Magnolia and Meaning

(This is an in-progress work on Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. New sections will be added as they’re finished, but don’t hold your breath.)

“And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just ‘something that happened.’ This cannot be ‘one of those things.’ This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. [Chuckle.] These strange things happen all the time.”

— Ricky Jay, closing Magnolia’s prologue

1.

In the bracing cinema of 1999 — perhaps the best year ever for intelligent American studio films — screens were filled with strangeness. Being John Malkovich got inside the head of one of acting’s giants. A plastic bag flitted in the wind with great artistry in American Beauty, and a self-involved middle-aged man showed tenderness to the half-naked teenager trying to seduce him. Three Kings stirred moral awakening into a mix of war and treasure-hunt motifs with subtle grace and great humor. The bravura Fight Club took incendiary if juvenile politics and a masterfully set-up twist and turned them into a nightmarish, funny screed against consumerism, cults, cleanliness, self-help movements, and terrorism.

And amid all this self-conscious, detached hipness was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, a movie that ultimately feels closer to the simple earnestness of Toy Story 2 and The Iron Giant than to any of those films, in spite of its conceits, its running time, its structure, and its subject matter.

Magnolia breaks through the self-aware emotional vacancy of the decade’s cool movies (both sterile and knowingly clever, epitomized by Quentin Tarantino) without losing its edge; it gets inside its characters’ minds and hearts with dazzling style. It is afraid of neither elaborate tracking shots nor a good, fairly won cry.

Anderson’s third feature is clearly an adult film, documenting physical and emotional breakdowns and touching on issues from incest to adultery, abandonment to exploitation, identity to forgiveness over more than three hours. It has its share of self-indulgence and tricks, but it’s one of the most humane and honest movies in recent memory, among works that aspire to something beyond cliché and formula.

Film critics were torn about Magnolia, generally awed by its audacity and its technical and narrative sophistication but hesitant to fully endorse it. For many, the movie seemed hamstrung by some irreconcilable contradictions: that a movie seemingly so narrowly trained on chaos and pain could find peace in simple truths, that a text framed by postmodernism and punctuated with ridiculous and surreal blasts could resolve itself with earnestness and convention.

2.

“Everyone has a favorite bad movie; Magnolia is a rare case of a great terrible movie. ... Most of it is fairly commonplace, Arthur Miller-type stuff about how you can’t escape the past, you can’t escape the evil you’ve done, and what we all really need is to be truthful with one another.”

— David Denby, The New Yorker

“A frantic, flawed, fascinating film that is both impressive and a bit out-of-control, often at the same time, Magnolia may occasionally overshoot its mark, but it’s the kind of jumble only a truly gifted filmmaker can make.”

— Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

“Messy is probably the best word to describe Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, a grandiosely sprawling, audaciously earnest concoction ... a magnificent train wreck of a movie, an intimate epic of full-throttle emotions that threatens to go off the rails at any moment.”

Sight and Sound

For a movie that sets itself up as being about coincidence-not-coincidence, it’s no small irony that intelligent critics wrote virtually the same things in assessing Magnolia: ambitious, banal, and a mess, or variations thereon.

There’s little disagreement on the first item, a backhanded compliment that naturally leads to number three. Number two is troubling for several reasons. For one, reducing any film to its “lesson” automatically renders it “banal”; there’s nothing new, and no movie that arguably has a lesson can escape it. Second, distilling a complex work to one sentence is glib and unfair. It’s akin to pointing to a stroke in a painting or a series of notes in a symphony and saying: This is the essence of this work, and this essence is a cliché. It’s a mistake squared.

The third nearly universal comment on Magnolia is even more puzzling. The film coheres from its first frame to its last, with every major story reaching a logical conclusion and only one questionable stray thread — involving a young rapper and a man who shoots at a cop. It would appear that critics applied the disarray of the movie’s characters to the movie itself. If the train-wreck metaphor is appropriate, it is grandly misused: Magnolia is about a train wreck, not one itself.

Beyond these questionable pronouncements from critics, few arbiters wrote anything interesting about Magnolia. Their final judgments seemed functions of what they paid attention to in their reviews — the three ironic stories of the prologue, a sing-along, a rain of frogs, the number of characters and their obvious connections to each other. These are stylistic affectations and narrative givens, and focusing on them at the expense of the rest of the movie diminishes Magnolia’s impact. They’re important — perhaps even critical — and it’s perfectly appropriate to question Anderson’s choices in building the movie, but they must be considered in context, and with an attempt at understanding their functions.

In fairness, Magnolia is an overwhelming experience, big in every way, and it’s hard to blame anybody for fumbling around with it on a deadline.

