Magnolia

This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.

September 9, San Francisco: I arrived to film school with every ambition of being the next great writer-director. It seemed we all wanted that and this was around the time that that sort of filmmaking was back in fashion. Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, and yes, P.T. Anderson were all crowned the new auteurs, just as we film students were learning the meaning of the word. After Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, some studio gave P.T. a seemingly endless budget (unlike Hard Eight) and creative control (unlike Boogie Nights) and he set forth to make a masterpiece. That film is Magnolia.

Magnolia weaves together an ensemble of interconnected characters through a pattern of chance and coincidence. It’s beautifully filmed— sumptuous symmetrical shots and long, complicated Steadicam follows. And this cast, oh these actors: Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Tom Cruise, and more. But man oh man, Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, the self-help guru who leads the “Seduce and Destroy” seminar about “taming the cunt”? He’s incredible.

The movie gives these actors a chance to really show off. In fact, it delights in the extremes of their performances. There is much screaming, much weeping; there would be gnashing of teeth if that sort of thing had been de rigeur in the San Fernando Valley of the 1990s. Magnolia revels in weaving profanity throughout the dialogue almost with the glee of an HBO series shaking its fist at traditional TV. More casual ‘fucks’ and ‘fuckings’ and ‘cocksuckers’ and ‘cocks’ and ‘cunts’ than you can be bothered to count.

I loved this movie when I saw it. Loved it. It was a triumph of the craft and here was P.T. Anderson showing himself as a master. And I, as a film student, couldn’t help telling anyone and everyone how much I loved this film and thought P.T. Anderson was a genius. Now that was a man to aspire to be. (Did I mention he was dating Fiona Apple at the time?)

Watching Magnolia today, it feels rather overwrought. The whole movie is about showing off. Anderson is showing off. The actors are showing off. The script is showing off. The whole Aimee Mann soundtrack is showing off. You are so aware this is a film and that these are actors angling for awards and when Philip Seymour Hoffman says, “I know I sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get in touch with the long lost son. but this is that scene…” well, it does sound kind of ridiculous and definitely sounds like just a scene in a movie.

This is the thing about the film that is so odd to me, watching it now. Anderson bookends the narrative with these anecdotes about one in a million coincidences, and then the narrator (Ricky Jay, who is awesome, by the way) argues at the tail end of the film that though these stories may seem too hard to believe, like they were just convenient for the sake of a movie, they in fact happen all the time. It is essentially an exhortation to believe the film you’ve just watched, to believe that such a quilt of chance could be woven in real life, in the real lives of these characters. Yet this does a better job of reminding the viewer they are watching a film than of suspending disbelief. Maybe this is Anderson’s point. Maybe he doesn’t want you to forget, once you hit rewind on your Oscar screening tape, that this was a film— with a cast and a script and well, a director.

Magnolia is a good film. I wouldn’t walk around calling it my favorite film anymore, but it is a damn fine piece of filmmaking and the performances are really quite impressive. Worth a watch, but with the caveat that sometimes Icarus flies too high.

No, really. Watch Magnolia.

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