16 April 2011

THE PAST AIN'T THROUGH WITH US

Reader Tess LeBlanc deserves an apology: I managed to lose the e-mail in which she made her request for a review as part of the Carry On Campaign. At long last, I have made good on my promise to her.

I owe Paul Thomas Anderson and his 1999 feature Magnolia an apology: my memory of that film, which I last saw eleven years ago and did not like, was that it was a straightforward attempt to do a Robert Altman. And it's not the opposite of that: its hefty cast of Angelinos moving with increasing spiritual dissatisfaction to a city-spanning incident reveals for once and for all just how these unconnected people are all linked together was obviously influenced, a lot, by Altman's 1993 Short Cuts. Hell, I knew that without even having seen Short Cuts yet in the fall of 2000.

And yet, calling Magnolia "Anderson's Short Cuts" is just plain wrong. It's his "Short Cuts plus the work of Gabriel García Márquez", maybe, his "Short Cuts in Wonderland", his "I Watched Short Cuts On Acid". That is to say: Short Cuts is clearly the starting point, but not the ending point for a movie that is probably the most overstuffed with ideas of anything in Anderson's career. Like his whole generation of American filmmakers, the director is a magpie, snatching ideas from earlier movies as he sees fit; but his thievery has never been this loopy and unexpected, combining elements from all over the map, as though Anderson were terrified that if he didn't completely expunge every single crazy thought that came to him, he might explode from the pressure of it.

Hence we get a film that opens with a characteristically laconic Ricky Jay narrating three stories of extrarordinary coincidences (only one of them historically true), the first of which has been filmed using vintage cameras and meant to look as much as possible like a silent film from the first decade of the 20th Century, as prologue to a film in which, despite a massively hyperlinked cast, only two things that can be honestly be termed "coincidences" ever occur. Hence we get a film in which all of the main characters are connected in a non-diegetical musical number, each of them singing along to Aimee Mann's single "Wise Up", the kind of boldly batshit choice that could only be made by a director who knew that this was his one big chance (following the success of Boogie Nights) to get away with every little thing that caught his fancy.

Before I get too far ahead of things, it might be a good idea to briefly recap the story: Magnolia, of course, is the story of nine people over one day in Los Angeles, all of them tied together. Starting at one end of the loop, we have Jim Curring (John C. Reilly), an LAPD cop looking for love, who thinks he's found it in the form of strung-out, nervous junkie Claudia (Melora Walters). She's the embittered daughter of Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the host of a popular game show, What Do Kids Know?, which is currently witnessing a thrilling run by Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) for the record set ages ago by Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who has since become a burned-out pathetic shell of humanity. What Do Kids Know? was the brainchild of TV executive Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), lying in his home and dying of cancer; he's being attended by his newest trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore) and nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and with his dying energy, all he wants to do is reconnect with his estranged son Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a telemarketing genius behind the "Seduce & Destroy" program that teaches pathetic single men how to demhumanise and capture women for sex.

A lot to keep track of; the movie does a very good job of keeping it simple for us. For starters, and despite the film's reputation, this is not really the story of how nine people get all tangled up in each others' lives. Take a good hard look at the relationships again, or let's just pull up a chart kindly provided by a Wikipedia editor on the film's page:

That certainly looks all intertangled, but check out the left arm. Who is Dixon? He's an African-American boy, played by Emmanuel L. Johnson, and he appears in all of two scenes (when I mentioned the two major coincidences in the film, his second appearance was one I was thinking of, and that's probably giving it more credit than it deserves as a "coincidence"). Which isn't enough to put him on this list, so let's look at it if he's removed:

And there we have it: Magnolia is actually made up of rather more manageable sub-networks that really never interact, all hinging on What Do Kids Know? as the common element. It's even easier than that, in fact; the chart's alleged "Jim-Donnie" link is also fairly slight (it's the second of the two coincidences), and if we take that out, the plot gets even more streamlined. I'm not going to keep making new charts to show all the ways that Magnolia is less messy than it seems, but it actually boils down to just a few major storylines: Jim and Claudia, Donnie is pathetic, Stanley is his father's puppet, the suffering of the Partridges.

What connects the characters is not so much their lives, but the world they live in (Anderson sees to it that the tertiary details fleshing out his film also make it clear that all these stories are taking place in proximity to each other), and the themes of the stories: bad fathers, the need to find love, the desire to escape the past. I'm not sure that those three things address each and every single plot development that happens in Magnolia, but the lion's share fall under one of those umbrellas (oh, and dying of cancer, but that isn't really a "theme").

So, Magnolia is not ultimately a film about interlocking characters as it is of resonant character arcs; and for the most part, it's a very good version of that. Some of the stories are great: this was the film where I first took note of some fella named John C. Reilly, who gave the best performance in the ensemble, anchoring its most fully-realised subplot. Some are not: I love Macy, but the Donnie plot could be removed in its entirety without damaging the film in the slightest degree, and it would have the added bonus of cutting out several scenes in a gay bar that suggest that Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't spent much time talking to gay people. And there are the general sorts of issues, like the fact that in a film set in Los Angeles, the only significant African-American characters are a screaming Evil Mammy named Marcie (Cleo King), a Magical Negro preteen, and April Grace as an unflappable interviewer who punctures Frank Mackey's profound wall of self-protective misogyny, a role with just about the least-discernible inner life of any halfway major character; and for that matter, the biggest Latino role belongs to Luis Guzmán cameoing as a playfully fictitious version of himself.

