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Rewind: Magnolia

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I’m going to say a couple of nice things about Magnolia right up front.

First, I will be forever indebted to this film because it reintroduced me to singer-songwriter Aimee Mann, my profound adoration of whom endures to this very day. Within weeks of seeing Magnolia, I had purchased her entire extant catalog, including the ’Til Tuesday stuff of my college days, and her songs were pretty much the soundtrack of my wayward soul during the eight years I lived in Los Angeles. She understood me in a way no other woman in that godforsaken town could be bothered to.

Second, I will reiterate my admiration for Paul Thomas Anderson’s outsize ambition at this early stage of his film career1, if for no other reason than that during those same Los Angeles years, I too had a propensity for throwing myself at my passions fully expecting to crash and burn spectacularly. Magnolia is trying to do so many things. It’s the work of a young man who wasn’t trying to project a film onto the screen so much as leave a Paul Thomas Anderson–shaped hole right in the middle of it and straight out the back wall of the theater.

Because holy fuck, this is some straight-up Wile E. Coyote shit right here.

Magnolia is louder and faster than a film with a three-hour-plus running time has any reason to be, particularly during its first half.2 After a leisurely cold open in which the invaluable Ricky Jay regales us with lurid tales of cosmic coincidence, the movie takes off like it’s gunning for a land-speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to its occasionally off-putting sound mix, the opening and much of what follows are drunk on the kind of visual acrobatics that were used more sparingly and effectively in Boogie Nights — tracking shots, whip pans, Scorsesean push zooms — as if it’s trying to generate not just unnecessary momentum but all the momentum there is. Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor, whose thrilling and nuanced shooting and cutting were the best things about Boogie Nights, seem to be working with a gun pointed at their heads. [Insert here the shot of Dennis Hopper in Speed cackling, “The whim of a madman.”]

Simply stated, Magnolia comprises the interlocking stories of a dozen Angelenos on the worst day of their respective lives. Once you understand that, it should be easy to empathize and sympathize with these characters — and on this second viewing, 18 years older and wiser, I actually could and did — but the film moves so rapidly from the moment we’re introduced to them that it almost deliberately distances us from them.

The one character I have always championed is nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in part because even amid the chaos and cacophony of these opening sequences, his love of and care for his patient Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) are immediately apparent. Phil is pure and without agenda and more in control of his own sad circumstances than anyone else in the film. He is, after all, merely a salaried employee called upon to bear the intense grief of an entire fucked-up family.

On the flipside, I am least sympathetic toward male-empowerment motivational guru Frank T.J. Mackey (née Jack Partridge), whom Anderson writes and Tom Cruise portrays as a mutated spiritual descendant of the developmentally arrested caricatures of Boogie Nights. The difference being that Frank’s ambitions peaked later, after he audited a few business courses in college, which emboldened him to revel in his own juvenile douchebaggery to the point of manifesto and monetization.

But while the strutting, oversexed bravado of his public persona is a clear counterpoint to the emotional scars and disavowed past it’s meant to obscure — and to the inevitable crash to come — what’s less clear is the why of it all. If it’s his father, Earl, whom he hates so much — for abandoning his wife and son, leaving young Jack at 14 to care for his mother as she herself was eaten by cancer — why has he made degrading women not just a career but a raison d’être? It’s practically an acknowledgement of the film’s excesses that not only would Anderson make Frank the totemic god of aspiring assholes everywhere but that Frank would evolve to that station for all the wrong reasons.

In between, you have a cast of wayward souls who range from dying to deeply broken to merely dull-witted, and Anderson does connect these lives rather seamlessly, somewhat achieving his stated goal of telling one large story instead of six small ones. It’s just that the choices he makes in the telling often make the story blur in one’s vision.

More so than any other connection, the awkward meet-cute of lovelorn Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and self-loathing Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) has about it the air of improvisation, of which I am not a fan, even when practiced by my favorite filmmakers. (I’m looking at you, Marty.) And yet, maybe an air is all it is. Given the participants — shout-out to the earnest, good-natured goofiness that is Reilly’s most prominent trait as an actor (and, one presumes, as a person) — it could be either improvisation or merely writing that gives these scenes, all of which seem to last a beat too long, the impression of improv.

