Magnolia ★★★★★

Magnolia is an incredibly amazing and creative piece of storytelling, and as with all great stories part of the beauty of it is that you'll be able to take away from it whatever you bring with you. If you arrive ready to make an emotional investment you'll find a moving character drama; if you want something to think about you'll find intellectual stimulation; and if you come looking for something beautiful you'll find a piece of cinematic art. Therefore, as I find it impossible to remove the personal and the subjective from an analysis of the film, here's what Magnolia meant to me.

At the most brief and superficial level this is a difficult film to write screening notes for. The narrative follows a large selection of interconnected characters whose stories touch on an even larger selection of interconnected themes, and thanks to Paul Thomas Anderson's signature meticulous focus it never feels sloppy or incoherent.

For me the word which most neatly describes the shared relationship between each disparate element is alienation. Frank (Cruise), Donnie (Macy), Claudia (Walters), and Stanley (Blackman) are all alienated from their families; Linda (Moore) and Jimmy (Hall) are alienated from themselves and from their lovers (which is in a sense the same thing); and officer Jim Kurring, who for me draws all these different senses of the same theme together, is alienated from his job and his community.

Our identity relies not only on how we see ourselves, but how we believe we are seen by others and how we interpret that internalized gaze. For each of us there is another person who we look up to and who we see looking back at us, and what we think that person sees can be more of a determining factor for our identity than anything else. For me this is what the characters in Magnolia struggle with.

Frank struggles with the traumatic gaze of his abusive father and Jimmy struggles with the traumatic gaze of his abused daughter. Donnie struggles with the unsympathetic gaze of Brad the bartender, while Claudia struggles with the too sympathetic gaze of Jim the police officer. And at the center of it all, Jim struggles with the critical and judgmental gaze of his community. For me this unites the rest of the characters because the one thing they (and we) all share is their (and our) alienation from society. They are all misfits whether they're rich and famous or poor and inconsequential, and they all struggle to find meaning in the world.

The beauty of Magnolia is that it's enormously up for interpretation. I could tell you what the frogs mean to me, but that's not the point. The point is that they're a powerful symbol invested with the strength of the story, and that you can make of them what you will and find answers that are important to you.

Through its particular stories it reaches toward the universal.

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