Nicholas Kristoff on the Liberal Blind Spot
What Is Actually Happening, June 3, 2016

52 Movies: Week 22 - Magnolia

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.

—Craig Burrell is curator of The Hebdomadal Chesterton, and blogs from time to time at All Manner of Thing.

Comments

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I notice someone quoted the paragraph beginning "If that higher perspective..." on Facebook. It's very much worth quoting.

The movie didn't make that strong an impression on me, though I did think it was good. I'd like to see it again. The bit you're reticent about (I think) didn't seem very effective to me, just weird (to put it mildly).

That's fair enough; it seemed very weird to me when first I saw it. It is so strange that it threatens to undo everything else. But I have found that as my familiarity with the film has increased -- I've seen it four or five times now, I think -- I find it less jarring and more intriguing. Indeed, as I said in the piece, I think that it would be a lesser film without that part.

I notice that my first contribution to this series was Week 11, and now this one is Week 22. I know which one I'm shooting for next!

Before you commit to that, let me check that those sequence numbers are accurate. I found a mistake at one point.

I really need to watch this again. I do remember thinking that there was grace in action in some of those plot threads.

I'm thinking I might not watch this, but who knows. I have a greater chance of watching it now than before. Which reminds me that I still haven't put Moonrise Kingdom back on my list.

Knight of Cups is coming to Netflix on June 21st? 22nd? Something like that.

AMDG

Yes, Knight of Cups -- June 21. Also Midnight Special, the very fine s/f thriller by Jeff Nichols the same day.

I must confess to not liking Magnolia much, and not being a P.T. Anderson fan in general. In Magnolia, although there was grace present, I just found the negative things to be too overwhelming. And I didn't really buy the ending -- seemed far too out of the blue (ahem).

Having said that, the performances were certainly very good, and it was an all-around high quality effort. It just didn't work for me.

Re: Tom Cruise. He's an actor I don't generally like, but he was very good in this. Imo though, his best performance is as the assassin in Michael Mann's Collateral. I think he was also very good in The Color of Money.

Hmm, I was thinking you had praised this movie. My confusion, obviously.

Rob G, I'm curious to know whether you've seen Magnolia just once? Not that anyone is obliged to like it, but I do think that it plays differently on subsequent viewings than on a first.

I've not seen The Color of Money, so I can't comment on that. Cruise is good in Collateral, for sure, but I much prefer Magnolia as a film, and perhaps that's what makes me rate his performance there so highly.

I confess I'm not really a PT Anderson fan either. I've seen all of his films, and Magnolia is by far my favourite. I need to see There Will Be Blood again, because I know many people think it's his best.

I'm looking forward to seeing Knight of Cups again when it comes onto DVD!

Hmmm...not sure I'd want to do that, Craig. I found parts of it a bit too sordid for me, I'm afraid. Maybe someday...

I greatly disliked There Will Be Blood. It lacked a compelling narrative arc, imo, and the ending was way over the top.

Magnolia is one of my favorites.

Tom Cruise is great, and I think it is because he is playing himself. You could say that I don't like him, and you would be correct.

No one mentioned yet about Jason Robards! I think it was his final film and he was terminal at the time of its filming. Very powerful stuff there.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman is quite wonderful, as is John C. Reilly. Two of the "good" characters in the movie.

I love the opening sequence narrated by Ricky Jay.

I still remember when I went to see it and coming out of the theater in a daze. I felt like I had never seen anything like it before.

I love the scene where the various characters are mouthing the words to the one Aimee Mann song, "Save Me"?

Nothing offended me in the movie, but I am not easily offended. It played true to form based on characters it portrays, I think. Melora Walters freak-out, cop is called. Tom Cruise TV rip-off artist. Jason Robards hollywood exec with young wife. Young wife has issues.

I love the mysterious scene that you all are referring to.

Maybe the oddest character is William H. Macy's - what do you think of him, Craig?

I need to watch again. I have the DVD here. I've probably also watched it 4-5 times over the years.

