(The original idea wasn't to write a slam of Magnolia. It was to come to better understanding to what I felt about the film. I didn't know how I felt so I set myself to write an essay of the postivies and negatives of the film. Clarity would be found in the process. This, sadly, is the edited version. Around 6000 words make up the original piece but I had to get rid of a lot to keep the criticism coherent and on a certain path.)
Why Magnolia isnít a great film
I Ė Paul Thomas Anderson and Magnolia
1999 was a turning point for American independent cinema. Not only is it considered by many to be the last strong year for all around movie releases, but was the year in which most current American independent filmmakers came to fruition. In the span of two years (1998-99), our best acclaimed filmmakers made their defining works. This group includes David Fincher (Fight Club), Wes Anderson (Rushmore), Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia). Even other important filmmakers like Michel Gondry (Human Nature) were beginning at this time. This influx of new filmmakers wasnít accidental. It was the cause of the success of Pulp Fiction. That film, a financial and creative juggernaut, opened up more independent films for green light. The first few years brought bad copy cats of Pulpís style but soon a vibrant, stylistic film scene was created.
My favorite of this group is Paul Thomas Anderson. He is the credited filmmaker of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but he distinguished himself with his debut, Hard Eight. It was a low key, character piece about a professional gambler on the verge of finding an adopted family at the end of sordid, tough life. Anderson made the film noteworthy because he made the ambiguous questions about the gamblerís life the most important element of the film. The majority of the other filmmakers dialed up their stylistic inspiration first while Anderson instead tapped into a quiet, moving story. When he made Boogie Nights shortly after it seemed like he was answering the call of the challenge to be as daring as the rest of his generation. Boogie Nights not only had a vastly larger story, but allowed Anderson to show his stylistic virtuosity by making a film that referenced cinemas and styles going from the early 1960s and extending all the way through to the 1970s. The purpose of the selection was to capture the time period of the story, but it also showed Andersonís range in how much he was able to take from other works for a single film. The benefit is that he also transitioned the quality storytelling of Hard Eight into Boogie Nights.
Knowing that he had accomplished a lot with Boogie Nights, the question was what Anderson could do to take the next step. He had the intention to make his third film larger in both length and scope. Since not every film could be a look back to a different era and style, the challenge would be to write a modern story that had a deeper storyline and broadened Andersonís horizon. These characteristics meant for the development of personal themes and greater ideas in his works. His first two films had a common plot in a dysfunctional family storyline. His first film was good and his second excellent, but they had an indirect relationship to him. The films didnít reflect his life. Part of the development of a personal filmmaker is to take consideration of your life in your work. Doing this would make the third film continue what his first two films had done and also bring the subject of dysfunctional familyís full circle to make it a legitimate theme in his filmography.
Magnolia was the creation that represented Anderson personally. Not only did he think highly of the film by claiming it would likely be the best film he ever made, but its multiple storylines allowed for Anderson to take different looks into his life. It was a tale set in dreary San Fernando Valley over the course of twenty-four hours and how bad decisions ended up becoming fateful ones to random characters who had little in common but a shared experience to a miraculous event. There is the story of the two fathers, one who is facing his past abuses with the creation of a drug addicted daughter and the other who drove away a son that became an egocentric spokesperson of misogyny and canít find any warmth in his heart. Then there are two child geniuses, one young and old, who live day to day with the pains of their situations because of overbearing parents who drive them to succeed. The younger is trying to find a way to escape the life and salvage his future while the elder only looks back at bad memories that have left uglier scars. Mix in supporting characters that are peacemakers, mysteries and sad cases and youíre getting the emotional ball that is Magnolia.
It doesnít look like the four major stories have direct correlation to Andersonís life, but they do involve television. Two of the major stories are about children of television figures. Anderson himself is a child of a television figure and he was also someone raised to become involved with the visual medium because of his early interest in filmmaking. Boogie Nights only related back to Andersonís surroundings of growing up in the Valley, but Magnolia relates back to his experience. Even if the personal connection is doubted, it should also be noted that Roman Polanski didnít have a direct connection to the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, but he did to the Holocaust. The shared experience and his ability to implement moments of personal experience into the film, The Pianist, is what made it auto-biographical for Polanski. The same situation applies to Paul Thomas Anderson in Magnolia.
