Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Magnolia

Published on: March 23rd, 2004


I’ve seen Magnolia twice, and I plan to catch it at least once more before it finishes its run in the multiplexes. I’d also ideally like to see it again in a cinema once a year or so from now on, and, as with favourite novels which you re-read over the years, I expect I’ll react to it in different ways – ways I can’t presently foresee – as I get older. Or maybe not – I can still clearly remember vowing, at the age of ten, never to forsake Scooby Doo. Back then I couldn’t imagine a future self that would live a life without Scooby Doo forming a vital part of it. But I was wrong.

Magnolia demands this type of reaction. It does work much like a good novel, giving more or less equal weight to its central sprawl of ten major characters, lightly but indelibly evoking the everyday mood of a particular time and place (the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles, 1999), and achieving its effects through the casual juxtapositions, echoes, parallels of characters and plots. Think James JoyceDubliners and Ulysses. Think Robert AltmanShort Cuts and Nashville.

These types of parallels can only go so far with Magnolia, however. There’s maybe been nothing quite like this before, certainly in terms of a Hollywood movie coming so directly from an individual’s world-view, unmediated by external interference, perhaps not since Citizen Kane – and even then…

That isn’t to say that Magnolia is a flawless movie, because of course there are no flawless movies. I could easily reel off half a dozen things wrong with Don’t Look Now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t my favourite film, or that I don’t think it’s the best film ever made. Then again, I have seen Don’t Look Now dozens of times over the past 15 years, and I’ve only seen Magnolia twice. But at this level, comparisons are pretty much meaningless. I might, right now, marginally prefer Being John Malkovich over Magnolia out of all the films released in the US in 1999, but the two are so drastically different in almost every respect that it serves no real purpose to place one ahead of the other. Suffice it to say that Don’t Look Now and Being John Malkovich are, for me, great films, and so are Point Blank and Carpenter’s The Thing, and Festen and Heat and Blue Velvet. And so is Magnolia.

This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film – Sydney, his debut, was recut by its production company and released in 1996 under the title Hard Eight. The movie now available on video differs considerably from the director’s intention, so it is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from it. Boogie Nights (1997), however, was released as the director’s final cut, and it’s a fantastic picture. A brash, audacious, breezy exploration of the Los Angeles porn-movie industry betwen the late 70s and the early 80s, Boogie Nights was like somebody had sat down with a moviola and taken all the good bits out of Scorsese’s best pictures, splicing them together into one glorious sprawl. The film consists of almost three hours of stunning camerawork, precision editing and boundless energy, all closely syncopated to a marvellous soundtrack combining period disco tracks with a subtly powerful original score.

Magnolia goes further. Busting through the three-hour barrier, the focus is narrowed down from several years to a single day, but the sprawl this time comes from the huge number of central and peripheral characters, and the freewheeling manner with which Anderson cuts between them, propelled along by Aimee Mann’s numerous songs and Jon Brion’s astonishing score. For Magnolia is as musical as it is literary and visual – and when all three strands mesh together, the effect can be devastating.

One of my personal favourite moments comes when 10-year-old Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), star of TV’s longest-running quiz show What Do Kids Know?, gets into his father’s car on their way to the studio. The camera is trained down on the windscreen from above, and we see Stanley’s face looking up at the sky, we see the clouds reflected in the glass, and then we see the first heavy drop of rain drop splat onto the glass, distorting further both the face and the clouds. As the car pulls away we see that Stanley – already established as a gifted, observant, but troubled child – has noticed the raindrop, then Anderson cuts to an in-the-sky horizontal shot of quickly massing white clouds, all the while Brion’s music ominously building. What follows is a bravura single-shot sequence which follows Stanley out of the car, through the rain, and on through the building – we admire Anderson’s boldness (he pulled off similar shots in Boogie Nights including one which followed the characters in and out of a swimming pool) but what really makes the mood evoked something special is that initial raindrop shot, and the cut to the clouds. Magnolia contains many of these amazing moments.

