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Review by Cynthia Fuchs
Posted 7 January 2000

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

 Starring John C. Reilly, 
Melora Walters, Julianne Moore, 
Jason Robards, Tom Cruise, 
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Philip Baker Hall, 
Melinda Dillon and William H. Macy

TV Land

Riding in his cruiser, LAPD Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) talks to himself. Or rather, he talks to the camera, as if he's in an ongoing episode of Cops, on TV. Jim describes his daily routine, his concern that violence seems to be "the way of the world," and how this excess makes it "our job, to serve and protect." Jim sees himself as a good guy. "I wanna help people," he says so sincerely. "I correct a wrong, or right a situation, and I'm a happy cop."

One of many characters in Paul Thomas Anderson's amazing new film, Magnolia, Jim spends much of his onscreen time talking like this, while driving his car, on the way to or from a call. That Jim can understand himself - and that you can also understand him - as a cop on Cops, speaks to the pervasiveness of the series, as concept and cultural condition. That is, you believe that cops on the show expect to tell you about their duties and worries, just as you expect to empathize with them. This is the brilliant fiction of Cops, its ability to create order and reason amid the chaos of life, a cop's life or your life. And in this way, Cops exemplifies what television does best: it appears to give structure to mundane confusion.

Television is at the heart of Magnolia, though, with its stunning, sometimes acrobatic, cinematic effects and giant screen actors, you might not recognize it at first. But watch carefully, and you'll see that there is a reference to TV in almost every scene -- sets playing in the background in apartments, department stores, and bars (running The Thin Man, hair club commercials, talk shows, and soaps), Jim's and other characters' repeated acting out as if they're on TV, a malevolent game show called "What Do Kids Know?" that pits children against adults in horrific and ludicrous contests of knowledge. On one level, the film is clearly about adults misunderstanding and abusing children. On another, it's about this misunderstanding as it is represented in and as television, the medium that shapes life in the San Fernando Valley, where the film is set. Even the style of the film makes the point: swooping in and out of characters and events and settings and times, the film resembles three hours of channeling surfing, but this familiar activity becomes loaded with passions, ruminations, and romances. It's TV on hyperdrive.

One of the more remarkable effects of surfing is, of course, finding those connections that otherwise elude you, the causal links between seeming coincidences and accidents and effects, the ways that South Park resonates with Law and Order or Jenny Jones with Charlie Rose. As Magnolia narrates and points out such connections, it often seems excessive and unpredictable. But what might look out of control to some viewers is weird cosmic grace to others. This is a film that understands TV -- as an industry, cultural context, way of seeing, and map for living. Speedy reading and info-assimilating is normal for TV viewers (and not just those who watch the much-derided MTV). Everyone else, please keep up.

For all the anxieties and zones of comfort it may produce, television is the film's primary lens for looking at family relationships. Everyone here is a product of TV, perversely, indirectly or directly. Families here are voids, gaping and horrific, into which kids and adults seem to freefall. But the film is also considering the possibilities that not all these falls are free; that is, it poses a clear - if strange -- relationship between accident and destiny (or more precisely, judgment passed), in part through its prologue (which considers three bizarre death-related stories, involving murder, suicide, and accident, as if they might be structured, fated, or occurring, as the narrator puts it, "not by chance"), and in part through its repeated references to weather reports (attempts to control or at least know "fate") and repeated images of Valley thoroughfares, where characters pass one another without knowing while we see everything.

Related to this notion of non-accidents is the film's other central theme, language and its many failures, to communicate, allow connections and understandings. Several characters comment on the ways that language falls short, either by design ("You know," says one woman to her careless husband, "but you can't say") or by ignorance, selfishness, and lack of effort ("You need to be nicer to me," a child tells his father. "Go to bed," says Dad). Aimee Mann's soundtrack songs, sad, deliberate, haunting, relate the pain of these un-connections and unanswered questions, but never explain or resolve them. It's daring that Magnolia does not explain or resolve anything. Along with its TV-making-and-watching aesthetics, this resistance to closure makes for complexity that you don't usually see in movies.

Always, when language and connections falter, TV intervenes. Change the channel. Maybe there's something better on.

