Friday, July 22, 2005

Magnolia: PTA's Masterpiece

Magnolia is my favorite film made during my lifetime. If you look at my top 100 list, you've got Empire Strikes Back and Blade Runner above this film, both obviously great films, but films that are triumphs mainly of world building and plot. Magnolia is a triumph of character development, if I could have made any film that's ever been made, I wish it was this one. I love the way PTA throws everything he's got onto the screen, creating a film that's a symphony of modern existence.

The thing that makes Magnolia so special is the way that it is simultaneously technically astonishing and thoroughly emotionally engaging. You watch this film and you're feeling everything that the characters feel, but if you step back, you can see how PT Anderson has shot the film in such a way as to completely draw you into the emotional lives of these characters.

That's what makes the film different than the work of Altman, who's a widely noted inspiration on Anderson. Altman tells these huge overlapping stories as a way to show the distance between human beings. They may meet and interact, but we stay on the side as observers, essentially getting a God's eye view of what's happening in Nashville, or in Short Cuts, California. Anderson doesn't want us to just be observers, he wants to feel everything that the characters feel, and he wants to show that we're all the same, and we only have to reach to one another, then we're not alone. This causes the film to be radically different, and I would say much better, than the Altman films that inspired it.

I think one of the things that garnered the film a lot of criticism is just how melodramatic it is. The events are massive and the emotions always ramped up to extremes. One of the most notable things about the film is the way that all the events feel like one story, building to a climax, not a bunch of disparate threads. All the characters go through a similar arc, starting out with their depressing mundane lives, then suffering some kind of crisis, reaching a low during the 'Wise Up' sequence.

The 'Wise Up' sequence was my favorite part of the film on the first viewing, the moment when I knew that this movie was something completely unique, a film I would treasure for the rest of my life. The sequence would seem totally ridiculous out of context, but when you get lost in the world of the film, it's exactly what's needed. It's crucial in terms of the narrative because it unites all these characters in a way that they hadn't been united before. They're all feeling the same thing, driving home the point that the film is basically one emotional arc, shared by nine people. The boldness to completely break with what makes sense in favor of presenting something that's emotionally involving is one of the best choices Anderson makes.

At the end of the film, all the characters find a kind of peace. Things may not be perfect, but a lot of the conflict is gone, and nearly all of them have either found someone they can share their emotions with, or at least are able to realize that they are not alone. And after all this darkness, the film's final moment, Claudia's smile tells us that better things are out there. That smile is so good, it inevitably makes me smile myself, it's the perfect emotional catharsis after the dark events of the film. The moment is so good that Joss Whedon 'borrowed' it to use as the final shot of Buffy's last episode. I love the way Anderson lets the music tell the story, we can faintly make out Jim's speech, but the real emotion of it is present in the music, both of them need to save each other, Jim's sealed off, boring life can only be saved by a relationship with the more exciting, but troubled Claudia. Together, they can find a way to help each other open up and become a successful unit. It's all present in the song, and when she smiles, we know she's going to at least give it a try with him.

The film, despite its massive running time, and huge scope, has a rather simple message, explained by two lines at the end of the film. One is when Stanley says, "You should be nicer to me," the other is Jim's question "What can we forgive?"

The two are tied together in the parent/child conflict that drives so much of the narrative. Many of the younger adults in the film, Frank, Donnie and particularly Claudia, have been scarred by parental abandonment or abuse, these old events still casting a huge shadow over the way they live now. For Claudia, it has lead to a life of noncommitment, the abuse cycle continuing in bad relationships with men she meets, and a coke habit. Donnie struggles to keep a job and relate emotionally to people, all the while blaming his problems on the fact that his parents stole his money from him as a child.

Frank is a bit more complex, on the surface he is together, but it seems like he has become a hyper-exaggerated version of his father, a philanderer who left Frank to take care of his mother as she was dying. This abandonment causes him to create a public persona of strength and total control, all built on a lie. He has no true emotional connections in his life, likely because the pain is still too strong.