What critics (and perhaps audiences) missed was that Magnolia fulfills its ambitions as a resonant, narratively dense, and thematically rich work of cinema planned and executed with grace, style, and economy. Its meanings will be different for different viewers, but this movie needs to be rescued from ill-considered critical muggings, even if some pundits were gushing.

3.

Magnolia focuses on the stories of nine major characters — most of whom are or have been involved in television — over the course of twenty-four hours in California’s San Fernando Valley. The stories are intercut and unfold linearly.

A number of characters are already in the midst of crises as the film begins, afflicted with terminal illnesses or on the brink of emotional breakdowns. Other characters over the course of the movie will be forced to struggle with their own challenges and adversaries, present and past, present and absent. And a pair of sweet, decent people — a cop and a nurse — will struggle but ultimately guide others, helping them to better places.

It will be an eventful day. One man will die. His wife will overdose. The man’s son will be unmasked as a fraud, on national television. A boy will embarrass himself on a popular game show. That show’s host collapses spectacularly, also on live television. His wife will leave him to comfort their daughter. The daughter will try to sabotage a potential romance with the cop, who will be full of shame on their date for having lost his gun. And a former boy genius will try to burgle the office of his former employer, only to be steered right by the cop.

Several major storylines converge, and all the strands come together at two crucial points late in the movie, in a quiet moment of reflection and song, and as a fury of frogs is unleashed from the sky.

In scope and form, Magnolia is trodding no virgin territory. The most basic descriptions of Magnolia — its length, its diverse cast of characters, the barest outline of its many plots, even its apocalyptic climax — suggest similarities to the work of Robert Altman, particularly Short Cuts.

But beyond noting surface similarities — especially to the geographic and emotional terrain of Short Cuts’ Los Angeles — the comparison is most useful in drawing some distinctions.

Altman is often accused of being misanthropic, but a better term would be clinical. In Short Cuts, Altman documents his characters’ lives largely from the outside, letting them hide behind big-city blankness. Except for a grieving couple, one never gets a sense of the characters’ pain, aside from the petty things that set them off. The audience sees the cop’s affair without understanding why he strays. We watch the pool cleaner’s jealousy at his wife’s phone-sex business, but that alone can’t explain why he snaps. Julianne Moore parades around without skirt or underpants, a physical state meant to show her emotional vulnerability, but it doesn’t succeed precisely because the character is so withdrawn.

Magnolia avoids this trap first by putting its characters in full-bore breakdown mode. They still speak around their meanings, but they are so desperate and in such pain that they are naked and unable to cover themselves.

Perhaps even more importantly, Anderson seems to be working from the inside, and from a place of affection. It would be easy to make fun of the cop and hate the game-show host in a different movie, but Anderson seems to invest his love into them; he has not only seen these characters, but he understands them in a way Altman did not in Short Cuts.

A larger difference between Short Cuts and Magnolia is the structural texture. Altman’s movie feels measured and calculated, but Anderson’s seems out-of-control as it builds, hot and threatening to break down. Yet Short Cuts is actually much more arbitrary in its structure, and frequently ambles along as aimlessly as its characters.

Magnolia is as contrived and controlled as the most convoluted concoctions of Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight or The Limey), Atom Egoyan (Calendar, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, or Felicia’s Journey), or Quentin Tarantino. It just doesn’t feel that way.

That’s because Magnolia’s beams and supports are invisible. Skillful rhythm, pacing, and editing make the movie clean and easy-to-follow, and structure is hidden by the film’s emotional fervor and determination, as well as its keen sense of character. The illusion of chaos is never broken, even when you come to understand how deeply controlled and thought-out the film is.

And onto all this richness Anderson throws a metatextual layer that Altman didn’t dare in his wide-ranging panorama. Magnolia is packed with commentary and references to filmmaking, storytelling, popular culture, and the movie itself. Anderson’s film, as it might have been pitched to Griffin Mill in another Altman picture, is like Short Cuts meets The Player ... with Tom Cruise ... with a heart.

4.

Magnolia is full of enough overheated exchanges and overripe dialogue that it’s easy to see how some viewers and critics faulted it. But before passing judgment, it’s crucial to consider this as a choice. The sharp words in muted conversations that filled Hard Eight prove Anderson capable of smart, tight, clipped, and elliptical writing. That style wouldn’t work for Magnolia, though; its use would make the movie a virtual mirror image of Short Cuts.

Magnolia is written and filmed in a style that could be called hyper-realism: “Realism” because this is the way real people talk when they’re troubled and upset and breaking down and miserable and dying, “hyper” because we never see them at rest or at peace. Their existences are distilled to this pitched level of pain and suffering and agony. There is nothing but crisis and movement.

