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Not making it past the first 30 minutes is a big red flag, because much of the film's strengths are to be found in its first 20 minutes.

I wonder if those of you who don't care for the film would answer this question for me. It's not a challenge, and I don't purport to have a succinct answer to this myself, but:

What is Magnolia about?

You probably already knew this, but if you didn't watch the film all the way through, you won't be able to answer the question. Still, do chime in if you want to respond based on what you've seen of the film.

I'm wondering if the negative reaction is based on one's answer to the question above. Darren mentions that one of the film's strengths is its "artifice," but doesn't talk about the film's meaning. Presumably he finds the film's meaning to be one of its weaknesses. Maybe he wrote about this earlier in this thread; I haven't gone back through it.

What does the film mean? What is its message, if any?

I agree with Ebert that films aren't just about what they're about, but about how they're about what they're about. But the latter still requires us to determine what they're about.

So ... what is Magnolia about?

[For the record: Ebert's review of the film]

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I used the words "artifice" and "momentum" earlier to describe what I like about Magnolia, specifically, but I'd also apply them to P.T. Anderson's work, in general. On a purely visceral level, I've enjoyed the heck out of my first viewing of each of his films. (I usually call Punch-Drunk Love my favorite, and I now wonder it that's because it's the only one I've seen just once.) The guy has such a natural, enviable command of image-making. Magnolia is an outrageously exhausting film to watch -- one remarkable sequence after enough, the camera dashing from image to image with an urgent, chug-a-chug momentum. The reason I don't particularly mind it being included in the Top 100 is because I think Anderson is a brilliant craftsman and this film -- or, more accurately, the experience of watching it -- elicits something of the horrors of sin and the need for grace.

But with each subsequent viewing of Anderson's films, I find less to hold on to. Without that aesthetic rush (or with it lessened), I lose patience with the artifice and superficiality. Anderson is a moralist, but I'm not sure if his morality is grounded in anything beyond a fairly simple notion of innocence. Or, as a film critic friend summed it up a few days ago when we were talking about Magnolia, "The point of the movie is: be nice to kids."

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What is Magnolia about?

You probably already knew this, but if you didn't watch the film all the way through, you won't be able to answer the question. Still, do chime in if you want to respond based on what you've seen of the film.

I don't really think MAGNOLIA has a message, per se, but I do think that "You may think you're done with the past, but the past ain't done with you," does sum up some of what I think the film is about.

MAGNOLIA was the first P.T. Anderson film I'd seen. I think I first watched it back in 2001. I didn't really like it. I thought it was long and pretentious. But I re-watched it last year and I see now what everyone else saw in it. Having watched BOOGIE NIGHTS, PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD (which might be my favourite film of the decade) I see it as a part of a substantial body of work, and probably the most successful of these kind of "hyper-link" films, for lack of a better word.

I wrote last year after watching the film that:

I feel that the film is definitely more than just about chance. As the narrator states early, it cannot be mere chance. I'm reminded of Richard Dreyfus in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS: "This means something." *SPOILER* While the rain of frogs (foreshadowed through the references to [Exodus] 8:2) that climaxes the film may be the "act of God" that is necessary to force a move towards forgiveness and reconciliation, we are reminded that the second plague was not enough for Pharoah to give up the children of Israel. This may not be enough for these characters either, but as Jim Kurring tells us, it's a learning curve. Who do we forgive? Who gets punished? Aimee Mann's songs, which provide the soundtrack for the film as well as the inspiration for Anderson's screenplay, ask us simply "Won't you save me?" We're not always able to wise up until it's too late.

I don't think MAGNOLIA is Anderson's best, but I think it's a significant work of art. It could have probably done with a trim or two, but I don't mind having it on our list, though I'm not sure how hard I'd campaign to keep it on the list as long as we have THERE WILL BE BLOOD.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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I think this is one of those films where a case can be made that it plays out better on a movie screen than a TV screen. I saw it several times in its original run, and never tired of it. Bought the DVD when it came out, and could never get through it. I thought, well maybe it's not as good a I remember. Saw it again two years on a big screen, and absolutely loved it. Have tried since to watch the DVD... it just doesn't lend itself to the same experience. I have a hard time thinking of another film where I've reacted so strongly in a negative way to the home viewing experience.