All of this (and more that I haven’t mentioned), however, is merely prelude to Act 3’s rain of frogs, both a literal deus ex machina and yet one that, outside the mere what-the-fuckness of it all, doesn’t affect these lives any more than, say, a major hailstorm would. (After all, it was raining a lot that day to begin with.) Now that Ricky Jay–narrated cold open — composed of anecdotes that, while curious, are each easily explained — seems to be less a comment on the intersection of lives we’re about to witness and more an excuse for the frogs, which cannot be explained at all. They are at once hysterically funny and genuinely terrifying, but what do they have to do with anything other than Anderson’s outsize ambition?

And yet, it’s fair to ask: Would I still admire Anderson as much as I do if he had stripped away all that excess and chaos and cacophony and just told the story straight? On its own, it’s still a marvelous work of narrative structure and human drama, but would I then feel that he wasn’t risking enough? Would anyone care about Magnolia if it weren’t flawed and erratic and polarizing and overreaching but merely the competent work of an emerging talent?

Now that I’ve met it, would I object to never seeing it again?
Random observations:

  • In Magnolia, Anderson’s repertory company shares some nice crossover with the Mighty Mamet Players: William H. Macy, Ricky Jay, Felicity Huffman, Clark Gregg, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
  • One year after the film’s release, Jason Robards would die of metastasizing lung cancer, pretty much the same thing killing Earl Partridge in the film. Robards had in fact recently emerged from an extended hospital stay following a nine-week coma before being offered the film, and the idea that we’re watching him die onscreen — almost literally dying for his art — is enormously affecting.
  • I have to believe that the amount of cocaine Claudia snorts in this one 24-hour period would have killed anyone else on Earth.
  • Luis Guzmán is listed in the end credits as portraying “Luis Guzmán,” which cracks me up more than it probably should.

1 Anderson becomes particularly lovable in this regard when one views the video diary of the making of the film, which contains a scene of him playfully but convincingly berating then-girlfriend Fiona Apple, who appears in the role of “Magnolia Trying Too Hard to Do Too Much.” Ultimately you can’t hate a guy who was that self-aware the entire time.

2 This first half–second half dichotomy in both visual and narrative pacing is a quality Magnolia shares with Boogie Nights, though it is much more pronounced here. Whereas Boogie Nights seems to chase its characters as they spiral out of control in the second half, Magnolia seems to finally apply the brakes to a heedless pace that it was imposing upon characters who were never really moving that fast to begin with.


Written by Shepcat

March 14, 2018 at 1:29 pm

Posted in Los Angeles, Movies

Tagged with

Jon Polito 1950-2016

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Allow me to share with you again one of my top three all-time L.A. memories:

On Tuesday, January 6, 1998, I attended the New Beverly Cinema’s 9:25 p.m. screening of Miller’s Crossing, Joel and Ethan Coen’s essential 1990 entry in the gangster genre.

I had scouted out my closest-as-possible-to-dead-center seat and was slumped down, settling in, waiting for the movie to start. And who should walk in and sit down in the next row, directly in front of me? Jon Polito, who plays Johnny Caspar, the Italian mob boss and foil to Irish mobsters Gabriel Byrne and Albert Finney in the movie I am there to see.

By the standards of the New Beverly — which at that time and for some time afterward was rundown and a little seedy, with squeaky, rattily upholstered seats and dim lighting that hid any number of other flaws and scars — Polito was impossibly elegant. He wore pressed trousers and a blazer with an open-collar shirt and looked as though he may have come over from a party, although it was such a comfortable look on him that — who knows? — probably he was just that casually elegant in everyday life.

I was a fan, not just of his work with the Coens but also his role as Det. Steve Crosetti on Homicide. And yet I couldn’t work up the nerve to say anything to him — even though he was right there. But a braver audience member approached to say hello and give voice to the question burning in all our minds: “What are you doing here?”

Polito replied that hadn’t seen the movie in years and noticed it was playing at the New Beverly, so he came down to check it out. Just that simple.

And so it was that I, who love character actors, had my most meta experience in a lifetime at the movies, sitting behind one of the best, who laughed loudest at some of his own lines, as if he had forgotten what a great part the Coens had written for him.

We lost Jon Polito yesterday. And thus endeth our lesson in — hell, I ain’t embarrassed to use the word — ethics.


