If Boogie Nights was an astonishing leap forward from Hard Eight, then Magnolia was an even more unbelievable advance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s career, resulting in what is still probably his finest film, completed at the ripe old age of twenty-nine. Rewatching it, I was amazed at how inextricable its poses, moments and aesthetic were from my lived memory of the late 90s, so thoroughly did it percolate its way into every film I watched or envisaged at that time. In part, that’s because it draws on a tendency that grew, across the decade, to try and reimagine the ensemble drama for the end of the millennium, especially as it played out in Los Angeles. In part, this was fuelled by the return of Robert Altman to critical favour by way of The Player and Short Cuts, which remain his definitive statement on Los Angeles, eclipsing even The Long Goodbye, released in 1995. But the emergence of digital technology, and the beginning of the long shift from cinematic to digital technology, also led to a new wave of high concept cinema that was interested in the ways that Los Angeles could be used to imagine the next media horizon. Finally, films like The End of Violence, 2 Days in the Valley and Falling Down suggested, we might be glimpsing the a new kind of ensemble simultaneity that would permit us to map this most dispersed of American cities.
Magnolia both culminates and exceeds this moment, taking us through twenty-four hours in the San Fernando Valley. Extraordinarily ambitious in both outlook and scale, it stretches to three and a half hours, and takes about an hour to properly elaborate its characters, all of whom now feel archetypal within the broader sweep of indie cinema in the late 90s, personifying the hopes and anxieties of Generation X even as they laid the platform for indie characterisation over the next decade as well. In that sense, Magnolia is the spiritual sequel to Boogie Nights, and starts where Boogie Nights left off – with the 90s as a dispersal and deceleration of the collective spirit of the 70s, which in Anderson’s cinematic vocabulary is identified with the magisterial tracking-shots that almost entirely comprise the first act of Boogie Nights, and then never appear again with the same frequency or intensity in his body of work. No other film of Anderson’s feels set in the present in quite the same intensified manner as Magnolia, with the possible exception of Punch-Drunk Love, which in many ways plays as a melancholy epilogue to Magnolia anyway, even if his subsequent films all, in increasingly oblique ways, enact the generational anxieties that are articulated here.
Throughout Boogie Nights, Anderson gradually moved away from the collective naturalism pioneered by Robert Altman, compressing sinuous tracking-shots into frenetic focus pulls as the 70s transitioned into the 90s. That movement continues in Magnolia, arriving at a collective supernaturalism that is foreshadowed in the prologue, which features Ricky Jay – also present in the cast – enumerating a series of iconic coincidences, each time assuring the audience that “I am trying to believe that this is not a matter of chance.” Whereas Short Cuts focuses on the small ways that lives intersect, and thereby provide a collective portrait of Los Angeles, Anderson’s film feels driven by what Carl Jung would call sympathetic magic, or synchronicity – an inchoate, vibrant, urgent assurance that all of his characters are connected in ways that they cannot immediately discern, perceive or extricate themselves from. This process is encapsulated in the opening scene of the film, which introduces all of the main characters with a series of elaborate tracking-shots that quickly condense into focus pulls, recapitulating the rhythm of Boogie Nights in ten minutes instead of two hours.
As a result, Magnolia starts off with the same intensity with which most films climax, and indeed plays as a three and a half hour climax, as Anderson continually ratchets up the volatility to ever new levels. Altman’s films often ended by subsuming story into a more abstract propulsion, whether in the form of music, dance, chases, or people engaged in collective games and strategies. Magnolia, however, starts at this point, as the manic pace of the opening sequence segues into “One,” the first of many Aimee Mann songs on the soundtrack. Even in this opening scene, the characters are almost singing along, setting the stage for a film in which near-continuous music and sound is always eroding the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic space, culminating with a climax in which the characters do sing along to “Wise Up,” another Aimee Mann song. Since Magnolia is musical from the outset, most of these “characters” plays as a series of riffs, or impulses, producing a heightened mode of delivery that is always slightly monologic, and always slightly oblivious to the presence of other people. Much of the “dialogue” simply involves characters repeating the same phrases over and over, with different inflections, as if thinking aloud, or overhearing their own thoughts. This lends many of the main scenes a theatrical, Shakespearean quality – as if Shakespeare’s tragic and comic elements converged on a single mode of delivery that somehow managed to exude profound gravitas and absurdity at once.