This style bears some discussion.

Most well-regarded, intelligent films are filled with epiphanic dialogue — literate, poetic, and eloquent. But this type of conversation — taken to an extreme, the kind that David Mamet writes — pushes the audience away from the characters, rendering them specimens. As the critic Stanley Kauffmann wrote of Mamet’s film Oleanna, “[T]his kind of writing seems inflicted on the characters, rather than internally generated by them ... .”

But when characters are given the words real people use, the audience knows them because we’ve heard these rambling, profane speeches and blubbered these incoherent words ourselves. It’s not movie breakdowns. It’s real-life stuff on the movie screen. The realism grounds the audience in the characters as the movie hurtles forward.

Yes, characters scream out and sob with astonishing regularity, and Anderson seems to violate the show-don’t-tell rule enough times to earn consecutive life sentences. But the writer/director hasn’t failed. “Show don’t tell” is a great slogan, and it’s an important rule for developing writers who need to sharpen their skills. But its application results in works that operate in a constructed literary sphere divorced from reality and the way people really communicate. When I’m sad or angry, I’m most likely to say so rather than fashion some gesture unique to my character to express my feelings. And if I’m really upset, I’ll cry or scream, but it’s not often in serious literature that these are accepted behaviors.

What’s remarkable is that film critics don’t frequent the world of normal communication; they live in a world of movies, and they take cinema’s rules as holy writ. The language of film — and it is a beautiful language — is subtle, textured, and rich. Yet it is also a grand contrivance. Filmed scripts bring words to life and put sounds in the mouths of characters, but those words have been labored over, pared down, and loaded with meaning. If one believes that every shot and each word should work toward a film’s ultimate goals, one must also recognize that attempts to capture reality by conventional means will always fail. The language is anti-realistic, and it’s no wonder that it’s a foreign tongue to the casual moviegoer.

The corollary is that Magnolia eluded a good many critics because of its gamble.

Anderson’s heavy use of melodrama is similar to his employment of naturalistic dialogue. Magnolia is a skillful blend of both melodrama (chance things inflicted upon the characters without an origin in their behavior — such as cancer and frogs) and drama (situations that arise because of what the characters have done). The effect in Magnolia is one of enhanced realism, strangely; Anderson recognizes the crucial role that dumb luck plays in our lives, and while that’s one of the basic sins of conventional cinema — coincidence and chance nearly always represent lazy screenwriting — Magnolia is anything but conventional.

Hyper-realism grounds characters and allows viewers to relate to them, but it’s also freeing for Anderson. A cousin to magical realism, hyper-realism mimics reality while flouting it. All these characters are real, yet they live in a world not much like our own. The game show is anachronistic, with a ’50s style that makes The Price Is Right look positively modern; the metatextual prologue would seem to belong to another movie; Aimee Mann’s songs comment on the action while Jon Brion’s score swells boldly; and, of course, there are frogs falling from sky. There’s a tension between the real and unreal, opposing forces constantly pulling at each other, much like the push and pull of the mind trying to reconcile conflicting stories when the truth cannot be known.

5.

It’s a bit spooky to see how Anderson’s first two movies brought him to Magnolia. The writer/director seemed to master two completely different sets of skills with the two films, and then he took from them their strengths for Magnolia, leaving the substantial weaknesses behind.

The real magic, though, is the alchemy of mixing these two sides of Paul Thomas Anderson, and the amazing growth he showed between his first two pictures and the third.

Hard Eight was wokshopped at the Sundance Institute, and it shows. The dialogue is pared down, mannered, and oblique to the point that meaning is frequently lost. Anderson, clearly in the thrall of Mamet, in that way renders his four major characters ciphers, inscrutable — or perhaps simply presented in ways that make scrutiny fruitless. Everything about the movie is dense, compact, and closed, from its visual style to the clipped acting.

Hard Eight had many strong points — especially Philip Baker Hall’s performance — but it seems designed to mask core deficiencies with an air of sobriety and profundity. Anderson leaves out a crucial two-year period when Sydney and John craft their father-son mentor-pupil relationship, and that break is the film’s fatal flaw. The movie cuts away from the story just as it was getting to the most important part. It’s impossible to know how or why the plot’s central revelation impacts the relationship without a better sense of how and why that bond was established. Anderson rarely provides sufficient motivation or explanation for the characters’ actions, from the very first frame through the very last. (Anderson shows a real flair for character establishment, and at times it creates the illusion of three dimensions, but it’s fleeting.)