Then there is the ending event. It is the phenomenon that ties all the characters together and decides their fate after a tumultuous twenty-four hours. The raining of the frogs has a biblical tie in, but Anderson isnít making Magnolia a theological study. There are no serious ideas within the parameters of the film to suggest it. The larger implication of the end is that it makes the film a fatalist work. The characters, because of previous actions or situations, march head on to a conclusion that will decide their future. The incarnation of fatalist drama has always been in use with the tragedy. Magnolia does not meet the typical standards of a tragedy, but it shares similar ideas. Arthur Miller defined the basis of modern tragedy with ďTragedy and the Common ManĒ. He said it has a focus on psychiatry. Immediately after he cleared up a fallacy by saying that tragedy isnít based on pessimism. That combination leads to Millerís defining idea of tragedy: ďIf it is true to say that in essence the tragic hero is intent upon claiming his whole due as a personality, and if this struggle must be total and without reservation, then it automatically demonstrates the indestructible will of man to achieve his humanity.Ē Some die and others come to absolution in Magnolia, but it is more accurate to say that by the end they all find their own humanities.
A lot of critical attention came to Magnolia. The deserving praise focused on Andersonís ability to make a film with as much confidence and grace as any film he made beforehand. The numerous references in Boogie Nights were mixed with Hard Eight in creating a style that was energetic, but rooted in character perspective. Not one once of Magnolia is hampered by too much direction or composition. That is a lot to say for a film that is exciting. If Hard Eight was Andersonís beginning work of learning how to adequately film then Boogie Nights was his experimentation. Magnolia is the fruition of both projects and shows the cinematic language that would be the basis for all his films to come. Future projects would be alterations or extensions from what was established in Magnolia.
II Ė The Subject of Metaphysics
The choices Anderson made to elevate Magnolia showed the right idea of ambition, but all the choices had to do with the outlook of the film. The second layer to Magnolia is its makeup and composition. The success of the film came about because it was considered a strong ode to one of Andersonís main influences, Robert Altman. The comparisons between Altman and Anderson have always been prevalent. One reason is because of the admiration both have for each other and the other is because both filmmakers rely on similar sweeping camera movements. The idea is that when Anderson made Magnolia he began to take on the personality of Robert Altman by making a film that looked and felt like one of his. Magnolia resembles Altmanís Short Cuts in many ways, but the similarities are all general. Anderson really took a step beyond Short Cuts and asked to be compared to a greater filmmaker.
The filmmaker in question is Krzysztof Kieslowski . When Anderson made Magnolia, he dealt specifically with themes and ideas that were already hallmarks in Kieslowskiís filmography. The description of Magnolia is that the coincidence between all the characters with similar events and personal situations is simply a study in chance and fate, but actually it is metaphysics. The purpose of Magnolia is to associate the interconnection of strangers to a higher meaning. Kieslowski has made this a common theme in the majority of his later films. He even tied the Decalogue to a religious theme, but Kieslowski has been devoted to a study of the connections between people that cannot be identified. The prologue of Magnolia shows side stories that promote the great examples of happenstance, but an entire film about happenstance leads into the territory of metaphysics. Metaphysics are about the deep but unidentifiable connections between people. It deals with events and connections that can only be related to the characters in question. When Robert Altman made Short Cuts, he connected all the characters together at the end with a chance earthquake. It was a weak climax because earthquakes affect all in the general area but a raining of the frogs involves only the selected few.
The problem is that Anderson deals with the identity of metaphysics, but his handling of the subject matter shows no development from what Kieslowski has created. Anderson manages to take a subject like metaphysics and reduce it down to general human subject matter. Even the problems that make up the characters problems resemble standard subject material already seen in numerous films. The question of whether Anderson is able to probe the depths of his subject comes into question. The problems with the subject lead to an unexpected situation of poor writing in the film. Anderson has the task to connect all the characters to such a mighty end that the characterization becomes too simplistic and identifiable. Anderson is still able to write scenes well, but the length of the film makes the script feel like an unedited first draft. Magnolia was Andersonís third film and he was trying to find clarity in a subject that took Kieslowski the majority of feature length filmmaking career to achieve comfort with. The question has to be whether Anderson took on too much with his third film and over shot a youthful and exuberant ambition.
