Party Like It's 1999: Magnolia
For the next several weeks, we are celebrating films celebrating their 20th anniversary this year that have stuck with us! Find additional entries in the series here.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia came out two decades ago. It’s hard to believe so many years have passed since its release, but Father Time rests for no man, woman, or movie. I was 15 at the time of release, and I distinctly remember the circumstances of my first (and up until now, ONLY) viewing. My friend Kev worked at the local AMC, and it was through him that we’d be able to see R rated movies without being asked for ID. No, we did not see Magnolia in the theater that night, but rather Hollow Man, the Paul Verhoeven Invisible Man riff starring Kevin Bacon and Kevin Bacon’s penis. The plan was simple: check out Hollow Man and then head to Kev’s house where we would indulge in a Stouffer’s “Grandma’s Chicken and Rice Bake” while watching Magnolia on a double VHS.
For those too young to remember, the double VHS was a necessary irritant when in came to home viewing of very long movies. PTA’s stunning melodrama clocks in at 188 minutes, more than any single cassette could possibly contain! While I do miss the forced inclusion of an intermission, which occurred when it came time to switch the tapes, I don’t miss having to deal with tracking issues. Remember tracking issues? Fixing the tracking required a well-trained eye, a bit of remote control finesse, and a VHS that had been watched less than twice ever. A total pain in the ass that made home viewing a real headache by today’s hi-def standard. Fixing the tracking was the old school equivalent of “my Dad won’t let me turn off ‘motion smoothing’.” Luckily, Kev and I knew what we were doing, and Magnolia was a brand new release. The tape — sorry, tapes - were fresh.
The “Grandma’s Chicken and Rice Bake” was frozen.
Anywho, 188 minutes. That’s three hours and eight minutes of aggressive emotionality, that at 15, I was not ready for. Even to this day I tend to avoid emotionally heavy films (although this resistance is beginning to fade), and anything that exceeds 100 minutes routinely gives me pause. Devoting such time to media consumption could have severe social repercussions on the rough and tumble life I live. I’ve got food to eat, money to make, and sleep to sleep.
Kev had seen Magnolia already and assured me that the length was not a liability, nor was the heavy nature of the material. PTA has such style, such a commanding knack for pacing and structure, that despite length and subject matter, Magnolia is a lot of fun to watch. And it really, really is.
It is immediately and thoroughly accessible. It is darkly humorous, with a hopeful streak that shines through even the most cruelly tragic moments. The characters (all 700 of them) are colorful and fun to be around even when we can’t help but pity them and their melodramatic plight. I remember enjoying myself so much that I barely noticed the tears welling in my young eyes as John C. Reilly’s Officer Jim began falling in mutual love with Melora Walters’ Claudia Gator (I also remember immediately denying and then reluctantly owning up to my waterworks when Officer Jim lost his gun).
A little math before we dive deep: I first saw Magnolia when I was 15. The second time I saw it was in preparation for this piece. I am 34. This means that 19 years have passed between my first and second viewing, which is more time than had passed between my birth and my first viewing. This scares me because the race toward death seems to be ever accelerating. But it also excites me, because I got to watch one of the best movies ever made as two almost completely different people.
How appropriate that now, as an adult, my timeline with Magnolia has me reckoning with mortality. Anderson has expressly stated that this film, his third, was the device through which he processed his own father’s passing. I did not know this back in 1999, even though the film wears this theme plainly on its face. Furthermore, this is a film about masculinity and bonds between men. The large bulk of central characters are males struggling with their place in the world. Any man lucky enough to have grown up with a father figure in their life knows of the representational bond we all share with our patriarch. Generally speaking, every man wants to impress his father and even exceed him in whatever metric he has found most success. But oftentimes, the lack of expressed emotionality between men and their fathers can prove stifling. It reduces such successes to a quantitative measurement. In my life, time has eroded some of that uneasiness, resulting in my father and I growing closer on a personal level, yet there are still things we will never share with one another. Why? I ask myself this every day. Still, I consider myself quite lucky that my father and I understand each other the way we do (although our one shared interest, the television show Gotham, is no longer on the air). While I cannot speak for people who haven’t been as fortunate as I, this paradigm is similar across the board. In Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be exploring the push and pull of a father/son relationship, while framing different takes on masculinity within it.
When I was 15, this passed me by completely. I tapped into the “pursuit of love” aspect of so many of the stories, but I did so through the lens of a teenage boy desperate to lose his virginity, but with complete ignorance to the fact that my desires were hardly couched in romance. Now, as an adult, I’ve had more time to think about why I behave certain ways — why I’ve behaved certain ways. I’ve given much more thought to why others behave in ways that don’t jibe with my desires. I’ve wondered how much of “me” is my nature, how much is my upbringing, and how much is borne from the unspoken competition that I, like many other men, have with my dad. This time around, Magnolia took an entirely different flavor. Let’s take a look at the male relationships in Magnolia, starting with the youngest.
