There are films that you consider to be flawless until you watch them again years later and realize that they aren’t even as good as you thought they were. Instead they’re more like testimonials of their time, grounded in the very moment. Times are constantly changing and many of the films from back then evoke quite different emotions today. But there are also the rare exceptions that haven’t lost any of their magic. Films that years and decades later still manage to captivate just like they did when they were originally released. Magnolia is such a case for me.
I really love the film for all its qualities. I’ve found it at a very difficult time for me personally and it pushed all the right buttons. I’m still quite fascinated by it. Whether it’s the incredibly touching moment when the main characters sing Aimee Mann’s beautifully sad Wise Up, or the catharsis-like finale, which leads into one of the greatest closing shots in film history.
But there is one thing, one particular sequence to be exact, that for me will forever turn Magnolia into a timeless masterpiece. Starting at minute 0:43, director Paul Thomas Anderson orchestrates a sequence that feels like a single montage due to the filmmaking techniques he’s used, and it lasts no less than 34 minutes!
It all begins with the classic tracking shot, just like the late greats like Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick used to do. We see the inner workings of a television studio, and the camera moves fluidly from one person to the next. Then PTA starts to cut to several short vignettes with various other people scattered around the city of Los Angeles. However, the transitions are so cleverly concealed by sudden camera pans that it subconsciously feels like the same continued scene – even if the setting changes.
But the most important key factor to it all is Jon Brion’s score. P.T. Anderson backs the entire half an hour with a repetitive, restless track called Showtime that plays on stoically and incessantly. It doesn’t even bow to the handful of digetic music pieces scattered throughout, but instead just keeps on playing. In addition to that, the clever editing by Dylan Tichenor steadily increases the pacing and just keeps going and going. And, of course, we have cinematographer legend Robert Elswitt, whose camera constantly pans and zooms, sometimes getting uncomfortably close to the faces of the actors, who, in turn, play their hearts out theater-style, guided by Anderson’s direction.
It’s a sequence for the film schools of this world! A 101 on creating intensity by the power of filmmaking craft. It’s the magic that only cinema can bring about. Paul Thomas Anderson once stated that he really felt “that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make” and I’m afraid he’s totally right.