And the book says: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."
When first I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia I left the theatre in a state of befuddlement that hardened over the course of a few reflective weeks into antagonism. Here, I decided, was a movie that, despite its bravura technique and wonderful performances, had dragged me through pools of moral slime only to turn itself, in a perverse act of self-destruction, into an incoherent mess. Let me not sit through that again.
But then, a year or two later, a friend astounded me by not only speaking approvingly of the film, but actually describing it as a work of high intelligence and moral insight, and giving reasons, some of which gave me pause. And so I revisited the film some short time later, and found my experience of it transformed: yes, it made a deep dive into dark and troubled waters, but it did not simply drown in them. There was no getting around the fact that elements of the film were enigmatic, but I began to see that the enigmas were fruitful rather than barren.
Magnolia follows a set of 9 characters over a 24 hour period in California's San Fernando Valley. (The film's title is presumably drawn from the name of a boulevard that runs through the valley.) Though no one character knows more than a few of the others, their paths cross and their lives intersect in a variety of ways.
There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a television producer who is near death; a nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who cares for him in his home; Linda (Julianne Moore), Earl's much younger second wife; Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), his estranged son; Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who hosts a long-running television quiz show; Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), a young contestant on the show; Donnie (William H. Macy), a former contestant on the show; Claudia (Melora Walters), the drug-addled daughter of show host Jimmy; and Jim (John C. Reilly), the police officer who falls in love with her. (Here is a map of the character relationships.) All give outstanding performances, but I reserve special praise for Tom Cruise, who, in a very unglamorous role, knocks it out of the park; it might be thought damning with faint praise to call it his career best performance, but I don't intend it that way.
There is something thrilling and direct about Anderson's script: it hits the ground running, hurtling along as it roams from one character's story-line to another. It's an open-hearted, earnest film, and it throws us headlong into the turmoil in which these men and women are living. For each of them, things are falling apart, or are about to do so shortly, and we, white-knuckled, do our best to hang on. The many stories and the interrelationships between them are skillfully handled by Anderson, who guides us with a sure hand, the tension building, through what could easily have become shapelessly convoluted. It was on the strength of this screenplay that Robert Altman is said to have pronounced Anderson his successor (perhaps unfortunately, since Anderson hasn't tried to make another ensemble film since). Incidentally, Magnolia was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay -- and should have won.
For the readers of this blog I want to be clear that, on the surface at least, Magnolia is prodigiously unwholesome. All of the deadly sins are amply represented. The stories, as they unfold, involve drugs, sex, child abuse, and suicide. There might be films out there more saturated in vulgar language, but there can't be very many. In my judgement this immersion in depravity is justifiable, or at least defensible, when the film is considered as a whole, but your judgement may not concur, and viewer discretion is certainly advised.
Anderson is not regarded as one of the great directors of his generation for nothing: his directorial hand matches the hothouse intensity of the script step-by-escalating-step. We get elaborate tracking shots, wonderfully judged long takes, memorable compositions, a superb synthesis of music and image -- the film is structured around a number of songs by Aimee Mann, and it uses them to good effect, but don't overlook the sequence built around Bizet's Habanera! -- but, beyond merely technical excellence, Anderson makes us care for these flawed, and in some cases deeply reprehensible, people, drawing them out, exposing their hearts, but never in condemnation. He loves them, and we learn to do so too.
All of this, as well executed as it is, would be enough to make Magnolia a very good film, perhaps even a particularly notable example of the ensemble cast film. Film buffs would remember it for its directorial flair and its fine performances. But in the last third of its (very considerable) run-time Anderson raises the stakes, introducing two audacious sequences that, while they might lose some viewers (and they certainly befuddled me on that initial, befuddled viewing), arguably turn Magnolia from a merely very good film into a great one.
I am reticent to say too much about these sequences, lest I spoil them for first-timers. They show Anderson flexing his film-making muscles as few directors can, taking risks that few directors take. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that, as strange and even unprecedented as they are, both only deepen and enlarge the film, revealing currents of thought and feeling beneath the surface that we had hardly suspected.
One of the film's central ideas, for instance, is that people's lives intertwine in surprising ways. A brief prologue presents a few especially neatly wrapped examples of this sort of thing, and clearly the whole warp and woof of Magnolia is made from interweaving such tales. For most of the film we, the audience, have had a kind of God's eye view of these intersections: we have seen a larger, more coherent structure than any of the characters have seen. Events that, to them, look like mere chance, we see to have had reasons. Yet in the last and most intrepid of the sequences around which I am hopping, something happens that we the audience, too, experience as totally random and unmotivated, just as the characters do, and this raises the tantalizing possibility that we have not, after all, had the God's eye view, but that instead there has been, above and behind us, another perspective, another level of deeper and farther ranging understanding.
If that higher perspective sounds a little like "Providence", this is not wholly inappropriate, for Magnolia turns out to be a film that is theologically interesting. Anderson has downplayed this angle in interviews, but within the film itself he actually plays up the Biblical resonances, and I think it is legitimate to think theologically about the film quite apart from whatever the director's intentions may have been. What does the grace of God look like to a world drenched in sin? If sin seems lovely to a sinner, how does goodness seem? Might it seem freakish and ugly? The Man of Sorrows had no form nor comeliness, no beauty that we should desire him. If the light of truth were to flood into the darkness of ignorance and error, might it not seem, to those sunk in darkness, to be incoherent and bizarre?
This, it seems to me, is one way -- and admittedly not the only way -- of interpreting the pivotal sequence in Magnolia: an act of God occurs, and, in preternatural disguise, grace pours out on all the sickness and sadness of the world. It is incomprehensible, but we know it by its fruits, for it disperses the dark clouds that had gathered over our motley company, clears the air so that their lungs can fill again, and softens their hearts to begin the long process of forgiveness and restoration.
It shouldn't work, yet, somehow, it does, and it makes Magnolia one of the most mysterious and rewarding films I know.
Here is the trailer:
And here, as a little bonus, is Roger Ebert's initial review on his television program. His interlocutor reacted to the film much as I did at first; as you'd expect, Ebert himself was more sensible of its merits.