opera.)  Go figure.  Creativity never ends.  Thank goodness for that.

Avoiding MARGARET, choosing WAITRESS for Valentine’s Day

February 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

Courtesy of Virginia Opera. Photo by David A. Beloff.

Courtesy of Virginia Opera. Photo by David A. Beloff.

David Beloff- check him out at, a photographer in Norfolk, VA, who takes really vibrant shots of things that otherwise need sound and motion, like bands and baritones and heated moments in theatre- he’s given me permission to add his shot of a tense moment in Virginia Opera’s production of The Valkyrie to my comments on the movie, MARGARET.

Just as I’d hesitate to step into flames, I hesitate to review MARGARET because it’s tough, like opera; and thick, like clotted blood; and not a very cheerful film.  But I love the photo.  Here it is, as a teaser.   He’s also got some quite nice ones of Dave Matthews on his site, for those of you who’d like to look… just thought I’d say…and Gene Simmons, for you true seventies groupies…but I digress.

To avoid reviewing MARGARET, I watched LITTLE BIRDS last night.  Argh.  Two deeply dark teenage angst films.  Much darker than Gene Simmons’ Demon.  Yes, that’s possible.  Extremely good movies, both.  Not happy.

But tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and I’m suggesting WAITRESS to all my friends.  220px-WaitressAbout pie and love.  There.  You’re forewarned.  Watch it and share your thoughts.  I’ll review it right away.  And save the tough stuff for a sunny day.  MARGARET and LITTLE BIRDS are not for the faint of heart, and definitely not for mothers who over-worry.  Which is a mother’s job.

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