When the credits rolled on Magnolia (1999), I remember thinking there was no more reason to make movies. The movie had been made.
I laugh at myself now, but not too loudly. A small part of now-me still thinks that young-me was right: the ultimate movie had been made. It’s all over, and has been for 18 years.
I had just graduated in 1999 and I knew I wanted to be a director. The 90s American independents were everything to me, from Quentin Tarantino to Wes Anderson to Richard Linklater, David Russell to David Fincher. While studying films, I grew to love the French New Wave and classic Hollywood, and fell hard for the 70s gang of De Palma, Coppola, and Scorsese, but those 90s American guys were my guys. And of those guys, I was all about P. T. Anderson.
Paul Thomas Anderson didn’t make me want to be a director; that was Spielberg. He’s not the director I steal from the most; that’s Soderbergh. And the films I relate to the most are Baumbach’s. But Anderson is my favorite, and it’s all because of that film, with the frogs and the singing and all the goddamn regret.
For those who haven’t seen it, this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you what the film is about. I really don’t want to. I’d rather you just watch it. But we all have our roles to play, and so it goes: it’s about one day in the lives of nine people in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. It’s about what they’ve done and what was done to them, and how they go on living—or not.
People make fun of it now, and they made fun of it then. The art house crowd is dismissive of Magnolia, and the mainstream crowd is frustrated by it. I don’t care, I really don’t. My love for it is irrational, like all true love.
I may have watched it over 30 times and, in between the time I wrote the first sentence of this essay and this one, I’ve stopped and watched it again.
“This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you what the film is about. I really don’t want to. I’d rather you just watch it.”
Magnolia wasn’t Anderson’s first film. He did a small movie called Sydney/Hard Eight, a crime film about guilt and love, full of dirty Vegas cool, and it was mostly unavailable in the Philippines despite starring Gwyneth Paltrow. It was good, but if there was enough there to signal what Anderson would eventually become, I wasn’t perceptive enough to see it.
I had seen and been a fan of his second film, Boogie Nights (of course). A portrait of the Los Angeles porn scene from 1977 to the mid-80s, it was young and exciting and had all the sex and drugs that a young filmmaker could want. It had one of the most tension-filled scenes I’d ever seen, and he achieved it with Alfred Molina dancing in his underwear to the song “Jessie’s Girl.” It had Mark Wahlberg in the best role of his life, and the smallest biggest surprise at the end.
Then Anderson did Magnolia and won me over forever. He then proceeded to pull his greatest trick: after making my favorite film, Anderson became a better filmmaker than ever.
Punch-Drunk Love. There Will Be Blood. The Master. Inherent Vice. You could argue that every single one of these films is better than Magnolia. And I wouldn’t disagree, but I would never agree either. Everyone has a greatest love, whether we like to admit it or not, no matter how many times we fall in love. Admitting your love opens you up to ridicule and shame, so most of us hide it as much as we can. But in Magnolia, Anderson was brave enough to take some of the biggest risks I’ve ever seen in filmmaking. Brave enough to be so honest, so fucking honest, about pain and regret. It’s all a young, aspiring filmmaker could have hoped for.
There’s a documentary about the making of Magnolia called That Moment. Before rolling on the first day of shooting, Anderson makes a short speech to the cast and crew.
“So, uh, this is the first shot of this movie that, um, I think we should all unashamedly try and make a great movie. And don’t apologize, let’s just try and make a really, really, really fantastic movie. ’Cause there’s no shame in that, okay?”
Right after making Magnolia, he said that for better or worse, he knew he’d never make a better film. Eighteen years later, I heard him say in an interview that it’s too long, and that he’d cut some storylines now if he could do it all over again. But he didn’t say which of the nine stories he’d cut down, and I’m glad he didn’t, because the thought is too painful for me to think about.
Maybe he’s moved on from Magnolia, and in a way, I have too. I’ve experienced so many transcendent moments in a dark movie theater since that day 18 years ago, from so many amazing filmmakers. I’ve even made some films myself, and tried to face my own demons like Anderson faced his. In a way, though, I didn’t have to. Because Magnolia already existed. The movie had been made.
This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Rogue.
Photo of P.T. Anderson by Donald Maclellan/Getty Images