"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
There’s no time as perilous for a young filmmaker as after a big gamble has paid off. New directors who’ve scored risky critical and commercial hits often want to take bigger risks — to push themselves, to prove it wasn’t a fluke — and often, they have the power to do so. But many times their judgment is off. The sheer relief of no longer being unproven, and thus not having to justify every instinct to the moneymen, often leads filmmakers to concepts that haven’t been thought out, or that have been gestating so long they’ve become obvious, a bit paltry.
“Magnolia,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s follow-up to “Boogie Nights,” is both obvious and oblique, banal and still locked up inside his head. An attempt to outdo the hit “Boogie Nights” in both length and scope, complete with a climactic Biblical apocalyptic event, Anderson’s third film is a multi-character drama that follows a group of disparate people in the San Fernando Valley over the course of 24 hours. During much of its three hours and 10 minutes, “Magnolia” leaps from thread to thread with only the most tenuous connections discernible. By the time a character remarks, sometime in the third hour, “That’s a long way to go with no punchline,” you’re inclined to agree. Eventually the punchline comes, and you may find yourself wishing it didn’t.
“You have to be nicer to me,” says one character to another toward the movie’s end, and that’s about what “Magnolia” comes down to. By itself, that’s not fatal. There are plenty of great movies that, were they reduced to their “meanings,” might seem unaccountably banal. But the emotional experience of great movies, of great art, period, overwhelms mere meanings. (Want a seasonal example? Reread “A Christmas Carol.”) By the close of “Magnolia,” you’re painfully aware of how everything in the movie is put at the service of Anderson’s trite message.
Both “Boogie Nights” and “Hard Eight” (Anderson’s still mostly unseen debut that is, in some ways, his best film) could be said to be about the families we choose for ourselves. “Magnolia” is about the families we’re stuck with. Half the characters here are neglectful parents like Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a TV producer dying of cancer who for years hasn’t seen his son Frank (Tom Cruise) — an Anthony Robbins-like infomercial guru selling male sexual power — or Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), the longtime host of a kids’ game show who can’t talk to his own daughter, the coked-out recluse Claudia (Melora Walters). The other half are neglected children like whiz kid Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) who’s the long-running champ on Jimmy Gator’s show but, off-camera, an albatross to his own father, or Stanley’s spiritual predecessor, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former contestant on the show whose fame made his parents rich but whose adult life has been rudderless.
The characters link up either personally or thematically, and it takes awhile to sort out their relationships. There are also people who, by occupation or temperament or both, are caregivers, like Jim Curring (John C. Reilly), an almost comically decent cop who meets Claudia on a routine call and falls in love with her; or Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the hospice worker who tries to put Earl back in touch with his long-lost son. Even the marriages here carry suggestions of parent-child relationships, not just in the disparity in ages between Earl and his young wife Linda (Julianne Moore), who’s coming apart as she finds she has fallen in love with her husband whom she married for money, but in the way that Jimmy’s wife Rose (Melinda Dillon, back on the screen after a much too long absence), nurses him through illness with a tender solicitude. Even the minor incidents, an anecdote that opens the film and the first call we see the cop Jim Kurring respond to, have to do with the theme of parents and children.
“Magnolia” doesn’t feature as many characters as “Boogie Nights” did, and its subject is on a more intimate scale than the earlier film’s portrait of the porn industry’s golden era. But despite fewer characters and more time to get to know them, none of the characters in “Magnolia” feel as vividly imagined as the porn stars and filmmakers and hangers-on of “Boogie Nights.” There are appetizing bits, like the two scenes between Jason Robards’ Earl and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Phil. Predictably, Robards is masterly at the physical details of a dying man’s exertions and exhalations. Beyond that, he taps the self-reproachful bitterness in Earl’s accounting for his life. There’s a thrill in seeing two generations of fine actors get a chance to act together. But how can you cast Robards and Moore as husband and wife and not give them any dialogue with each other? How can you cast Jason Robards, along with Brando probably the greatest living American actor, and keep him comatose in bed for a three-hour-plus movie — even if he is playing a dying man?
Anderson obviously adores actors, and the best moments of “Magnolia” are actors’ moments. Many of those belong to Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose hospice worker has a pained gentleness, and John C. Reilly, who pulls off the nearly impossible feat of making a character’s decency funny without making him seem like a fool.
But Anderson’s touch with the actors feels off here. As Claudia, Melora Walters has to be a coke-induced whirligig (but a washed-out whirligig) for the duration of the movie and she wears out her welcome before we get to know anything about her. Julianne Moore has it even worse. In an interview with Time Out New York, Moore said, “I found the part [of Linda] very arduous. It’s really very difficult to try to find a way to make you understand her, because she doesn’t understand herself. She isn’t what she appears to be, she isn’t what she wants to be. She’s at a place of real turbulence.” That may be a polite way of saying that the role isn’t really written. Anderson requires Moore to be kept in a state of hysteria as Linda races from shrink to lawyer to pharmacist, never getting far enough from her own guilt over her dying husband.