Written by Shepcat

September 2, 2016 at 10:59 am

A Psychopath is a Person in Your Neighborhood

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A recent Los Angeles Times article, forwarded to me by my cousin, recounted a gruesome tale of murrrrrrrder! in our old neighborhood.

When I lived at The Riviera, I frequently patronized the Rite Aid pharmacy and Pink Elephant liquor store — both just a cutoff throw away — in whose garbage bins the victim’s dismembered body was found.

The group home in which the victim had lived was right around the corner from me, and it always did exude a sketchy aura. From the shadows in front one night, one of its residents complimented my leather jacket as I walked past en route to Hollywood Boulevard. Being as it’s the jacket that most makes me look like a badass, I liked my odds for avoiding a confrontation. I mumbled, “Thanks,” and just kept moving like I was on my way to collect a gambling debt from someone somewhere else.

Written by Shepcat

December 11, 2007 at 3:32 pm

Posted in Los Angeles

Apres Moi, le Feu

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With the district of Hollywood and the city of Los Angeles laid out like a map at its feet, Dante’s View was a scenic garden spot high atop Mount Hollywood, just west of the observatory, its panoramic vista the reward for a strenuous but brisk march through the hills and canyons of Griffith Park. I hiked up to it once or twice, setting out from my apartment, less than one linear mile away but several hundred feet below.

Dante’s View is gone now, consumed, along with 600 surrounding acres, by a wildfire raging in the hills directly above the place I used to call home. This just a few months after a couple of young tourists ignited another blaze behind the Hollywood sign a half mile farther west.

Eighteen months ago, as I enumerated the factors that added up to my leaving Los Angeles, I acknowledged among them a sense of impending catastrophe, a glimpse of my luck running out sooner rather than later. I’m no Cassandra, but I had experienced enough close shaves there in a relatively short span of time to add the potential for disaster to my column of cons.

Almost daily I was given reason to suspect that the ignorance, negligence or baser impulses of one of my fellow Angelenos would contribute to my own personal demise; meanwhile, it occurred to me that my little corner of Southern California was long overdue for another major seismic event of biblical or at least filmic proportions and that perhaps I’d be caught in the clatter and crash when it yanked the tablecloth out from under the city’s place settings.

But somehow I didn’t see this one coming.

So tonight, a heartfelt “better luck next time” to any among you had selected “fire” in the Shepcat Dead Pool. It must frustrate you to know you’d be so close to the big payout right now if I’d stayed.

Written by Shepcat

May 9, 2007 at 8:09 pm

Posted in Los Angeles

Art Imitates My Life

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“Look, I hate Los Angeles like everyone else, but I have to work here, because in any other part of the country I’m unemployable.”

— Matt Albie (Matthew Perry)
Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip

Written by Shepcat

December 11, 2006 at 7:42 pm

Posted in Los Angeles, Television

Chance Encounters in the Blogo- and Assorted Other Spheres

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I left a little late for the airport. Then I took the wrong exit and ended up completely circling LAX on unfamiliar surface roads, nearly getting lost in a city I lived in for eight-plus years. I arrived breathlessly at the Avis lot and was charged some exorbitant fee for not having had time to gas up the Le Sabre before returning it. Avis shuttled me to the terminal as the clock continued to tick. I endured the hassle and indignity of removing my shoes at Checkpoint Charlie, balancing like a flamingo as I stood in the queue, then having to lace them up again 30 seconds later. I went too far into the terminal and had to backtrack to my gate. Upon my arrival there, I discovered that Flight 756 was experiencing a slight delay.


Collapsing in a chair and seeking consolation from Donald Fagen on my iPod, I heard a hello and looked up from my book to see the friendly smile of the lovely and charming Marymuses, fresh from her own West Coast vacation and returning to K.C. on the same flight. In addition to her estimable blogging and photography talents, I discovered Mary to be a sudoku savant, watching her complete seven puzzles during the course of our flight, little bits of yellow eraser flying every which way. She downplayed the difficulty level of the puzzles, but from where I sat it was like watching Rain Man count cards in Vegas.

At the end of my harrowing airport run, Mary’s company was such an unexpected delight that I’m considering publishing my itineraries here from now on in case any of the rest of you want to surprise me at the gate sometime.

