I spent a lot of time at the Somerville Theatre this week: on Wednesday I attended a screening of The Wild Bunch (with which the theater inaugurated its newly installed 70mm projection system), and Thursday I went back for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Is it heresy to say that, of the two, I enjoyed Magnolia more? Seeing The Wild Bunch in 70mm was spectacular—hearing the opening strains of the overture sent a chill down my spine—but I’ve never been much of a Peckipah guy. I’m more of a P.T. Anderson guy. Or a Hitchcock guy. Or a Sofia Coppola guy. Or etc.
I hadn’t seen Magnolia in over a decade, but it’s a film that I know (or knew) well. I first saw it during its opening weekend at the multiplex in Rome, NY (amazing to think that such a film had a wide-release run, but there you have it) and walked out in a stunned daze. What was that? Was it good? Was it terrible? I couldn’t even tell. I eventually decided that it was more than good—it was a brilliant film, shaggier and more emotionally intense than Boogie Nights, of which I was already a devoted fan. I went on to buy the soundtrack on CD, which both made me a fan of Aimee Mann and deepened my understanding of the film itself, as well as the published version of the shooting script, which, being even longer and shaggier than the version used in the completed film, was fascinating reading for a young cinephile.
In short, I came to absorb Magnolia into my bloodstream in ways that I didn’t with Boogie Nights, even as I understood Boogie Nights to be the better film (still do). Magnolia became an object of my adolescent obsession. But that was many years ago, when I was an angst-ridden teenager. Heading into the Somerville this week I had no idea what to expect from this film, or how it had aged.
Amazingly, against all reason, it holds up. That opening credits sequence feels very ’90s, and the film is certainly not without its flaws. But the thing still works—at least, it still works for me. How and why it works remains confounding. This film runs three hours and eight minutes, concludes with a scene in which frogs fall from the sky over the San Fernando Valley, and also features a sequence in which all of the characters sing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up”—a gimmick that is no less effectively moving for being shamelessly gratuitous. There is also a lot of crying and yelling in this film. It’s not just that there are moments of hysteria in Magnolia: the film’s pitch is hysterical from the very beginning, and it keeps going more or less at that pitch for the next 180 minutes.
But Anderson’s off-kilter humanism grounds the film even as it feels like a machine that’s about to break apart. Even when his characters launch into arias of operatic proportion, they’re grounded by subtleties and quirks (like Tom Cruise’s mispronunciation—and correction—of the word “heinous”) that feel raw and intimate, and don’t feel like things you’ve heard before in a dozen other movies. (That’s as much a testament to Anderson’s actors, who are unflaggingly good, as it is to his skill as a writer.) Magnolia may be a supremely self-indulgent film, but it’s saved by Anderson’s raw sincerity—his desperate, gasping, go-for-broke determination to make you feel something real. That his instinct is to tap into our emotions circuitously, by embracing the absurd and the surreal, is what makes his films so vital and striking.