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Magnolia- An Appreciation



My wife had never seen Magnolia, so we watched it last night (and this morning). I remembered that it was excellent, but, with fifteen years of life experience in between, I feel it is a masterpiece. Written and directed by then 28 year-old Paul Thomas Anderson, it is a series of interconnected stories that take place in roughly one 24 hour period in the San Fernando Valley. (Magnolia is an important street that runs across much of the Valley.) A meditation on what binds and separates people; their shame, loss, guilt, redemption, love, and devotion to each other. One of the most observant and truthful depictions of how people really behave, it is also like a surreal dream with a touch of divine intervention. In other words, a lot like life.

The writing is brilliantly subtle – much of what is communicated is not with what people are saying but with small gestures or the words between the words. Like when lonely policeman John C. Reilley sees the woman he becomes infatuated with he drops his baton down the stairs.

The casting was astonishing. There are a host of excellent performances from actors who were not well-known at the time: the aforementioned John C. Reilley, Philip Seymour Hoffman, even a cameo from Patton Oswalt. It also featured great performances from Julianne Moore, Jason Robards in his last role, and, in the most real performance of his career, Tom Cruise, as a spellbinding misogynist whose anger boils just below the surface.

But it is the music that connects all of the disparate stories together. The criminally underrated Jon Brion wrote what I think is the pinnacle of his work – a long hypnotic orchestral poem quite different from his better-known pop material. (Even if there is one piece that is clearly a re-working of Hans Zimmer’s Journey to the Line from The Thin Red Line.) And Aimee Mann’s outstanding songs – especially “Wise Up” and “Save Me” – are among the best uses of licensed music in any film I’ve ever seen.

Perhaps the most incredible miracle of the film is that it was made at all. Can you imagine the conversation between the director and the money people over its climactic scene? “Then a bunch of frogs fall from the sky and…” “Frogs? Did you say <frogs>???”

This film was made in 1999, an astonishingly productive period for film music. Besides Brion’s Magnolia and Zimmer’s Thin Red Line (1998), there was The Red Violin (John Corigliano, 1999), and American Beauty (Thomas Newman, 1999) among dozens of other outstanding scores. In part motivated by this explosion of beautiful work, I moved to LA in 1999. Many believe that the art-form of film scoring went into an immediate decline shortly thereafter from which it has not recovered. Coincidence?

Well worth Netflixing!

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