Written by Shepcat

March 20, 2006 at 1:33 pm

Isn’t Fun the Best Thing to Have?

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Let me make myself perfectly clear: I like to have a good time as much as the next guy. But my idea of fun and yours are likely as different as anvils and artichokes.

The reason for this disparity is that I am a stiff. An introvert. The silent type. A wallflower. An observer. A stick in the mud. A critic. The shy, retiring kind. A narc. A bookworm. A tightass. A buzzkill.

There. I said it.

According to Annie Savoy, the muse of the Durham Bulls, the world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self-awareness. I will never be counted among their ranks, as this past weekend clearly illustrated.

My cousin and his beautiful bride have wonderfully warm, kind and generous friends who are the best possible reflection of their own warmth, kindness and generosity. And while characteristically I have always been an outsider in their circles, Jeff’s friends — and, more recently, Dorothy’s — without exception have gone out of their way to make me feel welcome in their midst. And in my own way, I have made myself at home there.

In my own way. Operative words, those.

Music at the reception was provided by the most exquisitely cheesy wedding band in the history of both weddings and music. Unfortunately, I do not revel in this distinction the way the other guests did, certain as I am that no group composed entirely of white people should ever be allowed to play that much R&B and hip-hop (such as it was) at one time unless they are the Beastie Boys. (Except for his ponytail, the bassist looked like Tom Waits; so, to endure the experience, I imagined an alternate reality in which Tom Waits amuses himself by playing in a tacky wedding band on the weekends.)

At one point, Dorothy lured me onto the dance floor under false pretenses. She knows I don’t like to dance but apparently refuses to acknowledge the validity of my assertions, and when I balked, she pouted and shouted, “I’m the bride!”

And she was absolutely right: How dare I deny her anything on her wedding day? Except that she didn’t actually dance with me; no sooner had I relented than I was grabbed by her younger sister for a quick spin, then yanked just as quickly in the opposite direction by Dorothy, who introduced me to a couple of her friends, whose names I couldn’t actually hear, before vanishing into the crowd. I didn’t dance so much as squirm, shouting small talk over the din of the music, then awkwardly excusing myself because a noisy, crowded dance floor is no place for getting-to-know-you chitchat.

That, and I don’t dance.

I read something years ago in GQ that struck me as some of the best advice I’ve ever received, and I have taken it to heart ever since: Either dance or don’t dance. Whichever option you choose should be the one that makes you feel the least self-conscious.

Dancing makes me feel unbearably self-conscious. Standing at the bar with a drink in my hand does not. Therefore, I don’t dance. Problem solved.

And in the event that you require some historical perspective, consider this: Bogart didn’t dance. Neither did Peck. Neither did McQueen. Neither, then, shall I.

But thank you for asking.

I truly appreciate it when the crowd wants to welcome me into the embrace of their good time, when they don’t want me to feel excluded in any way. I only wish they would accept my assurances that I do not feel excluded — think of me as “differently abled” if you must — and that I actually am celebrating with them in my own quietly unassuming way.

After the band played its last dance — no, really, the song was Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” — and we were gently nudged out of the hall, many of us migrated to the rooftop bar at The Standard, a too-trendy setting (albeit one with stunning skyline views) that is illustrative of my reasons for leaving L.A. Because no one in our party was a guest of the hotel, I paid a $20 cover charge for the privilege of riding the elevator to the top and paying $12 for a glass of vodka for which I’d be charged $8 anywhere else in the city. I was hard pressed to identify the bang I was alleged to be getting for all that buck.

That said, I was at last in my element, my comfort zone, my command post, ensconced in a collegial setting conducive to conversation and libation. Humor and high spirits radiated from the wedding party as we commandeered a corner of an upper-deck seating area. I spent most of our time there talking about writing with a friend of Jeff’s whom I had heard a great many things about but had never met before this weekend, and however briefly, I felt as much a part of this remarkable circle of friends as though I too had known them 20 years.

In wobbly, besotted ones and twos, our numbers gradually dwindled until we were just three, crossing over into that late hour when I become more host than guest, more guide than tourist.

If you ever happen by and find me there, you’re more than welcome to join me. I’ll understand, though, if you decline because it’s not really your idea of fun.

Written by Shepcat

March 20, 2006 at 1:21 pm

Posted in Life, Los Angeles