Boogie Nights is almost the polar opposite of Hard Eight, a sprawling, scattered, self-satisfied, and masturbatory exercise. It is in many ways a perfect antidote to the overbearing gravity of Hard Eight, and it was engaging, diverting, and often funny. The sight of the wonderful John C. Reilly overacting his heart out air-jamming in the background to Mark Wahlberg’s god-awful (and sportingly self-mocking) attempt at a teen-hearthrob rock-and-roller won’t soon leave me. But the humor and style come at the expense of the audience (and perhaps the writer/director) giving a shit.

There are no real characters in Boogie Nights, just clichés, amusing and interesting character fragments (William H. Macy, Don Cheadle, Burt Reynolds), and plot-moving people and events. Julianne Moore’s Amber Waves has the only true scene in the movie, a strange intrusion of real-life issues into the world of porn, but it would have been perfectly at home in any television melodrama.

Boogie Nights is all about the director — Look what I can do! — and the words and story seem to have been penned primarily to showcase that side of Anderson. The writing, however flawed, is king in Hard Eight, the direction servile. The first film helped Anderson master smart, snappy dialogue, while the sophomore effort gave the filmmaker experience working within a panorama and juggling its many elements.

Anderson’s achievement in Magnolia is that he builds on the screenwriting promise he showed in Hard Eight and employs it in a densely populated narrative, using a complex structure and dynamic visual style but never letting them take over. The camera of Magnolia takes its cues from Boogie Nights, but it’s more disciplined and controlled, used with great purpose.

6.

A movie should not be judged by its trailer, for sure. But there are rare occasions when thousands of feet of film reduced to a minute or a few of them should be considered carefully. Magnolia’s two theatrical trailers — the one-minute teaser and the two-minute-45-second treatment — distill Anderson’s three hours amazingly well.

More importantly, they perfectly mimic the narrative building blocks on which the movie succeeds or fails, depending on your point of view.

The 60-second teaser borrows its structure from the movie: the prologue with no clear connection to what follows, the direct introduction of a large cast of characters, the rapid-fire shifts from one story strand to another (through some remarkably fluid swish pans), and ... a frog. This accurate thumbnail is Magnolia writ with stunning brevity, and I’m guessing that one’s reaction to it portends one’s feelings about the movie. Those who loved this one minute of film probably loved the whole movie, and those scratching their heads were wise to avoid it.

In spite of its shortness, this trailer contains a large amount of information. Watch it, and then watch it again, paying attention to the characters’ expressions, voices, and surroundings. Earl Partridge is quite obviously ill, Claudia Wilson Gator is clearly damaged, and Stanley Spector glares, to cite three examples. The audience knows more about the characters from these seconds-long glimpses than they do about the major players in most movies when the closing credits roll.

Add to that the closing line of Ricky Jay’s voice-over, which also serves as a bookend commentary in the movie: “And we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.’” Alert viewers, before even deciding whether they want to see the film, have already digested some essential information: that Magnolia requires an unconventional level and type of suspension of disbelief, and that the movie ought to be considered in the context of the larger world, and not merely as an image on the screen. And there’s a third meaning, the on-its-face-contradictory acknowledgment that this is a movie, and therefore is allowed to take liberties with reality. The statement is freeing, too, giving cynical viewers the license to give themselves over to the narrative.

These are not insignificant things; they are the infrastructure of the movie.

The longer trailer does many of the same things as the shorter version — it even contains one continuous, blurred swish pan featuring the character introductions of the teaser — but expands on them.

Jay intones, “There is the story of a boy genius ... ,” and the theme of storytelling, suggested in the minute-long version, is made explicit.

When Phil Parma, talking into the phone, says, “See, this is, uh, the scene of the movie where you help me out,” the audience gets a sense of Magnolia’s earnest postmodernism, a reminder that yes, you’ll be watching a movie, but sometimes we think the rules of movies apply to real life. (Conversely, you could read into that line an expectation of failure; while in a movie, the person on the other end of the line would help him, Phil understands that real life doesn’t usually follow movie scripts.)

This trailer also helps the audience understand that Magnolia is a movie of grand gestures and broad, simple sentiments, the elements many critics have labeled “banal.” The titles provide the most obvious examples. “Things fall down.” “People look up.” “And when it rains, it pours.” Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) underscores this in his voice-over: “And sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven.”

Kurring’s voice-over and Jay’s commentary prepare the audience for a complex narrative structure. This trailer arguably has three storytellers: Paul Thomas Anderson (the writer and director), Jay (who plays a character in the movie but whose narrator is not that person, and whose narrator is distinct from Anderson), and Kurring (a character). (The screen text is attributable to Anderson, and although the trailer cards aren’t in the movie, the film does include chapter titles that comment on what’s happening — the temperature and forecast used as foreshadowing and metaphor for the action.)

