***J.D. Lafrance has, in the past few years, become one of my favorite writers. Over at his blog, Radiator Heaven, J.D. wows me week after week with his incredibly well-thought out and meticulously researched pieces that combine a sharp film criticism with a dedicated historical slant. J.D. has a an obvious real passion for cinema and its history, and his articles are always such a real pleasure to read, so I am thrilled to start off our Paul Thomas Anderson Blogathon with this terrific long piece on Magnolia. J.D. guides through the history of the film and offers up his own sharp critical take on it. It's a splendid look at what I consider Anderson's greatest work and an ideal opener for the Blogathon. Thanks to J.D. and don't forget to put Radiator Heaven on your daily-stop list. It's one of the web's best.***
By J.D. Lafrance
Along with Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson started making films during an exciting time for American independent cinema. The 1990s saw an explosion of talented filmmakers produce some of the most fascinating work to come along in some time. Some of the diverse talent included the Coen brothers, Allison Anders, Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, and Gus Van Sant to name but only a few. Among the best and the brightest from this decade would have to be Anderson and Tarantino, two filmmakers steeped in encyclopedic film knowledge and with all kinds of talent to burn. They both started off with lean, character-driven crimes film – Tarantino with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Anderson with Hard Eight (1996). Then, they capitalized on the notoriety of those films to each make one that was a rollercoaster ride with tons of flashy camerawork brimming with the confidence of the brash, young Turks that they were. The result? Tarantino made Pulp Fiction (1994) and Anderson made Boogie Nights (1997). Both films were massive hits, wowing critics and audiences alike. So, were Jackie Brown (1997) and Magnolia (1999) signs of maturity from Tarantino and Anderson? Both films divided critics and underperformed at the box office but, for me, they remain their most personal and intimate examinations of the relationships between people.
Partway through Magnolia, former quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) tells a patron (Henry Gibson) in a bar, “I’ve got so much to give, but I just don’t know where to put it. I have trouble knowing where to put things…” These lines sum up Anderson’s ambitious epic perfectly for it is a film filled with the most extreme examples of love and pain in its rawest forms. Like Donnie, the film wears its heart on its sleeve in what I feel is the filmmaker’s most personal film to date. However, at times, Anderson has trouble knowing where to put things and the film threatens to collapse under its own ambitions – juggling multigenerational storylines, a musical number and a freak occurrence right out of the Bible. What holds the film together is its big heart as represented in part by Aimee Mann’s songs that are used throughout, most notably at one of the film’s show-stopping scenes. In some respects, Magnolia is an epic love letter to the films of Robert Altman (in particular, Nashville and Short Cuts) that explores the interconnected lives of several diverse and fascinating characters in the San Fernando Valley.
Even the film’s prologue is ambitious and epic in scope as it tells of three incidents of chance and coincidence from the past as narrated by none other than David Mamet regular Ricky Jay. However, as the prologue winds down, the narrator makes this telling comment about the last incident: “This is not just ‘something that happened.’ This cannot be ‘one of those things’ … This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.” Many have wondered what exactly this amusing and amazing prologue has to do with the rest of the film. I think that those last few lines of voiceover narration are the key, as if to say, what you are about to see is not a matter of chance and that no matter how fantastical things get they’ve happened before.
We are introduced to a fascinating collection of characters. There’s Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a slick infomercial salesman pushing a how-to guide on having sex with women called, Seduce and Destroy. His estranged father is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), an old man dying of cancer and who is being taken care of by Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a kind and caring male nurse, while his beautiful wife Linda (Julianne Moore) deals with the pharmacy to get more medicine for her husband. Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is the veteran host of a long-running children’s game show called What Do Kids Know? He cheats regularly on his wife and is also dying of cancer. His estranged daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a cocaine addict who picks up men and has sex with them. She does this to numb the pain she feels as a result of her father neglecting her for years. So much damage has been done that she won’t even talk to him when he tells her he’s dying.
Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is a police officer and a nice guy looking for that special someone. He’s a decent man that loves his job and feels like he can make a difference. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is a washed-up former quiz show whiz kid that is now a failed electronic salesman recently fired from his job before he goes to have braces that he does not need, put on his teeth. Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is a very smart boy that appears on What Do Kids Know? but he’s very unhappy as he’s being forced to do so by his overbearing father (Michael Bowen) who’s only interested in advancing his own acting career at the expense of his son. Stanley is under all sorts of pressure by his father to be a winner and this clearly has taken its toll on the poor little guy – he’s a nervous wreck and obviously headed for a meltdown.
There are all kinds of fascinating references to the Bible contained within Magnolia. From little things, like Donnie muttering something about the “sins of the father” while throwing up in the bathroom of a bar, to Stanley who appears visually like an angel after he attacks Jimmy Gator on the set of their game show. There is a shot where he is framed in a way that looks like he has wings because there is a large medical logo behind him (also a reference to Earl, the dying patriarch?). Could this boy be an angel that makes the rain of frogs happen? When he breaks into the library, he pours over books on the genealogy of angels, meteorology and a few others. Was he using the book on angels to find his power that allowed him to invoke the plague? Most significantly, the film is littered with references to the numbers “8” and “2.” Look closely during the game show scene and someone can be seen holding up a sign that reads, “Exodus 8:2” which refers to a line in the Bible that talks about a plague of frogs. This is only one of many references, some obvious, some subtle that littered throughout the film like Easter eggs.
There are so many themes that Anderson explores in Magnolia, chief among them the sins perpetuated by the father on his child. Frank T.J. Mackey confronts his father who is dying from cancer on his deathbed. It is an absolutely gut-wrenching, emotionally exhausting scene as the brash young man, in the prime of his life, is confronting his father who is at the end of his – in fact, he’s barely there at all – a ghost. Frank represents the second generation dealing with the sins of their father and how, in his case, he is ill-equipped to deal with it because he was never given the tools he needed as a child. This is arguably the greatest sin perpetuated by Earl because it was his responsibility and obligation to give his son the proper tools for life. As a result, Frank had to be the father that Earl never was and take care of his dying mother. Once she died, Frank was alone in the world and forced to grow up way too soon. No wonder he turned out the way he did. Frank aggressively preys on women because his lack of a mother figure growing up. She could have taught him to respect women. When faced with a strong woman – a television interviewer – that digs into his past, a chink in his armor appears exposing his insecurities and paving the way for a long overdue confrontation with his father. This is also echoed with Donnie whose parents exploited him on a game show when he was child and never loved him or taught him how to deal with life and so he grew up a confused man full of love but unable to know what to do with it.
Donnie is the older version of Stanley whose overbearing father forces him to do the game show, What Do Kids Know? Donnie is what Stanley will become unless he changes the way things are. If you think about it, the game show itself is a rather neat metaphor for one of the central themes of the film: children vs. adults. Even the title of the show has a rather cynical vibe to it, like something only an adult would say. Not to mention the show itself is life in a nutshell as it’s all about winning and losing. This is certainly how Jimmy Gator sees things, like when he tells a woman backstage, “I’m fucked. I’ve lost.” Of course, a game show host would see life as a game and in terms of winning and losing. In his eyes he’s clearly lost, not just because he’s dying of cancer but because he failed with his daughter as well. Thanks to his lack of love and guidance, Claudia turned out to be a drug addict unable to love someone else because she doesn’t know how.
