There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and nobody knows; and we generally say, "Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn't believe it."What the cinetrix neglected to mention in her musings about 2001 the other day was that after she left the theatre, she went home and commenced watching Magnolia with the 'Fesser [who'd never seen it]. Never let it be said that I lack seriousness of purpose. Or masochistic tendencies, I guess. [Lighten up, I could have opted for La Maman et la Putaine, say. Again.]
In VHS format, Magnolia inhabits a daunting two-tape carapace. I grow increasingly frustrated with VHS in general, and wonder how we all stumbled along without the short-attention-span blessing of quickly skipped-through DVDs. In this instance, the forced break between tapes one and two meant that we left off watching part the second for nearly a week.
In that stretch, I've moved away from wanting to write about "Also Sprach Zarathustra" underscoring some the shiniest, most souless expanses of cinematic landscape--Kubrick's deep space and Tom Cruise's incredibly shallow space as raging Id Frank T.J. Mackey. Besides which, Sarah Vowell did some of her finest writing ever about the quintessential alone-ness of Cruise, and she makes the connection to Kubrick, too. [Also, she's right about Tom's teeth.]
Instead, quelle surprise, I want to talk about the music. Disclaimer: Like everyone else on the planet [except perhaps the folks at the Times magazine], I long ago tired of the whole Aimee Mann as poster child of what's wrong with the music business. And I own all three 'Til Tuesday albums--on cassette.
What happened was, watching the second half of Magnolia got the 'Fesser and I to talking about diegetic [the actors can hear it, too, because it emerges from a source within the scene] and nondiegetic [John Williams and his ilk] music. No really, it did, it did. Because PT Anderson is up to some some good soundtrack tricks that date back almost to Al Jolson's jazz singer.
Now, I'm not interested in invoking Simon, Garfunkle, or Benjamin Braddock. A quick google search will show you that's been done to death. I'm thinking more along the lines of The Long Goodbye, where the theme music shows up on car radios, as late-night supermarket Muzak, you name it. Or even the way that Donna Sommer's "On the Radio" floats above LA like a mournful benediction in Foxes.
Specifically, I've been mulling over the way that Mann's song "Wise Up" travels onscreen among the ten or so characters we've been following, from one to the next, and connects them more intimately than any familial or proximal relationship has or might yet. What joins them is despair and resignation, a strand of solitary dark nights of the soul strung together by music.
The way Anderson accomplishes this is by having each actor, in character, actually sing the song. [This works a whole lot better than having Julia Roberts et al. hesitantly warble standards in Everyone Says I Love You.] Coke-snorting Claudia and solitary cop Jimmy; Phil the nurse [Philip Seymour Hoffman] in the foreground giving way to dying Earl Partridge [Jason Robards], ventilator and all; suicidal trophy wife Linda [Julianne Moore] and angry estranged son Frank/Jack [Cruise], both so alone [and empirically so Los Angeles somehow] in their respective parked cars; shamed Stanley with his pure choirboy soprano:
It's not going to stop
Til you wise up
No, it's not going to stop
So just give up.
It's a textbook example of diegetic song: The melody travels and unites all of these lonely people in a shared moment of clarity that packs all the power of the most exuberant MGM musical number.
Much has been made of the so-called renaissance of the movie musical, with schlock like Moulin Rouge and that flinty-eyed chorine [straight out of some Brighton Beach Russian nightclub floorshow] Chicago held up like prize pigs. The problem with the old musicals, we're told, was that they seemed fake. Even though Fred and Ginger's swooning pas de deux during the bridge of "Cheek to Cheek" tells you more about the eternal battle between men and women than reams of Neil LaBute dialogue ever could. Nobody really walks down the street so happy they burst into song. Or worse still [gasp], dance. Now that fake is knowing and winking, it's okay, but only in the context of lavish retro confections.
What Anderson realized, and harnessed so capably, is that people do burst into song: in the shower, in the car, when they're suffused with emotion and think they're unobserved. It's incredibly private. By pinching this trope from musicals and showing us these characters, singing, baring their souls in a resolutely not-musical environment that's about to shift from painfully real to one of miracles and coincidences, the director gives us more insight into their emotions than any dialogue ever could. It's in a movie, and you believe it.
Quite a trick, indeed.