In other words, Magnolia cements Anderson as a great director of charisma, paving the way for the trilogy of There Will Be Blood, The Master and Phantom Thread, all of which fixate on masculine charismatic command. While the protagonists of those films are all solipsistically isolated, they’re nevertheless direct evolutions of the ensemble here, since nobody in Magnolia is ever really, directly connected to one another, at least not in a conventional sense. It’s apt that the opening song is “One,” since while this song may unite all the characters, it unites them in isolation, places them together alone – especially along generational lines, since the younger characters are clearly isolated from the older characters, and isolated in a different kind of way from the older characters. Much of this isolation occurs along father-son axes, and rotates around a children’s game show, “What Do Kids Know?” that forms the epicentre of the film’s sight lines and camera movements, as well as generating other forms of ancillary spectacle, such as a men’s health seminar run by Tom Cruise, in the guise of Frank T.J. Mackey, in one of his most vibrant, vital performances.
Yet it’s not just the father-son relationship that is at stake here, but a broader sense that the promise of the 70s has somehow failed the 90s. This sense of disappointment also permeated Boogie Nights, but it’s translated into a more hallucinatory sense of the present moment in Magnolia, whether in the form of Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former contestant on “What Do Kids Know?” who’s trying to resurrect his career; Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the host of “What Do Kids Know?”, whose avuncular on-screen persona belies the abuse he has heaped upon his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters); or Earl Partridge, the former producer of the show, who is well attended on his deathbed by his wife Linda (Julianne Moore) and nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman), despite having left his son, Frank T.J. Mackey, to look after his ex-wife when she was sick. All of these characters suggest that the paternal presence of 70s cinema, so visceral to those of us growing up in the 90s, has somehow waned, and that this waning is embodied by “What Do Kids Know?” which sees the oldest father in the film (Jimmy Gator) come together with the youngest son – quiz champion Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), who is dragged by his mercenary father from one quiz outing to the next and treated more like a cash cow than a real child.
Since the film takes place across a single night, the live broadcast of “What Do Kids Know?” becomes the main event of the narrative, and the epicentre of Anderson’s mise-en-scenes – the point at which his shift from tracking-shots to focus pulls is most dramatically allegorized as a function of the shift from 70s to 90s. The sinuous tracking-shots of Boogie Nights only recur here in the buildup to the broadcast, mirroring the cranes and pans of the television cameras if to suggest both the artificiality of the collective naturalism Anderson is lamenting, and its loss of cinematic potency in the wake of the videotape revolution that haunted Boogie Nights. The most extravagant, elaborate and beautiful of these tracking-shots occurs just before the broadcast goes to air – at the very moment when past and present are meant to converge the television audience into a cross-generational consensus. Yet the actual broadcast of the show rapidly accelerates these tracking-shots beyond the focus pulls of Boogie Nights into rapid slide pans that allow Anderson to effectively shoot the entire scene in a sole take while also fragmenting it into an internal montage sequence.
Of all the different narratives that converge on “What Do Kids Know?” the most volatile is probably that of Mackey, the men’s right activist. All the phallic potency that Anderson associated with the Golden Age of Porn in Boogie Nights is deflected into Cruise’s persona, which plays as an intensified version of Dirk Diggler’s monologues in front of the mirror, right down to the martial arts flourishes and stylised karate kicks. While I love many of Cruise’s performances, I can’t think of a role that draws so well upon his offscreen energy – and it’s hard not to feel that his iconic interview with Oprah Winfrey about Katie Holmes wasn’t partly inspired by this role. While Mackey claims to be preparing men to conquer women in the 90s, he leans so heavily on 70s cinema that he’s easily the most dated character in the film, confidently telling a reporter that “I’m Batman, I’m Superman, I’m like an action hero, how I feel right now.” In that sense, Mackey is both a continuation of Dirk Diggler and the clearest prototype, here, for Anderson’s later solipsistic protagonists, as well as one of his most dramatic departures from Quentin Tarantino, with whom he shared many proclivities during this point in his career. In a Tarantino film, Mackey might work quite well as either protagonist or antagonist, but here he’s more of a fantasy that dissociates as the film proceeds – an emblem of white fragility who feels compelled to warn his main interlocutor, a black female reporter, that “it’s just not safe for you around here.”