Much like Anderson's Boogie Nights, Magnolia introduces a series of characters, but unlike the earlier film, this one doesn't pull them together under the auspices of a self-conscious family unit. Rather, in Magnolia you see characters suffer and hope, their regrets and efforts at redemption. You see them feeling isolated in their various Valley hells, and the channel-surfing editing asks you to see their similar fears and desires. Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) is the coke-addict daughter of self-obsessed TV game-show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and enduring wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). Claudia's extra-loud music-blasting leads to a visit from a police officer who becomes an unlikely and yet potential suitor, Jim the cop (who is introduced as he finds a dead body in a black woman's apartment: that this apparent murder is only explained by her grandson's rap cryptic offering underlines the increasing voids between whiteness and blackness in everyday existence).

At the same time, Claudia's father - Jimmy- learns that he has terminal cancer and, focused on his own profound remorse for his life of banal cruelties, is unable to see, comprehend, or prevent the on-air meltdown of a brilliant child contestant on his show, "What Do Kids Know?" Young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is pressured by his out-of-work actor father, who wants only to win the game, which sets up a team of three children against three adults, answering preposterously arcane questions (for instance, translate an English line from an opera into its original language). At that moment, a former game-show prodigy, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), just fired from his job as a clerk at an electronics store, finds himself admitting -- at long last -- his homosexual desire for a young, hunky bartender. However, the bartender is distracted by a smug, cash-flashing barfly named -- of all things -- Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson). Donnie insists, "I have love to give, "but he laments, "I don't know where to put it." All the while, that devastating, mesmerizing game show drones on the TV hanging like a religious icon above the bar.

All this narrative seems quite enough for one movie, even one that runs three hours, but there's another set of characters running parallel to these, also immersed in and run into the ground by the (entertainment) industry that is the heartbeat of the Valley. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is a TV producer, bedridden throughout the film, while his wife Linda (Julianne Moore) drives all over town trying to settle affairs -- her husband's medications, their shared legal business, and her own upset that, as a proper trophy wife, she cheated, but now has fallen in love with him -- while Earl's nurse, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to mollify his charge's distress by tracking down his long-lost son, now the media televangelist of a whacked-out program for alienated men called "Seduce and Destroy." This horrific culmination of all fight-clubbing masculinity is the unbeatably named Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a misanthropic monster with a cause that unfolds slowly: he hates his father Earl for abandoning him as a child, and what's more, he hates his mother for abandoning him by dying of cancer.

That Frank's carefully repressed life-details are revealed during a TV interview is only one of many awful ironies in Magnolia. It's ironic because Frank -- who is only one logical step from Tony Robbins and other millionaire self-helpers -- is the consummate product of TV, its capacity for exploiting conflict, for convincing consumers to see themselves as warriors in need of a direction and a purchase. The vaguely raging men in his audience can't help but suck down his message ("Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!"), because his package, his excruciating telegenic beauty, is so perfectly made for and by TV. It's no wonder that Frank's own on-air undoing (which runs simultaneously with Stanley's) leads him back to his TV-producer father's house. The father-son meeting only makes for more conflict: Frank has no self-understanding except that molded by a lifetime of abuse and rancor. There's no compassion in his universe.

This absence seems inevitable in a world that's all about switching channels. But the film is also rife with moments of warmth and charm: Frank finally sees something resembling light, Phil works desperately to ease Earl's death, Earl's dog dies at the same instant he does (suggesting not so much their close attachment as their horrific misfortunes), the apartment-dweller's rapping grandson (named Worm) ends up saving Linda's life under freaky circumstances, and a mother and daughter are reunited just when you think there's no possible hope for it. That father's fare so badly in the film says something about patriarchy, capitalism, and self-interest, but it also says something about hope when Jim the cop offers a final, insightful commentary on the usefulness of knowing when to let someone go when punishment is not the right answer.

Sometimes, it turns out, a moral order can best be created out of compassion rather than rules, out of intuitive kindness rather than fear. And in each instance where this choice comes up (and often when it doesn't), TV is the backdrop. Television is everywhere in Magnolia, in the game show, in the commercials that run incessantly in the backgrounds of scenes, in Jim's self-narrating, in Frank's sensational bravado. Excessive and alarming as all these allusions might seem, they are also increasingly inevitable in TVís wild consolidations of judgments, spectacles, pseudo-confessions, on Jerry Springer, WWF Smackdown, America's Most Wanted, CNN, The Blame Game, Forgive or Forget, and Judge Judy. Magnolia is a movie about excess that is undeniably excessive. It's about TV, or more precisely, what TV means on an alarmingly grand scale, with its lust for conflict and surfeit, its pretense of format and organization. Whatever else it does, Magnolia gets all that dead right.  

Be sure to read Cynthia Fuch's interview and Eddie Cockrell's capsule.

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