It’s the Feeling That Counts

19 Nov

An Exploration of Emotion in the Film MAGNOLIA

‘Films Have the Power To Create Dreams’

From the Film ‘Hugo’

One of my all time favourite films is Magnolia, directed by PT Anderson (PT). In my opinion one of the most powerful, immersive films ever.  You cannot fail to be moved by it, even if you find it difficult, strange or melodramatic. In contrast to Hugo, it’s a film about emotions and not about dreams. It’s about connections and what matters most in life- feeling. Yes, films, I would argue, are on one level about dreams and escapism but the best ones are the ones that make you feel and connect and where you can find a tear gently tracing down your cheek. Magnolia carefully takes you on a journey through dilemma and emotion to a place where you can rest in the positivity of a tentative smile. The smile we see above, of Claudia, Melora Walters.

‘The moment we cry in a film is not when things are sad but when they turn out to be more beautiful than we expected them to be’  Alain De Botton (from Goodreads, Quotes)

To me Magnolia is that film. At the beginning of the piece you are thrown into a fist of  in-your-face feeling; feeling that appears barbed, but by the end, through a subtle process of aclimatisation you come to realise,  is not barbed at all but tender, universal and beautiful. It’s actually a film about the beauty of feeling (with all its pointed edges exposed);  As the film scrolls outwards you are given  a private space to emote and to connect with emotion- in the dark facing a flickering screen.  Magnolia moves you into a state of pure emotion. Each scene is pure emotion. Directed emotion, emotionally directed.

In this blog, I would like to consider how emotion is created in a film, using Magnolia as a particular and special example of that. Rather than immersing you in a dream world where you can suspend your disbelief, Magnolia  keeps rooting you back into what matters,  (through the  emotional sensibility of its characters) and reveals to you the powerful consequences of that individual choice . This, I think, is quite an unusual technique. In cinema today much emphasis is placed on the power of plot and story to drive emotions and character. However, Magnolia  it is strikingly different – emotions drive the plot and the characters; the plot feels secondary (in a good way) to what is going on in vibrant colour within us and the characters. It’s the feeling that counts.

John August who wrote  BIG FISH suggests there are 4  ways in which emotion is formed in a film, and I want to use this quartet  to explore Magnolia:. Emotional engagement can only occur:

IF: 1. Emotional Catharsis is created – a journey through dark territory, through which you can see the characters develop and from which you eventually get release

IF: 2. The  Writer creates emotions through obstacles and  dilemmas from all sides

IF: 3. The Actors give striking performances rooted in honesty and struggle from the beginning and established from the onset.

IF: 4. If the Director successfully co-ordinates all of the other elements: the pace, camera angles, music, and totally  commits to the emotional build of the piece.

In my opinion Magnolia does this, and in so doing becomes a profound articulation of the shared plight of us all (the common condition of man); the fact that life is hard, difficult but there is forgiveness, love and release on the other side. (If you are brave enough to ‘SAY’ and wise -up)

PT  wrote this epic film just after the death of his father when he was only 29. It is the fact that the action and emotions are grounded in  personal experience that makes this  film so special and singular. It also explains the intensity of the piece. Emotion  is perpetually ratcheted up, relentlessly until the final release. The plot and the characters are pushed to the very edge by dialogue and circumstance. There is no release. And this is just like life; and it is this realisation  that PT is trying to create- the complexity of life communicated through diverse characters;  trying to communicate and create the delicate spider’s web of existence:

‘Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads’,

Henry James (from The Modern Psychological Mind, Leon Edel)

And what PT does is intricately create an immense sensibility from the differing emotions of his  major characters. The themes dealt with in the film are huge, universal and engage with core issues that are common to us all: ‘the silken threads’ that so complicate our lives : about lies and reality, parent and child relations, love and sickness, how we try and let go of the past, but how the past doesn’t let go of us; the importance of choice; the power of forgiveness; saying, just saying; resting in regret and being okay with this; how hard it is to do what we really, really want. These matters are the nub of life; guilt and redemption; losing and finding. All these themes are directly engaged with in this film. It’s amazing!

PT , not only wrote and directed the film; but he also  wrote the script with specific actors in mind (Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Jason Robards, William H. Macy, John C.Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters, Jeremy Blackman) The dialogue was completely tailored for the actors; he knew their strengths and their abilities and new they could take the sparseness of his words to a different level, and because they were all friends as well, the distance between actor and director was foreshortened and strong performances could be easily accessed. This personal, real-life bond further  underpinned the piece. If you have  that as a bedrock as well than it further enhances the commitment and ease of the performances.

Lots of truly seemingly inconceivable incidents and coincidences happen in this film. However,  PT makes this acceptable by a questioning of the very nature ‘ happenstance‘. He makes it a theme running through the film itself  by book ending the piece with a prologue and a postscript that throws up the question of ‘happenings’ not just being about chance, ‘that extraordinary things do happen’. This thought now laid, seeded in our mind,  gives us a template in which to place the threads of the story. In so doing he also subtly makes a comment about artifice and realism. Is a  film  a piece of artifice purporting to imitate life or vice versa?

In terms of direction, quickly and in a very fast paced, edgy way,  characters are individually introduced. PT moves initially quickly between the different storylines. It’s hard to keep up; it’s a bit confusing (just like life), the dialogue is extremely naturalistic and visceral. You don’t know where you are quite -but  extremely strong  individual characters are established before you: the god-fearing policeman; the adulterous wife, the lost girl, the dying father filled with regret; the dying father filled with a need to redeem himself; the son fronting out as a man, but truly still just an unhealed boy wanting love, the young and old child geniuses – one wanting to be able to choose and the other wanting to give, just wanting to be loved. All of these  characters are  snappily and separately laid out before us and established. And then thread by thread PT starts to merge them, and the lines of dialogue start to intermingle and the emotions stretch out like a taught rubber band.

