Magnolia (1999) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
It comes in waves. Building relentlessly. I try to resist, but the waves just keep building.
Will it drag me under? I don't know. But the level of heavy content that never lets up is in danger of suffocating my senses. Not only that, but it still keeps coming at you, like a Great White Shark, it never stops. As a matter of fact, it goes on forever. Actually, I could still be watching Magnolia as I'm writing this. I had completely forgotten how intense and depressing Magnolia is. It's a struggle for sure. But does the weight of the subject matter hide a shallow heart?
I remember at the time that Magnolia was compared to a Robert Altman -style of cinema. Multi-layered stories interchange and characters that are closely related by coincidence or the proximity of The Valley. Magnolia however is far too stiff and calculated in its execution to remind me of Altman. It's also missing Altman's light touch. Magnolia is also missing the humor that made Boogie Nights so endearing. One can be bowled over by the sheer ambition of Anderson's film. The script is well considered, the cinematography excellent, music overwhelming and finally, brilliant acting performances. You can take your pick here who stands out. Tom Cruise steals the film for me and has never approached this level since. William H Macy, Philip Baker Hall and Melora Walters are all stand-outs for me. One scene where the principle characters sing along to Aimee Mann's Wise Up is cinema gold, the emotional quality this brings is never matched by the rest of the film. But still, what a moment.
But watching Magnolia again reminds me of how weird the late 1990's feel right now in 2011. There is disconnect. This seemed so cutting-edge and important at the time. Now Anderson's film seems ponderous and at times pretentious. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a good film. But right now it feels like an act of self-indulgence on Anderson's part. I feel he's improved so much from Magnolia with Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. Magnolia could just be part of his growing pains. I'd like to think of Anderson's bleak look at life's travails as being his springboard to greatness.
I remember seeing Magnolia for the first time in 1999 or 2000. It was a religious experience for me, I was converted – to Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Julianne Moore, PT Anderson, the likelihood of frogs falling from the sky and the bleak bleak vision of life as a battle between co-incidence and reason. Watching the film this time around, I find Magnolia unbelievably heavy, dark and continuously depressed. I wonder if it was just me who felt comfortable in such disturbing levels of depression in the 1990s, or was it common culture that the most valued pieces of art were always the heaviest? (Maybe it was, as other very popular 90s movies in addition to Magnolia were Blue by Kieslowski and Eyes Wide Shut by Kubrick – sad and dark).
What did I do for the early 2000s then? I read Vogue and I watched Sex And The City on TV and allowed the series to heal me with its light and reckless consumerist philosophy on life. I went from 'life is suffering' to 'which self-tanning lotion dries fastest and is the least orange'. I never had an It-Bag, but I was very glued to knowing which bag was It right then. But now Carrie has also become more of a past-curiosity and an uncomfortable reminder of how selfish and unethical the early-2000s ideal woman was.
Magnolia is still a touching film. It has a couple of moments of cinematic beauty, where music, acting, plot and emotion all join together forming something unforgettable. In 2011 I don't relate to its perspective on life as tragedy, instead I watch it as a sympathetic outsider and feel a little worried for PT Anderson's well-being. I'm so glad it's not 1999 anymore.