Situations of similarity between Anderson and Kieslowski are everywhere in Magnolia. One instance is with the correlating characters that mirror each other. There is the game show whiz kid looking for breathing room from an overzealous father and the aging game show kid who is hard on luck and desperate for some affection. Both characters mirror the other end of who the other is because of an abusive history. In the Double Life of Veronique, you have two Veroniqueís with one in Poland and the other in France. When the one in Poland dies of a heart ailment at a concert, the other receives an unidentifiable sign that her affiliation with singing has to end. This happens at the beginning of the story and the rest of the film is an investigation into the unforeseen similarities between the two women. Both films are about characters that represent two different physical bodies, but are about the dualistic identity of the self. The problem with Magnolia is that the connections between these two people are too slim to be considered deep. Children of television are already considered prime candidates for abuse from parents and an adult life to be filled with problems and addictions. Magnolia banks on the fact that since these characters are whiz kids it will lead to belief there is a true connection, but there has to be numerous people in the Los Angeles area with a similar general connection. Showbiz breeds failures at all ages. The only major evidence of a metaphysical connection happens with the raining of the frogs.
Then there are the two fathers in peril who suffer over past mistakes. One is the host of a game show and the other is a television producer. Both men deal with life threatening illnesses. Being at the end of their lives, their chance for salvation seems to lie in making good with the children they once abused. The producer has a son who has disassociated himself from him because he left the family entangled in pain and misery. Then the TV host is considered the perpetrator of sexual abuse against his daughter that has sent her into an adulthood of drug addiction. The film sets up the story so both fathers will get a chance to meet their past head on. It happens with the producer who gets to meet his son while on his death bed but it doesnít happen to the TV host. He drives away his wife because of an admitted affair and it is his wife who is able to find resolution with her daughter. He is left alone to attempt a suicide that is divinely interrupted. Again the purposeful similarities between stories turn out to only be semi-coincidental. Certainly both stories were meant to mirror each other like the whiz kids, but the similarities arenít the kind that has anything to do with metaphysics. They only deal with the qualities of an intricate drama.
If the question is asked whether Magnolia even has a sincere interest in metaphysics, I think the information in the film supports it. Already taking into account the prologue, there are the numerous signs of 82 everywhere to signal the raining of the frogs. The signals are so entrenched within the film that re-viewings can always lead to new discoveries of it in the background. Then there is the scene that has all the actors singing along together to an Amee Mann song. The metaphysical connection is that they all do it privately but at the same time and for similar reasons. Other clues and markers are spread throughout the film. Dramatic films add elements to deepen the story, but Magnolia has so much of itself dedicated to metaphysics that the fact the film does little to show it is disheartening. The only summation of Magnolia is that it is a watered down story of its theme.
III Ė The Nature of Drama
Metaphysics dealt with the themes of the film, but a lot of the praise for Magnolia came from the dramatic prowess Anderson showed. He had already defined himself as an excellent writer of ensemble pieces with Boogie Nights. While that film was not perfect, a lot of the praise was justified. Boogie Nights proved Anderson could take a multi-character drama and make it satisfactory on all levels of human interest. The greatness about the film is that it made all the characters poignant without making their characterization overblown. All the stories came to an end but there was variety to what happened and how meaningful their resolutions were to the main story. Some characters had small happy moments while others met sad fates. The point is that the writing kept all the characters in check. The saddest and most heartfelt ending came in the main story.
