Magnolia

16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    I wouldn't disagree with anything in that statement. But it doesn't go far enough, because it doesn't indicate that Anderson's flaws as a filmmaker are bound up with his virtues.

    He is, point of fact, a deliriously cinematic filmmaker?a guy who can make the camera do anything, including sit up and beg; a masterful deployer of pop music, clever editing and deliberately self-conscious techniques (jump cuts, endless tracking shots, nonsequitur title cards between acts). He loves actors and seems to trust them completely: he's notorious for just loading up the camera, giving the performers a general theme for a scene, then letting the film roll while they improvise in character. He's studied film history?particularly the 60s and 70s, when Method acting, grungy subject matter and social and political awareness converged with innovative technique, and directors like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby and John Cassavetes flourished. While watching his first two movies, 1996's Hard Eight and Boogie Nights, I was startled and delighted by just how in love with moviemaking he was. He borrowed (hell, stole outright) from a staggering array of good to great movies (especially Scorsese's and Altman's, and Saturday Night Fever and Jonathan Demme's Something Wild). There are sections of his films where you question the necessity of certain scenes or subplots, but there's a pretty good chance you're enjoying yourself anyway. Every single frame of an Anderson film has something interesting going on in it. And his sense of humor?at once kooky and dry; think of the "How much can you bench?" conversation in Boogie Nights?is unlike anything in movies.

    Anderson's staggering showmanship reminds us that nobody can do the things he's doing. But what is he doing? There are many articulate and intelligent fans of his films, but I have never met one who could explain why Anderson was telling these stories about these characters. His point of view as an artist remains elusive. Does he have one? Ask an Anderson fan, "What do you like about his movies?" and you'll likely get the answer, "They're so exciting," or "They're funny" or "They're amazing" or "This guy really loves making movies." Compare Boogie Nights with Goodfellas or California Split, to name just two films it borrows from, and Anderson's deficiencies become clear. Altman and Scorsese are in love with filmmaking, and their love of filmmaking is always built into how the stories are told. But that's not primarily what their films are about. Even subpar Scorsese and Altman films usually have other dimensions?historical, political, sexual, moral, ethical?and Anderson's movies barely do.

    It might not be for lack of trying; it might be that he loves moviemaking too much to think clearly as a dramatist. His primary subject is love of filmmaking (and by extension, acting and storytelling), and it crowds out everything else. Seeing one of his movies is like going for a spin on some awesome amusement park ride that goes around and around and up and down for two hours or more; by the time you get off, you feel lightheaded, but the sensation fades because the thrills are primarily visceral, not intellectual or emotional. (A friend of mine waxed rhapsodic about how well Boogie Nights used the Rick Springfield song, "Jessie's Girl." He's right, but so what?)

    Magnolia, a three-hour San Fernando Valley ensemble drama, magnifies Anderson's virtues and flaws. The movie plays like Altman's Short Cuts on amphetamines. It's as if Cassavetes came back from the dead and alternated direction with Scorsese in Goodfellas mode. Not a single second of it bored me; in fact, purely as a technical achievement, it impressed me mightily. Anderson's sleek, muscular, graceful style?the camera swoops and glides and lunges?is seductive, even addictive. So is his company of performers, many of whom are familiar from Hard Eight and Boogie Nights?Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, magician-actor Ricky Jay. They're joined by high-profile ringers (Tom Cruise, Jason Robards), at least one superb newcomer (child actor Jeremy Blackman, playing a young genius who has a meltdown on a high-stakes quiz show); and Melinda Dillon, a great actress from the 70s and 80s who recently has been denied the rich roles she deserves.

    The film takes place over a 24-hour period during which every major character faces a hard truth about him- or herself, and comes to grips with the fact that fate can't be controlled, or secrets kept secret. Everybody in this film has a realization before it's over?a realization about the world and his or her place within it. Moore is Linda Partridge, the trophy wife of dying millionaire tv mogul Earl Partridge (Robards), who knows she'll be his main beneficiary and agonizes over the realization that she married him for the wrong reasons. Earl is looking back over his long life and realizing that he was a cruel bastard a lot of the time. His nurse (Hoffman) realizes he loves the crotchety old man like a father. Veteran quiz-show host Jimmy Gator (Hall) is also an old man near the end of his life who is forced to think about past sins he committed; his wife (Dillon) will hear of these sins and understand that her husband is not the man she thought he was.

    Reilly's character is an LAPD beat cop who's a thoughtful and sensitive diplomat but rather flaky. In the course of a day on the job, he'll discover a body, cheat death and fall in love with a woman he met while checking on a noise disturbance. The woman is Claudia (Walters), a cocaine addict who spends most of the day locked in her apartment cranking the stereo, watching tv and hiding from life.

