Riding in his cruiser, LAPD Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) explains what his days are like. While he laments “so much violence,” he also understands it as “the way of the world,” and that it makes it “our job, to serve and protect.” Jim sees himself as a good guy. “I wanna help people,” he says so sincerely. “I correct a wrong, or right a situation, and I’m a happy cop.”
One of the many characters in Paul Thomas Anderson’s amazing new film, Magnolia, Jim spends a lot of time talking to himself and you too, since you’re along for the ride while driving his car, on the way to or from a call. It’s like he’s in an ongoing episode of Cops. It speaks to the pervasiveness of the series as a concept and a cultural condition that even if you haven’t seen Cops, you likely have a sense that it informs Jim’s self-understanding. Cops on Cops like to tell you about their duties and their concerns, and they expect that you empathize with them. And this, of course, is the brilliant, resilient fiction of Cops: that it can give order and emotional weight to chaos and stereotypes that usually seem odious. And to think, this life-affirming fiction is made possible by television. You might even say that this fiction is the miracle of television.
Television is at the heart of Magnolia, though, with its stunning, sometimes acrobatic, cinematic effects and giant screen actors, you might not recognize it at first. But watch carefully, and you’ll see that there is a reference to TV in almost every scene sets playing in the background in apartments, department stores, and bars (running The Thin Man, hair club commercials, talk shows, and soaps), Jim’s and other characters’ repeated acting out as if they’re on TV, a malevolent game show called “What Do Kids Know?” that pits children against adults in horrific and ludicrous contests of knowledge. On one level, the film is clearly about a generational divide, or more precisely, the effects of parental neglect and abuse on their children. On another, less obvious level, it’s about this divide as it is represented in and as television, the medium that shapes every minute of life in the San Fernando Valley, where the film is set. Even the style of the film makes the point: swooping in and out of characters and events and settings and times, the film resembles three hours of channeling surfing, but this familiar activity becomes loaded with passions, ruminations, and romances. It’s TV on a bizarre kind of moral-emotional hyperdrive.
One of the more remarkable experiences you have while surfing is, of course, finding those connections that otherwise elude you, the causal links between seeming coincidences and accidents and effects, the ways that South Park can resonate with Law and Order or Jenny Jones is related to Charlie Rose. Magnolia narrates many such connections, makes them clear for you as if you’re holding a remote in your hand. The film is excessive and unpredictable, really hard to watch at some points, daredevilish and loony tunes at others. But what might look out of control to some viewers is weird cosmic grace to others. This is a film that understands TV as an industry, cultural context, way of seeing, and map for living. Speedy reading and info-assimilating is normal for TV viewers (and not just those who watch the much-derided MTV). Everyone else, please keep up.
The film’s themes reflect and are reflected in this structure, as they focus on family relationships gone terribly wrong (or perhaps, family relationships gone precisely as they must). Everyone is a product of TV, in some perverse, indirect or direct, way. The film begins and ends with a short faux-historical newsreel-TV mishmash recounting three bizarre situations involving deaths (three criminals with names matching the site of their crime are hanged; a man is accidentally shot while trying to commit suicide; and a scuba diver dies under unbelievable circumstances involving a plane and a wildfire). For all the attempts to make sense of these improbable events, the narrator says, there is no explanation. Still, he insists, he believes they do not occur “by chance.”
The rest of Magnolia contemplates the relationship between chance and design, specifically as it is worked out in the voids of families. Several characters comment on the ways that language fails to communicate, either by design (“You know,” says one woman to her careless husband, “But you can’t say”) or by lack of understanding and effort (“You need to be nicer to me,” a child tells his father. “Go to bed,” says dad). And always, as language and connections falter, TV intervenes. Change the channel. Maybe there’s something better on.
Much like Anderson’s Boogie Nights, Magnolia introduces a series of characters, but unlike the earlier film, this one doesn’t pull them together under the auspices of a self-conscious family unit. Rather, in Magnolia you see characters suffer and hope, their regrets and efforts at redemption. You see them feeling isolated in their various Valley hells, and the channel-surfing editing asks you to see their similar fears and desires. Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) is the coke-addict daughter of career-obsessed TV game show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and enduring wife Rose (Melinda Dillon). Claudia’s extreme music-blasting leads to a visit from the police, namely, Jim the cop (who is introduced as he finds a dead body never clearly explained in a black woman’s apartment). Their developing relationship may be the film’s single most hopeful note. And yet, because you also see them apart, struggling with their demons, you know they’re in for more trouble than they know.
At the same time, Jimmy’s learned that he has terminal cancer and, feeling profound remorse for his life of banal cruelties, watches uncomprehending, the meltdown of a brilliant child contestant on his show, “What Do Kids Know?” Young Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) is pressured by his out-of-work actor father, who wants only to win the game, which sets up a team of three children against three adults, answering preposterously arcane questions (for instance, translate an English line from an opera into its original language). At that moment, a former game show prodigy, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), just fired from his job as a clerk at an electronics store, finds himself admitting at long last his homosexual desire for a young, hunky bartender. However, the bartender is distracted by a smug, cash-flashing barfly named of all things Thurston Howell (Henry Gibson). Donnie insists, “I have love to give,” but, he also realizes, he “doesn’t know where to put it.” Aall the while, the game show drones on the TV hanging like a religious icon above the bar.
All this narrative seems quite enough for one movie, even one that runs three hours, but there’s another set of characters running parallel to these, also immersed in and run into the ground by the (entertainment) industry that is the heartbeat of the Valley. Earl, of the doting dog fame, is a TV producer, bedridden throughout the film, while his wife Linda (Julianne Moore) drives all over town trying to settle affairs her husband’s medications, their shared legal business, and her own upset that, as a proper trophy wife, she cheated, but now has fallen in love with him while Earl’s nurse, Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is trying to mollify his charge’s distress by tracking down his long-lost son, now the media televangelist of a wacked-out program for alienated men called “Seduce and Destroy.” This horrific culmination of all fight-clubbing masculinity is the unbeatably named Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) is an asshole with a cause that unfolds slowly: he hates his father Earl for abandoning him as a child, and what’s more, he hates his mother for abandoning him by dying of cancer.
That Frank’s carefully repressed life-details are revealed during a TV interview is only one of many awful ironies in Magnolia. It’s ironic because Frank who is only one logical step from Tony Robbins and other millionaire self-helpers is the consummate product of TV, its capacity for exploiting conflict, for convincing consumers to see themselves as warriors in need of a direction and a purchase. The vaguely raging men in his audience can’t help but suck down his message (“Respect the cock! Tame the cunt!”), because his package, his excruciating telegenic beauty, is so perfectly made for and by TV. It’s no wonder that Frank’s on-air undoing leads him back to his TV-producer father’s house. The father-son meeting only makes for more conflict: Frank has no self-understanding except that molded by a lifetime of abuse and rancor. There’s no compassion in his universe.
This absence seems inevitable in a world that’s all about switching channels. The consequences of TV culture are everywhere, in the inability of the white cops to translate the black characters’ language, in the game show, in the commercials that run incessantly in the backgrounds of scenes, in Frank’s misanthropic bravado: such excesses are conceivable only in TV’s wild consolidations of judgments, spectacles, pseudo-confessions, on Jerry Springer, WWF Smackdown, America’s Most Wanted, CNN, The Blame Game, Forgive or Forget, and Judge Judy.
Magnolia is a movie about excess that is undeniably excessive. It’s about TV, or more precisely, what TV means on an alarmingly grand scale, its lust for conflict and spectacle, its pretense of format and order. Whatever else it does, Magnolia gets all that dead-right.