Wednesday, November 21, 2018

A Movie I'm Thankful For: MAGNOLIA

by Patrick Bromley
It's not going to stop till you wise up.

1999 was one of the best years for movies since I have been alive, and there was no movie I was more looking forward to or loved more than Magnolia. Such an enormous fan of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's previous film Boogie Nights was I that I obsessively pored over every new detail I could find about the making of his next feature. Information was scarce and even the first teaser trailer (which I still remember seeing in front of Albert Brooks' The Muse, making it the one thing I remember about The Muse) was cryptic and abstract, telling me almost nothing except that it had something to do with frogs. When it finally came out at the end of '99, it was the capper on an already exceptional year of movies. I saw it opening night with Erika, the only person I knew who loved Boogie Nights as much as me and was as in the bag for PTA as I was. We both became pretty obsessed with Magnolia, talking about it constantly and listening to the soundtrack of Aimee Mann songs (the CD was a gift for E's birthday, which fell very near the movie's release) in constant rotation. It was something we bonded over deeply early on.

Then the holiday break was over and Erika went back up to college, leaving me back in Chicago with only Magnolia to keep me company. Over the next few weeks, I would see the movie another five times in theaters by myself, sometimes on its own, sometimes as part of a full day spent hiding out at the movies. These were some of the early days of my recognizing episodes of depressive isolation, which I'll get back to in a second. It was Magnolia that got me through this period, because Magnolia told me it was ok to feel sad. Magnolia told me it was ok to feel broken and alone. These things happen all the time.
This was Paul Thomas Anderson's blank check movie -- the one where he got to do anything and everything he wanted because Boogie Nights had been such a hit for New Line. With its massive scope, a huge ensemble cast, and a clear love for actors and performance, that film had crowned him the heir apparent to Robert Altman. Well, if Boogie Nights was Anderson's Nashville, Magnolia is his Short Cuts: a collection of individual but interconnected character studies and stories about loss, loneliness, love, fathers, redemption, alienation, coincidence, miracles, childhood trauma, and the ways we so often hurt one another when all we really need is just one person to love us. It's a constant battle we wage against our own programming, against the sins of our parents: we may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us. Bad things happen to us, the movie says, but we need not be defined by them. It's the human experience sprawled across the span of three hours, and it is unwieldy and mannered and wounded and beautiful.

I have known people in my life who absolutely hate Magnolia, and while I can never understand that position, I can understand why someone might have it. The movie is long and messy and indulgent and embarrassingly personal to the point that it can either make people uncomfortable to watch or just push them out of it. It's a movie I think even Paul Thomas Anderson is embarrassed by now, not because it's bad but because it's like he left his diary open and let millions of people read it. Just two years later, New Line would cease to be the kind of studio that would hire a filmmaker like PTA and give him total creative freedom because they became the studio that was much more interested in that Lord of the Rings money. I miss the Magnolia New Line.
I miss the Magnolia Paul Thomas Anderson, too. He has continued to make films that are either great (Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood) or which reach for greatness (The MasterInherent Vice) and has proven to be one of the absolute best American filmmakers of the last 50 years. In the process, though, he has gradually taken his heart from his sleeve and moved toward a kind of Kubrickian exactness -- not cold, but not as nakedly human as his earlier efforts. As a result, I find myself pushed out of his work, more able to admire than I am to connect and completely lose myself the way I once did in Magnolia. The way I still do, really. I respond to the movie the same way I do to another of my favorite films of the last 20 years, Cloud Atlas, in that both are totally free of cynicism, totally unafraid to lay themselves bare for their audience. So few films and so few filmmakers are willing to do that that I cannot help but be thankful for the ones that are.

