It’s the End of the World as We Know It
Published on May 25th, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
Paul Thomas Anderson was just starting to hit his stride at the end of the last century when he made “Magnolia” in 1999. This period holds much emotional weight for me, as it encompasses what were more or less my formative years, and I have noticed that I now place it in quite a high-level of nostalgic regard. The late ‘90s were turbulent in the sense that really all eras are to some degree; though in hindsight it was far less tumultuous then the decade to follow. 9/11, the War on Terror were non-existent terms. Now the “liberal” media pounds us day-in-day-out with images and sound bites of the latest possible catastrophe-in-waiting. It makes one wonder if the times are a-changin’ as much as the way in which they are presented to us. Such is the entry point for Anderson’s film, as well as a new book by the same name (Wiley; $19.95) authored by University of Miami film scholar Christina Lane, which seeks to decode the magnum opus of multiple storylines, themes, musical montages and, yes, frogs.
“Magnolia” the film, Lane observes, serves as a gripping comment on the ways and means of the media, the television industry in particular. Lane makes frequent mention of the film’s “televisual style.” She uses this label to refer to “an aesthetic approach informed by television codes and conventions.” Obviously we have several characters here who work in and around television or at least, in the case of Tom Cruise’s character, the field of presentation and taking on a heightened persona. Many past television programs are referenced, be it “COPS” with John C. Reilly’s character, the Philip Baker Hall-hosted game show, or even Jason Robards’s TV mogul character who dons the surname of Partridge (cue the famous “Family” and/or the peacock-feathered NBC logo). Lane also notes the film’s “flow,” which mimics TV’s presentation of “many bits and fragments while the experience…(because of its technological flow) often feels continuous and coherent.”
A common theme in “Magnolia” indeed seems to be the duel between what is real and what is deemed as fake. Ragged, threadbare emotions stumble to the surface from the drudgery of polite society. Reilly’s police officer drops his tough-guy act when confessing his vulnerability over a lost firearm, Tom Cruise’s guard is obliterated in the face of his long-lost Dad played by Robards, Julianne Moore has a conniption in the pharmacy over a question about her prescription, and of course William H. Macy’s character is an emotional wreck from beginning to end. This tendency butts up headfirst against the game show set, the phony marriage between Moore and Robards, Cruise’s slick playboy front at the convention, et al. Lane also reminds us that Anderson more or less grew up around this business. His father Ernie was a famous announcer for ABC. Moreover, it is interesting to note that Anderson, with this film, seems fixated solely upon the television industry. There is surely something about the smaller screen that seems to carry most of the traits of sheen and fakery that are commonly associated with Hollywood. From the rigged contestants studied in Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” all the way up to the gloriously over-the-top antics on “Jersey Shore,” television is almost unabashed in its desire to cover up everything with a happy face.
Lane is particularly interesting when she delves into this territory, and she does quite a bit of it, even for a book clocking in at a brisk 105 pages. Less interesting are the discussions on gender roles in the film, which seem to cherry-pick the less desirable traits of the film’s male characters and juxtapose those with the equally selective observations of the female characters’ victimization. It did remind me, however, that the topic of gender in art is one that seems to be more and more isolated to academic circles, as I can’t even recall the last major film review I’ve read that tapped into a film’s feminine vs. masculine perspectives. Nonetheless, such talk in Lane’s book comes off as a shade rote in light of the more rewarding topics of the media and the dawn of the 21st century.
Lane goes into how “Magnolia” fits within the subgenre of “millennial films” that circulated, mostly, among American directors in the late ‘90s. What showed early signs with “Pulp Fiction” and later encompassed the likes of “American Beauty” and “Traffic,” the familiar elements were multiple storylines, told simultaneously or out of order altogether, which headed closer and closer together like some massive narrative train wreck. Lane’s contention is that, whereas some of those others may have been chaotic for the sake of being edgy or aesthetically inventive, “Magnolia” is more concerned with utilizing the frenzied and interconnected storytelling as a thematic underlining of its overall subject of alienation and emotional turmoil. Anderson lets us in on little details here and there regarding a character’s particular dilemma. Only at the end do we have, mostly, the full picture. Yet up until then, we are as fragmented and confused as those characters themselves are with all their baggage and heartache. Once the frogs come, both they and we share the moment together, which is why such a crazy turn of events is immensely powerful even after many repeats. It’s like one big breath of fresh air after nearly three hours of murky descent.
To this day “Magnolia” feels very fresh because of this emotional style. No one is merely sad, but SAD! DISTRAGUT! “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” as the Willie Nelson song goes. The film is like a thinking person’s telenovela, where everyone wears their hearts on their sleeves, but yet remains articulate and even wise in their outpourings. Anderson piles on plenty of stylistic flourishes, from the “is it chance or is it fate?” opening montage to the amphibian deluge at the end. Yet what makes this film so compelling is its great care for these characters. All of them are flawed creatures, obviously so in many cases, but they are tender and compassionate in their darkest hours. Whether it was minor threats such as Y2K, or genuine concerns such as globalization, the dot-com bubble and the general malaise of Generation X, the end of the 20th century weighed heavily on most. Intentionally or not, Anderson captures this turmoil in the roller coaster of his characters’ experiences.
Such topics form the bulk of Lane’s book. Her dissection of the film’s composition and aesthetic elements might feel like well-worn territory to the converted, but all-in-all it is a worthy companion to revisiting a giant of ‘90s cinema. It will be interesting to see how that decade is pondered in the coming years. The popular perception of post-WWII America springs to mind: seemingly idyllic but chaotic and burdensome underneath. At any rate, Lane has crafted a lean and engrossing primer.