The stumbling block between the adults and children in Magnolia is miscommunication. The adults either don’t listen to or understand children. For example, a little boy named Dixon (Emmanuel Johnson) raps a song that identifies the killer in a case Jim is investigating but he doesn’t make the effort to pay attention to what the boy is saying. In Claudia’s case, years of being an awful father cause her to push him away at a crucial moment in his life when he is facing his own mortality. In another example, the game show people and fellow contestants don’t listen to Stanley when he tells them he has to go to the bathroom and this results in an embarrassing moment for him and for the show. All of these examples make me think of another key line from Magnolia as Jimmy says at one point, “the book says we may be through with the past but the past ain’t through with us.” I always interpreted that line to mean that if we don’t learn from our past mistakes then we are condemned to repeat them. And you can see the younger generation – Claudia, Frank and Stanley – trying to break the repetitious cycle and not make these same mistakes.
Anderson's film takes the best elements from his previous work – the emotional core of Hard Eight and the ambitious scope of Boogie Nights with an amazing ensemble cast that features regulars like John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Philip Baker Hall (all of whom portray completely different characters than they had done in previous Anderson films) and new additions like Jason Robards and Tom Cruise. Cruise, in particular, is nothing short of a revelation. He plays the ultimate misogynistic pig bastard. Think of a more outgoing version of Jason Patric's character from Your Friends and Neighbors (1998) and you get an idea of the intensity and sheer ferocity of Cruise's motivational speaker/sexual predator character. He drops the superstar shtick and becomes Frank, complete with frat boy swagger and blowhard bravado as he spews out memorable gems like, “Respect the cock and tame the cunt!” to his receptive audience of men like some kind of profane Tony Robbins motivational speaker. He even nails the faux concern his character shows an audience member who recounts a story about a woman that rejected him. His dog and pony show is full of bluster as it parodies some of his gung ho protagonists from films like Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder (1990).
Julianne Moore starts off playing a shrill, bitchy trophy wife but it quickly becomes evident that her character is coming apart at the seams as she realizes that the man she loves is rapidly dying before her eyes. There’s a scene early on where her attorney levels with her about Earl’s condition and as he’s telling her, Anderson keeps the camera on Moore so that we see the emotions play over her face: fear, disbelief and so on. Over the course of the film, she does an incredible job of convincing us that Linda really does love her husband and will do anything to help him. Jason Robards delivers an absolutely heart-wrenching performance as a dying man full of regrets and tired of living with so much pain. He does such a good job of conveying someone in incredible agony that it is hard to watch some of his scenes.
And finally, John C. Reilly plays a bumbling yet well-meaning police officer. In a film that features a lot abrasive characters, Jim provides the film’s warm, emotional center. Watch the way he deals with an irate black woman whose apartment he is investigating. Despite her belligerent attitude, he is patient and courteous. The same goes for the first time he meets Claudia, investigating a noise complaint as she has her stereo up way too high, which incidentally, so is she – coked to the gills. Their burgeoning relationship is the heart and soul of Magnolia and you find yourself rooting for these two people to find each other in this turbulent world.
Melora Walters is also fantastic as she conveys an incredible vulnerability of a person deeply wounded emotionally. Claudia tries to desensitize herself with drugs and meaningless affairs and it is Jim who finally reaches her and he shows her that there are decent people in this world. The final image of Magnolia, a reaction shot of Claudia, is perhaps the single most amazing and heartfelt image in any Anderson film.
It is no secret that Anderson loves working with and writing for actors. Each and every character as their own unique arc so that by the end of the film they all have undergone a dramatic change, some pivotal moment or decision that has changed their lives forever. And that is truly something when you realize how many characters and subplots he is juggling in Magnolia. It really is a marvel of editing and Anderson establishes a fascinating tempo of montages with quickly edited shots of the various storylines followed by a series of scene with long takes and then follows them with quick edits and so on. He claimed that Magnolia was structured somewhat like “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles: “It kind of builds up, note by note, then drops or recedes, then builds again.”
After making Boogie Nights, Anderson had wanted to make a film that was “intimate and small-scale,” something that could be made very quickly in 30 days. During the long editing period of that film, he started getting ideas for Magnolia and started writing down material. He started with lists of actors and music. At the time, he was listening to Aimee Mann’s music and ended up using her two solo albums as a basis and inspiration for Magnolia. Certain lines of dialogue in the film came directly from her songs, like, “now that you’ve met me, would you object if you never saw me again?” which came from “Deathly.” (it also inspired the character of Claudia.) In addition, at the climax of the film, all the characters sing along to Mann’s “Wise Up.” Anderson came up with lists of images, words and ideas that “start resolving themselves into sequences and shots and dialogue.” The first image he had for the film was the smiling face of actress Melora Walters. Another early image that came to Anderson was that of Philip Baker Hall as her father and envisioning him walking up the steps to her apartment where they had an intense confrontation. As he started writing the screenplay, it “kept blossoming” and Anderson realized that there were so many actors he wanted to write for. Then, he decided to put “an epic spin on topics that don’t necessarily get the epic treatment.” He wanted to make “the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie.” Anderson ended up writing a 200-page script.
Before he became a filmmaker, one of the jobs Anderson had was working as an assistant for a T.V. game show, Quiz Kid Challenge, an experience he incorporated into Magnolia. He actually had the title of the film in his head before he wrote the script. He also did research on the magnolia tree and discovered a concept that eating the tree’s bark helped cure cancer. The rain of frogs was inspired by the works of Charles Fort and Anderson was unaware that it was also a reference in the Bible when he first wrote it into his script. He claimed that at the time he came across the notion of a rain of frogs, he was “going through a weird, personal time,” and started to understand “why people turn to religion in times of trouble, and maybe my form of finding religion was reading about rains of frogs and realizing that makes sense to me somehow.”
Anderson cast several of his regular actors against type in this film. The character of Jim Kurring originated in the summer of 1998 when John C. Reilly grew a moustache for fun. He started putting together a not very smart cop character. He and Anderson made a few parodies of the Cops reality T.V. show with the director chasing the actor around the streets with a video camera. Actress Jennifer Jason Leigh was even in one of these bits. Some of Jim’s dialogue also came from these sessions. Anderson had wanted to make Reilly a romantic lead because it was something different and a role he had never done before. The actor even told Anderson at one point that he was tired of being “always cast as these heavies or these semi-retarded child men. Can’t you give me something I can relate to, like falling in love with a girl?”
For Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anderson wanted him to play a “really simple, uncomplicated, caring character.” The actor said of his character, “this guy really takes pride in the fact that every day he’s dealing with life and death circumstances.” For Julianne Moore, he wanted her to play a crazed character on several pharmaceuticals. The actress said of her character: “Linda doesn’t know who she is or what she’s feeling and can only try to explain it in the most vulgar terms possible.” For William H. Macy, Anderson felt that the actor was scared of big, emotional roles and wrote for him, “a big, tearful, emotional part.” Philip Baker Hall based Jimmy Gator on real-life T.V. personalities like Bob Barker, Alistair Beck and Arthur Godfrey.
Tom Cruise was a fan of Boogie Nights and contacted Anderson while working on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He met the actor on the set of that film and Cruise told Anderson to keep him in mind for his next film. After he finished writing the script, the filmmaker sent the actor a copy. The next day, Cruise called him, they met, but he was nervous about the role; however, he ultimately agreed to do the film. The character of Frank T.J. Mackey was based in part on a recording that a friend gave to Anderson in 1997. His friend was teaching an audio-recording engineering class and recorded two of his students talking in a recording studio. They were “talking all this trash” about women and quoting a man named Ross Jeffries who was teaching a new version of the Eric Weber course, “How to Pick Up Women,” but with hypnotism and subliminal language techniques. Anderson researched Jeffries and his led to four or five other men like him. He also transcribed the tape and did a reading with John C. Reilly and Chris Penn, incorporating this into Frank and the sex seminar. Anderson felt that Cruise was drawn to Frank because he had just finished making Eyes Wide Shut where he played a deeply repressed character. Magnolia allowed him to cut loose and play someone “outlandish and bigger-than-life.”
