The Inner Voice of Paul Thomas Anderson
In Dogville Vs. Hollywood I wrote a single line on Magnolia, calling it “a sprawling, only partly successful imitation of Altman, [that] suggested Anderson was a filmmaker with aspirations possibly beyond his talents.” Having seen the film for second time, seven years later, I have some serious crow to eat.
A soaring, almost wholly successful work (some scenes with Julianne Moore still strike me as overwrought and heavy-handed), Magnolia seems to me now the most heartfelt and original movie epic since, well, since forever. (I was going to say since Nashville, but the truth is, Magnolia is a considerably richer and more personal work than Altman’s.)
There’s no doubt Anderson’s ambitions as a filmmaker border on hubris; but what’s truly astonishing is that he actually has the wherewithal to see them through and do almost complete justice to them. With only his third film, Anderson made a masterpiece, a film that walks the high-wire between nigh-esoteric subtlety and melodrama bordering on soap opera, and it does so without a net. (At over three hours running time and a cost of over $40 million, anything less than a tour-de-force could have vaporized Anderson as surely as Heaven’s Gate vaporized Cimino.) Even so, Magnolia confounded many viewers (myself included obviously) with its brazen originality and disregard for movie conventions. To fully appreciate the scope, depth, and intensity of Anderson’s film, it may be necessary to meet the writer-director halfway, to allow his peculiar vision to unfold at its own tempo and in its own, unique manner. However brilliant a movie, Magnolia is not an ingratiating work; Anderson appears to deliberately confound his audience’s preconceptions about both art and entertainment, delivering a work unlike any other American movie of the last thirty years, without apology. As Anderson said to the crew on the first day of shooting, making a great movie is “nothing to be ashamed of.”
As a work of art, Magnolia is hugely entertaining, as well as being the closest American movies have come in recent years to a genuine labor of love. Against all odds, Anderson has made an intimate epic that stays true to his individual vision, a film that is both disturbingly personal and sweepingly universal in its reach. Anderson makes a proud and plaintive cry to be saved from the ranks of the freaks who suspect they can never love anyone; and the deeper he reaches into his own heart and soul, the more profoundly he connects with ours.
With his ability to pull off something this freakish—a movie that, by all the usual standards for judging movies, simply should not work—Paul Thomas Anderson proved himself to be a truly Promethean talent, a bona fide filmmaking genius. As Pauline Kael wrote of Coppola in his heyday (The Godfather Part Two), “that’s the inner voice of the authentic hero.”