This. I saw Magnolia twice in theaters in 1999 and loved it. I bought the DVD when it finally came out and watched it at home. Once. Viewing it at home just did not pack the emotional and spiritual punch seeing it in a theater did. I don't believe it's because Magnolia isn't a great film. This is a 12 course meal prepared by a master chef. It's not a greasy cheeseburger like Ghost Rider. It's best enjoyed in a nice restaurant, not at home in a take out box. You have to partake of it the way it was meant to be received in order to appreciate it. Or to totally overuse the food metaphor, "digest" it.

Edited by Backrow Baptist
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Darren H wrote:

: (I usually call Punch-Drunk Love my favorite, and I now wonder it that's because it's the only one I've seen just once.)

It's also his shortest film, isn't it?

... checking ...

Yep, it's only 95 minutes. Anderson's next-shortest feature film is Sydney a.k.a. Hard Eight, which runs to 101 minutes. His other three films are all 155 minutes or longer (with Magnolia, at 188 minutes, easily the longest).

So, anyway, maybe the relative brevity of that film helps one not to lose patience with it.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I'm among those who haven't revisited the film in several years, although Ali and I will say to each other once every six months or so that we should watch it again. I wonder, though, if some of the strength of the film from a narrative perspective has been diluted by the last ten years of art films and pseudo-art films, where sprawling stories of seemingly-unconnected people who are then thematically connected has become such a well-worn trope.

It's funny how sometimes the imitators make you like the original more, and sometimes the imitators make you like the original less. Recently I saw the Israeli film Jellyfish, which could have been great if the filmmakers had concentrated on one of their plot threads instead of overreaching to keep three plot-balls in the air. A few days later, I saw the David Koepp abortion Secret Window, which is another one of those split personality/the antagonist is you movies, and all the critical acumen I could muster in response to them was: "These movies make me wish Magnolia and Fight Club had never been made."

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Not making it past the first 30 minutes is a big red flag, because much of the film's strengths are to be found in its first 20 minutes.

I wonder if those of you who don't care for the film would answer this question for me. It's not a challenge, and I don't purport to have a succinct answer to this myself, but:

What is Magnolia about?

You probably already knew this, but if you didn't watch the film all the way through, you won't be able to answer the question. Still, do chime in if you want to respond based on what you've seen of the film.

I'm wondering if the negative reaction is based on one's answer to the question above. Darren mentions that one of the film's strengths is its "artifice," but doesn't talk about the film's meaning. Presumably he finds the film's meaning to be one of its weaknesses. Maybe he wrote about this earlier in this thread; I haven't gone back through it.

What does the film mean? What is its message, if any?

I agree with Ebert that films aren't just about what they're about, but about how they're about what they're about. But the latter still requires us to determine what they're about.

So ... what is Magnolia about?

[For the record: Ebert's review of the film]

Christian, I appreciate your asking. I don't think I have any qualms with the film's meaning (well-stated by other responders, so I won't repeat it here). My issues were with the hyperkinetic cutting within and between individual character arcs, coupled with the overwrought acting. For me, these qualities were irritating and do a disservice to the film's meanings. I guess I find it hard to contemplate spiritually deep matters when I'm on sensory overload.

I write this as someone who had previously seen Magnolia two or three times on the small screen and loved it. I chalk this up to my evolving film tastes, not necessarily a loathing of the intersecting narrative genre: I found Crash to be heavy-handed in its sermonizing, with unconvincing performances; while Babel was irreparably flawed if slightly more interesting. On the other hand, Hawaii, Oslo is a personal favorite and overall much more successful than any of these films in unifying visual style, well-paced narrative, and spiritual richness.

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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I guess I find it hard to contemplate spiritually deep matters when I'm on sensory overload.

Yes. MAGNOLIA's biggest problem is its "too much"-ness.

