Watching Magnolia again recently I was reminded of the first lines of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Journey”: One day you finally knew/ what you had to do, and began. Something in that line’s mix of weariness/
acceptance of a hard road ahead seems to chime with what transpires in P.T. Anderson’s third movie. This is a film that only offers hope to those willing to sacrifice.
Magnolia takes place in Los Angeles, a city that goes on and on. Much like that other great L.A.-opus, “Pulp Fiction”, this is a film that recognises how L.A.’s geography and psychology are synonymous in many respects: on one level it’s a sprawl, so open it seems to lack all definition, but look closer and its also a place where everyone’s stretching themselves, an anti-New York, a gymnastic city. We meet a dozen or so residents over the course of Magnolia’s generous run-time: Julianne Moore playing the gold-digger who feels love like a light that shines too bright on her; Jason Robards as a man rich man dying with a warehouse of regrets. Tom Cruise is the author of “Seduce and Destroy”, a misogynist’s user-manual he lectures on with delighted-fury. John C Reilly is a cop who carries with him the movie’s conscience. Melora Waters breaks your heart. The list goes on…
Structurally the film owes a debt to Robert Altman’s style of free-wheeling narrative; emotionally this is a Martin Scorsese film. Marrying Altman’s methodically-plotted rambling with Scorsese’s visceral assault on the senses might seem worrying in prospect, but Anderson is as sure a hand as either of those two directors, and he knows how to take something from each and make it his own. He is a big-hearted film maker, as Altman was, but he also wants to be sure the audience feels big emotions, and for that aim he is not content, like Altman, to film things and let the pieces fall into place; he needs to press our faces to the glass, make us see rather than passively observe. Altman would never have staged anything so artificial as the moment where all the principle actors in Magnolia sing-along to an Aimee Mann song, but that isn’t in any way a criticism of Anderson. This moment – so hard to describe without it sounding mawkish or manipulative – is as much what makes Magnolia great (and it is great) as any gem of dialogue or acting flourish. These characters need to sing at that moment. A song gives them the chance to say things aloud that are too revealing to be said otherwise. Pop-music in Magnolia is catharsis.
Anderson loves tragedy. He gets accused of pretension and pomposity all the time, and Magnolia could certainly be seen that way if judged on its dearth of laughter and welter of Biblical allusions. But I refuse to call him pretentious. “Pretentious”, to my mind, speaks of someone who isn’t engaged with the world, and Anderson feels his character’s guilt and their shame so keenly that it seems he would be lost if wasn’t stood right beside them. It’s fair to say he enjoys life on the cross – he’s good with anguish, but it isn’t only what he likes.
Compare Magnolia with last year’s angst-fantasia Babel, where the latter piles catastrophe on catastrophe, its defining image: a woman fleeing through the desert with her hands clawing the air. Magnolia is not a film that wants its audience to feel only sadness – entirely the opposite: it seeks joy. That might sound strange for a movie so awash with human suffering, but it’s to what end that suffering is put which decides the kind of movie it is.
“What do we forgive?” asks John C Reilly at the movie’s end. I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s answer would be: “Everything”, provided wrongs are admitted and no-one tries to duck the strain of making things right.