What we have in the long trailer, then, is an omniscient narrator (Jay) telling/observing the story, a narrator with limited vision (Kurring), and the unseen but omniscient author (Anderson). The movie itself adds to these elements characters who tell stories, some clearly fabrications and others most likely but unprovably true.

And, in the end, Magnolia hinges on the narratives people weave. Each of these characters has a story to tell.

a very good analysis, one of the best i have read yet. magnolia will be a film whose impact won’t fully be felt for years. like altman, and depalma, anderson’s work will resonate clearly over time.

Thank you thank you, for giving voice to why I cannot understand how any one could not feel this movie is an amazing success, I look forward to when finished.

Magnolia is easily one of my favorite movies so naturally enjoying this essay quite a lot so far. I feel that your comments here are right on the mark. I’ve always felt that Magnolia is a seriously underapprieciated film, despite what credit it recieved. Comments that the movie is a mess is an obvious mistake but I’m highly frustrated in particular with David Denby’s complaint about the movie. First of all, as you wrote; summarizing a movie to a single sentence is indeed unfair. Any movie that he himself has praised could recieve the same treatment and would look just as banal. Furthermore, his assertion that the movie is “fairly commonplace,” I feel, is poorly considered. Denby is trying to reduce the film to one sentence. It’s because he has chosen to simplify the film to a sentence that his point appears thought out. I feel that his point is actually quite weak. Magnolia is about so much more than what Denby wants to summarize in a sentence. The film’s characters all have their own ideas to contribute. Not only that but Magnolia, I feel, also works as a statement about how we live our lives attempting to hide our deepest pains. It is about those moments when we lose our defenses and are forced to deal with our problems. And there is nothing truly banal about that. I usually find Denby to be a fair, intelligent critic. I’m disappointed in him in regard to this review because I feel that his approach to the movie is forcibly condescending. I think the review says more about him than it does about Magnolia. Not everyone enjoys earnestness and straightforwardness in a movie, especially when it is over three hours long. By the way, I’m sorry about the previous unfinished post, I accidently hit the button before I was done. I hope my comments are apprieciated and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Magnolia

More hysterical* than magic realism, this is an overlong demonstration of the bankruptcy of film as a serious art medium.

It could have been made by any reasonably competent final year media studies student blessed with a big budget and top actors (though it is a pity that the talent of the actors is not exploited to produce even one character with whom one can identify let alone sympathise).

Examples of alienation, ageing, love, death, the gulf between parent and child are reiterated ad nauseum without anything being said – let alone anything new being said - about the human condition**.

The most pretentious (and cheap) trick of the film-maker is to parenthesise the story with sensationalised depictions of well-documented and much-reported “strange but true” events (he clearly had no idea how to conclude – so he cheated).

So, despite the director’s undoubted technical ability, his budget and the top-notch acting at his disposal, his film reveals that he has nothing to say; that artistically he is an uninspired mediocrity and, if he has to make more films, he would be well advised to learn how brevity can sometimes offset lack of creative talent.

CS Nov 2004

*Hysterical realism is a literary genre characterized by chronic length, manic characters, madding action, and frequent digressions on topics secondary to the story.

** An example of art which does illuminate such themes is the novel “A hundred years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Magnolia is a terrible film. Incoherent is the word. There are some interesting parts of the film, and good performances, but those brief moments don’t add up to anything. As a whole, the film is an incoherent mess that means NOTHING.

Do you want an example of a sprawling epic piece of art that someone can wrap their head around and endlessly pontificate about..? “The Wire” on HBO. Heres a show that is firmly on planet earth with realistic characters with a larger coherent message about powerful meaningful themes that are RELEVANT.

And you’re championing a crap film about god knows what about unrealistic contrived characters that exist only in the writers mind with an incoherent theme behind them. This is why film criticism has become irrelevant. Every filmmaker is a genius, every film is a masterpiece... you browse Rotten Tomatoes, and Magnolia is a universal masterpiece and the best film ever made. If you want to hail this shit as one of the best films ever made and a timeless masterpiece.. then welcome to irrelevancy.

I’ll be re-watching all 5 seasons of The Wire in the meantime.

elkinsvideo: I love The Wire, too, and I have no delusions about my relevance.

However, there are more ways to skin a cat than “realistic characters with a larger coherent message about powerful meaningful themes.”

I really wouldn’t call Tarantino’s work “sterile”. I think that’s a perception that has been a mass adoption amongst those unwilling to look past the prominence of style in his work. The final scene in Pulp fiction is one of my favorite in all of cinema, its so sincere and profound.

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