I write this as someone who had previously seen Magnolia two or three times on the small screen and loved it. I chalk this up to my evolving film tastes, not necessarily a loathing of the intersecting narrative genre: I found Crash to be heavy-handed in its sermonizing, with unconvincing performances; while Babel was irreparably flawed if slightly more interesting. On the other hand, Hawaii, Oslo is a personal favorite and overall much more successful than any of these films in unifying visual style, well-paced narrative, and spiritual richness.

And what of SHORT CUTS, MAGNOLIA's predecessor?

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I saw Magnolia in a PTA marathon last year where I saw all of his films in a week or two. It's still my favorite, and I'm glad it moved up the list. That said, I would have loved it if Hawaii, Oslo would have made the list as well, and I would have really loved it if it would have sat right next to Magnolia, kind of like The Apostle and Tender Mercies in their latest positions on the list.

Andrew, Maybe we need to just bump the thread every few months until a few more catch on.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

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What's amazing about that trilogy is that they just build and build to a perfect third film climax. They're incredibly redemptive, beautifully made films. The first film is a real dud, though, but there's no narrative overlap between them -- you can see any of them at once. I highly recommend both Hawaii, Oslo and Troubled Water, however if you were only going to see one I would recommend the latter.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I haven't the brainpower tonight to add meaningfully to the conversation, but feel like I should out myself and proudly proclaim that I was completely overwhelmed by the film when I saw it onscreen originally, knew it to be an abiding favourite, and saw it settle at #2 or #3 on my all-time favourites list. I've revisited it a couple times since, once on a 52" screen, and I believe also on my laptop computer. Still completely and absolutely gobsmacked by the film, beginning to end.

I wonder if people who have lost their enthusiasm for Magnolia are people who have found their tastes increasingly drawn to contemplative, understated films. It's a natural enough progression as certain cinematic tastes mature, it seems to me. And I could see, then, how the flash and bravado of Magnolia could seem thin, something one might outgrow. Comments, any of you who've lost your taste for the film?

I haven't found that my own tastes have undergone that particular change as the years progress. But it's a trend I've seen in other cinephiles. Just wondering aloud.

I've posted a couple hundred of my Soul Food Movies write-ups at letterboxd

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I wonder if people who have lost their enthusiasm for Magnolia are people who have found their tastes increasingly drawn to contemplative, understated films.

Maybe that reflects other individuals' reactions. Me, I'm not necessarily drawn to "contemplative, understated" films any more than I was before (my favorite filmmakers: Kubrick and Welles, guys unafraid of making a grand statement). I've just come to find MAGNOLIA's particular "too much-ness" irritating, like being shouted at through a loudspeaker for a few hours.

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I wonder if people who have lost their enthusiasm for Magnolia are people who have found their tastes increasingly drawn to contemplative, understated films.

Maybe that reflects other individuals' reactions. Me, I'm not necessarily drawn to "contemplative, understated" films any more than I was before (my favorite filmmakers: Kubrick and Welles, guys unafraid of making a grand statement). I've just come to find MAGNOLIA's particular "too much-ness" irritating, like being shouted at through a loudspeaker for a few hours.

And my experience with MAGNOLIA has been a growing appreciation for it. Though I probably like it least of Anderson's films I've seen (haven't seen HARD EIGHT). I think MAGNOLIA's "too much-ness" manifests itself through a lack of narrative unity (not that this is a pre-requisite for cinematic greatness), rather than style. I think the film would actually benefit from the trimmming of a couple of story lines.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Yes, I'm about to quote myself:

Anderson is a moralist, but I'm not sure if his morality is grounded in anything beyond a fairly simple notion of innocence. Or, as a film critic friend summed it up a few days ago when we were talking about Magnolia, "The point of the movie is: be nice to kids."

I wonder if any of you strongly agree or disagree with this?

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What's amazing about that trilogy is that they just build and build to a perfect third film climax. They're incredibly redemptive, beautifully made films. The first film is a real dud, though, but there's no narrative overlap between them -- you can see any of them at once. I highly recommend both Hawaii, Oslo and Troubled Water, however if you were only going to see one I would recommend the latter.

