There is probably no more critically acclaimed American filmmaker to emerge since the heyday of the ’90s independent scene than Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the few relatively mainstream artists in recent years to genuinely acquire the clout of an auteur. Contrasted with, say, David O. Russell, who also survived the cinematic battleground of 1999, Anderson never once seems to have ceded ground to popular concern, and he remains one of the few “big-name” filmmakers whose wandering mind hasn’t been boxed-off by Hollywood money. All these years later, even when they don’t fully succeed, his films seem like the collective external manifestation of the nether regions of his own mind. His films are infused with the lifeblood of classic cinema but prone to the sort of exuberant misconduct all great directors need to engage with to break new bounds. He’s an out-there sort of dude, but he’s cordoned off his own niche as a pop-art experimentalist, a perfect combination of old school composure and new school anger.
Entirely like the man he is most often compared to: Robert Altman, the cantankerous, mirthless elder statesman of the New Hollywood cinema who brought a mercurial, world-weary discontent to his ’70s films that could only have come from his advanced age (he was in his 50s when most of the young-blood of Hollywood at the time, such as Martin Scorsese, were barely out of their 20s). Fitting for his age, Altman brought a more literary polish and classical demeanor to his works, knowing the heyday of pre-European New Wave classic Hollywood cinema. But he never sacrificed the anger and bitter freshness of the young upstarts he knocked heads with in the ’70s..
For his part, Paul Thomas Anderson never took the Altman path more than with his most showy film: Magnolia, a deliberate disassembly and reassembly of Altman’s return-to-form Short Cuts, released in 1993. Both films take the same nominal structure: an improvisational cut straight through the heart of modern LA lifestyle. They both evoke a certain LA-milieu out of a selection of snapshots of human life, moving back and forth between perspectives at opportune and inopportune moments and concocting a collage of messy human activity.
But Anderson has his own perspective, or his own aura more like it. Anderson, in 1999, was not the well-weathered Robert Altman of 1993. Altman took to quietly stirring human life together and teasing out the ways in which those humans were too busy not engaging with life to notice anything stirring around them in the first place. Anderson’s take on the material takes from Sean Connery. It shakes the material, rather than stirring. Altman’s film lulled us into human ennui as people sat around and burnt up in the sun, but Anderson sets them all on fire. To compare: Julianne Moore is a link between both films, but her big moments in both films couldn’t be different. In Short Cuts, she strides around bottomless with a hair dryer and shouts at the screen, but it all serves to showcase a certain poetic, sangfroid-y naturalism and tired human disengagement. The shocker was that we expected a firebrand, but the scene was as casual as ice.
In Anderson’s film, Moore’s defining moment – indeed, the defining acting bit in the film – is a shouting implosion of operatic, baroque caterwauls and excessive, oppressive indignation. In Altman’s film, her acting style was a sort of modernist realism. In Anderson’s? Unrepressed human ego and silent-film over-acting, where we can see the screeches and howls in every fires-of-hell eye movement, a tone the film around her adopts more often than not. Anderson’s film reveals not one ounce of timidity or logic, boldly airing out the human id with an anarchic meditation on style that usually, although not always, approaches substance. There is, for example, a somewhat arbitrary introductory prelude detailing three moments of chance and bedlam in 1900s America, a meditation that frankly comments very little on the rest of the film, which isn’t nearly as concerned with chance as it thinks. But Anderson thinks the opening matters, and his confidence, his conviction, shines through. The opening doesn’t say much, but it doesn’t say it with such style that you don’t even notice.
At some points, Magnolia’s messiness even flies hazardously close to adopting the significant flaws of the many hyperlink films to follow in Magnolia’s footsteps, arbitrarily connecting people for purely artificial, showy reasons that reveal nothing meaningful about the nature of chance or human connection. Magnolia grows perilously close in moments to evoking a puzzle-box movie where we are meant to unlock the connections between people in heavily didactic and complicated fashion simply so the film can be didactic and complicated.
Here, Anderson teeters on an edge. On one side lies Short Cuts, the impeccable study of human discontent filtered through an intentionally arbitrary anti-narrative designed to show us how arbitrary the act of randomly connecting dots between humans can be. Shards of Magnolia ask, essentially, whether we should bother to connect the dots between people when those humans barely stop to consider their own connections to their own closest neighbors in the first place. On the other hand, however, we find in Magnolia the kernel of that very arbitrary “let’s connect the dots between humans because I have a pretty colored crayon to do it” impulse that Short Cuts managed to preempt and mock before the impulse even fully existed.
But, in the end, Magnolia and Anderson are much less invested in connecting people than they initially seem to be; there are moments of thematic connection, surely, but Anderson carefully and mercifully avoids running in circles around the characters with needless narrative complication. We are not, for instance, subjected to the pain of understanding why we should care that a child brushing their teeth in the morning on one side of Los Angeles inextricably led to the premature death of a mailman on the other side of Los Angeles. Anderson understands the key difference so many later filmmakers do not: just because you can interrogate how one person affects the life of another in the most obtuse and unexpected of ways, it doesn’t mean you automatically should interrogate this notion.
In fact, a brilliant late-film occurrence where Anderson lets loose the wrath of god on his characters seems more like a satire of films that go out of their way to explore chance just for the sake of it. It is a scene that reminds us, with Anderson’s peculiar mixture of egotism and humility, that regardless of whatever “chance” you or any other filmmaker can introduce into your film for the hell of it, you ain’t got nothing on Paul Thomas Anderson. It is Anderson saying, essentially, that if you are going to throw random coincidences into your film, at least be honest about it, go big, and above all, don’t bend over backwards trying to justify yourself with “logic”.
As such, Dylan Tichenor’s discordant, disobedient editing mechanisms function less as a means to interconnect characters than as a more immediate exercise in kinesthesis. But what kinethesis! Kinesthesis vocalizes in Robert Elswit’s hopped-up camera that, in a scene that introduces many of the characters, hurtles forth for minutes on end and boldly and defiantly improvises thematic connection between those characters with its very movement. Kinesthesis vocalizes in the frequently bonkers writing that hop-scotches without apology between themes – themes which number in the dozens as the film shoots from alienation to regret to redemption to discontent to entertainment to human exploitation. Kinesthesis vocalizes in the acting, with Tom Cruise giving a sleazy ringmaster turn as a human ball of ego who occupies the body of a male self-help guru popularizing a “Seduce and Destroy” technique for ensuring male power over women.
Not everything is perfect within Anderson’s vision. There is, for instance, some symbolism that, as George Carlin so eloquently put it, is best left to the symbol-minded, and the film doesn’t justify its run-time by any means. Still, there’s a sense that these minor flaws are part and parcel with the film’s uncompromising wild-child ferocity and wayward, headstrong interrogation of storytelling mechanics. Magnolia is a thoroughly undisciplined movie, and the way Anderson apologizes for not one second of his film is refreshing to say the least. It’s the sort of film that feels like it could get away with anything. It can’t, and it doesn’t, but it feels like it can. Feels it right down to its bones. It is such an unruly enfant terrible of a film, such a disorderly, slobbering, self-confident film filled with pandemonium and tumult that, even when it isn’t always taking you anywhere, you don’t care. You’re in it for the possibility of the car turning over, and even when you want to get out, you’re being held hostage anyway. Magnolia is a walking threat, but it’s uncommonly good at inviting Stockholm Syndrome.