Saturday, 1 January 2011

Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) Review

John C. Reilly as Officer Jim Kurring in Magnolia.

"And the book says we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us" - Jimmy Gator.

It begins with a recounting of coincidence. The narrator (Ricky Jay) tells us of the hanging of three men for the murder of Sir Edmund William Godfrey, resident of Greenberry Hill. The hanged assailants were named Joseph Green, Stanley Berry and Daniel Hill. Another incident tells of a fire and the scuba diver caught up in the plane carrying water to contain it - the diver was a blackjack dealer at the casino where the planes pilot, estranged father Craig Hanson, attacked him two nights previous - the weight of the guilt was likely a deciding factor in his following suicide. A final incident tells of Sydney Barringer, a depressed young man who decided to take his own life by jumping from the rooftop of an apartment complex where, at the same time, his parents were having an argument three stories below. Faye Barringer, threatening Arthur Barringer with a shotgun, let off a round as Sydney passed by the living room window - turning a declared suicide into an accidental homicide. In the opinion of the narrator, this was not just "something that happened." These matters were not of chance, nor where they just "one of those things." No. "These strange things happen all the time."

P.T. Anderson's swelling masterpiece is set over one day and a square mile in the San Fernando Valley, Southern California. Although the prologue may purport Magnolia to be a tale of coincidence and chance, it's actually nothing of the sort. It is, in fact, best summed up by its tagline: 'Things Fall Down. People Look Up. And When It Rains, It Pours'. The interlocking, mosaic-like narrative places central focus on the patriarchs of two families. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the presenter of a game-show called 'What Do Kids Know?', and his estranged, drug-addled daughter Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) becomes romantically entangled with lonely cop Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is the other father - dying of cancer under the care of nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he requests contact with his long-lost son, sex guru Frank T.J Mackey (Tom Cruise, in an Oscar-nominated role). Earl's wife Linda (Julianne Moore), years his junior, is sick from anxiety and regret. Meanwhile, on 'What Do Kids Know?', pressured genuis Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) lives in the present what Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) faced in the past - the gift of knowledge cursed by the spectacle of freakshow. Now deeply in debt Donnie Smith is desperately in love with barman Brad, and faces a life dilemma.

The central theme of Magnolia is sins of the father. Although it is never explicitly addressed what Earl and Jimmy did to their children to push them so far away, it is clear that these dying men hold a burden of guilt, and recognise the chance to rectify their past mistakes. The children, meanwhile, are having their fathers sins visited upon them in forms of addiction and deception. Claudia sleeps with scumbag dealers to fuel her cocaine habit, which she abuses in the cloaked darkness of her living room - blankets put up around the windows to block out the sun. Frank, meanwhile, is a liar and a cheat, financially prospering from giving men the false hope that they can be anything like him. The way these stories play out, in parallel, form the crux of the film, but it's ambition spans far wider than the Altman-esque setup (the films closest companion, aside from Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1996) is Altman's Short Cuts, 1993).

For one, it's technical audacity and brio is awe inspiring. Anderson wrote the screenplay over a two week period, partly inspired by the songs of Aimee Mann, whose lyric "now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?", from the album Dreamy, is adapted as dialogue for a key scene between Claudia and Jim in the films final third. The score is by Jon Brion, whose work for Anderson is possibly the best director/composer collaboration of all time. This is because the music tells as much of the story as the screenplay and the direction. As in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) there isn't a single scene without music, unless the silence is being played very intentionally. Mann's songs are also played at vital points in the film, not least in the amazing scene where, one-by-one, the characters start singing along to her beautiful track 'Wise Up'. But Brion's work underscores every minute of the film, backing - never informing - emotion with complete ease. As we move through each character and story arc the tempo and pitch changes slightly. It works around dialogue beats and swells when the camera makes a great gesture - a quick pan, unexpected zoom or extended tracking shot (employed beautifully in Stanley's walk from the entrance of the television studio to Jimmy Gator's office). In Punch-Drunk Love the score worked as if we were listening to the internal mind of the lead character, Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) - clunking and clanging, it's equally dreamy and nightmarish, and almost as dangerously nervous as Barry himself. The fascinating instrumentation created an almost Lynchian effect on the track 'Tabla', which proved a compelling juxtaposition with the utterly lovely 'Punch Drunk Melody', which would be at home in the finale of a musical. Here Brion takes a wider look at the material, expressing theme and motivation, as well as mood, through the music. It's almost as if the music is the pulse of the film. In quietly intimate moments you can hear a persons heart beating. Magnolia, a film of quiet intimacy, has music as it's heart - everything that happens over the course of this devastating day is expressed via Brion's instrumentation.

Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey.

Secondly, it's the direction. Even if he hasn't quite matched the consistent quality and innovation of the directors best work, the filmmaker Anderson most reminds me of is Orson Welles. Think of the opening crane/tracking shot in Touch Of Evil (1958), which moves from the setting and placing of a bomb on a car, and then - over the rooftops and down the road of half of a city - follows a couple until the car passes them and, out of shot, explodes. This three and a half minute sequence is one of the most impressive ever put on film, and the only director to touch such storytelling ability and class, through simple mise-en-scène, is Anderson. Originally the screenplay was written with a complex explanation of how closely-entwined the events were, making clear to the audience that all the characters lived or worked within close proximity of each other. Instead, the idea was abandoned, and the final third culminates in a shower of biblical proportions that ties all of the characters together without pandering. There are other subtle hints littered throughout the film - Jimmy's visit to Claudia and return to the studio, and Frank's visit to Earl from his seminar, are both conducted within a short space of time - and a panning shot on an intersection reveals that two unconnected characters are also in close proximity. But the raining frogs sequence is so utterly perfect that it alone should have guaranteed Anderson his first directing Oscar. Instead of adding ten minutes to an already bloated running time with unnecessary explanation, he crafts a denouement that, as well as working as an expository device, reveals something hopeful in the bleakness of this existence - even though these characters lives are spiraling out of control, plummeting further into loneliness and depression, they somehow connect through a moment of pure chance. A simple human connection, and faith, is rekindled through something that just... happened.

But best of all is the ending. I could go on for evermore about the profound, poetic dialogue ("no, it is not dangerous to confuse children with angels") and the pitch-perfect performances from every cast member - career bests for Walters, Reilly, Cruise, Macy and Blackman. I could discuss the exemplary editing and the stunning photography. But everything else that need be said about Magnolia is said in its closing moment - a moment of whispered dialogue that sees two eternally lost and lonely souls find each other. After three hours of tortured repression, lies and loss, Aimee Mann's 'Save Me' begins to play. Jim sits on the edge of Claudia's bed and expresses his love and admiration - the camera slowly closes in to her face and despite the fact we can't hear Jim, we know exactly what he's saying. As Mann bursts into a chorus Claudia looks directly to camera and cracks a smile. And my hurt just bursts, as I weep to the sweet sound of the greatest movie ever made...


  1. I'll never understand the love for this, one of my very least favorite movies. PTA is an obviously talented director, I just wish he'd make a movie I liked.

  2. I thought the genius of PT Anderson showed out in the interlude of Aimee Mann's song "Wise Up," where suddenly the film's narrative, moving along just fine in linear, realist form, is unexpectedly put on hold and for a brief moment, assembling the characters and their collective bitter resignation in song. This serves as a primer for the final judgement and revelation in the end, which will again interrupt the flow of the narrative and reassemble all the characters (save Earl), though this time they will congregate in a sort of battered joy having survived the judgement.

    This parallel narrative form, which we could loosely call "the unexpected," underscores the nature of salvation, being something which comes not from the source of our human abilities, but from some other transcendent intelligence i.e. God. But this does not mean we can just wait around for it -- and Aimee Mann's lyrics capture this idea beautifully: "it's not gonna stop 'til you wise up). In other words, salvation is a two-way street where both God and humankind together work out the misguided horrors which accompany a fallen world.

    -- Proviso: you may be on to something in saying PTA's ending or denouement is really where his true genius lies, where "even though these characters lives are spiraling out of control, plummeting further into loneliness and depression, they somehow connect through a moment of pure chance. A simple human connection, and faith, is rekindled through something that just... happened." Well put.