    There are a couple of kid geniuses in the story. One is the aforementioned Stanley Spector, who wants to win big money on Gator's quiz show in order to secure the love of his domineering dad. The other is Donnie Smith (Macy), who was a quiz whiz as a child and now works at an electronics store, and who spends a lot of time in a local bar, obsessing over his long-ago fame and making eyes at a hunky bartender with braces. While watching the live broadcast of the quiz show at the bar, Donnie gets into an extended, rambling conversation on fame, desire and delusion with a smart and bitchy barfly (played by Altman regular Henry Gibson).

    The most charismatic character is Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a macho self-help guru who claims to know the secret of how to get women into bed and peddles that knowledge to hooting crowds of love-starved men. Mackey is sort of a combination of infomercial freakazoid Tony Robbins, Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry and a trash-talking fraternity-house stud. He struts around a hotel conference room, laying out a testosterone-poisoned equivalent of The Rules, reassuring his paying customers that if they want to get laid (or even fall in love) they have to learn to be more ruthless, not more sensitive. (One of his lecture topics is, "How to fake like you are nice and caring.") Frank has a secret, just like every other major character. (I won't say what it is, but film critics seem to be in a surprise-spoiling contest these days, so read other reviews of Magnolia at your peril.)

    All these characters exist in a state of delusion. They all deny one or more essential truths about themselves; their denial shackles them. If they throw off these shackles and face themselves, they can achieve a kind of liberation. They won't be happy, but at least they won't be in thrall to lies.

    The key that unlocks the shackles is fate?or coincidence, which, according to Magnolia, is basically the same thing. Things happen randomly, but they also happen for a reason. Anderson lays out this notion in an entertaining but rather odd prologue that recounts three past instances of coincidence?including one from 1911, in which a New York shopowner was murdered by three thugs whose last names, put together, spelled out the name of the shop; and an instance from 1958 Los Angeles, when a young man's suicidal jump from a building became a murder when he was hit by gunfire on the way down. (Has Anderson seen the episode of Homicide that had the same plot?) Anderson's delight in the medium's possibilities is evident in how he shoots these coincidences: the black-and-white 1911 sequence was filmed with a hand-cranked Pathe camera, and the 1958 sequence freeze-frames the jumper in mid-plunge so that the director can draw his trajectory with a Monday Night Football-style directional arrow. The narration, delivered by Ricky Jay, assures us that coincidence and fate are mysterious things, and that we will see them illustrated in Magnolia.

    But like so much in Anderson's work, this prologue gives the impression that he's seriously overthinking the nature of storytelling. Most dramas traffic in coincidence and fate to some degree; we accept the presence of these forces because they're part of the mechanics of storytelling. (Think of O. Henry, or even Short Cuts, with its intricate web of lives and lies that were related in so many striking ways.) Because the mere presence of coincidence and fate in stories is not the least bit unusual, Anderson's highlighting of these qualities amounts to a bold promise: what you're about to see will be so amazing, so unusual, that it will beggar the imagination.

    Except it's not. I enjoyed all the performances in Magnolia and found something to like in each individual story, but the intersection of lives is, when you get right down to it, not nearly as rich and astonishing as Anderson seems to think. As in Boogie Nights, when you set aside the director's bravura technique and simply list the characters and what happens to them, it's not much. The revelations the characters experience aren't much, either. The film comes alive?i.e., becomes truly strange and dramatic and unsettling?in its final hour, but the destinations the characters arrive at don't seem monumental enough to merit such a lengthy and self-important buildup. (Hard Eight, still Anderson's best movie, is also a meditation on coincidence and fate, guilt and secrets, fathers and sons, but it's half as long as Magnolia and much more precise and emotionally involving.)

    The first couple of hours amount to spectacular throat-clearing (much like the first hour of Casino). The film should have started at the beginning of its third hour and continued from there. It contains too much cinematic plate-spinning; a long tracking shot that reveals the inside of the game show studio is a stunning display of choreography and timing, but it doesn't enlarge any central concept, as the Copacabana tracking shot in Goodfellas enlarged the idea of underground access to the good life, or as the tracking shot at the start of The Player, which laid out the physical geography of the studio and the moral geography of the movie industry. Scorsese and Altman's Steadicam shots say, "Watch this, it's important." Anderson's tracking shots say, "Watch me. I really know my way around with a Steadicam."