So, all these characters build their lives out of the trauma they experienced as children. And as adults, they're left with the question of how long can they continue to function this way before they slip further into loneliness. In the course of the film, both Claudia and Frank are given the chance to forgive their parents. Frank receives a call saying that his father wants to speak with him before he dies. Earl never gets to say what he feels, but it is the act of reaching out that makes the difference, and coupled with the interview, forces Frank to confront his feelings. Earl may never know how his son felt, but for Frank, it is an emotional catharsis. His change is most evident in the fact that at the end of the film, he is able to go to the hospital and support Linda, no longer resenting this woman who 'replaced' his mother.

For Claudia, there is no real reachout from her father. Jimmy remains unable to admit what he did to Claudia as a child, claiming to honestly not know whether it happened, something that's clearly a lie when you consider his suicide attempt. Claudia may never be able to forgive her father, the things that he did to her are so painful that he may not deserve forgiveness, but what happens at the end of the film is that Claudia realizes, no matter what her father did to her, she is not a bad person, and she still has people who care about her. At first she runs from Jim, afraid that her bad history will inevitably lead to the destruction of their relationship, even if it also means losing a chance for true love. At the end of the film, it is Jim's kind words, coupled with her mother's support that allows Claudia to break the cycle and take a chance on a relationship that might be more than just a one night stand. When she smiles, the weight of years of pain is lifted and she embraces the change in her life.

Stanely is critical because he shows how a strong person can prevent abuse from happening. He could become Donnie, but rather than allowing his father to control his life, he asserts himself, and claims a unique identity. When he says "Be nicer to me," his father may not listen, but Stanley recognizes that he is not at fault, it's his father who has the problem, and that is a critical distinction. With that self confidence, he can avoid becoming like Donnie, someone who feels utterly defeated by a world 'out to get him.'

Where does Donnie wind up at the end of the film? I think he realizes that he's going down a bad path and is forced to assess his life. His crime is something that we can forgive, and perhaps because of the assistance Jim gives him, he will recognize how close he came to jail, and start to turn his life around. Either way, Donnie has bottomed out, and by now, at least he knows there's a problem, and perhaps more importantly, the kindness that Jim gives him shows him that he is not alone in the world, there are people who will view him as more than 'Quiz Kid Donnie Smith,' and instead see him as a person who has a lot of love to give.

From the point of view of the younger characters, the older generation are monsters, who have unwittingly destroyed their children's lives, with little regard for anything more than their own wants. However, the film also shows the way in which the guilt of their actions has destroyed a number of the characters. They have to question their own behavior and find out what they can forgive themselves for.

The two most explicitly parallel characters in the film are Earl and Jimmy Gator. Earl is the producer of Jimmy's TV show, and the two of them are essentially the same character, just in different stages of development. As Earl is dying of cancer, Jimmy is just finding out that he has it. Both feel incredibly guilty about the lives they led, and the infidelities they've had. Both characters also long to make amends to a child who they've hurt.

At the end of the film, Earl dies without ever being able to resolve things with Frank, however, Frank has found a catharsis. The frog rain stops Jimmy from killing himself, and leaves him the chance to finally admit his wrong and apologize to Claudia. I don't think they can ever have a strong relationship together, but if he actually admits to her he did something wrong, it will leave them both in a better place. So, the frog gives Jimmy the chance to express his remorse, a chance that Earl never got.

The character closest to these two is Linda, who expresses similar regret about her behavior, and longs to come clean with Earl, even though he's too far gone to really understand her. It's difficult to see Earl speaking only of Lily on his death bed, even as Linda is so anguished, because of the pain she felt from screwing around on him. She really loved him, even if he viewed her only as a trophy wife. She, like Jimmy, seeks to kill herself as an escape from the guilt, but is also saved by a random action, namely Dixon stealing her wallet and calling the police for her. This ties into one of the major theses of the film, that small acts of kindness can save lives, this kid is motivated by selfish means, but he isn't going to just let Linda die, and that sacrifice is what ultimately saves Linda, and allows her to resolve her issues with Frank. And by resolving things with Linda, Frank in some ways is able to come to terms with who his father was.

So, forgiveness is a major question. Many of the characters do horrible things, but the film is about the ways in which we can overcome the bad things done to us through acts of kindness, sometimes we have to let things go, and if there's something we can't let go, it's that person's fault, not the victim's.