There Will Be Blood is worthwhile for Daniel Day Lewis, who is pretty outstanding. Paul Dano isn't bad either. But it is more off-putting than Magnolia is. Makes Magnolia seem like a feel-good movie!

I like all those aspects too, Stu. Even though we're in a minority around here, I'm glad we can agree that it's a pretty great movie.

The song they sing to is "Wise Up", although "Save Me" also plays during the film. That sing-a-long is a big favourite with me.

I really like the William H. Macy character (Donnie). His is one of the most poignant of the character arcs: his loneliness and longing for love lead him to do something wrong (and dumb), and when he tries to make amends he finds he can't (until the grace comes).

You're right that Jason Robards' role is also really excellent. For a character who does nothing but lie in bed, his performance packs a punch.

I've only seen There Will Be Blood one time, and I didn't much care for it. I want to see it again mostly on account of its good reputation (which you don't seem to share!).

I was trying to remember, after reading Stu's comment, which character was William H. Macy. Almost by definition, it would be an odd one. "Donnie" rang the bell. Oh yeah.

I don't recall being particularly offended, though there were certainly some distasteful things going on. And just in case it isn't clear, my view of it was more positive than negative, though less positive than either of yours (Craig and Stu).

I didn't really find it offensive so much as "unedifying," maybe? Of course, these things are often subjective (this coming from a big David Lynch fan). :-)

I thought Day Lewis was great in There Will Be Blood until the final scene, in which I though the scenery-chomping just went out of control. The friend with whom I went to see it and I still joke about that whole "milkshake" thing.

"(this coming from a big David Lynch fan). :-)"

Good point!

I'm supposed to get Knight of the Cups tomorrow. I hope it's as good as I am excited.

AMDG

My copy of KoC came Tuesday -- I watched it last night. Very much in the 'To The Wonder' vein, but with even less dialogue and traditional narrative. I liked it a lot, but will need to watch it again to get a real handle on it.

The visuals are excellent, of course. I would have loved to have seen it on the big screen, but as far as I know it never made its way to us here in Pittsburgh.

(By the way, the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, has won the best cinematography Oscar the past three years in a row.)

I never saw To The Wonder. I guess I should give up and accept that if I ever want to see these I'm going to have to watch them on my primitive tv.

You can get a decent sized, good definition TV for about $150.00 these days. I broke down and bought one a couple years ago.

I know. I could afford it, but I can't bring myself to discard one that's working perfectly well (within its limits). I'm not conscious of it being deficient with the great majority of things I watch, although a side-by-side comparison would no doubt show that it is.

Oh, in addition to Knight of Cups, the excellent s/f drama Midnight Special also came out on DVD this week. I imagine it's on streaming as well.

I just finished watching Midnight Special. I hate to use a word like spellbinding, but I can't really think of any other word that fits it better. I didn't like one of the places though.

Definitely worth watching.

AMDG

I watched it again last night, Janet, and I think I liked it even more the second time around. For one thing it struck me how well crafted the whole thing is. Also, I think the quality of the performances stood out more for me. They're all quite quiet and understated, but it fits perfectly, as the characters themselves are people for whom putting things into words, for various reasons, are difficult. The three adult leads communicate a lot of emotion via small but deeply felt bits of dialogue and facial expression.

Not sure which "place" you didn't like. Can you divulge without giving anything away?

Most of Nichols movies have this 50s feel to them, which I like. And then they are so slow and quiet most of the time. In a way, it feels a lot like a Malick movie, too.

The place near the end of the movie. I don't think I would want to go there.

AMDG

Oh, right.

Depends on how one looks at it, I guess.

I see that's a fairly new movie. Did y'all see it in theaters or is it already on dvd/streaming?

Something Rob said about it made me really want to watch it, and it seemed like it fit my mood last night, so I paid $3.99 to watch it on Amazon. I'm not usually so extravagant. You can get the DVD from Netflix.

AMDG

Rob,

It may be because I'm reading LotR.

AMDG

It just came out on DVD & streaming this week. I saw it in the theater back in March.

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