Many of them, it must be said, concern Blackman, who stands out from the terrific ensemble cast in what is really the film’s pivotal role. Everything radiates out from Stanley Spector. In fact, the film only really makes sense as something created from inside Stanley’s head – brilliant but immature, looking for signs and correspondences to make sense of a confusing world, childishly sentimental but with the clarity and arrogance of genius. Stanley is clearly, at some level, a self-portrait by whiz kid director Anderson – perhaps Stanley, like Anderson, is somehow making all these coincidences and odd events happen.

But to clarify how all the various plots converge on Stanley – he’s the star of What Do Kids Know, whose presenter is the terminally ill Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Jimmy, facing death, is comforted by wife Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon), but seeks a rapprochement with his estranged daughter, Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters), who is equally addicted to cocaine and the songs of Aimee Mann. Jimmy’s attempts to speak to Claudia, plus Claudia’s loud Aimee Mann music, produce such a loud disturbance that cop Jim Kurring (John C Reilly) is called in, only to fall in love, pretty much at first sight, with her. Near the end of the film Jim foils a harebrained robbery plot by Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H Macy), a star of What Do Kids Know during the 60s, but whose life has gone downhill ever since.

The other plots of the film concern the producer of What Do Kids Know, the terminally ill Earl Partridge (Jason Robards). Earl, facing death, is comforted by wife Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) and nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), but seeks a rapprochement with his estranged son, Jack Partridge, who has changed his name to Frank T J Mackey (Tom Cruise) and risen to fame as a ranting masculinist sex guru.

Taken in isolation, the film’s various and numerous plots don’t really add up to a great deal – the individual strands of the movie are often pretty thin. We don’t find out that much about Donnie Smith – he wants to have braces on his teeth to impress a similarly outfitted hunky bartender, if I’ve followed the film correctly. But he ends up drunk in the bartender’s establishment, loudly professing his love while sardonic barfly Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson, who gets the film’s best lines and makes the most of them) looks on. This section feels underdeveloped.

On the other hand, we get far too much of the Claudia/Jim romance – Anderson, whose fatal flaw is his sentimentality, is obviously infatuated with both the characters and the actors, to a greater degree, I would suspect, than the audience. It’s here that the Altman parallels wear thinnest. Altman’s work often veers into acidic misanthropy – which actually makes for more interesting movies. Anderson is, by contrast, a squishy-centred, family-worshipping humanist, always keen to see the positive side of any character. He makes no bones about the fact that Claudia is his favourite character in the film, but she exists on such a screechy coke-fuelled knife edge that a little of her goes a very long way. And the subplot involving Jim losing his gun, and a murder in which the key witness is young streetkid Dixon (Immanuel Johnson), has been cut down – if the shooting script is accurate – to the point where it becomes impossible to work out who is who and who has done what to whom, when and why.

There are also some problems with the dialogue. Many of the characters sound the same as each other – or, I suspect, I should say, like Paul Thomas Anderson. Many speeches just don’t ring true – what does Jimmy mean when, explaining his cancer to Claudia, he says “I’ve lost”? And what are we to make of Donnie Smith’s closing “I have love to give – but I don’t know where to put it…”, or Phil, on the phone, trying to explain Earl’s quest to one of Frank’s assistants, saying “This is the scene in the movie where you help me out.” Many of Claudia’s speeches sound like transposed song lyrics – probably because many of them are (“Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing me again?”) – or is this justified by the fact that she’s such an Aimee Mann fan that scraps of the songs have entered her daily conversation?

Not that you really notice these faults that much as you watch of Magnolia. Because this really is a film to be watched, to be experienced. To be, in a word, lived. Afterwards you may find that you have engaged so fully with the screen that the film blurs with your own memories, the rhythms of your own life have merged with those of the movie. It’s a symphonic piece of work, carrying you along on emotional waves. Anderson’s immense technical mastery, his instinctive brilliance with the camera, his terrific mastery of film’s thousand little skills, easily compensate for the shortcomings of his scriptwriting.