    Because Anderson loves the virtuoso aspect of moviemaking, and invites us to feast on his virtuosity, he doesn't go deep enough. Whenever Boogie Nights comes on cable, I can't help watching it for a while, usually with a smile. I always find myself re-evaluating my own mixed response to it and wondering if I was too hard on it. But after about half an hour, I arrive at the same conclusion: No, I wasn't. The characters are eccentric but rather thin; the excellent performances provide an illusion of solidity and depth, but there's not much going on dramatically. Porn stud Dirk Diggler is basically the same stupid, narcissistic, deluded, sweet kid at the end of Boogie Nights that he was at the beginning. He's survived coke addiction, money troubles, a savage beating and a drug deal gone bad, but the only lesson he learned is that he should have appreciated his success and the affection of his porn coworkers, and when he returns "home" to director Jack Horner's commune-headquarters, all is forgiven and life returns more or less to the way it was. The film is less of a drama than a collection of things that happen. They happen thrillingly, but the connective tissue (moments of reflection and revelation and challenge) isn't there. The characters suffer assorted reversals of fortune and some of them change, yet we rarely see and sense the changes happening; sometimes the change takes place during a narrative ellipse, like when Julianne Moore's character becomes a documentary filmmaker.

    Anderson is all about what happens, not what it means. His movies remind me of Pauline Kael's review of Goodfellas, in which she astutely observed that young filmmakers don't just want to be like Scorsese, they want to be Scorsese, in order to experience, firsthand, his total passion for directing. With Anderson's arrival in American cinema, Kael's observation gains a poster child. He's excited about movies. His films are illustrations of that excitement, and while they seem to refer to a larger world, they don't really; he's excited that he's so excited, and wants us to feel his excitement. So his fatal flaw is his love of technique for its own sake, rather than showmanship that enlarges the drama and its meanings; his technique suggests depth of feeling and depth of understanding but doesn't deliver the goods.

    Exhibit "A" is that long closeup of Dirk during the drug deal sequence. It goes on forever, and it's mesmerizing, because Anderson has created a genuinely crazy and dangerous set piece. Dirk is gradually realizing that he's fallen as far as he can go, and that he might die. But it's a realization he should have had much earlier?and that we certainly had earlier. It's not a striking enough realization to be photographed in such a look-at-me-ma way. The shot seems to show us a lot but only pretends to?just like Anderson's movies. After seeing Boogie Nights for the first time, my brother commented that the final image, of Dirk Diggler doing a Raging Bull style mirror monologue and then whipping out his gigantic (patently fake) schlong, was a metaphor for Anderson's direction of that movie, with its marathon tracking shots and crazy-quilt of half-forgotten pop songs. The film amounted to a brilliant young filmmaker whipping his dick out and saying, "Get a load of this." It was big-dick direction, but it was a dick made of rubber.

    Anna and The King directed by Andy Tennant Anna and the King is a pretty good reworking of a familiar story. It gives us romance, scenery, war and a splash of political commentary about the real cost of Western imperialism. Mostly it's worth seeing for the astonishing performance of Chow Yun-Fat as King Mongkut of Siam, who hires an English tutor, Anna (Jodie Foster) to teach his brood of 50-some-odd children. Foster is excellent, as she usually is; her English accent is credible and so is her bearing (though the script's slightly anachronistic feminist platitudes don't sit well in period). But Chow is magnificent?a real movie star in an age that has forgotten what a real movie star performance looks like. He has Cary Grant's sly wit and to-the-manor-born charm, Yul Brynner's imperiousness and a still, centered quality that's entirely his own.

    This will come as no surprise to the actor's longtime fans. In America, Chow is known primarily for imported John Woo shoot-'em-ups and their American counterparts, which showcase Chow as the Gene Kelly of guns?a stoic ronin sailing through the air unloading pistols. He's great at that?the best there is, in fact. But there's much more to him than macho mayhem. In Hong Kong?which until the 1997 changeover had the world's closest contemporary equivalent of the old Hollywood studio system?actors were not permitted to do just one thing. They had to know how to fight and shoot, tumble and run, but also how to act. Chow has done historical epics, crime films, intense dramas and kooky cartoonish parodies (the God of Gamblers films, in particular). And he does it all exceptionally well, without hinting that it's difficult or that we should be grateful.

    As King Mongkut, he gives a nearly perfect leading-man performance. He somehow manages to be contemporary (he looks on Anna as an equal virtually from the instant he sees her, mainly because he values education) and suggestive of a vanished era in another part of the world. He can waltz, too. He's believable as a king because he understands that successful leaders make it look easy; his people accept his judgment because his demeanor suggests he's convinced of his own wisdom?so convinced that he doesn't need to be validated by anybody, even Anna. He's tough enough to face down an army and tender enough to interrupt a crucial state banquet to kiss his darling daughter goodnight.

    The character should be preposterous?even the way Brynner played him, he was a bit preposterous?but Chow makes you a believer. Chow doesn't indicate that we should love him because he can do these things. He's not asking for our approval; he's earning our respect.

    If Fox 2000 has the slightest inkling of how terrific this actor is, they'll push him hard for a Best Actor nomination. With proper promotion, he could be the first actor of Chinese descent to be nominated as Best Actor. That the studio waited until this week to bring him to America for press interviews suggests they have no clue what they've got.