Magnolia

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

(Note: this is more of a personal essay than a review, but for me, with this particular film, that’s probably unavoidable.)

According to my 1999 journal, my entire reaction to Magnolia—my 376th theatrical screening of the year—was: “Great fucking film. Three fucking hours. Not actually sure why it’s called Magnolia.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but the film had its hooks in me. Just over two weeks later, as 1999 rolled over into 2000 and the digital plague of the prophesied Y2K disaster suddenly and spectacularly failed to cover the lands in darkness, I was watching Magnolia for the third time. Possibly the fourth. I’m not really sure now; I don’t know if I could have said for certain even at the time. Seventeen years and (mumble) rewatches later, Magnolia—the 115th and final film I viewed in 2016, theatrically or otherwise—is still a great fucking film, it is still three fucking hours long, and “why is the title of the film Magnolia?” is still a literal FAQ on IMDb.

I’ve been entranced by Aimee Mann’s irony-drenched rock since I was fifteen and first heard “I Should’ve Known” on a promo CD included with a music store’s in-house magazine. (If you younger folk are stumped by any of those terms, go ahead and look them up in your encyclopedia.) Her first two albums—the perfectly-titled Whatever and I’m With Stupid—are some of the first CDs I ever bought, and they remained in heavy rotation in my personal playlist for years. Although I was, obviously, into film at the time, and was also a Rolling Stone subscriber, I somehow managed to walk into Magnolia without knowing that the new ensemble film from the director of Boogie Nights was partly built around new songs from one of my favorite performers.

I also had no way of realizing, except in retrospect, that the hypomanic energy that had fueled my late 90s film fanaticism was rapidly turning dysphoric, and that I was well on the way to the clinical depression that would define my experience of the early aughts. If someone had specifically set out to design a film with the sole aim of surprising and ultimately devastating me personally, they couldn’t have designed a more perfect weapon than Magnolia. I saw it easily a dozen more times in the theater. Even after that initial wave of mania departed, the soundtrack became a totem and symptom of my worsening depression as I wallowed in the incisive self-deprecation of Mann’s lyrics. One of the first things I did when the medications started working was to throw away that CD, which hadn’t left my portable player for nearly a year. Despite picking up every other Mann album, I haven’t allowed myself to own a copy of the Magnolia soundtrack since 2003.

This film has stuck with me when Anderson’s later films never have. I certainly can’t see myself going back to, say, There Will Be Blood anytime soon, with Daniel Day-Lewis as a straightforward monster in plain view, positively radiating wrongness to anyone paying attention, and feeling nothing but contempt for those who foolishly trust in his—or the universe’s—fundamental decency despite massive evidence to the contrary. (The less said about Inherent Vice the better; I love Anderson’s films despite their deep California roots, and that doesn’t work with Vice.)

Until tonight, I would have said that my favorite moment was tied to my experience of my very first screening. Specifically, the moment when the first frog hit John C. Reilly’s windshield, and the guy behind me hissed whatthefuckwasthat as though we were actually under bombardment ourselves. Which of course we were, trapped together in the darkness, separately sharing in the loneliness and the isolation and the grief and the anguish and finally, bizarrely—miraculously—the wonder.

Tonight, however, I didn’t rewatch this movie as I did so many years ago (and have, too often, in the years since) for the three hours, eight minutes, and 42 seconds of misery and guilt. I rewatched it on the last night of 2016, all three hours, eight minutes and 42 seconds of misery and guilt, for the final 30 frames of the film. The 30 frames when Melora Walters’ character allows herself a moment of hope. The 30 frames when the learned helplessness and the hard-earned survivor’s caution fall away from her face. The 30 frames when she wills herself to consider the possibilities of life, even in the world as it is, even for herself as she is…and smiles.

Amazon had one copy of the soundtrack CD left in stock. It should arrive by Wednesday.

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