Magnolia is considerably sadder than Boogie Nights, but Anderson paints the characterization of all the characters to have momentous moments by the end. The film defends its decision that a raining of the frogs is itself a momentous event, but the film makes general mistakes by having minor characters doing things like make suicide attempts (Julianne Mooreís) and have other revelations of grandness that seemed reserved for the major characters. Anderson understands the importance each character is striving for is their own humanity, but he weakens the strengths the story by having so many characters have so many revelations. Characters portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffmann and a few others are truly minor characters in that they do assist the others to come to their point, but Anderson still throws a blanket over the entire story and allows for a wave of revelations to hit one after the other. Each ending reflects the other one way too much.
The problem with the wave of sad endings is that Anderson doesnít fully understand Millerís points about tragedy. The modern idea is that tragedy isnít rooted in pessimism. The general interpretation of this is that it all the stories donít end in murders and deaths, but the full idea is that tragedies also encompass beautiful and even lovely moments. The idea of tragedy as the highest form of drama doesnít exist because the stories are the bleakest, but because the stories ask the greatest questions. This isnít to say tragedy can encompass beauty the way a comedy does, but in its objectification of life it does have to take into account all strands and feelings of life that are important to a story. The purpose is to give the most whole interpretation of the character meaning and existence in life.
Out of this comes the problem that there is a lack of variety in the characters and their problems. The film tried purposely to have characters mirror each other for the metaphysical perspective, but on the grounds of my earlier argument, the problem becomes that the film doesnít encapsulate life the way Miller argued tragedy should. The film grounds itself with a few tones and subjects, all of which are sad. Kieslowski made a very similar film to Magnolia in The Decalogue. It was ten stories that were dramatic interpretations of the Ten Commandments. Even though some commandments have resemblances to others, Kieslowski did a lot of good to make all the stories very different from each other. Magnolia doesnít have the time to differentiate the stories like The Decalogue does, but characters that arenít meant to mirror each other have similar problems in life. Problem wise, the majority of the characters deal with addiction. Julianne Moore is a drug addict in much the same way Melora Walters is. They are different people with different stories, but both stories follow a general drug addiction outline. Because Mooreís character got a quarter of the time, it felt like the story descended into repetition.
Continuing the question on the subject of tragedy, the next question has to do with how modern Magnolia truly is. The film is really done to a mode of tragedy so classical it could be argued as irrelevant. The characters begin the film on a march to their fate. Their identities and problems are summed up in mere moments. The time after the introduction and before the final resolutions is dramatic realization of their character traits. That isnít a compliment because most of the characters do not develop over the story. They encounter new situations and deal with different problems, but their makeup is essentially the same until the end. The only character who does begin at one point and evolves to another because of dramatic arc is Tom Cruiseís. His progression throughout the film is the erosion of a superficial confidence that turns into a desperate need for his father. The majority of the other characters go into the end pretty much as they began. Greek tragedy believed this style to be important. That style does have its place, but it is a classical definition of drama. A film like Road to Perdition had a similar style of story and it worked better because the film wanted to exhibit a classical look and structure.
The combination and influx of an old structure into a new story makes for a film that looks and feel different. Magnolia fits the bill of that department fine, but it still lags in other departments of character and structural concerns. The elements of Greek tragedy still have their place for consideration, but it fits a mold of story that has become a relic today. The purpose of all dramas is to progress to be able reflect the nuances and signs of their respective times. The Decalogue does that fine for incorporating new structures and character nuances to make its perspective of the Ten Commandments relevant today. Magnolia does make a biblical connection with the raining of the frogs, but we do not associate the event with anything else but the Bible. The Ten Commandments are still very much a reality today with how morality is questioned. The only topicality of the raining of the frogs is that it was reported a few times in the last century in the back end of a newspaper. Thatís exactly where Anderson got the idea from. Itís a flimsy idea.
To briefly debate the relevancy of tragedy in the context of Magnolia, I believe it is there and is an important idea to be based on when questioning a film. Tragedy does have its beginning in theater and has seen the large majority of its development on stage, but tragedy has grown to become an important idea of art in general. It now exists within the confines of other arts from different performance based ones to even film. Other filmmakers have tried to film their interpretations of tragedy on screen. I will not deduce Magnolia by doing a film to play comparison, but I will deduce the film by looking at tragedy from its greater moral importance.