Amid the glut of cultural generalizations that capped off last year, the question arose: Where are the millennium movies? This wasn't necessarily a desire for a new batch of end-of-the-world disaster films, but something that could somehow capture the tenuous state we find ourselves in as the odometer rolls over to 2000. One such movie is Magnolia, a grand, ambitious, go-for-broke portrait of the American century ending in a collective emotional meltdown.
"Everyone in the film has reached the end of what they were doing," explains actor William H. Macy, part of Magnolia's large ensemble cast, "and they can't do what they were doing anymore. Everybody's in crisis — they've reached some sort of critical mass. Everybody is realizing that they've got to start something new. Everybody wants forgiveness for what they've done, and all of the people are looking for love.
"If you look at it as a metaphor for the millennium in this country," Macy continues, "I think there are parallels. We can't do in the next hundred years what we've done in the last hundred years. We won't survive. We must do something different — we all know it."
"It's funny because I didn't set out to talk about who we are at the end of the millennium," says writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, "but I realized just by the apocalyptic final stretch of the movie that it might be interpreted that way. I'm fine with that, but it's all just a reflection of what the hell's going on in the world, whether you're addressing it directly or not. What's in the water is going to get in the movie, and what's in the water right now seems to be a great amount of confusion and excitement."
From the short Cigarettes and Coffee (with its O. Henry twists) to the features Hard Eight and Boogie Nights (penetrating, novelistic explorations of moral issues in the morally nebulous worlds of gambling and pornography), Anderson has approached his films with a literary perspective, going beyond the surface of plot mechanisms and diving into the psyches of his conflicted characters.
The sprawling, three-hour Magnolia is his War and Peace, a stunning exploration of the inexplicable and seemingly random forces that affect our lives, those mysterious flukes and mind-boggling events that continually happen, even in a world supposedly tamed by the agents of science and logic.
What the movie expresses, actor Philip Seymour Hoffman says, is the idea that "every minute of your life is completely, completely unknowable. You can't understand what's going on, ever. If you start to understand it, there'll be another question. Life is that amazing. Life is that gray. Life is that un-understandable."
The film opens with a prologue detailing several amazing, coincidental occurrences that have nothing to do with the rest of Magnolia, but establish its thematic concerns.
"If you present those stories in the very beginning," Anderson says, "it buys you the time to take your time and tell a story. Because the promise is there that something wonderful — something of coincidence, something odd — is going to happen in this movie. But basically, it's a scenario — truth, urban legend or both — of past things that can highlight where we're going."
Anderson then rapidly establishes a series of seemingly unrelated storylines, all of which take place in the San Fernando Valley (a suburban cluster outside Los Angeles) during 24 hours distinguished by uncharacteristically violent weather. Initially, the various characters seem hopelessly isolated, but Magnolia gradually draws them together, offering the hope that by joining forces, they can find a way out of their individual pain.
"I think human love is the road to understanding," actress Julianne Moore explains, "and one of the things Paul ends up saying is that the connections you end up with are personal connections — relationship connections to your father or to your mother or to your friends or to your husband. So you see these people coming together and finally getting on the right track."
The inspiration for the film's raw emotions, Anderson emphatically states, is the music of Aimee Mann. Anderson enlisted Mann to write new songs based on his characters, then brought things full circle by using her music as the narrative thread that winds together the divergent elements of Magnolia.
"Paul is really a music guy," says Mann. "His song selection and song placement in Boogie Nights were really interwoven with his story. It was very, very, very thought out: It wasn't just plopped in to make a sound track later. They're songs that reflect what is going on onscreen."
Both Mann and husband Michael Penn have contributed music to one of Anderson's films, thereby becoming part of what actor John C. Reilly jokingly calls "The P.T. Anderson Repertory Company."
Repeatedly using the same actors and crew members "gives him the support he needs to pull off these ambitious projects," Reilly explains, "and in this movie, everyone had to really lay their emotions on the line, so being able to trust the other actors just gets you that much further down the road."
According to performers in that informal troupe, including Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Hoffman, Reilly and Macy, the sure-handed 30-year-old filmmaker provides them with the rare opportunity to push beyond the usual boundaries.
"The thing you need as an actor," explains Julianne Moore, "is somebody with a point of view. Actors are a conduit between the archetypal and the real, so we need to have that vision go through us."
As opinionated as Paul Thomas Anderson is, he believes in ambiguity enough to know that he doesn't need to conclude the metaphysical explorations of Magnolia with a pat, comforting solution.
"It's very important if you bring up a topic," he says, "to make sure that you have a point of view. But also, within that, you can say, 'I'm confused as hell, and I don't have the answers. I'm looking for them just like everybody else'."