Stanley Spector is a boy genius, who is about to break the record for consecutive wins on the long running game show What Do Kids Know?. His life is completely absorbed by this pursuit, but it’s a pursuit that he feels little passion for. It’s his father, a somewhat hard living actor, who pushes Stanley forward. He does so partially to bask vicariously in Stanley’s success, but mostly because each new win is a hefty paycheck. Stanley participates because he fears disappointing his father, as well as his less enthused (but urgently greedy) teammates. In giving up his agency to his father, Stanley loses his humanity. When Stanley ultimately refuses to comply with the demands of the game show (exacerbated by his being so restricted that he wets his pants on stage) he reclaims his personhood. In declaring his identity, he loses relatively everything, but gains himself in the process. Even though his conflict with his father is unresolved by the end of the film, you get the sense that the seeds of respect have been planted.
I too remember the moments in life when my breaching the contract of subservience to my father resulted in an uneasy respect growing between us.
The previous record holder for consecutive wins is Donnie Smith, now an adult who, after being struck by lightning, doesn’t have quite the mental capacity of his younger years. He’s newly unemployed, gay, and burning the last few drops of celebrity capital he has. His goal is to get braces because it feels it will bond him to a hunky bartender with a metal mouth of his own. It’s a desperate attempt to find validation for what is essentially an act of flailing. What makes it interesting is that Donnie is in direct competition to an older man who frequents the same bar. This man is charming and flirtatious, and to Donnie, he serves as a sort of role model. This older man has obviously shared some similar demons as Donnie has, and seems to be making headway in courting the the same hunk. It’s here we see that same competition. Donnie wants to be this man, but Donnie also wishes to best this man in the game of love.
I too have reckoned with the idea that my father is not the icon I saw him as when I was a child. He is a human being with flaws and virtues all the same. Much like Donnie, I have tried on different identities as a means to first match and then exceed my father’s abilities. Yet as I age my father’s shortcomings begin to make sense. I understand him more than I ever have, and it’s because I failed to for so long.
The most striking father/son relationship is the one shared by Frank T.J. Mackie and his father Earl Partridge (former producer of What Do Kids Know?). Earl is on his deathbed, and he tasks one of his hospice nurses to put him in contact with Frank so he can apologize for being a distant father. The thing is, Frank has a career as what we would now call a “pick-up artist.” He gives motivational speeches to sexually frustrated men in an effort to inspire them to “respect the cock and tame the cunt.” Frank receives word of his father’s dying wish in the middle of a probing television interview where he has expressly claimed that his father has long since been deceased. Frank is aggressively disinterested in the past, but we soon see that this is just a flex. He hasn’t made peace with his past — he’s running from it. When given the opportunity to close the door on previous trauma, we finally see Frank show some vulnerability. He is incensed that his dad wishes to apologize for past misdeeds, but he also begins to see that he and his father are quite similar. Frank T.J. Mackie’s insistence that a man should take what he feels he is owed is exactly the mentality for which his father now seeks forgiveness.
It’s this relationship that moves me the most. Literally every single day I say or do something that is a perfect copy of something my dad says or does. Without even thinking about it I will make a face, a gesture, a comment, that sounds EXACTLY like Poppa Scully. When this happens, I am immediately forced to think about the cyclical nature of a father/son bond. My dad is hard coded into my DNA and there is nothing I can do about it. At the same time, if I ever have kids (and I never, ever will), it is essential that I remember this. The ways in which my behavior could imprint on my offspring are as unpredictable as they are unavoidable. It’s a reminder to always try and be my best.
This is what I believe is being explored in the case of Earl Partridge. He’s too old for his father to play an active role in the film, but with his age comes the wisdom of recognizing his own failings and what they have manifested in Frank. Similarly characterized is Jimmy Gator, long time host of What Do Kids Know?. He too is facing death, and is being forced to recognize that his philandering, selfish ways have had far reaching consequences for those in his familial web. What do kids know?
Functionally fatherless is Officer Jim Kurring. He’s a cop, but he’s hardly a man’s man. He’s the antithesis of an alpha, except in situations where he’s so inherently superior (when speaking dismissively to a child early on in the film). Even without a Magnolia-brand father to repress his emotions, Jim is a closed book with a bruised cover. The reason he is able to find love and open up is because he meets Claudia Gator, a woman with such severe problems of her own that it places her into a sort of limbo, as seen by Jim, between “a woman I’m intimidated by because she’s a woman” and “a person in trouble who I, a police officer, must help.” It’s a troubling duality for sure, but it’s not uncommon for emotionally repressed men to simultaneously fear and inferiorize women (yes I made up that word, but it totally works). Once opened up, however, we see that Jim’s failings come from the programming he’s received as a man.
When I was 15, I related to Jim most of all because I saw him as a hopeless romantic. Now as an adult, I see him as a man who is unsuccessful in love because he is only equipped to view a potential mate as an acquirable commodity rather than a person. This is a lesson that is browbeaten into young men, and it’s only recently that such ideas are starting to fade out of the public consciousness. I still relate, but with the added bonus of having grown to see him from another angle.
