In Which it’s Not Going to Stop Til You Wise Up
In the popular consciousness there is an idea that no room was made for sincerity in the irony drenched decade of the 90’s. The fizzling of the cold war and the institution of the liberal/democratic/capitalist order bred a contempt for the blatantly emotional, that the culture revolted with it’s grunge music and violent indie films, and that if something couldn’t provoke it couldn’t sell. Like all broad generalizations this framework is mostly false, sincerity certainly could make an impact, but it usually came in a particular form. The sincere work of people looking to hip to the past and glom on to the definitive points of view of history. The 90’s were the decade that saw the full adulation of the WWII picture and a desire to return of the culture of the 60’s and 70’s where people’s actions “actually” meant something.
The kind of sincerity that didn’t usually fly was the kind that envelops Paul Thomas Anderson’s emotional 1999 epic Magnolia. A film on the grandest scale made on the single insistence to make it’s audience feel something. PTA both shamelessly embraces melodrama and forthright cinematic grandstanding to accomplish his goal. The result is gargantuan mass of hysterics and cinematic fireworks. And depending on your taste either an endless piece of strident manipulation, or a bold attempt to try and unify the disparate threads of humanity into single tapestry of life.
I might be a sucker, but Magnolia totally works for me. Some of the stories are clunky, and some of the emotions run a touch too hot, but Anderson hits where it matters the most in this mosaic of ruination brought on by patriarchs and deeply sought after redemption.
The strands are too myriad to recount, but the whole thing hinges around two performances and a reconciliation. Stanley (Jeremy Blackman) is a child trivia prodigy who’s on a show hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall). Gator has been diagnosed with cancer and is trying to reconcile with his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon) and daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia has a run in with sad sack cop Jim (John C. Reiley) and they form a connection. On the other spectrum is Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise) a misogynistic self-help guru. While he’s at a conference his dying estranged father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) uses in home nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to reconnect Frank and Earl before the latter passes away. Simultaneously Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) uses his sickness to feed her drug problem. And on the outskirts is Whizz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) a former child champion of the show Stanley is on that contending with his unrequited love for a bartender.
And in the end each is greeted with a rain of frogs.
So what to make of Anderson’s grand pronouncement of coincidence and broken families. One is the active pursuit of redemption, and who decides to redeem one another. This story is the one that is directly paralleled between the stories of Gator and Partridge. Both serving as figureheads for the abuse children suffer from their fathers, and what that action brings to bear on the present. A grander scale is how we present ourselves to the world around us. Are we bloviating bravura like Frank, or high strung liars like Claudia, or straightforward fumblers like Jim. How we define and present ourselves to the world is intrinsically apart of the traumas of life and ripples further out from every action.
It feels appropriate then that so much of the film orbits around people on stages. This is the big show after all, and the audience has demands that need to be met. The question of which audience the characters play to dictates the level of performance we get. Frank goes from snarling to defensive as soon as a tough question is brought up in his interview. Even when Gator falls on live TV in it’s the form of a compassionate entertainer, when confronted by his wife about the sexual abuse of his daughter he becomes surly and withdrawn. His wife can no longer take his act, his show, his grovelling for forgiveness, and he is left alone.
The centerpiece of performance is, of course, Tom Cruise. He turns in not only his single best piece of acting, but work that goes out of its way to break him down as a screen presence. From the hyper-extended machismo on stage, to the blubbering son of an absent father. We see how the hollowness and shame that Earl left him has fomented him into a person who can easily project strength, but crumples at the slightest push back. The scene where Cruise tries and fails not to cry at his father’s deathbed is still kind of shocking to watch. A moment where one of our most famous men, a person of total cocksure importance, is diminished in a moment of well earned grief.
The last showman here is Anderson. The most kind of the 90’s wunderkind directors, Magnolia is the film of somebody who knows they’re hot shit and will do everything they can to prove that fact. The 188 minutes of the film are loaded with elaborate tracking shots, dramatic push zooms, snappy match edits, and an infamous non-diegetic group sing along. It’s so overwhelming that it might come off as an needling affectation, but Magnolia is a movie of cranked emotions and shouted to the heavens performances, and Anderson’s command of the camera feels appropriate for material that reaches for such extremes. Certainly such decisions are bound to aggravate, but Magnolia is not a movie of the literal, and instead one for the expressive. And the aforementioned song kind of confirms that. Magnolia wants to razzle and dazzle like an old fashioned musical: the elaborate directing and heightened acting all feel a piece like the choreography of day-to-day grandiosity. That if something is improbable, it is nowhere close to impossible.
Magnolia is the perfect melodrama for 1999, a collection of things that a represent the earnest outpouring of a master artist trying to reconcile the isolation and disaffection that abound in the contemporary world. That there is a possibility of forgiveness, even if it is nor guaranteed.
Odds and Ends
- In the never ending cast you’ll find bit parts played by such notable people like Patton Oswalt, Paul F. Thompkins, Orlando Jones, Clark Gregg, Jim Beaver, and Robert Downey Sr.
- This is usually the part of the article where I beg the director to make another movie, but PTA is way ahead of me. His next project will be a return to the world of Boogie Nights (the valley in the 70’s) to follow a child actor. Hopefully this project will finally be the rumored one that includes Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph.
- Anderson always felt like the odd duck of the 90’s indie stars. Maybe it’s because he was one the only group was out of the Miramax wheelhouse, or maybe it’s because he seems like pretty chill and stable guy.
- Speaking of Weinstein fuckery, it’s a true shame that Tom Cruise lost the Oscar to Michael Caine in The Cider House Rules, a movie that fully doesn’t exist.
Next week we bring our girlfriend to meet the parents in 1998’s Buffalo ’66.