The importance of human kindness is another critical theme in the film. A major motif is people who are treated like objects, used to further someone's agenda. In Frank's seminar, he approaches relationships as a form of sexual conquest, with no thought about making an actual connection. He reduces women to the status of objects, who can be fooled through his clever strategies.

In this respect, Frank is quite similar to Stanley's father, Rick. Rick views Stanley as an easy cash source, he doesn't take joy from what Stanley is doing, he just wants him to win so he can make more money. This is most likely a result of his frustration with his own failure as an actor. Through his son's media celebrity, he sees the chance to make up for his own lack of success, however that results in him hurting his son and putting the pressure on him that leads to his collapse on the game show set.

Donnie is the result of this sort of pressure, viewed as an object by his parents, he now finds that he has a lot of love to give, but no way to express this love. He has no template for a relationship in which he is viewed as a human being. This is made explicit in the scene where Solomon says that he hired him for his celebrity, not for his skill as a salesman.

So, the primary way to un-objectify someone is to treat them with kindess and understanding. The characters who most notably do this are Jim and Phil. Phil is interesting because he's the one character who doesn't have any personal trauma or desire. His role in the film is solely to help others, and in that capacity, he goes way beyond what is expected of him. As a nurse, his responsibility is solely to care for Earl's medical needs, but in this case, he goes on a strange quest to find Frank. There's the hilarious scene in which he orders porn magazines from a pharmacy, as well as his extended phone conversation with Frank's people. I love the scene where he's talking to the phone operator about his mother's cancer, it's one of the countless scenes in this movie where we see both how much people are connected, and how a small act of kindness can break down the walls that keep us alone.

In the end, Phil is a great example of what Jim is talking about at the end of the film when he describes police work, saying that it's not a job where you take a lunch hour, it's a 24 hour a day endeavor, something that consumes your entire life. Phil stays on, even when his shift is over, because he is emotionally connected to what is going on, what he does matters, and his special commitment to it is what defines him in the film.

But Phil remains rather removed from the action, whereas Jim's life becomes increasingly intertwined with his work, most notably when he asks Claudia out. In Claudia he sees someone who's clearly hurt, but also someone interesting, with the potential for a rich relationship. Even though I love Claudia's character, I'm not sure what Jim sees in her, if I had to guess, I would say that in a world where people wear masks of normalcy, always playing by the rules, she doesn't hide between a calm exterior. She's not the kind of person you're likely to meet from a dating service. The importance of honesty to the relationship is reasserted in the diner scene, when she cites being honest with each other as the best way to avoid the problems that other relationships run into.

However, in this relationship we see the way that an act of kindness really can save someone. Claudia is so committed to avoiding emotional attachment that she pushes away the one person who could actually be good for her. Her whole character is summed up in the quote, "Not that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?" She only wants one night stands, not real commitment, because the one man who was a major presence in her life, her father, abused her. She finds comfort in one night stands because it gives her the chance to be loved as an object without giving anything herself. She is so used to being treated like dirt, she can't function any other way. The line she says to Jim that I quoted above is from Aimee Mann's song, Deathly, and another line from that song encapsulates how she feels when she encounters Jim: "Don't pick on me 'cause one act of kindness could be deathly." So, when she encounters someone who actually likes her, she becomes incredibly aware of all her problems and retreats from him so as not to disappoint him down the line.

Jim, while certainly more together than Claudia, still has a lot of his own problems. He was married, but it apparently ended badly and he's remained emotionally isolated for three years. So, he and Claudia are in a similar situation, both of them running from commitment because of a previous emotional trauma. Jim is ultimately the one who reaches out to her and refuses to let her slip away from him, which we see in the brilliant final scene of the film.

So, that sums up the two main thematic issues in the film, what can we forgive and how important a random act of kindness. One of the major questions people have in the film is why are the frogs in it? On one hand, it's an astonishing image and provides for phenomenal moments where the characters observe this bizarre occurrence. The frogs connect them all in the same way that the song and the rain do earlier.

However, the frogs also function as a cathartic event, putting everything in the film in perspective. After seeing the frogs fall from the sky, and the chaos they cause, the problems in the character's lives seem much smaller. It's an example of natural cycles, Earl may die, but it was his time, everyone must die eventually. The frogs take all the characters away from their locked emotional lives and make them more receptive to others.

