Paul Thomas Anderson’s MAGNOLIA (1999)

Notable Festivals: Berlinale (Golden Bear, Reader Jury)

During my senior year of high school, I spent a grand majority of my time in the halls of the campus’ performing arts center. The eclectic mix of creativity and awkward hormonal clashes was endlessly fascinating to me, no doubt because it reflected what was churning inside of me. Within the rigid and confining social structures of high school, it was the one place I could go where I could truly be myself. Towards the end of my time there, the more literary-minded and illuminated types began talking earnestly about their love for this 1999 film called MAGNOLIA—I film I had never heard of. I even acted in a one-act play whose author made no attempt to hide how much it had been influenced by the film. I never got around to seeing the film myself until my first semester at Emerson College, where I was introduced to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s work by way of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997). When I finally sat down to watch MAGNOLIA, it became immediately apparent to me that I was watching a masterwork from a highly confident director who was wielding his camera with a degree of energy and power unlike anything I had ever seen before.

The runaway success of BOOGIE NIGHTS resulted in New Line Cinema gifting Anderson the opportunity to do anything he wanted as his next project. Knowing he’d never again be in this enviable position, Anderson decided to go for broke and make a passion project that he described as the All-Time Great San Fernando Valley film. In plotting out his story, Anderson tapped into great reservoirs of creativity and inspiration. What started off as a small, off-beat character piece soon blossomed into an all-encompassing statement on loneliness, regret, and chance in a small patch of suburb just north of bustling Los Angeles. MAGNOLIA sees Anderson step ever more firmly into Robert Altman territory by weaving together several disparate threads and slowly pulling them taut to reveal a tightly-woven tapestry of life, love and loss. Simply put, it is the magnum opus of the first phase of Anderson’s career, capping off a long fascination with sprawling ensemble-based stories.

The central conceit of MAGNOLIA is that the film’s story unfolds along a stretch of the titular street, located in the San Fernando Valley—purportedly all within a span of a few square miles. The idea is to communicate the range of humanity that can occur in such a small amount of space, and how we’re more connected than we think. At the center of the film is an awkward romance between Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), a nervous wreck of a woman who’s been hollowed out by excessive drug use and several emotional trauma. After playing her music so loudly that the neighbors call the cops, she’s visited by John C Reilly’s Officer Jim Kurring—a gentle giant who finds in Claudia a beacon of hope and a potential cure for his romantic ailments. Claudia’s father, venerated game show host Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall), also tries to reach her, struggling to find some redemption from the sins of his past as he loses a fight with cancer. A short distance away, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former child genius and famous contestant on Gator’s game show, is struggling to hold on to his job at a local furniture outlet so he can pay for braces he doesn’t need, all to impress a male bartender that’s caught his eye.

As all of this is going down, an old man named Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) lies on his deathbed, attended to by his nurse Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) storms about town trying to make her own wrongs right in the wake of the realization that only now has she come to actually love her husband. And last but not least, there’s Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise), Earl’s estranged son and a chauvinistic pick-up guru/artist hawking an allegedly “foolproof” seduction technique, bound for an emotional reckoning of his own.

As MAGNOLIA unfolds, all these story threads draw closer together; the major events rippling like waves through the narrative. Destiny has intertwined their fates. MAGNOLIA explores ideas about chance and coincidence, comparing them against a larger, pre-determined arc of the universe. In a move that’s both inspired and utterly baffling, Anderson uses a counterintuitive image to state his case: a random, inexplicable downpour of frogs, materializing as if from nowhere and hurtling towards the earth with biblical fury. The film goes to great pains to suggest that these seemingly random events might just be the opposite, and that our fates may indeed by pre-ordained and unforeseeable as a sudden hailstorm of amphibians.

While an expanded budget allows for higher-profile actors, Anderson culled his cast mostly from his pool of BOOGIE NIGHTS alumni. Reilly, Walters, Hall, Macy, Hoffman and Moore all deliver some of their best work, thanks to an unwavering dedication to Anderson’s vision and an eagerness to play against type. MAGNOLIA is perhaps the most definitive example of Anderson’s company of actors, featuring supporting performances from Luis Guzman as an irritable and impatient contestant on Jimmy Gator’s game show, Ricky Jay as the show’s producer and the omniscient narrator during the film’s prologue and epilogue sequences, Alfred Molina as Macy’s Persian furniture store boss, and even Thomas Jane as a young Jimmy Gator. Of the new talent, Robards gives a heartbreaking performance in his final film role as a man besieged by regret at the end of his life, and Cruise was nominated for an Oscar in what is generally considered a career-best performance as the scene-stealing chauvinist who uses bravado and machismo to bury his crippling daddy issues. MAGNOLIA is the kind of film that lives or dies off of its performances, and thankfully the collective efforts of Anderson’s brilliantly-chosen cast helps the piece soar to exhilarating heights.