Between Jimmy Gator’s quiz show and Frank Mackey’s men’s rights activism, the film quickly suggests that a new kind of informational density, heaviness and humidity has come to typify everyday life. All the characters are struggling to negotiate this density, even as it intensifies every encounter, producing a quotidian overstimulation that prevents the film from ever lulling or lapsing into the laidback anomie of Robert Altman. Instead, the intensity just builds and builds over three and a half hours, accelerated by near-continuous music and multiple planes of sound – miscellaneous songs embedded within Aimee Mann’s soundtrack, which is itself embedded within Jon Brion’s score – until we seem to be watching a new and disorienting fusion of film and musical video. The constant shots of televisions function largely as an attempt to rein in this informational density, but television is ultimately futile, this this nascent infosphere it as diffuse and humid as the weather patterns of the San Fernando Valley itself. In fact, the only clear thresholds between different “scenes” involve cryptic allusions to weather, which appears to have converged so dramatically with other sources of invisible information that it is impossible to parse in a traditional meteorological manner, or to use as a way of establishing normal diegetic space.
Even though Magnolia is shot over twenty-four hours, then, it often feels shot in real time, so compressed and dense is the space and time that surrounds the characters. At moments, the whole film seems to be unfolding simultaneously, not unlike Mike Figgis’ Timecode, which was released a year later. Conversely, Anderson often seems to be stretching the film out to three and a half hours just to prevent it all converging on a simultaneous singularity, like a black hole, which is perhaps why the action feels much more circumscribed than a single night. For the most part, the “plot” seems to be unfolding in a single moment, producing a heightened present tense that precludes past and future – “this is happening, this is actually happening” – as sounds and images from one scene seep and bleed into the next with more and more fluidity as the night devolves and dissociates. All these informational trajectories converge on the television, but are also unsatiated by it, as if to evoke the television screen starting to give way to a different kind of screen – or as if television were the best approximation, in 1999, for a simultaneity the film can only glimpse. While Magnolia may be saturated with television, it never feels televisual, since it brokers television to evoke a new kind of mass simultaneity beyond both film and television.
We first glimpse this new kind of screen, and new kind of simultaneity, through Jon Brion’s score, which is positioned halfway between classical and elevator music, suggesting an emergent information flow that is both more radical and invisible than ever before, operating just below the level of consciousness like “an electrical charge that travels across the universe and lands in your body.” We also glimpse it through the figure of the magnolia, which suggests a new kind of organic social medium that thrives on the humid circumambience of information much as magnolias themselves thrive on the peculiar microclimate of the San Fernando Valley, whose main thoroughfare is named West Magnolia Boulevard. However, we see it most clearly in the unusual body language of the characters, all of whom spend the film sitting, lingering or trapped in one position – behind desk, in an interview chair, at a bar, in a pharmacy, in an apartment, in bed. In doing so, Anderson evokes a nascent world in which people can be completely stable and yet still plugged into everyone else’s experiences – or, perhaps more uncannily, a world where people have to be completely stable, in one spot, to plug into everybody else’s experiences.
In other words, the characters in Magnolia are driven by the affective posture of being seated behind a computer, dialled up and logged into the world at large, even if the film also seems to anticipate a SmartPhone era in which this combination of physical constriction and virtual mobility now seems uncanny in the extreme. The ambling vibe of Altman’s films has here been thoroughly deflected into the virtual realm, since the characters only seem capable of communing with the ensemble around them if they lock themselves into one steady posture. To some extent, Anderson helps them with this process by way of the heavy rain and darkening palette, both of which intensify as the night proceeds, making the characters feel even more ensconced in this panorama of desktop postures. In the process, the rain becomes a cipher for social media, or a new kind of social medium, since it is literally the medium connecting everyone – paradoxically, by trapping them even more deeply in their own solitude and solipsism, with the exception of the hypermobile spaces around the television broadcast. Yet even these characters start to feel static once the rain starts in – and it starts in early – turning the entire film into a single, steadily building climax.