I recently watched Troubled Water and found it to be a very moving story. I think that Troubled Water was a leap forward for Erik Poppe from Hawaii, Oslo like Punch-Drunk Love was a leap forward for Anderson from Magnolia: in moving from an Altman-esque homage of intersecting storylines toward more focused characters and storytelling. Although I still enjoy both Hawaii, Oslo and Magnolia for their ambition and because I admire the structural challenges of that kind of plot interweaving.

Edited by Crow
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Yes, I'm about to quote myself:

Anderson is a moralist, but I'm not sure if his morality is grounded in anything beyond a fairly simple notion of innocence. Or, as a film critic friend summed it up a few days ago when we were talking about Magnolia, "The point of the movie is: be nice to kids."

I wonder if any of you strongly agree or disagree with this?

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, but I’ve been thinking about this since you wrote it. It’s not entirely wrong, but I see it a bit differently. Maybe the key message is: Don’t be horrible to your kids.

That puts the onus on parents not to do things that twist and alter the lives of their children in bad ways. The things adults do have repercussions for years. I’ve heard parents scoff at this, but it’s obviously true. And I think about it often as I raise my own children. I’ll be unjustly blamed for some things when they grow older, no doubt, but I also won’t be without fault. I can only hope and pray that I don’t damage them.

Do we know about the parents of all the characters in Magnolia? I don’t remember anything about the parent(s) of the John C. Reilly character. What accounts for his kindness? Or are we supposed to see him as disordered?

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I don't purport to have a succinct answer to this myself, but:

What is Magnolia about? ... What does the film mean? What is its message, if any?

These are questions that should be asked on a lot more of our film threads these days.

I don't really think MAGNOLIA has a message, per se, but I do think that "You may think you're done with the past, but the past ain't done with you," does sum up some of what I think the film is about ... I don't think MAGNOLIA is Anderson's best, but I think it's a significant work of art.

I don't think I have any qualms with the film's meaning (well-stated by other responders, so I won't repeat it here). My issues were with the hyperkinetic cutting within and between individual character arcs, coupled with the overwrought acting. For me, these qualities were irritating and do a disservice to the film's meanings. I guess I find it hard to contemplate spiritually deep matters when I'm on sensory overload.

Magnolia is about a large and convoluted cast of characters - the director, who has never ever even heard of the Biblical plagues of Egypt before, decided he wanted to try for something meaningful, so one day, thinking to himself, he thought it would be a good idea to add ...

- a couple characters who are dying from cancer

- a trophy wife who decides she doesn't want to be left her husband's money because she loves him

- a couple characters who will attempt, at some point in the film, to commit suicide and fail

- an ex-child-celebrity with a gay crush who loveably decides getting braces will attract his crush with braces but he doesn't have the money to get bartender attracting braces so he decides to commit a burglary to obtain said money and then decides to give the money back because he doesn't know why he took the money in the first place, hijinks ensue, but he gets to ask about love

- a total of at least three characters with father issues

- a character who teaches "Female Seduction 101" to nerds and losers who don't know how to talk to women because he hates women now because his father cheated on his mother in the past and that means that women need to be ... I don't know, something ... oh, but this is relevant see, because he has a hard time believing in true love

- all the male characters have repressed feelings and emotions that they aren't in touch with yet

- hmmmm, not meaningful enough, let's throw in a couple abused children ... um, a couple drug addicted characters would be nice too ... conversational confessions of adultery and infidelity ... I know, I know, let's have a game show in the film ... and I was reading this Fort philosopher guy talking about unexplained phenomena, that's deep, I'll add a frog torrential downpour

- you know, what this film is still missing is a sing-a-long ... and a police officer who talks A LOT, even when no one else is there ... about LOVE

... you add all of those ingredients, stuff them all into one single film, mix them together, cook for 188 minutes and you better damn well get some meaningful flavor out of it, right? Oh, son of a gun, he forgot to have one of his child characters discover that he was dying from leukemia.

Edited by Persiflage
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I think MAGNOLIA's "too much-ness" manifests itself through a lack of narrative unity (not that this is a pre-requisite for cinematic greatness), rather than style. I think the film would actually benefit from the trimmming of a couple of story lines.

