I’ve been thinking about a particular scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia a lot lately. Definitely since I got into grad school. Probably as far back as when I first saw the movie in high school. No, not the frogs. This scene.
I’m still working through what this moment of rupture “means” in the movie — a scene like this, its lighting, orchestration, camera positioning, cutting, editing, and syncing can certainly not be seen as random, even if the moment may read that way to an audience. I know of scholarship by folks like Jane Feuer, Tom Schatz, and Linda Williams on the musical. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, please share.
In terms of music, I think Magnolia might be up there with There Will Be Blood, which contains one of the most fascinating scores of recent memory — Johnny Greenwood’s ominous, creeky, ruthlessly mechanistic score at once evokes the cruel inhumanity of machines and systems as well the catastrophically faulty humanness of the people who create them.
Perhaps similar things could be said of Magnolia, except that the systems are both networks of people and how individuals’ inner workings are connected. People are at once routinized by work and interpersonal interactions and at times completely destroyed by them, and through this they are intrinsically linked.
However, like the movie, I think Aimee Mann’s magnificent songs have a tremendous amount of humanity. Perhaps Anderson would agree, as Mann was his muse for writing Magnolia (along with the work of screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, particularly Network). There’s something worn and hard-won about Mann’s songwriting that clearly informs the characters. I specifically think of Melora Walters’s Claudia Wilson Gator, a cocaine addict and struggling survivor of incest and child abuse, who actually quotes a Mann lyric in a conversation.
But this scene. Man. It kills me every time. There’s the obvious excitement I get from a song being used this way in a movie (which may read like a stand-alone music video here, so I’d definitely encourage watching the movie for its larger context). I remember freaking out when I saw Richard Kelly’s ultra-divisive Southland Tales and got to the scene where Justin Timberlake’s war-wrecked soldier lip syncs the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done” in an arcade. I myself have always wondered if anyone could pull a full-cast total rupture spectacular using Queen’s “Somebody to Love.” Sure, it’s indulgent. But I think scenes like the one from Magnolia suggest the mythic, gut-level power a song can have to make us — any of us, all of us — feel things and attach sounds that make tangible our deepest secrets, saddest moments, and biggest personal turmoils.
While the same things can be said of Jon Brion’s score, awash with beautiful, poignant, wordless moments, I think the presence of Aimee Mann’s vocals and, along with it, her lyrics, importantly breaks up some of the male authorship inherent in Paul Thomas Anderson’s role as writer-director. Mann’s presence becomes a marker of identification, really an unofficial narrator of sorts (the movie has an official narrator who is male).
She’s also the portal through which we understand the female characters. Again, this is evident through the presence and characterization of Claudia Gator, as well as Julianne Moore’s character Linda Partridge, a woman married to a wealthy, elderly man close to death and is just now realizing that she loves her husband after years of neglect and must part with him. You can even see the actress listening to the song on a discman and singing along to it during a shoot in the making-of featurette on the New Line Platinum Series DVD. Pointedly, Moore’s character sings the line “Prepare a list of what you need/Before you sign away the deed.” This is the part of the scene where I always, without fail, well up.
Thus, this moment of rupture, seemingly nonsensical and strange, hits me in a very profound but unexplainable way, like the best movies and best songs. When they come together, it’s magic.