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Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson) 1999

     P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia is probably my favorite film of the 1990’s. It’s such an astonishing piece of work, that I must have seen it a dozen times (four times in the theater) despite its running time of three hours and eight minutes. Few films have ever been more excellently acted or directed. In my opinion, it’s one of the all-time classics. Those who write it off as overblown or pretentious are probably not looking closely enough at what Anderson actually puts on screen. For a film this ambitious, it’s got a great sense of humor. The specifics of the characters in the film are often incredibly funny. There are such an astounding number of “big scenes” packed into the film’s duration, that other sprawling films (such as the oft-compared Short Cuts) look anemic by comparison.   

    The film’s narrative structure is amazingly complex. It is set in LA, where they make movies, and it's central theme can be stated as "What happens when things don't happen as they do in the movies?" So to hammer in that theme, Anderson starts with a trio of faux-documentaries (documentary cinema is supposed to be truth, but it's as much a lie as the rest of it [since we're getting an edited, single viewpoint], especially here where the stories are lies). As the film progresses, it escalates the level of narrative falseness. It continues to reference the lying media with the exposure of consecutively greater misdeeds, such as the phony Jimmy Gator news story, the "Seduce and Destroy" lecture, and the quiz show which feeds on the preciousness of its child geniuses. At one point, it even blames one of the great bad guys of melodramatic fiction – the Freemasons! This narrative stretching does not continue unchecked. In the third hour the film seems unable to contain itself and almost explodes. Near the end of the film there’s an absolute hysteria running throughout the cast. The rules of moviedom have run amok, and they’re all being hit by the consequences. Magnolia’s world becomes not a reality, but a movie where reality is supposed to exist, but things are playing out as in a movie. We have descended (ascended?) literally into a musical, and our reality (and the reality that the movie had in its first hour) is disconnected from what is shown on screen. Yet we feel closer to it than ever, since Anderson has subverted our expectations of what a film should promise/deliver, so we can relate to how the characters onscreen feel. The explanation that the film offers up, which is that "these things happen" is at once the most naive and most wise statement in the entire film.   

    Anderson's deconstruction of the melodrama shows how phony its solutions are, and acts as a cautionary tale. He warns us not to expect a pat resolution or explanation for any events in life, as it may not be coming. The film’s ending is deliberately ambiguous and unclear (though optimistic since the protagonists seem to have learned from their experiences). Despite all of the histrionics, Anderson seems to be trying to connect with audiences emotionally only so we’re more likely to accept his intellectual message, not the other way around (using intellectual techniques to better engage us emotionally). Many of his scenes ascend to high drama (and even operatic levels) despite their relative mundanity. That’s because he’s created a world where things happen in movie terms that’s populated by characters that think they’re living a real life. That tension is astonishing and justifies the extraordinarily overblown feel. It’s no coincidence that the film was released right before the year 2000 hit. The millennial feeling that the world as we know it is ending is the defining emotion here, and has never been better put on film.  


Addendum - 09-18-02 - SPOILERS

    I didn't watch the film again or anything since I last wrote, but a reader e-mail criticizing what he saw as Magnolia's inability to better tie together its opening and closing sequences made me look at what I'd written again, and I figured it would help to elucidate. There might be some repetition here, and the language is sloppy, but such a style of critique seems appropriate with a sprawling, wonderful mess of a movie like Magnolia. Here goes:

I really have no qualified response to your critique on Magnolia, since my interpretation of the film seems to be an odd one. I don't know that any other critic has really paid attention to the fact that the film centers around people that are actively producing a false reality (working as they do in LA at making a television program). If you watch the movie with that in mind, it becomes a bit of an examination on the multiple levels of reality that we use to fool ourselves into thinking that the world has order (a message that's blown to pieces by cancer, which sends chaotic reality crashing down). We want the mean to be punished, and we want the exploited to be redeemed, and when we're mean or exploited, we expect the same (via a sense of guilt or entitlement). Much of the film's energy is spent questioning where this devout feeling comes from. 

I don't think Magnolia's so much about coincidence as it is about our desperate attempts to explain life when it throws us a curve by inventing concepts like coincidence (or religion, I suppose), if that makes sense. PS Hoffman's big speech about "this is the scene in the movie where you help me" shows that the characters attach an expectation on reality learned in the films they watch that reality can't honestly be expected to uphold, since it is terribly random, unjust, and unpredictable. The "documentary" bits at the beginning tie into the theme perfectly because they're presented as factual bits of coincidence, but are in fact urban legends. 

As the film proceeds, and the level of tension continually rises, the characters get frazzled precisely because things are not happening like they do in the movies. As expectations are confounded, tension escalate (Moore screams something like "This is so fucking over the top that it's unreal!") and the film continues to trot out the fictional signposts that we use to judge life, such as the TV Commercial, Entertainment Tonight-style shows, TV Game Shows, Pop Music, motivational lectures, and the romantic ideals of its characters who have been taught to believe they do deserve a big happy ending. Of course the post-modern bit here, is that the characters saying this stuff ARE characters in a movie, so they do get the obviously left-field, only-in-a-movie ending that they feel entitled to, via the frogs. It's not meant to be coincidental so much as a wake-up call telling us that our expectations placed on life working out as it does in films is not realistic. If we're in a tough spot, and are holding out for a rain of frogs... well, it's as preposterous as the film makes it sound. 

This reading of the movie probably makes more sense once you consider two things. One: Anderson's grown up watching films obsessively, so much of his concept of life experience comes from them, and he's willing to admit that here. Two: Anderson's own father died of cancer before he wrote Magnolia, which probably means that the film's revelation was one that he himself had to have. As someone who's lived a lot of hours vicariously though the films he sees, this message packs a lot of punch for me. Your mileage obviously may vary, but that's where I'm coming from.

Hope that clarifies it all a bit. 


**** Masterpiece


Jeremy Heilman