MAGNOLIA is not as visually stylized as Anderson’s previous work, but he still manages to achieve a larger-than-life feel thanks to returning cinematographer Robert Elswit’s virtuoso camerawork. The film’s aesthetic is textbook Anderson: a 2.35:1 anamorphic frame given vigor and color by a mix of confidently executed dolly, crane, Steadicam, and handheld compositions. Like BOOGIE NIGHTS before it, MAGNOLIA uses long tracking shots to convey space and time, pulling its characters along their cosmic journeys. Elswit and Anderson find the opportunity to experiment with different film stocks and cameras in MAGNOLIA’s bookending “chance or fate” sequences—a highlight being Anderson’s use of an authentic, hand-cranked Pathe camera to simulate the look of old silent pictures.

With MAGNOLIA, Anderson’s regular editor Dylan Tichenor has his work cut out for him in keeping track of all these disparate story threads. If Sergei Eisenstein’s montage theory established how editing could be used to tie two separate events into continuous time and space together, then Tichenor’s work on MAGNOLIA serves as the arguable evolution—interweaving the sweeping emotions of human experience into a cosmic tapestry. Anderson and Tichenor’s edit plays like the film equivalent of a symphony, with harmonies and choruses organized into distinct movements. The movements themselves are distinguished via an inspired intertitle conceit that, instead of conveying the passage of time, notates changes in weather and humidity. It’s an interesting idea that we’ll certainly never the likes of again, further evidencing Anderson’s unique worldview.

MAGNOLIA is the first of Anderson’s features to not feature the work of composer Michael Penn, but he does retain musical continuity in Jon Brion and Penn’s wife, Aimee Mann. Brion’s score in particular is worth singling out, as he has created a brooding suite of orchestral cues that are at once both foreboding and elegiac, giving the necessary weight to the burden that Anderson’s characters must carry. The score ducks and weaves through the piece, oftentimes playing against or running under diagetic source tracks from Mann and Supertramp. The effect is disharmonious, but in a good way, further solidifying the film’s mosaic conceits. Mann is a huge vocal identity within the soundtrack, providing several key songs such as the showstopping “Wise Up”. The song is incorporated in a strikingly original way, playing over a sequence in which the characters sing along to it, staged within their various individual vignettes. The result is nothing less than one of the most unexpected and memorable moments in recent film history.

The medium of video plays a huge role in shaping Anderson’s worldview, like it does for several of filmmakers in his generation. However, his treatment of the format undergoes something of an evolution throughout his filmography. InBOOGIE NIGHTS, video was a disruptive, transgressive advancement that held malevolent implications for its characters. By the present-day narrative of MAGNOLIA, video had become commonplace and commodified. Its power harnessed by people like Frank TJ Mackey as a sales tool— a slick, well-lit means to nefarious ends.

Mackey’s “Seduce And Destroy” operation is indicative of another of Anderson’s thematic fascinations, that of sex dependence. Mackey employs a tactical, scorched earth approach to seduction, viewing women purely as targets to be eliminated with the ballistics rocket below his belt. As his character arc plays out, it becomes quite clear that this militaristic, highly-disciplined and aggressive approach to sex is a crutch he leans on, a shovel to bury deep-seated rage about his past and his family. Indeed, several of MAGNOLIA’s characters’ dramatic troubles stem from sex in some manner—Reilly and Walters’ fumbling romance, Robards’ abandonment of the love of his life for a fleeting affair, or Hall’s continuing infidelity and the implied sexual abuse of his daughter. MAGNOLIA’s thematic exploration of sex dependence overlaps with his exploration of family dynamics, digging deep into his characters’ insecurities and faults to find an inherent desire for the comfort of home and family.

Like any wildly ambitious film, people didn’t quite know what to make of MAGNOLIA when it was released. The film didn’t do well at the box office, but critics hailed it as a profound expansion of Anderson’s directorial skill. People were just as quick to deem it a masterpiece as they were to deride it as an overindulgent failure. Regardless, MAGNOLIA went on to considerable awards seasons success, winning the prestigious Golden Bear award at that year’s Berlinale as well as an Academy Award nod for Anderson’s screenplay. Now that over ten years has passed, MAGNOLIA’s legacy as one of the 90’s best films is assured. It is an undeniable technical triumph, and a product of a confident virtuoso aesthetic that, for all its complications and flourishes, never loses sight of the big picture.

MAGNOLIA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via New Line Cinema.

Produced by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Michael DeLuca, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Written by: Paul Thomas Anderson
Director of Photography: Robert Elswit
Production Designer: William Arnold, Mark Bridges
Edited by: Dylan Tichenor
Music by: Jon Brion