It’s one of the paradoxes of Magnolia, however, that, although it works best as a reckless, luxurious, almost sensual event to be experienced and not analysed, it does contain within itself so many signs, omens, clues, gimmicks and games that it also seems to be made with precisely such analysis in mind. Most obvious are the “Exodus 8:2” references. Watch during the filming of the quiz show – among the audience’s home-made banners – “Go Kids” and the like – we find one reading “Exodus 8:2”, until, that is, it is abruptly removed by a member of the TV studio staff. And there it is again, on bus shelters and billboards. And, during the montage of three weird coincidences that starts the film, wasn’t there a shot of some rope on a hotel roof, coiled into an 8 and a 2. And in another of the coincidence sequence, didn’t somebody need a 2 at a Reno card table, only to be dealt an 8? In fact, everywhere you look in the film you’ll find eights and/or twos, just as, more often than not, every house seems to contain a painting of a magnolia (just as, in The Long Goodbye, the only song played anywhere in the world was some variation of the title number). Well, surely these eights and two must be the key to the movie – so what does Exodus 8:2 say?

Here it is :

    And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.

The chapter goes on:

    And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneadingtroughs.

All of which has been taken as the clue to the remarkable way Anderson ends Magnolia – a plague of frogs descends upon the San Fernando Valley.

But descends is the key word. In the bible, the frogs come up out of the river. Not many rivers in the Valley these days. So the frogs come down out of the sky. It’s a unique, dazzling sequence, and even if, as I did, you know the frogs are coming, it’s still surprising and shocking. I’d expected something lyrical, gossamer little frogs floating down from a sunny blue sky. Not a bit of it. It’s more like some 1970s eco horror movie: big heavy frogs splatting down, hundreds of them at once, out of a black night sky, frog blood squishing everywhere, vehicles skidding off the roads. A frog rain – not like in the Bible at all. So were all those 8s and 2s just for fun, an illusion of meaning in a world of cosmic jokes and coincidences? What can such signs mean – in an interview accompanying the shooting script of the movie, Anderson refers to an ancient form of divination which held that a society’s health could be ascertained by examining its frog population. Magnolia seems to be ridiculing these ideas – there are no hidden webs of meaning, it’s all just a matter of perception.

The frogs do serve to take us back to Stanley again, however. Stanley is the only observer of the frog rain who isn’t freaked out by what he’s seeing. Anderson underlines this, zooming slowly in on his smiling face, slowing down the film so that we can see each individual frog falling in silhouette on the wall behind. “This is something that happens,” says Stanley, undergoing a crucial emotional release following his breakdown on the live TV quiz show. Stanley knows that “this happens” this because, like Paul Anderson, he’s a reader of the books of Charles Fort, 19th century author and student of the bizarre.

The frogs do serve to take us back to Stanley again, however. Stanley is the only observer of the frog rain who isn’t freaked out by what he’s seeing. Anderson underlines this, zooming slowly in on his smiling face, slowing down the film so that we can see each individual frog falling in silhouette on the wall behind. “This is something that happens,” says Stanley, undergoing a crucial emotional release following his breakdown on the live TV quiz show. Stanley knows that “this happens” this because, like Paul Anderson, he’s a reader of the books of Charles Fort, 19th century author and student of the bizarre.

One of the categories in What Do Kids Know? is “Chaos vs Superstring”. Partly, of course, a joke, as nobody could expect even the brightest kids to be able to answer questions on chaos and superstring theory. Partly, of course, serious – Magnolia does investigate whether or not the universe is knowable, whether the forces that operate on our daily lives can ever be comprehended within the framework of those lives, and within the intersections and overlaps that make up those frameworks. Magnolia suggests that cinema, like any artistic way of looking at the world, can and must steer a course between chaos – apparent randomness, the ineffable complexity of nature – and superstring – the possibility that there are universal, understandable truths just a little bit further down the road of knowledge. Stanley Spector, by the end of the film, realises that knowledge is important, but not enough on its own. The look on his face as the frogs fall, outside the window, out there in the San Fernando Valley, finally brings everything in Magnolia together. It’s a shattering moment. It’s a shattering movie.

I have already gone on much too long – but there is so much yet to discuss. Paragraphs on the importance of Frank T J Mackey; paragraphs on the film’s treatment of television, and old age, and what’s wrong with the Gators incest plot, and the parallels between Anderson and Orson Welles, and so on. And Magnolia could be six hours long, or nine, or infinite. In a way, it doesn’t really end, because it continues with you after you leave the cinema. But this review must accept its limitations, and reach some arbitrary cut-off point. This will have to do.

by Neil Young