More than this, though, I am thankful for the empathy Paul Thomas Anderson shows in Magnolia, both for his cast of wounded, deeply flawed characters and for those of us who see ourselves in them. There is no single character in the movie with whom I directly identify; I have never been a drug addict like Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters) or a wealthy TV producer dying of cancer like Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a lovesick former quiz kid genius struck by lightning like Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), or a misogynist motivational speaker like Frank "TJ" Mackey (Tom Cruise, giving the best performance of his career). I don't need to see myself specifically represented on screen to still be able to understand how the characters in Magnolia feel. When the movie breaks with reality two-thirds of the way through so the entire cast can join together to sing Aimee Mann's "Wise Up" -- still one of my favorite sequences in any movie ever -- I'm right there with them. No matter what our circumstances, no matter our pain, we are all connected in that moment. It is precisely our pain, in fact, that connects us. And it's not going to stop.
I'm writing this during one of the worst and most difficult times of my life. I was hospitalized about a month ago and have been in constant treatment ever since. This isn't the first piece I have attempted to write since that episode, but provided I'm actually able to finish, it will be the first piece I've actually successfully written during this time. After the episode and my stay in the hospital, I didn't know how to proceed with anything. I didn't know what to say or how much to share. I haven't wanted to talk about what I'm going through but I also know that I can't continue to write without acknowledging what's happening. We experience art through our emotions, which means I'm only able to discuss art through that lens. To try and talk about movies while denying my emotions felt not just dishonest and inauthentic, but totally fucking impossible. And so I've been stuck in this place for weeks, paralyzed by depression and my efforts to recover, unsuccessful as they have been so far.

This series came along as it has for the last several years and I put out a call to all of our writers for contributions. They started coming in and were some of the best pieces I've read from our team, full of all the wit and insight and passion that makes everyone writing for this site who isn't me so special and valued. The whole time, I still had no idea what movie I would attempt to write about or even if I'd be able to write at all. Then I hit upon Magnolia, a film that has too greatly intimidated me up until this point, and it seemed like it finally might be a way to give thanks for a movie that means a great deal to me while still feeling everything I'm feeling. It's the perfect fit for a boy in need of a tourniquet.
I know that for the people who don't like it, Magnolia feels like a three-hour slog through pain and misery. For someone like myself, currently in the grip of crippling depression, it feels accurate and true, reflecting the world back to me the way I'm experiencing it. The movie ain't short because life ain't short. Life is long. But there's something powerful and healing about the movie, too. I chose to keep so much of what I was feeling and experiencing to myself for a long time, fearful of being a burden to those who care about me or making them worry about me when they all have their own battles to fight. Going through life that way doesn't make anything easier, though. It just made my brain lie to me and made me feel alone. Magnolia tells me I'm not. My pain may be unique to me, but it is not unique. My own fractured relationship with my father is just one of many, as the film is littered with bad dads and damaged sons. I spend my days now in treatment, surrounded by other people enduring some similar version of what I'm living with, and though we lead separate lives and may feel isolated in our individual pain, we are connected in this way. It may not be a rain of frogs or a group sing-a-long, but it's a start.

A start is what I need and what is offered in the final seconds of the film. It's what makes Magnolia truly transcendent -- the moment I was chasing during those five theatrical screenings in 1999 and have chased on every subsequent viewing. Claudia Wilson Gator, the movie's most fragile character, is visited by Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), the decent man who wants to be with her but whom she pushed away, feeling unworthy of his love. ("Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?") He tells her she is a good and beautiful person and he won't let her run away as Aimee Mann's "Save Me" plays. Claudia, finally seeing she is loved and full of hope for the first time, looks directly into the camera and smiles. Cut to black. It's as perfect an ending to a movie as I've ever seen -- one smile rewarding three hours of hurt, telling us that things won't always feel bad. There is hope for Claudia, and there is hope for every one of us hurting, too.
So now then.

I'm not alone. I never have been. It's a lie that the voice of depression tells me, but it's a lie that the voice of depression makes easy to believe, too. Throughout these last weeks, difficult as they have been, I have had the love and support of the people I care about. In the words of Jim Kurring, sometimes people need a little help. My closest friends are all here on this site, and every one of them has stepped up and reached out to be here for me. My family continues to check in on me and let me know they care. Erika continues to move the world, devoting her entire being to taking care of me and giving me cover from the moment I was admitted to the hospital all the way to tonight, when she was the one encouraging me to write this piece and believing in me when I can't do the same. She's the one who gives me hope. The one who saves me. I am thankful for her. I am thankful for everyone behind the scenes at FTM, and to you too, reader, for continuing to visit the site and for being patient as I try to find my way back and return to normal. I don't know what the future holds or how I will begin to feel better, but for right now Magnolia makes it a little easier to feel this way. If Claudia Wilson Gator can find her smile, well maybe I can, too.