By the final act, Anderson has come close to evoking a new kind of ensemble – the haptic, affective and largely unconscious proximity of bodies as mediated through social media and virtual space. By definition, this ensemble can’t be figured and naturalistic, so it takes the collective naturalism of the film to its limit, especially as it is promulgated by the white male voices who tended to define this naturalism in the 70s. From the moment, Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is forced to shelter in wet foliage after losing his gun, the white male voice is destabilized and deracinated, resulting in a final series of impotent monologues, whether it is Jimmy Gator repeating that he doesn’t know whether or not he abused Claudia, or Earl Partride talking inchoately from his bed as he reflects on his life. Between Jimmy and Earl, the two father-figures who peaked in the 70s by constructing “What Do Kids Know?” the rain produces an unbearable affective communion between the surviving characters that exceeds the naturalistic vocabulary of 70s cinema, and takes two key forms.
The first of these is a sustained sequence in which the characters all sing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” Unlike in a regular musical sequence, however, they don’t interact while singing, just as the song doesn’t seem to bring them together, at least not at an intentional or conscious level. Instead, the song finally locks each person into one position, and sends them into a trance state as their virtual and affective proximity suffuses them with a connectivity that lies beneath the threshold of their perception, even if it is available to the audience, and alters their perception once they have emerged from this dream-like state. The second way this affective communion manifests itself has become the most famous, or infamous, aspect of the film – a shower of frogs from the sky that intensifies the rain into a collective event capable of articulating the virtual, imaginary space between the characters, while also drowning out their voices, and keeping them locked up in their houses or cars, thereby ensuring that this virtual event never compromises their desktop solipsism. In that sense, the frogs play as Anderson’s attempt to bridge the physical and virtual worlds, since they comprise a physical event that reiterates virtuality as the only point of connection that the characters can hope to enjoy, even if the frogs also imbue that virtual reality with a richness, grace and imaginative complexity that effectively reinvents the ensemble drama.
For the first time, in the wake of these two sequences, the soundscape of the film feels coherent, and the characters feels comfortably connected to each other. Anderson now also provides us with our first real establishing shot, of the San Fernando Valley at night – West Magnolia Boulevard in the foreground – by way of the stateliest and most photographically styled composition of the entire film, akin to the Reno vistas of Hard Eight or the opening shot of Boogie Nights. For all its stylisations – street lights coming on one after another – this is also the most relaxed shot of the film, as all the characters now suddenly unlock their poses, discovering a newfound freedom of body language, while a surge of sound takes us back to a new naturalism of noise – dogs barking, cars starting, garages opening – that feels startling after the sonic density of the last three hours. Yet this return to naturalism is an optical illusion, subsisting on the supernaturalism of the singalong and frogfall, indicating a horizon to naturalism, and the capacity of cinema to regulate reality, that Anderson will explore in his following films – and it’s not hard to see Punch Drunk Love in filigree here, just as Magnolia seemed to emerge, already existent, in the closing sequences of Boogie Nights.
In these final moments, Anderson seems to be breaking ties with the paternal presence of 70s cinema. None of the father-figures are redeemed, while even Jim Kurring, played by John C. Reilly, concedes that he needs to shed his reasonable man person to “judge less and listen more.” In exceeding the figurative field of the film, the frogs also represent an impasse only glimpsed by Boogie Nights – that the collective naturalism of 70s cinema depends in part on a mode of masculinity that Magnolia is keen to revise and possibly reject. It feels right, then, that a falling frog prevents Jimmy Gator committing suicide, and instead deflects his gun towards the television, just as the fall of frogs drown out Earl’s half-hearted efforts to justify himself to his son. In both cases, Magnolia resists the individual, masculinsed self-pity that preoccupied so much late 90s cinema, and instead focuses on the collective apparatus that enabled it. In some ways, it’s more powerful, for the film, for Jimmy Gator to be alive, but untethered from the media architecture he created – and untethered he is, allowing the youngest son in the film, and the youngest child on the program, to be the only character who breaks with the trancelike recitation of “Wise Up” to note that “This is happening. This is something that happens.” In each instance, Magnolia refuses to let the past off the hook – and there’s no better way to intensify the present, which comes to a head in the final zoom of Claudia looking at Kurring, before shifting her eyes briefly to the audience; a perfect ending to Anderson’s most accomplished creation.