Anderson had met Aimee Man in 1996 when he asked her husband, Michael Penn, to write music for Boogie Nights. She had songs on soundtracks before but never “utilized in such an integral way.” Anderson heard some demo tracks from a new record that she was working on while writing his script. She gave Anderson rough mixes of a few songs and found that they both wrote about the same kinds of characters. She ended up writing “Save Me” and “You Do” specifically for Magnolia.
After the critical and commercial success of Boogie Nights, New Line Cinema told Anderson that he could do whatever he wanted for his next film and he realized that, “I was in a position I will never ever be in again.” He convinced New Line Cinema to give him final cut on Magnolia. Head of production Michael De Luca made the deal and granted him final cut without hearing an idea for the film. However, when it came time to market his film they had bitter arguments. Anderson felt that the studio didn’t do a decent enough job on Boogie Nights and did not like their poster or trailer for Magnolia. So, he designed his own and cut together a trailer himself. Even though he got his way in the end, Anderson realized that he had to “learn to fight without being a jerk. I was a bit of baby. At the first moment of conflict, I behaved in a slightly adolescent knee-jerk way. I just screamed.” In addition, he also wrote the liner notes for the soundtrack album and pushed to avoid hyping Cruise’s presence in the film in favor of the ensemble cast.
Not surprisingly, Magnolia had its share of supporters and detractors among film critics. USA Today gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and called it "the most imperfect of the year's best movies.” Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Magnolia is the kind of film I instinctively respond to. Leave logic at the door. Do not expect subdued taste and restraint, but instead a kind of operatic ecstasy.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a "B+" rating, and Lisa Schwarzbaum praised Cruise's performance: "It's with Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey, a slick televangelist of penis power, that the filmmaker scores his biggest success, as the actor exorcises the uptight fastidiousness of Eyes Wide Shut ... Like John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, this cautiously packaged movie star is liberated by risky business.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan also praised Cruise: "Mackey gives Cruise the chance to cut loose by doing amusing riffs on his charismatic superstar image. It's great fun, expertly written and performed, and all the more enjoyable because the self-parody element is unexpected.” In his review for The New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “In the case of Magnolia, I think Mr. Anderson has taken us to the water's edge without plunging in. I admire his ambition and his very eloquent camera movements, but if I may garble something Lenin once said one last time, 'You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs'.”
However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “But when that group sing-along arrives, Magnolia begins to self-destruct spectacularly. It's astonishing to see a film begin this brilliantly only to torpedo itself in its final hour," but went on to say that the film "was saved from its worst, most reductive ideas by the intimacy of the performances and the deeply felt distress signals given off by the cast.” The Observer’s Philip French wrote, "But is the joyless universe he (Anderson) presents any more convincing than the Pollyanna optimism of traditional sitcoms? These lives are somehow too stunted and pathetic to achieve the level of tragedy.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel wrote, “The result is a hard-striving, convoluted movie, which never quite becomes the smoothly reciprocating engine Anderson (who did Boogie Nights) would like it to be.”
Magnolia is a polarizing film because so much information, so many characters and so many storylines are thrown at the viewer that it is bound to alienate some. Also, the intensity level of this film is so high for so much of the running time that it tends to leave one exhausted. It’s not a film that requires you to be passive. It engages you and challenges you and for that reason I feel that it is an important film. By its conclusion, every character’s life has changed in a very dramatic way and the whole film builds towards this life-changing event with their emotional states heightening as they head towards a complete transformation. This is reached during the climax with the rain of frogs. We come back to Macy’s line, “I’ve got so much love, but I just don’t know where to put it,” which, if you think about it, ties the film together. Magnolia is grandiose, overblown and too ambitious for its own good but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is quite brilliant, actually, because it refuses to play things safe as it examines the dysfunctional relationships between children and their parents in an unflinchingly honest way.