Film How often do you analyse films? I mean really analyse them with a pad and paper and enquiring mind? My film studies degree demanded this of me, especially my dissertation which as we've discussed, at length, investigated network narratives, ensemble pieces and hyperlink films of which Magnolia is a prime example.
One of the inherent structural problems with these films is in allowing their various characters to have complete stories. In some cases, usually if Robert Altman's directing, the strategy is not to bother, to demand that the audience fills in the blanks, force us to utilise our imagination to explain potential inconsistencies or time gaps.
But mainstream films won't allow this. Mainstream storytelling wants, needs, complete stories with a beginning middle and a satisfying conclusion which often leads to systematic works in which narratives pile up on top of one another and in the case of Crash or Love Actually have multiple climaxes mechanically ramming into one another.
Characters are also often very insubstantial. Because we're essentially watching a bunch of short stories edited together, they rely more than most on casting shorthand, Aston Kutcher playing the kinds of characters Ashton Kutcher usually plays. Or Matt Dillon. Or Sandra Bullock when she has her serious face on.
Magnolia sits somewhere in the middle of these extremes. At three hours long it doesn't seem terribly mainstream and the casting with the exception of Tom Cruise doesn't either. But director Paul Thomas Anderson still realises the inherent problems in the form and makes a single, magnificent leap to deal with it.
Knowing it was a key "text", I watched the film several times during that dissertation summer looking for various things, trying to recognise how the various characters interact, how their stories fit together. Pages and pages and pages of notes all of which pointed to it being a classic of the form.
I'd remembered how substantial all the characters felt when I'd first seen the film and after viewing again, whilst mapping out the relationships, I noticed it again. All of the characters had depth and none of the stories really felt short changed, with proper arcs and completely satisfying conclusions.
One the fourth pass, I realised why. The middle hour of the film is only half an hour within the world of the film. Or in other words, it takes us a whole hour to watch a half hour quiz programme. Paul Thomas Anderson does the reverse of what's usually expected and slows down time within the world of the film.
Here's how I explained that within my dissertation:
"During the second act of Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson reorganises time to such an extent that the plot duration is actually slower than the screen duration. With the intercutting of scenes, the moment when Jimmy asks Stanley to join him for the final round of the quiz lasts nearly five minutes and the closing titles for the television programme over three minutes. This allows all of the plotlines to receive due attention, experimental editing actually defragmenting the narrative making it far more coherent than if the plotlines had been allowed to run in the usual causal manner, missing out those events that run in parallel. The dissolution of these barriers, using avant-garde editing to clarify the narrative is another example of hyperlink cinema flirting with post-modern ideas."
"Plot duration" might need some explanation. In film, narrative manifests itself in two ways. The "story" is all the story that a narrative is about. In a murder mystery this is everything from when the motive shows itself right through a conviction or not. The "plot" are the sections of that which actually appear on screen.
In Magnolia, Anderson essentially shows us a bunch of scenes which are happening simultaneously one after the other doing what films rarely do but comics all the time, the "meanwhile" which allows him to show us the scenes which might otherwise have to be inferred later or explained in exposition.
Which is brilliant. Brilliant. Plus it's done in such a way as to be hidden from the viewer. It's not obvious because in these scenes there isn't much cutting between characters and stories, everything is relatively self contained, keeping everything within separate worlds.
It's not until the credits roll on the quiz, once the final credit runs that everything speeds up again, and mayhem breaks loose with the frogs and guns falling from the sky and Amiee Mann and once you've noticed this, the whole film becomes even richer. Oh and I first saw this at the Odeon on London Road should you be keeping track.