As she writes, in part, “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 center 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 centers 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. 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.’ 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.”