What then to say in the sober aftermath of an Oscar night that was not only set up to be the most retro in recently memory but the most consecrated to conventional wisdom — with “The Artist” more or less sweeping the table as it had throughout this protracted awards season, emerging as the first “silent” (or faux silent) movie to win an Oscar since the Murnau-Flaherty oddity “Tabu” got Best Cinematography (for David Crosby’s father Floyd) in 1931.
That was just about the only broken taboo last night. I cherished a foredoomed hope that “Hugo” (or at least Scorsese) might upset the applecart and, to the amusement of an affably cynical neighborhood crowd whose good cheer helped keep me awake through this painfully predictable ceremony (even as an Italian colleague and I wondered what the fuck we were going to find to write about), would have bet Mitt Romney’s chump change $10,000 that Viola Davis was going to once more deny Meryl Streep, nominated for her impersonation of Maggie Thatcher and wittily wrapped in Oscar gold.
The end of Streep’s Susan Lucci-like streak of 15 or whatever unanswered nominations was the big surprise — others being the appearance of underground moviemaker George Kuchar in the annual necrology, the reappearance of Angelina Jolie’s shapely gam after an obstreperous award-winner mocked the mock pin-up pose the goddess struck in presenting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay to “The Descendants,”and the abject failure of the drinking game I had proposed. Anyone who took my free advice and waited to hear the word “magic” before taking a shot was destined for a relatively quick two drinks followed by a painfully dry slog and is entitled to my apologies and their money back.
That the Oscar’s not-so-deep structure is making the industry feel good about itself was reaffirmed by the ultimate winner’s heartfelt “I love your country!” Still, the least surprising part of the affair was the total absence of a movie that might have reasonably been nominated for six Oscars (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress, and Editing) and might legitimately have won three — had anyone actually seen it. I refer to Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret,”critical cause célèbre, which began shooting in 2005 and only released in last November, and I had only seen the night before at an oversold, personal-appearance enriched love-in as part of “Film Comment Selects” through the kindness of a total stranger who, overhearing my jawing a harried house manager, gifted me with a ticket and then anonymously melted back into the stand-by line. (To you sir, I dedicate this, my first ARTINFO post!)
So is “Margaret” the Best (American) Picture of 2011? Let’s say that the coming of age story of a 17-year-old (Anna Paquin), the self-dramatizing daughter of an off-Broadway actress (J. Smith-Cameron), living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with a half-scholarship to some progressive private school, traumatized by a dreadful accident she helped precipitate was, despite at least one wholly unnecessary subplot, the shortest 2½ hours of my recent viewing experience (a blink of an eye compared to the Oscars). Endlessly generous to his actors, notably the great Jeannie Berlin who has the movie’s single best line, informing Paquin’s latter-day Holden Caulfield that, “this isn’t an opera and we are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!”, Lonergan mined territory mapped out by Woody Allen, and recently explored by Nicole Hofcener and Noah Baumbach, albeit with a paucity of smugness and abundance of heart.
“Margaret” is dense with literary allusion, and the illusion of novelistic density, balances astute pedagogy and on-with-the-show schmaltz, and combines adolescent verisimilitude with operatic pathos for a stunningly cathartic stunning conclusion at a performance of Offenbach’s posthumous “Tales of Hoffman” with Renee Fleming singing the lilting and sensuous Barcarolle. It’s a piece in which, as Siegfried Kracauer wrote, Offenbach “once more, though more profoundly and cunningly than ever, conjured up the joy of the fleeting moment and the beauty of the passing day,” a state to which this wonderful movie-movie similarly aspires.