Re-Watchterpiece Theater is a series that explores the organic way that attitudes about films change after you watch them a second time, a third time, or more, further down the line than the original viewing.
Today’s Re-Watchterpiece Theater episode has been in the works for a long time, although it took an unfortunate event to make it happen. I’ve been meaning to re-watch Magnolia for at least a year now. My attitude about P.T. Anderson has changed so much in that time. And it took the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman to serve as the spark.
Warning: this will feature the biggest spoiler of them all, so read no further if you’ve never seen it and/or you care about surprises.
The First Viewing
I first saw Magnolia in 2004. It was a strong recommendation from my friend who once met Kevin Meaney. There was ample reason to be curious about it. It was from the 1990s (hey, I’m from the 1990s!). It starred Tom Cruise doing wacky things before he became Tom Cruise the scientologist doing actiony things in all of his movies. It also featured an awful lot of the same actors and actresses from Boogie Nights (1997), a movie that I had loved.
I watched it and I waited. And I waited and I waited and I waited and I waited. Then I waited some more for all of the plotlines to overlap. Ultimately, only a few of them did, at least in any non-metaphorical way. Then came the frogstorm. Ever since then, I’ve loved to say “Magnolia was really great for the first seven hours, but then it started raining frogs and I hated it.” That’s it to a tee. I loved so much about it, but waiting for everything to tie together in some way made it seem longer than it really was. And then to end it with a frog tsunami just seemed wrong. It left so many questions unanswered. Frankly, I kind of hated that ending, and it made me unfavorable to the movie.
Magnolia was one of the first of those “everything ties together metaphorically” movies that were all the rage when Crash won the Best Picture (don’t even get me started). Even in 2004, I wasn’t aware of the trend, and didn’t really have an opinion about it. It didn’t bug me with Magnolia, mostly because I didn’t expect it, wasn’t familiar with the schtick, and wondered if I had done something wrong expecting it all to come together. Since then, I’ve come to completely abhor that style of movie. Again, don’t get me started. The point is that I didn’t hate it with Magnolia.
Of course, since then, I’ve seen and loved There Will be Blood, Punch Drunk Love, and Hard Eight. I’ve also seen and mostly liked The Master. I’ve rewatched Boogie Nights more times than I can count (probably three). To this day, I’d consider There Will be Blood to be the best American film made since at least 1990. When people ask me who my favorite filmmakers are, P.T. Anderson’s name is part of the conversation. In short, I’ve done a 180 on the guy. But I still hadn’t re-watched Magnolia since all of those damned frogs pissed me off.
I’ve also had several conversations with my friend, a DIY-documentary filmmaker who has more knowledge about movies in his pinky than I have in my whole brain (his pinky is seriously smart). He has a positive take on Magnolia, especially the frogs. And it gave me a lot to chew on going into the film.
Let’s get the obvious part out of the way first. I’m still not a fan of the frogs. My friend’s opinion is that, after all of the craziness and emotional despair surrounding these people, it would take something heavy to bring it to closure. In fact, he postulates, it would take something biblical. Ergo the frogs. For me, there’s so much emotional weight invested in all of those characters that the frogs feel like a cop-out. Yes, it’s biblical. And I even truly admire the bold choice. PTA took up 3 hours of your time and ended it with raining frogs. It takes some serious guts to do that. Only a rock star filmmaker could pull that off and not alienate his audience. Going further, it was a brilliant use of the new digital ability of the medium. You couldn’t make a scene with raining frogs in 1985 or 1955 or 1925 the way PTA did in 1999. It just seems to me that surely there was a wiser, more effective choice.
On the flip side, the fact that I’m still this annoyed about the frogs speaks volumes for P.T. Anderson’s ability to make you care about multiple characters. Boogie Nights proved PTA’s skill at handling multiple character arcs, giving meaning to so many characters without sacrificing character development. That style continued with Magnolia. If he hadn’t made me care so much about what would happen to his characters, the frogs would’ve seen like a gimmick. That wasn’t the case.
Speaking of handling multiple character arcs with aplomb, it’s a residual of Anderson’s clear influence from Robert Altman. To a lesser degree, there are also Scorsese and Kubrick influences. PTA really is a product of his generation, a generation raised on the masterful directors of 1970s films and unafraid to wear that on his sleeve. It’s also very apparent in Boogie Nights, although it wasn’t until I was much older that I noticed it, especially with regard to Scorsese. In Magnolia, Altman’s voice echoes all over the place and it made me love the movie even more.
The multiple character arcs are the obvious tie to Altman. It’s also apparent in PTA’s satirical and cynical look at the dying tycoon, the chauvinist infomercial star, the golddigger wife realizing the folly of her artificial ways, the dopey and misguided do-good policeman, the gaudy American gameshow host (brilliantly named ‘Jimmy Gator’), and the brainy wunderkind all grown up- once America’s TV darling- reduced to a set of braces and unrequited homosexual feelings. And in the end, it all comes down to cynical and satirical hope, with the gameshow host’s emotionally-spent drug-addled daughter smiling at the camera with a teary, shit-eating grin. It’s a perfect totem animal for the film, really.
The truth today is not so different from the first time I saw the film in 2004. Sure, there’s more depth to my feelings about Magnolia and there’s a greater appreciation for who PTA is, and what he’s all about. The difference is that I’m more forgiving of the frogs, believe it or not. 2004 John LaRue would’ve tossed out all of the good things about the movie because of the frogs. “Seven great hours and then you end it that way? Kiss my ass,” says 2004 John LaRue. The whatever-year-this-is John LaRue takes it in stride a bit more. I really like (and love) almost everything about Magnolia. Even if I still disagree with the frogs, now I know better than to crap on the whole film over a choice I disagree with.