When I saw Magnolia the first time, the sum total of what I knew about the movie, going in to the theater, could fit on an index card: This was a movie by the guys who did Boogie Nights but it was about the 90s not the 70s. That’s it; that was what I knew. I rarely go into a film totally blind, but I’d loved Boogie Nights so Paul Thomas Anderson was enough of a recommendation for me.
To be honest, Magnolia emotionally knee-capped me. I cried, and not just in that oops got something in my eye; damn that guy with too much cologne kind of way. We’re talking full blown weeping complete with nose blowing. And so I am loathe to talk too much about the specifics of the movie in case there are some of you who have not seen it.
What I’ll say is this: the “magnolia” in the title is Magnolia Boulevard that runs most of the length of the east valley. The film follows the intersecting stories of a number of different Valley characters, all of whom are damaged and fundamentally isolated.
Twice in the movie, we hear the line, “And the book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.’” And so it seems for our characters who are all, in their way, wounded by their history. Much of the drama in the movie comes from the effort to outrun or deny the past, the personal equivalent of L.A.’s propensity to raze and rebuild, raze and rebuild. After all, California is where people go to reinvent themselves, no? But we’re out of land here; there’s no more west to escape to, and Magnolia’s characters are each forced to stop and acknowledge their history. Because, as Aimee Mann sings, “It’s not going to stop til you wise up.” Paul Thomas Anderson wrote the film inspired by Mann’s music, which animates the sense of loneliness and desire for connection throughout the film.
Certainly L.A. has no corner on the market for despair—much in this film could take place in New York or Chicago or even Peoria—but there is a special kind of isolation borne from our infrastructure—our lack of public space and our over-reliance on the single-passenger vehicle—and L.A.’s “industry”—the overwhelming commodification of desire and the grotesque privileging of publicity over interiority. The show must go on. That the two main “shows” in Magnolia are a game show for smart kids and the “Seduce and Destroy” self-help system to nail women makes it even sadder somehow.
Last night I watched Magnolia again. Appropriately enough it was raining. Predictably enough I cried.
This post is part of the L.A. Plays Itself in the Movies series. For a listing of posts in this series, click here.