Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: Magnolia
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
Magnolia is a pivot to pain, and how the pain in our lives keeps us alone. While Hard Eight’s characters cling to the tenuous connections they have and the crew from Boogie Nights actively (aggressively, even) seeks any meaningful connection, Magnolia explores the reasons why people want connection to begin with and what makes it so hard to find.
A focus here seems to be how personal narratives propel us forward, how they keep us damaged and how forces of nature, including other people, break and build up these stories. Hard Eight and Boogie Nights don’t spend a lot of time with the narratives of the characters besides what’s on screen. Magnolia gives us more. Sometimes this is flashes of context, other times we learn of ache and trauma along with the characters. The most brutal of these is the Gator family’s story. When Melora Walters’ Claudia first responds to her father Jimmy’s (Philip Baker Hall) appearance in her apartment she throws him out. Both the tenor and content of her rage in this scene always made it clear to me, without being explicit, what had taken place between the two of them. When that suspicion is confirmed in an equally heartbreaking scene with Jimmy and Rose Gator (Melinda Dillon) there is some catharsis. There is a parallel to the fate of Robert Ridgely’s pedophile Colonel James in Boogie Nights. Claudia and Rose holding each other as the rain of frogs thwarts Jimmy’s suicide attempt feels right, in the same way the viewer gets the sickly satisfaction of seeing the Colonel bloodied in his prison cell.
Explicitly, this film lifts coincidence as a substantial facilitator of human connection (and an elegant storytelling device). Magnolia meets its characters in moments of extreme vulnerability, self-made or otherwise. This leaves them open to confrontation (confronting themselves and each other) and change, if not always growth.
Coincidence and vulnerability as a catalyst of change plays an important role in Phantom Thread, as well. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock appears ready to let chance enter his life in the form of a parade of young “muses,” Vicky Krieps’ Alma being the latest iteration. These women presumably serve a creative end for him, stimulating him enough but not too much. What he doesn’t expect is Alma’s ability to see and exploit his emotional and physical vulnerability. It is this delicate and intimate manipulation that forces him to acknowledge her as a whole person. It is also his own susceptibility to her control, so different from his sister’s, that lets him acknowledge his vulnerability and see some value in the messy, human parts of life.
Reynolds’ personal narratives, his relationships with his mother and sister, his “curse,” his habits, form the walls of his prison, and part of his strength. That his narrative is tenuous, the way all narrative is, susceptible to puncture by a well-handled blade, makes the grace of Alma’s insertion all the more tender.