I think style definitely comes into it--particularly in terms of how Anderson has written the characters and frames the performances--but it's definitely overloaded in narrative terms.

Yes, I'm about to quote myself:

Anderson is a moralist, but I'm not sure if his morality is grounded in anything beyond a fairly simple notion of innocence. Or, as a film critic friend summed it up a few days ago when we were talking about Magnolia, "The point of the movie is: be nice to kids."

I wonder if any of you strongly agree or disagree with this?

Well, I don't think MAGNOLIA is terribly coherent, so boiling it down to a single point doesn't work for me.

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Persiflage, I understand that you don't like the film (I don't really like it either), but most of your sarcastic bullet points aren't even accurate, so I don't see that they contribute anything useful to the conversation.

I've been distracted by this question of Anderson's moral code (for lack of better word) since realizing that, while many characters in Boogie Nights suffer consequences for their behavior, Anderson doesn't stand in judgment over any of them except for the sleazy porn producer who is also a pedophile and who, as I recall (it's been several years), winds up in jail at the end of the film. There seems to be the same code at work in Magnolia, where everyone is allowed a glimpse of grace except for the daughter-molesting game show host.

Along those lines, I see the adult "heroes" of his films (John C. Reilly in Hard Eight and Magnolia, Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, and maybe even Dirk Diggler) as being naive man-children. "All is permissible (if regrettable) except the corruption of innocence" seems to be his working theme. There Will be Blood doesn't fit so neatly into this schema, which I take as a positive development, even if I have mixed feelings about that film as well.

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Persiflage, I understand that you don't like the film (I don't really like it either), but most of your sarcastic bullet points aren't even accurate, so I don't see that they contribute anything useful to the conversation.

ok, I edited it to fix my exaggeration of the number of characters dying from cancer. I also withheld the impulse to add the idea of beginning the movie by having your narrator discuss the Darwin Awards.

That last post was joking, but it was also an explanation for why it was impossible for me to like the film. Christian asked those of us who don't like it what we thought it meant. Sometimes, there's just a film where the filmmakers wanted to make something meaningful and philosophical, but were too lazy at the time to put very much skill into crafting it. So, instead, they just add quantity. But if you pile on all the cliches and truisms you can possibly think of, so you have 10 times more than anyone else's film will, do you make the film meaningful just by throwing them all against the screen and hoping that something will stick? I didn't like Magnolia for the same reasons I could never like the TV Show, Lost.

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I really feel like I'd need to watch Magnolia again since its been years since I've seen it, but I don't think I could be convinced that it was lazy craftsmanship. Incoherent, but the craft on display in the movie still sticks with me, the sing-a-long a key example of it.

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I know you were just kidding, Persiflage. I hope this doesn't sound too obnoxious, but I actually think Magnolia is an interesting test case for our list. I've already admitted that I think P.T. Anderson is a brilliant image-maker, which is why I'm more than willing to wrestle with his films even when I don't particularly like them, but it would never occur to me to call him a "spiritually significant" filmmaker. That opinion puts me at odds with the majority opinion of this forum, and I'm now curious to understand the disconnect. I can be convinced that I'm missing something, but general opinions and straw-man arguments on either side of the debate aren't really that useful. I think this is what Ken Morefield was talking about in that other thread when he said that he misses reading arguments for a film, as opposed to general statements of opinion or preference.

For example, I can think of a lot of films that are built from cliches and truisms, as you put it, that are great films. Make Way for Tomorrow is a good example. There's no way I should be so moved by a film like that, but I am. Deeply moved. And so the trick is trying to understand what McCarey does in that film that elevates it miles above the stock characters and time-worn cliches. That's the job of the critic, I think -- or the voting A&F member. Despite my frustrations with Magnolia I think it's brilliantly executed. The craftsmanship on display is astounding. And even the oversized performances makes sense in the highly stylized, surreal, fable-like world Anderson has created. Again, I think my beef with the film is its shallowness, but I can't say that I'm ready yet to make a solid argument against it on those grounds.

Maybe we should reinstitute the old A&F film club with a reevaluation of Magnolia?

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