Magnolia is primarily an agonised scream at people’s inability to communicate effectively with each other, and at cinema’s great betrayal which denies us a true perception of reality. Paul Thomas Anderson is noted as having said that he feels betrayed by film for having taken away his ability to perceive life’s ‘painful reality’ as every experience has already been seen and falsely experienced through watching movies. I stand by most of what Matthew Sewell says about the film when he argues that ‘Magnolia‘s furious attack on the tropes of personal revelation – that it is possible, and moreover therapeutic or redemptive – challenges a longstanding tenet of Hollywood storytelling’¹ but I don’t think the film quite makes such a simple statement as that. The anti-therapeutic stance is complicated somewhat by the smile of Claudia Gator.
Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) is a character who is perhaps the most outwardly and obviously broken of all the film’s characters. She stays in her apartment doing drugs and deafening herself with music and TV, only occasionally going out in order to pick up guys for casual sex. She’s the victim of her father having molested her as a child, which is of course damaging enough; but just as Reilly’s cop character moves through the film as its guardian angel, taking on the task of judging all the characters’ flaws and faults, his love interest Claudia appears to bear the weight of all the characters’ combined grief and despair. Her body is seemingly racked with pain as she moves awkwardly and in bursts. It is important to note that it is with her that the film ends, because if on some level she represents the combined souls of the characters in the film, then naturally what happens to her is particularly important…
…and what happens to her is that she smiles. It’s a smile which in fact is the only pure moment of communication in the entirety of the film that cuts through the hysterical babble and hits us with an emotional jolt that’s so subtly powerful it becomes transcendental. She is visited by Reilly’s character and whilst he speaks to her she has a revelation that perhaps she deserves his love, perhaps she isn’t a bad person and that as much as life won’t be easy she now has a shot at redemption.
When I spoke to Melora recently we talked about the ending of Magnolia. I wanted to know how she prepared herself for a moment which had to be so seemingly effortless and slight, and yet which carried the weight of a heavy three hour epic. She struggled to put it into words saying ‘I don’t have any answers…I read the script, we talked about it, there was a table read… I just gave myself over to her and Paul. I thought I was just acting, being Claudia, but was told later that I brought her home, and was very difficult to be around’. We discussed how working with Anderson was very intimate. How nothing else seems to exist whilst they work, and I got the impression that the approach to the character was very instinctual and that it was grounded in emotions rather than concepts. It became clear to me whilst talking to her that the film reaches its highest level of clarity when it is driven by emotion rather than language. That trying to describe how to approach that smile goes beyond simple expression and into the realm of emotional communication, an area which habitually seems to defy language’s attempts to add sense and order to it.
Sewel writes that ‘Anderson does not explore ways to revitalize a once-useful vocabulary by closing the gap between “true, painful life” and the melodramatic conventions of Hollywood cinema – rather, he posits that the vocabulary cannot be revitalized, and also that there are no other available options. Cinema is his native tongue, and yet it prevents him from saying what he would like to say’. Now if Sewel is right, and I believe he is, then is it a failure of Anderson’s to fall back on the tropes of cinema by celebrating melodrama and ending with a message that feels redemptive and positive? I don’t think so. Instead of just giving us melodrama he amps up the level of melodrama here to a level that draws attention to itself as being, on some level, artificial. We recognise that cinema normally doesn’t mirror reality when the film doesn’t draw to a neatly wrapped up close, and then we are prepared to embrace the hope which Gator’s smile brings having already been made aware that life is messy and we can’t trust cinema to guide us through it.
The film opens by telling us and reminding us of cinema’s great lie; that things work themselves into neatly controlled scenarios where chance pulls everything together in the end for a moment of great revelation – but we don’t get that. Instead a storm of frogs comes out of a clear sky and grants the characters the chance to reappraise their situation. Some like Macy’s character get to talk things over and hopefully can reenter their life with a new perspective, some die full of regret like Earl Partridge and many are still stranded in their lives and we can’t be completely sure if this brief reprieve will give them perspective or whether they will return to how they lived before. Instead of some great unified ending which we have come to expect from cinema we are given a smile from Claudia Gator. A small gesture which blasts through the third wall to remind us that despite cinema not truly equipping us to deal with the world, and that despite the fact that things are never neatly wrapped up, ultimately you’ll muddle through it all and everything will be OK. Paradoxically Anderson is hampered in saying what he wants to say by the conventions and restrictions of cinema, but by finally stripping back the shouting and pain and relying solely on a tiny human and emotion filled gesture, he says more than most directors can hope to say in their lifetimes.