A Day in the Life of L.A.: Where’s the Rough Stuff?

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia deals with a dozen or more dysfunctional denizens of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles through a day of decisive confrontations. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a dying cancer patient, wishes to be reconciled with his alienated son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a television misogynist who instructs supposedly oppressed males in the art of brutal sexual conquest. When we learn how Earl treated his late wife when she was dying of cancer, we are presumably supposed to identify with Frank’s alienation from his father, but I found it difficult to understand why his mother’s ordeal should have turned him against all women.

Meanwhile, Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore), the once cynical trophy wife for whom Earl abandoned his wife, has had a change of heart, and, ashamed of her once-mercenary motives, discovers that she has fallen in love with Earl. A key character in the Partridge family trauma is a very compassionate male nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who goes out of his way to bring father and son together.

All this is happening in between four other connecting stories. We gradually begin to discern a forced symmetry of characterizations when we run into still another cancer patient, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), a quiz-show host and a supposed champion of family values. His family has been torn apart by his sexual abuse of his now-cocaine-addicted daughter, Claudia Wilson Gator (Melora Walters), a secret Gator has kept from his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon) until his daughter’s refusal to return home forces Gator into a reluctant confession. The marriage disintegrates on the spot, and the errant father and husband attempts suicide. Connected by Mr. Anderson’s relentlessly moving camera is the story of the Spector family, made up of a quiz-kid star named Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), and his father, Rick Spector (Michael Bowen), who drives his son mercilessly so that he can shine in his son’s media triumph. Running along a parallel path of dysfunction is Donnie Smith (W.H. Macy), a 1960’s child quiz-show star, now an aging failure clinging to a sales job and fantasies of a gay relationship with a handsome bartender.

Perhaps the most curious character of all is Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who talks to himself all the time. One expects some kind of violent explosion that never comes, as he becomes involved with both the disturbed Claudia and the slowly disintegrating Donnie. Just when all these traumas seem to have come full circle with no hope for relief in sight, Mr. Anderson resorts to some magic realism to bring on a biblical plague of frogs. In the end, the characters all wind up singing as if they are rehearsing for the latest installment of Ally McBeal .

I have perhaps made this film seem somewhat more grotesque than it plays. The acting is all first-rate, but the picture does run three hours, which may cause skeptics to think that Mr. Anderson could not let go of his characters. I hate to suggest something that seems subversive not only of political correctness, but of our Christian morality as well, but what this film may have needed to get on its feet is some honest-to-goodness violence. I had the same shameful feeling earlier this year with a French film called Lucie Aubrac when being informed beforehand that a gallant Frenchwoman saved her husband from the clutches of the Gestapo, and that woman was played by the gorgeous Carole Bouquet, I expected a little Mata Hari fun and games and instead had to settle for a display of cerebral brilliance. This goes very much to the heart of why we go to the movies without admitting our baser motives.

In the case of Magnolia , I think Mr. Anderson has taken us to the water’s edge without plunging in. I admire his ambition and his very eloquent camera movements, but if I may garble something Lenin once said one last time, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.”

Before Girl Power

James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted , from a screenplay by Mr. Mangold, Lisa Loomer and Anna Hamilton Phelan, based on the book by Susanna Kaysen, demonstrates once again that truth is not only stranger than fiction, but also less logical and less coherent. Winona Ryder plays a mentally directionless young woman named Susanna who, after a failed suicide attempt, consents to be placed in a remarkably permissive institution in which the patients come and go as they please and indulge in a bewildering variety of mind games with each other. The staff seems afflicted with a 60’s paralysis of supervisory and judgmental will. Whoopi Goldberg’s Nurse Valerie adds a comic nonchalance to the laissez-faire administration.

My biggest surprise in the film was seeing how much taller Angelina Jolie’s Lisa is than Ms. Ryder’s Susanna. In other movies, Ms. Jolie has appeared to be a little cupcake next to male partners like Denzel Washington and Billy Bob Thornton. Here, her comparative size adds to her air of menacing mischief, which contributes to a suicide of one of the other patients. Yet Lisa turns out to be her own worst enemy, and as many times as she attempts to leave the institution for a new adventure, she inevitably returns beaten and chastened by her own self-destructive tendencies.

Susanna, on the other hand, is cured, after a fashion, in a sea of psychobabble. The final impression the character gives us is that of a spoiled, self-pitying ego-consumed dilettante. The one great revelation of the film is Vanessa Redgrave’s Dr. Wick, a character of infinite poise and patience, interpreted in a tiny role by one of the great actresses of the last century and this one as well.

Rewinding Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), from a screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” by Cornell Woolrich, has been restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, the same pair behind the noteworthy revivals of Lawrence of Arabia , Spartacus , My Fair Lady and Hitchcock’s Vertigo . Even after 46 years, Rear Window may turn out to be the best release of 2000. I rank it on the same level as my three other favorite Hitchcock films, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Notorious (1946) and Vertigo (1958).

Anti-Hitchcockians and anti-auteurists have raised the specter of the cultish Woolrich as the real auteur of Rear Window . His story does contain the central relationship between the voyeur and his homicidal prey, but the important characters played by Grace Kelly and Thelma Ritter do not appear in the Woolrich yarn. What Hitchcock has accomplished transcends the central situation by establishing a dialectic between the talking film played in the protagonist’s apartment and the silent film enacted across the courtyard. In addition, he has sharpened the ambiguity of the situation by confronting James Stewart’s morally obtuse hero with Raymond Burr’s plaintive question, almost a plea for understanding, “What do you want?” so that there is a temporary reversal of sympathy between the hunter and the hunted. To use an all-American icon like Stewart in such a dark context is what makes Rear Window so enduringly challenging to our complacency.

I no longer have to spend time gilding the lily with respect to Hitchcock’s artistic reputation, but it was a different story 40 years ago, when I walked into the Village Voice office of Jerry Taunter, arts editor at the time, with a pinch-hit column for Jonas Mekas’ “Movie Journal.” My first review was of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho , as seen by an American film reviewer who had discovered the writings of Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut with their virtual worship of Hitchcock as a major screen artist. I therefore described Psycho as I would any avant-garde work of art. The response was not long in coming from the enraged readers of The Voice who thought I was insane to regard a harmless commercial suspense impresario like Hitchcock as a major artist. The angry letters had the strange effect of strengthening my position at The Voice from then on, as someone who could arouse readers to a frenzy of outrage. Looking back now, I can understand why people still conditioned by the Marxist critics of the 30’s and 40’s into believing in the gospel of Significance and social consciousness as the sole criteria of cinematic art, would hesitate to take seriously someone they enjoyed. There was also the prejudice against genre entertainment, which extended to westerns, musicals, horror films and noir movies generally. Back then, the dominant cinema tended to be progressive, optimistic and blanc . Nowadays, noir is the norm, and Hitchcock thus fits very neatly into the mainstream. We no longer have to feel guilty about enthroning a master entertainer as a major artist: His films speak for themselves. And perhaps more than the works of any other director, they bear repeated revivals from decade to decade and, now, from century to century.

A Day in the Life of L.A.: Where’s the Rough Stuff?