I am not about to dig as deep into the main female characters of Magnolia, as this is a piece about my relationship with the male characters, but I would like to note that the women in the film are not underserved. Yes, they are depicted as having problems brought upon them by their relationships with men, but they are not empty vessels who are made to suffer in order to motivate said men. Claudia is damaged by her father’s abusive behavior and has fallen into drug addiction and a cycle of bad relationships. Linda Partridge is trapped dealing with her father’s hospice situation while her brother Frank ignores it entirely. This results in her falling into addiction as well, but unlike Claudia, her addiction is of the white collar variety, involving the theft of morphine pills from her father’s meds. Rose Gator, wife of Jimmy, has benefitted greatly from the privileges afforded to her by her husband’s fame, but when faced with her his admission of rampant infidelity, as well as his inability to remember whether or not he sexually abused their daughter, she chooses to leave Jim, money be damned.
What stood out to me about these women this time around is the way that Magnolia itself refuses to let them be simple motivating factors for the male characters, while also depicting how much the male characters were predisposed to treat them as such. Yes, seeing the pain they’ve wrought on the women in their lives does indeed motivate them, but none are let off the hook for it. At a time where political/medical decisions are being made on the backs of women without their consideration or input, this is almost revelatory in its prescience. With Claudia, Linda, and Rose, we see a trio of women who act out because doing so serves double duty as both personal catharsis a last ditch effort to assert their own existence.
In summation, I’d like to remove all gendered notions and speak of the universal truth the film posits. It’s a notion paralleled much later in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Basically, both movies strongly believe that existence is chaos, and we are but tiny specks of energy within it. The connections we see between the stories of any people are nothing but pure chance. It’s a numbers game, really. There are enough people bouncing around in the world that even the most random events can look intricately connected. Yet, at the same time the thematic concerns of Magnolia (and The Tree of Life) are not so cynical. Amidst the chaos, it’s important to remember that we are connected in intangible ways. The things we do, no matter how small, have affects on everything we touch — everyone we meet. It’s only after the fact that we can assign meaning to the way our lives intertwine, but in the moment, we must behave in ways that consider this future reckoning. Chaos is impersonal, but our response to it is anything but. Religious folks among us may think of it as “the Lord works in mysterious ways” while the less devout might read it as “you never know when your number is up.” Either way, forces larger than us are always in play, sentient or no, and the most we can do is give them consideration.
We may not be connected in a quantifiable way...but don’t go thinking that what we do doesn’t matter. In fact, according to Magnolia, what we do matters more than anything.
“You may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with you.”
Some fun notes:
The trilogy of pulpy stories that serve to introduce the film are primo PTA. From the way that the punches are timed with the narrator’s utterance of “Green. Berry. Hill.” to the onscreen play-by-play graphics employed to explain the logistics of suicide jumper being improbably murdered, nobody melds pulp and class quite so evocatively as PTA.
Patton Oswalt is in one of these opening stories and my god, he looks like he’s 13 years old.
Baby Pat Healy and Baby Clark Gregg show up too!
When Officer Jim is driving on his beat, you can see the reflection of his hands on the wheel in his sunglasses. He drives at a perfect 10 and 2. Nerd.
Tom Cruise’s Frank Mackie gives an insane televised interview, much like Cruise did a few years later.
The depiction of Mackie also predicts the short wave of “pick-up artist culture” that entered the mainstream for a few years in the mid-2000s.
Aimee Mann’s music is gorgeous. The melancholic nature of her melodies and her lyrics mirrors the film perfectly. I simply cannot believe the balls it took to have a montage in which all of the main characters sing Wise Up simultaneously. Any producer would immediately demand that such frivolities be cut, but it absolutely needs to be there.
Donnie’s watering hole is ALWAYS playing Supertramp.
By the 42 minute mark, Magnolia is still introducing new, major characters. Every piece of conventional screenwriting wisdom is defied by this script.
During his speaking events, there is no wind-guard on Mackie’s microphone. The suggestion being that he’s spouting a lot of hot air.
Luis Guzman is hilarious as the most egotistical of the adult team on What Do Kids Know?. It’s a very small role, but one that only he could make work so well.
Mackie regularly threatens to “dropkick” Earl’s dogs if they even come near him. His fear of dogs has manifested as a threat violence in the name of situational control. How much more “aggro male” can you get?
The beautiful narration by Ricky Jay (RIP) lands on the idea that the stories contained within the film are not just “one of those things.” When dealing with mortality, this is what we all chase: the comforting notion that death itself holds some sort of higher meaning.
Early in the film a poster makes mention of Exodus 8:2. This passage reads as follows: “But if you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.”
I am fully aware that, in the time it took you to read this needlessly self-indulgent article, you could have just watched Magnolia yourself.