The film could not work if the actors did not commit to the themes and characters wholeheartedly. Without their sincere performances Magnolia would be pure melodrama; and, indeed, if you look at it in snippets it can feel like that. However, the  performances put it onto a different level, and as one committed performance coalesces with another something very serious and beautiful occurs. Gradually you start to become completely encaptured by the emotion, and its reality.This makes the other surreal and biblical happenings, circling around the feeling  and plotlines feel like  mere add ons.  The plot in Magnolia although important structurally:  moving  the story  and characters to their climaxes, is always secondary to the real action of the piece: the shifts of emotion and feeling. In other films, it’s different, in Magnolia, the emphasis, the placement, is elsewhere because the film is about internal shifts and movements and not about external occurrences. It’s about how things linger and rest in us.

Pace is maintained by the way PT chooses to  use  the camera.  He creates pace and movement via particular shots and camera angles. All of which serve the story. He places cameras in odd space, looking up from a safe:

tracking a frog falling from the sky

Tracking the young child-prodigy Stanley running through the television studio, slinking through it as if it were a dark tunnel.  As Mike Figgis states on digital film making:

The function of camera movement is to assist in the storytelling. That’s all it is. It cannot be there just to demonstrate itself’,

(from Goodreads, film quotes)

Equally, there are moments when the pace slows right down and we are left (almost alone with the emotion of the character. we are left to see the intimate nuance of a person’s face in anguish). PT manages these shifts brilliantly and he gives you time to really experience the dilemmas of the characters, and the careful interweaving.

Music is a strong connecting factor and directs not only the viewer’s gaze but the emotional threads of the characters, even to the extent where they share a song, which is extremely affecting as well as serving to give a space for the viewer to collect themselves before the pivotal regret scene between Earl (Jason Robards) , the nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Frank (Tom Cruise) ….. All the songs are by Aimee Mann, and in fact the songs  are used to emotionally direct the film. The song ‘Deathly’ actually  inspired PT to create  the character of Claudia  (who you see heading this post). The music thread pushes the viewer through to another emotional level that we really have no control over  (music always has that power) and that helps to open us up to accept the highly charged drama we’re seeing in front of us. PT uses the music as a foundation for our emotions.

The film builds and builds up until a pivotal seen with ‘Earl’s ‘/Jason Robards regret speech which is phenominal and which culminates in an extraordinary performance by Tom Cruise.  There are lots of issues around  Tom Cruise but in this moment he’s fantastic: capturing that moment where anger, frustration and love merge into something excrutiating.

The Regret Scene…Combination of brilliant writing and perfectly pitched performance:

which leads to where the film becomes pure emotion through another extraordinary performance:

I would argue that it is at this moment that the film reveals itself for what it is. It is emotion. This film I think is an expression of emotion masquerading as a film, and the catharsis comes not from the plotlines unravelling (although this is the vehicle) but through the releasing of emotion in that scene. This ‘spewing’ is underpinned by fantastic dialogue which engages with a profound life issue that touches us all (oh, what I could have been, oh, the regret) and when this is combined by strong performances we cannot fail to become part of the ‘ ‘immense sensibility’  which is the character’s sensibilities, connecting to the film’s sensibilities, connecting to ours –a beautiful spooling spider web,

Magnolia is not an easy ride. It shows the consequences of making a choice, choosing truth, and choosing hurt because that is the right thing to do. ‘If it’s worth being hurt, it’s worth bringing pain in’. A phrase that is put into nearly every characters mouth- a line connector- and a matter of choice far removed from dreams and escapism.

Magnolia completely embodies the 4 principles of capturing emotion that John August outlines. PT controls the pace of the film through fast-cuts and slow lingering intense close ups. The intensity of the piece is controlled by great actors and solid performances;  the writing takes us from snippets of dialogue, mumbled , to complex and challenging encounters of words. Everything is perfectly thought through so that we can become emotion; get caught  and suspend our disbelief  (because in life extraordinary things do happen). It gives us a rare moment and space to find ourselves up-lifted by something so unsettling beautiful, like the curve of Claudia’s mouth as she finally smiles… the realisation that we’re not part of a dream but part of an extended emotional reality.



If you haven’t seen this film I highly recommend it, and do  let me know what you think.


As always thank you for your interest and your feedback is always welcome!



  • Your second helping of  Flash Fortnightly with Laura Besley  is coming up this  Wednesday (21st).  Great New flash Fiction
  • This Friday (23rd) we have a second blog coming from ArtiPeeps’ resident English Art Correspondent JAMES MACKENZIE on his connection with KOBO online Art Gallery. So watch out for that one!
  • And starting from next Friday (30th) we have CLASSIC FRIDAY with NISHA MOODLEY introducing and reviewing classic fiction….

There’s lots afoot!

2 Responses to “It’s the Feeling That Counts”

  1. Gunilla Gerring November 19, 2012 at 10:25 pm #

    Oh yes, Magnolia is excellent! I totally agree. I think we discussed it years ago. How you analyse emotion in this film is brilliant. Also interesting to learn about the actors in relation to P T.

    • ArtiPeep November 21, 2012 at 8:16 am #

      Thank you Gunilla! I’m really keen to see his latest film The Master, which I think has got mixed reviews, but I think the response to PT’s work is always like that. We really appreciate your interest in what we do at ArtiPeeps.

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