It’s a shame that Hollywood audiences have been taught that films are made primarily to entertain and amuse. That’s only for the mass audience; other films challenge us to look inside ourselves, especially the places we want to hide from the rest of the world. Magnolia (1999), directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a real departure from supposed mainstream “entertainment,” a film that’s both challenging and deeply disturbing.
Magnolia is a sprawling and operatic music video that interweaves so many characters, complex plots, and an ever-present sense of heightened melodrama, so that the viewer looks in vain for any element that holds the movie together. Ricky Jay’s narration provides one thread, but the narrative itself is a series of interlocking stories that intersect and collide over and over again. At the directorial level, the film is stitched together by Anderson’s trademark lengthy takes, long confusing tirades, a series of stellar performances, and an overwhelming music track that makes the whole film feel like a rather traumatic carnival ride that can’t be escaped, or a drug induced nightmare of epic proportions.
Nevertheless, at the core of this operatic journey through Hell is a study of the fragility and obsolescence of white masculinity, here closely tied to death, specifically death by cancer. The myriad plots are deliberately edited in such a way that they are almost impossible to follow, as if mirroring life itself, but all roads eventually lead back to pale men near death, men whose bodies are metastatic sites of a lingering, devastating form of cancer, their decaying bodies metaphors of white masculinity and patriarchy itself as a form of cancer.
The convoluted nature of film is what makes it stand apart from any number of films that centre around the crisis in masculinity, specifically white male masculinity that acts as Thanatos, the death drive of modernity that destroys everyone and everything in its path. It is ultimately up to the viewer how to decipher Magnolia, but the film undeniably centres on the cancer-ridden near corpses of patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall).
It is telling that Ingmar Bergman, of all filmmakers, singled out Magnolia on several occasions as one of the finest examples of the strength of contemporary American cinema. (1) Bergman repeatedly attacked the oppression of patriarchy in his masterworks, but he did so in refined, clinical detail, in films that are the absolute opposite of Magnolia in almost every respect – underplayed, resolute, sparsely scored, and restrained.
This certainly isn’t a description of Magnolia, which Jonathan Rosenbaum characterized as “a wonderful mess.” (2) But Anderson is speaking to a desensitized, postmodern audience – not the spectator of Bergman’s most influential era, the 1960s – a viewer that perhaps requires a boisterous, grotesque and operatic approach, something to offer a shock to the system. This is exactly what Magnolia provides.
Tom Cruise almost effortlessly steals the film in his completely fearless and over-the-top performance as Frank T.J. Mackey, a fraudulent huckster whom has set himself up as a self-help guru for other men who are losers in the sack. In one key scene, Cruise restlessly paces the stage in front of an enraptured pathetic male audience and repeatedly shouts “respect the cock” and “tame the cunt,” catch phrases culled from his infomercial “Seduce and Destroy,” sections of which are intercut throughout Magnolia as reminders that men feel lost in an age that has disrupted white male power, and the “golden age” of patriarchy re-created in shows such as Mad Men.
The men in the audience at Mackey’s “seminar” might just as well be the men who worship Breaking Bad, a retrograde television show designed to make disempowered white men feel virile, smart, violent, and in charge of women and minorities. Mackey’s first bullet point in the art of seducing women is “form a tragedy,” which can be seen as advice that the director himself has taken in this very metatextual film.
Magnolia is dripping with tragedy, even as it revels in humour and irony; everything has a twist. One fine example of this is Linda Partridge’s (Julianne Moore) reaction as she listens to a faceless bureaucrat who explains that her husband, Earl, will die of cancer, and will need hospice care and liquid morphine right up to the end. “What the fuck will I do with his body?” she screams in response, as if she is the one in pain.
Moore’s character has no greater claim on tragedy than any of the others in the film, particularly those who are pathetic excuses of white masculinity. Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is a castrated creature who wishes only enough money for braces, his only claim to fame being that he was once a famous “quiz kid” who had success back in the early days of television – until his parents took all Donnie’s winnings and left him penniless. Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) is another failed masculine figure, a white cop who not only drops his obviously phallic gun, but is also forced to listen to a smarter young African American kid who raps in his face a song that proves how clueless and inept he is both as a policeman and a man.