Somehow, though, I think "fixing" Magnolia's flaw-ridden script would make it somehow a less-interesting thing, for it's the very same loopy indulgences that make characters like Donnie, Frank, and Linda so weirdly inhuman (Moore's breakdown in a pharmacy is a simply hypnotic patch of crazy overacting), that make it so obviously personal for Anderson. From the opening scene on, this is clearly a movie made by somebody with Ideas, lots of them, Ideas coming out his ass. The latter-day film it reminds me of is none of the many hyperlink films so obviously inspired by it, but Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, another L.A. story where the various plot threads don't all come together the way the filmmaker plainly believes that they do, and where the sheer accumulation of notions that have no connection to our reality, but make perfect sense given the context of the film's reality make it clear that we're watching a passion project. At any rate, Southland Tales is one of the only other recent films I can think of where a thunderstorm of frogs would seem as entirely reasonable as it does in Magnolia.

That mad passion cuts both ways: for as much as I can't help but respond to Anderson's singularity of vision, I'd be lying if I said that there wasn't something profoundly alienating about Magnolia (which also happens to be true of Southland Tales). Part of it is that the film is so palpably fussy, that the director threatens to crowd the life out of his movie: I'm not here to talk about film trivia, but just reading about the use of religious symbolism in the movie, especially the number of deliberate references to 8 and 2 (from Exodus 8:2, the Plague of Frogs verse); the number of places where the film takes its cues from the work of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann - and, incidentally, if you have an active dislike of her breed of acoustic pop (as does your humble blogger, for one), there will always be a wall separating you from a pure love of Magnolia - the ironic and not-so-ironic use of titles in seemingly arbitrary ways, the use of metaphorically laden dialogue in places where it calls maximum attention to itself (Stanley's big monologue): Magnolia at all points feels to me like such a monumentally difficult exercise, both to make and to read in all its details, that turns into a "crossword puzzle", to use Roger Ebert's cautionary phrase.

I wonder if that's why the most widely-praised of the actors at the time of the film's release was Cruise: there's something inherently dissociative about watching a famous person best known for being a pretty face playing such a broken, hate-filled man, which isn't quite the same thing as "good acting", but a lot of critics regard it that way; I'd not hesitate even a second to suggest that Reilly, Hall, and Walters at a minimum give more accomplished performances. But it's Cruise's Frank that hits a sweet spot between being an actual human person and an approximation of a kind of human experience; we never believe that he'd exist in real life, but then again, Magnolia is not a document of real life or real emotions, but an overblown concept of life and emotions, run through the mind of a filmmaker who is obsessed with concepts to the point of distraction in this film.

That is, undeniably, attractive and even thrilling; at the same time, I can't help but get an itchy feeling from Magnolia, and the bloated 3-hour, 8-minute running time doesn't help with that even one tiny bit. It's exhausting, frankly, and the fact that it's a formal work-out just as much as a narrative one makes it even rougher: the film is edited to some peculiar rhythm that redefines what cross-cutting can do as much as any film has since the 1910s; chronology jumps forward, then back, then back more, then forward, and so forth, as each of the plotlines of Magnolia take place at the same time as others, so that seconds in one plot go by in the span of a whole 10 minutes of scenes from the other plots. It takes a lot of getting used to, and I'm not sure that it's the "right" choice: but then, stylistic excess is all in Anderson's film, right from the moment that we're introduced to the charaters as the camera dives towards them like a kamikaze pilot, as Mann's enervating cover of "One" plays on the soundtrack. Energy is not the problem with Magnolia; keeping up with it, now there's the problem, and I'd be happier doing that if I felt like there was anything to it besides an ingenious puzzle box decorated with a lot of very good actors. But even if I have major reservations about the film (and not, I must admit, nearly as many as I had in 2000; maybe when I watch it again in 2022, I'll love it?), it's crazy ambition is all that it takes to set it above a similar but infinitely blander exercise in connectivity like its withered descendant Crash; Magnolia's sin is ultimately that it tries too much and has too much going on, and that is a sin that we need more of in our cinema.

4 comments:

dfa said...

I think that, as you mention, PT Anderson got to have his cake and eat it too by, reportedly, writing most of the film around Mann's Bachelor n2, which I must admit, at the time, I liked. The Cruise character is of particular interest, given that he was based on a real person/s. PTA's two following films ranged from good to great and his next may be revolutionary. Good flick and review. If I had a credit card I'd ask you to review I Heart Huckabees!

TheConciseStatement said...

"Ideas coming out his ass."

Harsh.

jjjonatron said...

I'm a hardcore PTA (sorry) lover, though I'd have to say I'd put Magnolia on the lower edge of the list of his great movies. >__> I'd love to see what you thought of Punch Drunk Love... Happens to be my all-time favorite film. Anyway I was a little surprised by your analysis, just because Anderson is a god to me. But I don't necessarily disagree with the things you say.

David Greenwood said...

I consider Magnolia to be like Beavis and Butthead, or the blues. You watch it, and it either rolls over you like a comforting duvet or you will forever stand outside looking in. I think Ebert said it best, essentially arguing that it's just grand operatic excess and melodrama that needs no other reason to exist. Like Anderson's other work, that means that it will please some people (me) immensely, and completely alienate others with no apologies given.