Philadelphia Inquirer, Written By Steven Rea
January 2, 2000
Magnolia Bloomed From a Song Lyric
"Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing me again?"
That's the opening line of "Deathly," a song from Aimee Mann. And that one line is all it took to get Paul Thomas Anderson - upstart writer and director of 1997's porn-world opus Boogie Nights - to get cracking on his PC again. He heard Mann's song and a whole scenario - make that multiple scenarios - flashed in his head. The result, the extraordinary Magnolia, opens Friday at the Ritz Theaters.
Anderson gave a listen to Mann's rueful lyrics and saw the image of Melora Walters that now closes his new film. Walters is one of Anderson's cast of repertory regulars - a group that also includes John C. Reilly, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Philip Baker Hall.
"I just started writing backward from there," he explains, on the phone from Los Angeles. "You know, it was this concept of feeling so polluted that you won't invest in love, that you wouldn't give yourself over. I just really wanted to explore that."
And explore it he does. Set during one day and night in the San Fernando Valley - where Anderson, 29, grew up - Magnolia, which also features Jason Robards and an unforgettably daring turn from Tom Cruise, is a tale of intersecting lives, family conflicts, chance, fate, love and hate. More than three hours long, it's an audacious, ambitious, ground-breaking and rule-breaking epic. It's also an incredible showcase for the songs of the aforementioned Mann; in addition to "Deathly," the picture boasts a clutch of the songwriter's keen, cutting tunes. At one point, each of the principal characters is seen, and heard, singing along to the melancholy refrain of a Mann composition. A Magnolia soundtrack - essentially a Mann album with a couple of bonus Supertramp (!?) tracks - has just been released.
Anderson met Mann through her then-boyfriend/ now-husband, Michael Penn. (Brother to actors Sean and Chris, Penn scored Anderson's first two features: Hard Eight and Boogie Nights.) "But I knew her music from before I knew Michael," he says. "I've just always been really inspired by Aimee's music, and this was really a moment to be massively inspired - or massively rip her off, one of the two."
Magnolia, which has already landed on a slew of critics' year-end 10 best lists and received two Golden Globe nominations, has been getting a lot of praise - much of it with the word "Altmanesque" attached. But while it's true that, like Robert Altman's Nashville and Short Cuts, Anderson's film tracks the lives of a large, disparate gang of characters, the filmmaker says there are other influences that had more of an effect.
"Yes, he's an influence," Anderson says of Altman, "but funny enough, a much smaller influence on this movie than you might think. He was a bigger influence on Boogie Nights - I looked to Nashville then, but I wasn't really thinking about him much . . . on this movie."
Instead, it was the "standard influences" - filmmakers who have always wowed Anderson: Stanley Kubrick (whom he got to meet on the set of Eyes Wide Shut, where he had gone to discuss Magnolia with Cruise), Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, David Mamet. "But really it was Aimee Mann," he adds with a laugh. (If there's a Mann fan club, make this guy its president.)
WARNING: the following is sort of a SPOILER, so skip ahead a paragraph if you want to see Magnolia with virgin eyes.
And then there's Charles Fort, an early-20th-century writer and radical muser whose description of mollusks raining from the English skies - the great fall of periwinkles at Worcester in 1881 - triggered a particularly dazzling amphibios ex machina sequence in Anderson's new movie. The numerous visual allusions to Exodus 8:2 planted throughout Magnolia came after the Fortean inspiration - "after the fact," Anderson says.
With the $35 million Magnolia ready to roll into theaters and rattle some brains, Anderson has turned his attention to directing a second music video for his girlfriend, Fiona Apple. The song's called "Limp." (Hmm, maybe Anderson should preside over the Apple fan club instead.)
Beyond that, Anderson doesn't know what he'll be doing next. Except for this: "I definitely know that my next movie will be short - that I can tell you. . . . OK, I got this monkey off my back and now I want to make something that's small, quick and funny. I've had enough trauma for a long time."