dir. paul thomas anderson
st. tom cruise, julianne moore, william h. macy, jason robards
I know you like stories. I like stories too, yet I'm in no mood to tell one. Here instead are assorted comic details with the occasional stop-over in magic tricks and romance. I now hand over the pen to one hard-boiled soul -
Part 1 The Set-Up
I wake at one in the afternoon. It's edging towards cold, and all I can taste is vodka. It's everywhere. It stains my mouth, burns my eyes, blocks my ears. I reel around my office, my back aching from another night spent trying to catch some comfortable downtime in my extremely uncomfortable chair. What to do now? I crave some stimulation down on Oxford Street, but not the standard kind. I need something to tickle my mind. I go by the bookstore to buy a novel for the weekend, looking every bit the slovenly mess a film critic needs to be. There's something in my gait and witty conversation which reeks of liquor heavy breakfasts and astute observations on pornography throughout the ages. I'm a washout, and anyone who took the time to observe this smelly specimen would share my self-deprecating judgment in a second. Despite this, my bleary eyes register a knockout brunette coming my way. She saunters over and runs her hand through my hair.
- "Hey you. Your hair's grown."
What the hell? I m being compared to an older me from a dame who doesn t know me from Adam. I appreciated the attention, but why?
- "Excuse me. Do I know you?"
- "You will, in time."
I knew something was wrong from the get-go. This broad coulda had any fella in here yet she chose me. It was crazy. I hadn't shaved in three days, my shirt was creased and my hair was as greasy as a back-alley wop with a switchblade. I couldn't have picked up the check at McDonald's let alone a hot number like her. She started up again.
- "Listen, why don't we blow this pop stand. I've got a preview ticket to a secret screening on later tonight. Until then you could, entertain me."
This was too easy. She was falling onto her back without the slightest push. This whole scene was fishier than the New York docks at first light. I grabbed the ticket from her hand.
- "Thanks toots, but I prefer to see films alone."
I walked out of the shop before she had a chance to slap me. Who knew what she had in store for me? Pleasure? Pain? Probably both. Whatever it was, I didn't need it. I was sick of humanity, sick of the crowds and the cold. She could've been working for the mob, a seductress with a sticky end in store for me. She could've been a lonely dame who needed someone as screwed up she was. It wasn't worth finding out, and I told myself to forget about it. I scanned the ticket, hoping for some comfort. It gave a time and a place, but not the name of the film. I was getting sick of this shit. Couldn't I get one straight answer? Couldn't one person be honest with me? I made my way to George St. expecting the worse.
Part 2 Delusions Of The Privileged
I have fallen friends. Preview screenings can rot even the most resilient mind. I was bamboozled by the promise of an exclusive, and I adopted the smugness of one who'd seen it before you. I was one of the first people in Australia to see Magnolia, the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight). Was the film any good? Not really. Did the crowd show it's appreciation? Judging by the comments I heard outside the cinema, not really. Did Anderson gain any insight by screening this rough cut to a clueless George St. audience? Let me put it this way. To my left sat a group of 10-17 year olds who played Pong on their mobile phones, complained about how long the movie was running and then panicked when they realised they'd missed the start of Dawson's Creek. To my right sat a man of the doubled-over raincoat squad who looked like he'd just walked out of a particularly unfunny Benny Hill skit. The rest of the crowd was made up of the usual yuppie diaspora (not an cliched insult, they agree with me) and whiny moronic dates. What was Anderson to make of this riffraff? An amoeba couldn't learn anything from these people.
Without getting all righteous and huffy, I think they should have had some goddamned respect. We were seeing something amazing, something momentarily unique. Forget about the film, just observe the circumstances. What else could these people have done tonight? Everyone seems seduced by the promise of supper and an early bed. When Anderson first warned us that some of the editing was a little patchy in places, the crowd unleashed a collective wail as if they were being made to watch repeats of All Together Now for thirty seven hours straight. How pampered are these people? Do they have a clue about how films get made? Maybe their apathy seems enormous only when compared to my antithetical enthusiasm. Quite frankly, I love preview screenings.
You can almost sympathise with the critic who writes great reviews for films that are clearly awful. They've been tricked by the empty theatre (all that space!), the complimentary drinks, the shiny photographs. You're not lining up like a sucker on Friday night. You're royalty, or at least you think you are, and publicists are more than aware of the thinking that goes on in the critics head. You wanna get invited back? BEHAVE. You wanna another free drink? PROMOTE. It isn't the sign of a weak mind if it's seduced by cinematic privilege. Everyone wants to be special, to have that unique conversation with the press lady, to slurp down the tasty beverage of your choice.
I said almost.
After that feeling of privilege has passed and your annoyance at the world subsides you have to accept the film as a thing in its own right and not just as the full stop in your lovely sentence. All that has come before this is great for a dinner party, a five or ten minute tale with optional rumination (and it struck as I waited in line that life is really great), but now it's time to hanker down for some art.
Part 3 What is referred to in the industry as a "review"
As I briefly mentioned above, the screening was of a rough cut. The film was just over three hours long (and you feel every minute in this film), and when asked after the screening, Anderson said he might chop about 20 minutes off the film. Some special effects work still needed to be completed and this took a little away from the finale, being heavily reliant on those lovely computer-based creations. Still, apart from the occasional crude transition, some odd pacing and the aforementioned FX work, the film was as polished as any final cut you're likely to see from a major studio.
Come to think of it, maybe all those disgruntled free ticket holders had a point when they walked out whinging. This film has some major problems. First of all, I usually don't object to long films, but this movie seems to think its length is a symbol of its own worthiness, so you get a two hour film of biting observation, sharp characterisations and some interesting dialogue fattened up and let out to three hours. Also, Anderson seems to be infatuated with the idea of cross-cutting, so much so that this film never seems to settle down for a second to let anything sink in. Sure, it's about frantic LA lives that don't have time to stop, but after awhile you have a headache and very little sympathy for any of the characters. You can either make a film about heedless LA lives in your own style or you can begin to accelerate wildly like everyone else. Anderson can obviously handle big setups and daunting film projects (Boogie Nights was a Goodfellas-era Scorsese-size military operation) yet he seems hung up on bombast and the possibility of squeezing in just one more scene, one more scene.
A lot of people cried "Altman" when they first saw Boogie Nights, and once again Altman comes to mind (especially Short Cuts), yet its really only one type of Altman film. Magnolia is straight from the Nashville "American Classic" school of film-making, yet that style of film-making requires a Last Goodbye every now and then. Altman veered between expansive, ambitious pictures and smaller scale productions, and maybe Anderson should look to this type of artistic progression for a model for his own film-making. With Magnolia he's trying to make the great American film yet he hasn't quite got everything worked out yet (how could he?) so it just comes across as gross, inflated and self-consciously "important".
Still, there are a lot of good things to take from the film. Many of the performances are excellent, in particular William H. Macy, who gives another fabulous portrayal of a loser for whom nothing seems to go right. And despite his over-reaching, Anderson is a skilled film-maker, and a lot of the film works in small doses (one scene here, one piece of dialogue there). Maybe that's the best way to look at the film, as a desperate grab for resonance while everything starts to speed up horribly down on the freeway.
Perhaps Anderson should look back to his first film, the stark, restrained (and almost unseen) Hard Eight, a film you might find floating around Foxtel one very late night. It's quiet, focused and assured, a confident strut compared to Magnolia's flailing run. Maybe that's the only way to recover from an indulgence like this, to deliberately limit yourself for awhile. Maybe we'll see a 84 minute film with four characters next time around. Now that would be a real challenge.
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