She’s startling, but then Moore often is. If there’s a flaw to her acting, it’s that she’s so frighteningly smart that sometimes her intelligence projects through the roles themselves — what we perceive are Moore’s thought processes instead of her character’s. (That turns out to be a blessing in her current performance in “The End of the Affair.”) In “Magnolia,” when Anderson clears enough space to allow Moore to focus Linda’s desperation, as she does in the scene where she castigates a pair of chemists who have looked askance at the painkiller prescriptions she is filling for Earl, she hones the character’s grief, rage and self-hatred to a diamond-hard point.
But the attention and energy that Anderson should have paid to delineating that character, and to fleshing out the others, he seems to have lavished on the scenes with Tom Cruise as Frank Mackey conducting the seminars for his inflated how-to-pick-up-girls system called “Seduce and Destroy.” Anderson, who was contacted by Cruise after “Boogie Nights” and told that the actor wanted to work with him, is clearly thrilled to have such a big star in his movie. And it speaks well for Cruise’s taste that he wanted to work with Anderson. The scenes he’s been given — big flashy monologues where Frank exhorts his followers to “worship the cock and tame the cunt,” and a long encounter with a TV reporter who’s determined to unlock the secrets of his past — allow Cruise to expend his performer’s energy. But he doesn’t have an actor’s sensibility to match, and it becomes painfully obvious when he has to play a painful confrontation scene with Robards. He relies on flash when he has to dig down into himself.
Part of the problem with “Magnolia” can be blamed on Anderson’s structure. Using Aimee Mann’s songs to comment on and counterpoint the action, Anderson has conceived of “Magnolia” as something like a sonata on the theme of past sins and the limits of forgiveness as played out among parents and children. The technique is very sophisticated, with Anderson smoothly cutting from story to story. It’s also very frustrating; the intercutting only makes it more obvious that we aren’t getting beneath the surface of these people. One of the biggest barriers of all is the music itself. When Mann’s songs aren’t playing, Jon Brion’s score is, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more distracting use of music in a movie. It’s wall-to-wall music, used in a manner that often appears to be heading the action towards some kind of climax which never arrives.
If anything can be said for the structure, it’s that it delays the revelation of how obvious and mushy Anderson’s message is. “Boogie Nights” was big and flawed, particularly in the violent second half’s borrowings from Scorsese and Tarantino, but the most extraneous out-of-place scenes were the explosive arguments between Mark Wahlberg’s porn-stud-to-be Eddie and his mother (Joanna Gleason). Those scenes could have been the taking-off point for “Magnolia.” I didn’t know what those scenes were doing in “Boogie Nights” until I heard Anderson in interviews talking about his stormy relationship with his own mother. And when you know that Anderson’s father Ernie was the Cleveland horror-movie host known as Ghoulardi, the fathers in “Magnolia” who work in TV enforce the autobiographical connection. But part of the letdown of “Magnolia” is that, in working out what may be personal issues on parent-child conflicts, Anderson has come up with something that’s rather shockingly less sophisticated than “Boogie Nights’” depiction of pornographers as extended surrogate family. The critics who didn’t dig “Boogie Nights” specifically rejected that aspect of the movie. They seemed to want the easy reassurances offered to them by every TV crime drama still depicting the porn business as nothing but a chamber of horrors.
In his depiction of real families in “Magnolia,” Anderson has fallen back on pop-psych banalities about abandonment and the inner child. This is a movie that climaxes with an act of God which acts as a kind of gateway to healing and forgiveness, and which (if I read it correctly) appears to suggest that a child has the gift of prophecy. When you hear a character say “It’s a mistake to confuse children with angels,” you realize that, on some basic level, Anderson is refuting that statement. He wants us to see children as innocents, and adults as nothing more than the protective shells of those damaged children. The movie’s revelations of traumas and betrayals feel as if they spring out of something very personal for Anderson. But the revelations that parents aren’t perfect because they act like human beings seems like the kind of thing a filmmaker of his sophistication should have grasped long ago.
“Magnolia” is the sort of bad film that’s clearly the misstep of a very talented filmmaker. At times, as in the jokey grimness of the prologue or a dumb crack about Jimmy Gator being a family man while we see him screwing a young woman in his office, Anderson gives into a smirky cynical smartass tone that’s beneath his talents. He’s a director who puts his faith in his actors to carry out every good and bad idea he has. And while the film awkwardly juggles realism and stylization, as usual Anderson’s physical settings are rendered with hard specificity. As shot by Robert Elswit, “Magnolia” makes you feel like you might be able to drive down the San Fernando Valley streets we see and find every bus stop and convenience store.
For all the weak patches of “Magnolia,” Anderson is capable of doing things that knock you flat, like the scene where the characters are linked by his use of Aimee Mann’s song “Wise Up,” a moment that suggests a collaboration between Jacques Demy and Robert Altman. The almost certain commercial failure of “Magnolia” could send Anderson back to something on the scale of “Hard Eight,” which wouldn’t be bad for him. The strict discipline of that movie didn’t allow him to swing, didn’t make way for the wild jags of humor and wealth of incident that kept your eyes popping at “Boogie Nights.” But the ambition of “Boogie Nights” has become a sprawl in “Magnolia.” Anderson needs to find a way to integrate his wilder impulses with a more stringent discipline. “Magnolia” is his bid at an adult movie after the adolescent sideshow of “Boogie Nights,” but it feels appreciably less grown up. Anderson was better off dealing with what goes into the mouths of babes than what comes out of them.
Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.More Charles Taylor.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)