Sunday, February 27, 2011
MOVIES MADE ME #8: MAGNOLIA
I can’t remember who told me to see this movie in the theater, but I remember they wouldn’t tell me what it was about. So when I sat down to watch this three-hour opus for the first time, I had no idea what I was getting into.
When the movie was over, the only thing I could think to compare it to was Robert Altman’s SHORT CUTS. Both movies consist of a series of loosely connected, character-driven vignettes. The vignettes in SHORT CUTS are all based on stories by Raymond Carver, who was one of my favorite writers when I was in college. I struggled valiantly to write like him… and must have had some small measure of success because my friend Dave once commented that all of my short stories were variations on a Carver-esque theme, about “love, where it should be but isn’t.”
The same theme haunts the characters in MAGNOLIA, which boasts beautifully raw performances from some of the best character actors around: Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Philip Baker Hall, Jason Robards… and Tom Cruise in a strangely prescient role. But what blew me away about MAGNOLIA was the way the storyteller was able to pull all of those characters together in a meaningful way.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson had already made two feature films prior to MAGNOLIA – the character drama HARD EIGHT (1996) and an ode to the 70s porn milieu, BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). The latter was a big enough commercial hit that New Line Cinema gave Anderson the freedom to make a sprawling, 3-hour piece of impenetrably personal abstract art. MAGNOLIA is a character study as well as an ode to a particular milieu (the title is a reference to Magnolia Boulevard, a road that spans the entire length of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, connecting a wide variety of eccentric dreamers), but it’s much more ambitious than that: It’s a film that expresses a complicated worldview.
Recently I read Charles Fort’s Books of the Damned for the first time – and I’m convinced that they must have been the main inspiration for MAGNOLIA. Fort’s fourth book Wild Talents (published in 1932) even begins the same way that MAGNOLIA begins – with the newspaper account of the hanging of three men for a murder in Greenberry Hill, London. (Their surnames: Green, Berry and Hill… a striking coincidence.) In MAGNOLIA, Anderson goes on to add his own “tales of the damned,” then settles into the San Fernando Valley to begin illustrating, obliquely, Fort’s philosophy. As explained in The Book of the Damned:
It is our expression that the flux between that which isn’t and that which won’t be , or the state that is commonly and absurdly called “existence,” is a rhythm of heavens and hells: that the damned won’t stay damned; that salvation only precedes perdition. The inference is that some day our accursed tatterdemalions will be sleek angels. Then the sub-inference is that some later day, back they’ll go whence they came.
Fort goes on to say that “not one of us is a real person, if physically, we’re continuous with environment; if, psychically, there is nothing to us but expression of relation to environment… I conceive of one inter-continuous nexus, in which and of which all seeming things are only different expressions, but in which all things are localizations of one attempt to break away and become real things, or to establish entity or positive difference or final demarcation or unmodified independence – or personality or soul, as it is called in human phenomena…”
What is MAGNOLIA but a series of inter-related struggles for a feeling of harmony?
I remember sitting on the edge of my seat as I watched the film, persuaded by Jon Brion’s dread-filled, slow-building Hitchockian score that all of the characters were headed for some kind of monumental crisis. (The game show sequence is especially nerve-wracking.) The moment when the buildup finally gets resolved is one of MAGNOLIA’s most divisive sequences. Critics either loved or hated the moment when all of the characters – unbeknownst to each other – begin singing the same song (Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”). For some, it broke the spell of “realistic” drama. For me, it brought wonder into the “real” world. The film’s final sequence (based on another historical account that is explored in Fort’s Wild Talents) was even more startling… and equally spellbinding.
Anderson obviously knew (though maybe only on a subconscious level) that his film was about transcending everyday reality, and he was able to successfully guide all of the fragments of his created universe toward a breakthrough that is simultaneously harmonious and chaotic. It seems to me that the viewer’s response depends on their own worldview. You have to ask yourself, Just how mysterious is the world we live in?
It would seem that Anderson pulled off this juggling act simply by following his own storytelling instincts… or his own instinctive beliefs about the world we live in. Take, for example, his method of working with composer Jon Brion. Anderson says, “Jon and I would watch a monitor and I would move my hands as an indication of the mood required. Jon would sit at the keyboard and let his eyes dart from the monitor to my body language and let his hands play. Essentially, Jon would play to what my hands were trying to say musically. He would watch my face grimace and he would play that.”
Anderson turned to music, it seems, because words couldn’t do justice to the ideas in his head. Even the title, he says, is not as simple as it seems. In addition to being a reference to Magnolia Boulevard, it is for him a reminder of Magonia – a mysterious “cloud realm” in medieval French mythology, whose inhabitants used “weather magic” to create storms. In one interview Anderson described the realm as a “limbo,” which again echoes Fort’s sentiments:
So, then, in general metaphysical terms, our expression is that, like a purgatory, all that is commonly called “existence,” which we call Intermediateness, is quasi-existence, neither real nor unreal, but expressions of attempt to become real, or to generate for or recruit a real existence.
The characters, in the end, are “saved” by the filmmaker’s concept of a world in which anything is possible. And, for me, that's the beauty of the film.