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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.