Even though one of the things I love about the film is the way it elevates individual emotional drama to the level of cosmic importance, for the characters, it's important to step back and see that their problems mean nothing against this bizarre biblical occurrence.

Ultimately, Magnolia works because you can view it simultaneously as a perfectly shot, technically innovative film masterpiece, as well as an emotionally wrenching melodrama. I've always said that I'd love to see a film in the 'epic' genre, but in the modern world, something where an entire world is at stake, like in Lord of the Rings, but set in our modern society. And in a lot of ways that's what this film is. For these characters, the emotional conflicts they face are just as menacing as anything Sauron could throw at us.

Getting back to a critical eye. I need to point out the brilliance of the 'One' sequence, which does an hour of exposition in three minutes, and establishes not only all the characters' personalities and conflicts, but also the film's atmosphere. This is the editing equivalent of the astonishing opening shot that introduces all the character in Boogie Nights. People crack on PT Anderson for making a film that's too big, that says too much, but the thing I love about him is that he makes huge films that are incredibly emotional. You could call it pretentious or overdone, but I don't think there's a false moment in this film.

The cinematography in the film really needs to be mentioned. Just some cool shots: Everyone falling to the side as the ambulance flips over, the silhouette frogs falling behind Claudia, the zoom in to Earl's lungs in the One montage, Jimmy lit in blue in front of a red curtain as he waits to go on stage, the frog falling through the skylight and knocking the gun from Jimmy's hand and of course the final shot tracking in on Claudia and her smile.

Aimee Mann and Jon Brion both deserve to be commended for their musical contributions to the film. 'Save Me' provides a perfect closing for the film, and Brion's driving score keeps all the action connected despite the many plot threads.

Then there's the actors. Everyone is great, but Melora Walters and John C. Reilly deserve special commendation. In Jim, Reilly creates one of the most appealing characters in cinema, someone I completely understood and sympathized with. Walters manages to make Claudia simultaneously totally guarded and completely vulnerable. You really want to help her because you can sense a good person under her bad habits. Philip Baker Hall is also great, showing us what happens when years of bad deeds finally catch up with someone. And it was really cool to see Jason Robards here, after seeing 'Once Upon a Time in the West.' His scenes where even more emotional, because this man who had just been vital and young was now lying in bed, dying. I felt a much deeper connection to the character.

But, everyone in the film really deserves props, it always annoys me to see someone from this film turn up in a bad movie, like Julianne Moore in The Forgotten or Philip Baker Hall in The Amityville Horror, because their work in this film is so good, such formula roles feel like a total waste of time.

If I had to choose one film as an example of what the medium can do in telling stories that no other can, it would be this one. It has the scope of a novel, the incredible dialogue and performances of theater, the visual pleasure of art and the rhythm of music. This is a film that completely changed my ways of constructing narrative. Whenever I would write something before seeing this, it would be limited, focusing on only a couple of characters and one main plot. But, after seeing Magnolia, most of the stories I've written are ensemble pieces, with characters who are connected more by themes than by narrative. Very few works have had such an influence on me, one day I hope to write something that has the narrative scope and emotional precision of this film.

I remember the first time I watched Magnolia, I had sat through three hours and as the camera tracked in on Claudia, I wished the film wouldn't end, not because I wasn't narratively fulfilled, but just because Anderson had built such an incredible world, It's like if you're sitting at a restaurant and you're completely full, but don't want to leave, because the atmosphere there is just so good. It's a three hour film that I wish was longer, I think that says it all about Magnolia.

3 comments:

Harry said...

An amazing review for an amazing film. Congrats.

Fad23 said...

Magnolia is easily one of my favorite films as well. From the Fortean stories that serve as the opening through to the miracle of human contact...

Ten years after first having seen it, and after I began my training in long-form improvisation, I noticed that the structure of the movie is a Harold. That was a pretty intense discover for me, especially as much as I had dug into the film in the past decade.

Here's to the discussion!

Anonymous said...

Great review of an amazing movie. After watching it, I googled "Magnolia is a masterpiece" and found your insightful take on this film, thank you for taking the time to write this.