  1. Patrick,
    I don't even know what to say other than this is one of the truest and most moving pieces you have ever written. You, and everyone else here who is so open with their emotions and struggles is what made this site feel like home to me. I am so sorry for what you are going through, but I'm glad to hear you know you are not alone, and you never will be. I don't want to say anything that will sound empty or meaningless, but I do think I speak for all readers when I say we love you, we love the site and we hope things get better for you.

    Thank you for writing this

  2. Well that brought a darn tear to my eye! I wish you an honest to goodness full blown recovery and though I don't know you personally but having listened to all the podcasts (some certainly more than once, they are my aural comfort food) I know you are a darn decent person, a loving husband and awesome father and a great writer of my favourite subject; the silver screen! Rest well, we'll be here for you buddy!

  3. Thank you for being so honest and brave in your writing, Patrick. I'm sending my good vibes your way, and if there's anything I can do to be helpful, you don't even have to ask. You can just tell me to do it. :)

  4. I'm so happy to finally hear you talk about this movie. It's one of my favorite films of all time. I've heard you mention in the past that it would be too daunting to take on, but I've held out that one day you'd finally get to a place where you could talk about it.

    I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie like this, where all the way through I found myself saying, "Yeah, this guy gets it." It builds to these mini-climaxes which then resolve and build again, finally culminating in that final scene. I first saw it on a DVD rental, and when that final shot ended, I stood up by myself in my living room and cheered. It's such an amazing film.

    I know I'm not too active on the site these days, but I just wanted to let you know how much you, the podcast, and this community have meant to me. It's been a constant comfort during the last few years of my life, and I'm truly thankful for what you've built Patrick. I hope you'll recover well and take care of yourself.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  5. I doubt you would remember this Patrick but, maybe 5 years ago I commented saying that I was 15 years old and was left home alone over night for the first time. I was really freaking myself out and getting scared, so I put on the podcast and played episodes basically nonstop and it totally made me feel better because it was like I wasn't by myself, it was like I had friends there with me.

    And well, I just wanted to say I still listen to the show literally every single week and relisten to older episodes pretty frequently, especially if I've just watched a movie there's a podcast on. I do that almost for the same reason I did when I was 15, not 'cuz I'm still scared to be home alone heh, but because it feels like hanging out with friends and makes me feel like I'm not by myself. Good mood or bad mood, Fthismovie makes me feel better and I truly love it with all my heart and am so thankful for it, and for the gang band crew squad collective, and for you.

    I know you'll feel better and I hope it's soon. Sincerely thank you for everything you've done and everything still to come!

    (And well okay yeah I did just hear a weird noise so maybe I will put an episode on now heh heh)

  6. Magnolia is special to me for the same reasons you described, and I was elated to find out that my girlfriend had never seen it so I could re-watch it with someone who had a fresh pair of eyes going in. As I've been slowly exposing her to films that give her a better picture of inside my head, Magnolia was her standout favorite of the 50+ we watched. The film is my personal favorite of PTA, and I too hope that one day he returns to something with a similar feel.

    Thank you for writing this. I'm thankful for your podcast and this site. Both have helped me, and continue to help me, through the past few years.

    Hope you all the best.

    1. I love that she loved it too! <3 Thank you for writing.

  7. Patrick, I am a french fan of your podcasts.
    I wanted to thank you for all your work and for sharing so much. This piece moved me to tears. I d'on(t know you per se, but I feel like it sometimes. Even if I live overseas, I feel really close to you, your life and your tastes. We are so much alike. Magnolia and Cloud Atlas are also two of my absolute favorite movies. They feel so sincere, and move me to my core with each vision. I'm sorry for my poor english, but once again I wanted to thank you for everything.
    You are not alone. You don't know me but you are a real presenc in my life and you're important to me. I wish you the best.

  8. If you were gone Patrick; you're voice, writing and presence would be missed.

    I can only speak for myself. A single stranger so take it for what it's worth. This website and podcast of yours serves as a true inspiration. A respite for film lovers. You have created a community for movie people where otherwise may not be available in our day to day. Certainly not my day to day. My hobbies and interests creates a lonely island around me; population 1. Which is why fthismovie has become a staple for me.

    When I engage with other movie fans, often I find them to either be too cynical with vitriol towards everything, snobbish or not really have an active interest. What I and I assume many others have found within you, Patrick, is a perfect balance of enthusiasm, appreciation, critique and respect.

    I appreciate your public service. It's something special. Thank you.