Indeed, white masculinity and patriarchy are perpetually doomed to failure in the film, on a catastrophic and apocalyptic level of outrageous proportions. The most obvious downfall in the film is the complete psychic collapse of Mackey, who is undone by the determined and unflappable female African American reporter Gwenovier (April Grace in a remarkable performance), as she skillfully exposes Mackey as a pathological liar during an interview. All of Mackey’s efforts to evade her questioning fall flat; she’s is determined to nail him to the wall, and does precisely that.
Mackey, unsurprisingly, like so many preening, narcissistic gurus and white collar criminals, turns out to be completely fraudulent at every level. His posturing only points to his inability to perform sexually. What really gets Mackey off is his own performance of masculinity; particularly his mock sexual onstage displays of air-humping along with a steady stream of misogynist remarks. He actively demeans the white men who pay for his supposed “secrets” and “mastery” of women as sex slaves, which all turns out to be phony.
Mackey is not “respecting the cock” or “taming the clit.” Everything about him is a lie or a fabrication, from his name – he’s really Earl Partridge’s estranged son – to his highly sexed persona. His personal biography is a sham, which almost instantly falls to pieces under Gwenovier’s relentless questioning. Mackey has exaggerated his educational credentials, and reinvented his entire family background as well. He’s even embarrassed that he cared for his own dying mother, so he’s created an entirely new family, and severed ties with his father as a sort of self-inflicted cultural wound.
Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Earl’s hospice nurse, spends a lot of time trying to get through to Mackey on the phone, hoping to effect a death-bed reconciliation between father and son. But even here, there’s a mixture of comedy and tragedy at work. Ordering takeout food over the phone, Phil adds a Playboy magazine to the list of items to be delivered. When the cashier on the other end seems unsurprised, Phil adds a copy of Penthouse and Hustler as well, and we realize he plans to masturbate as Jason Robards’ character dies of cancer in the bed. It is almost impossible to tell how Anderson wants us to feel here. Should we laugh or cry? Or both?
There are numerous other lost white men, failed relationships, and family traumas in the incredibly complex narrative of Magnolia, but suffice it to say that there are attempted suicides, breakdowns, shattered dreams and a host of other problems in the final third of this three hour bacchanal – a carnivalesque joyride through the last remnants of the decaying bloated corpse of white masculinity. In Magnolia’s penultimate sequences, it literally rains frogs from the sky, a scene of Biblical proportions in which Anderson seems to be playing God, the ultimate patriarch, pitching his own weapons at his characters from above in the heaven of the cutting room.
There is plenty of black humour in this operatic mash up of plots and characters, almost all of whom end up dead or destroyed. Thankfully, Anderson doesn’t attempt to wrap up things in a tidy manner. He leaves us with quite a mess on our hands, and he does so intentionally. Anderson makes the viewer complicit in the events we have witnessed and co-created; we are left in struggle with the traumatic and destructive forces of Thanatos, still ravaging the world, and trying to destroy both Eros and humanity. Many critics call Magnolia Wagnerian, and for good reason. It’s an epic meditation on masculinity, mortality, and morals – and it succeeds on every level.
1. Jan Aghed, “När Bergman går på bio,” (“When Bergman Goes To The Movies”) Sydsvenska Dagbladet, 12 May 2002. Trans. and rpt. in Ingmar Bergman: Interviews, Raphael Shargel, ed. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2007: 192. Print.
2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Magnolia,” Chicago Reader 1 Jan. 2000.
Magnolia (1999 USA 188 min)
Prod Co: New Line Cinema, Ghoulardi Film Company and The Magnolia Project Prod: Paul Thomas Anderson and JoAnne Sellar Dir: Paul Thomas Anderson Scr: Paul Thomas Anderson Phot: Robert Elswit Ed: Dylan Tichenor Prod Design: William Arnold and Mark Bridges Mus: Jon Brion
Cast: Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Jason Robards, William H. Macy, Melinda Dillon, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall