If you're one of the suckers thinking about seeing Magnolia, here're some necessary caveats. Question the general middling critical opinion that director-writer Paul Thomas Anderson is a "great talent." By what standards? It's incredible that Anderson, by imitating Robert Altman's 1993 Short Cuts so blatantly, and lengthily, has received such high praise. Magnolia's L.A.-sprawl plot, its apocalyptic interlude, parallel domestic dysfunctions?even some of the same Altman actors?only show Anderson's shamelessness. This isn't great talent; at best it's merely talent: the imitative skill of the second rate. Such theft wins tenure for third-rate professors and now wins kudos for third-rate directors (mostly from third-rate critics who don't appreciate Altman). Even Tom Cruise performs for Anderson in the same spirit, doing a Jason Patric glamorous self-hatred act, blaspheming Brando's eulogy in Last Tango in Paris and then getting sappy. (1999 proved how craven critics are toward rich, powerful Cruise. Never an adequate actor, he gets praise just for trying.)
In a healthy film culture, critics would keep audiences aware of the movies that probe society and raise the standards of the art form; now critics merely jockey to get lead quote position in movie ads (Magnolia's are really ostentatious). All the follies of contemporary film culture can be summed up in The Magnolia Syndrome: ignorance of the movie past, acceptance of current cinema's degradation. Magnolia is not only significant for crudely parroting Short Cuts' Olympian view of American crisis from bedrooms to the streets (reducing Altman's vision to highly ironic smugness) but also because its release coincides with other film-cult millennial fervor.
As the century wound up, movie critics across the country found themselves listing. The sickening predominance of year's-end, decade's-end, century's-end lists suggested that movie culture is at loose ends. The numerous polls attempt to somehow tie things together, but the poll results?divergent, hilarious, sometimes absurd?indicate that the center will never again hold. For the first time in its 34-year existence, the National Society of Film Critics couldn't make up its mind and voted a tie for best picture. Being John Malkovich and Topsy-Turvy were good choices?far better picks than the NSOFC's last major tie (between Woody Allen for Manhattan and Robert Benton for Kramer vs. Kramer as best director in 1979); still, the drift from all this is clear: over the past two decades film culture has been disintegrating. Critical consensus is a sham.
Can the culture survive with this degree of divergence? Film Comment offered the best of all the polls by virtue of its assorted constituents?filmmakers, programmers and critics outside the small circle invited to the Village Voice's poll. Both were good ideas for shoring up the critical community, but the Voice's decision to not print vote numbers made its final lists suspect, while Film Comment cleverly angled its inquiry toward Statements on significant films and cultural figures with the option of addressing either the decade's "best" or "underrated" movies. (Wackiest of the Film Comment pollees was David Thomson, straddling the fence on the 1993 Schindler's List as Film of the Decade, obviously forgetting that he had helped boost Paramount Pictures' 1998 publicity campaign by calling The Truman Show the Film of the Decade only a year ago.)
A polite chaos is evident. In both polls, filmmakers who had no impact on the culture ranked high. In the Voice Taiwan's Hou Hsaio-Hsien, and in Film Comment Iran's Abbas Kiarostami. Despite great regard, filmmakers, programmers and critics never made those directors central to the past decade's discussion of film. It's not enough to blame wary U.S. distributors for not getting behind Taiwanese and Iranian masterpieces; the culprits are critics who rhapsodize about the narrative ingenuity of Pulp Fiction but leave out Hou and Kiarostami, or praise The Insider without mentioning Close-Up. This only gave prominence to Hollywood's disingenuous esthetics.
That same imperception and ignorance, evident in critics' regular practice, showed up in the polls disguised as hindsight/foresight. This mostly took the form of overvaluing Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Many put Eyes Wide Shut on their best lists as self-protective folly. It will always be a serious, intriguing film (more interesting than critics first gave it credit for being) but it isn't in the end very good. It doesn't stack up next to 1999's more remarkable movies, which, of course, critics never related to the vaunted standards epitomized by Hou and Kiarostami. In The Magnolia Syndrome, pretense overruns actual film appreciation. (A New Times-Los Angeles critic cited the rerelease of Renoir's Grand Illusion, "one of the greatest films ever made," but ranked it Number 8, far beneath The Cider House Rules and Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl!)
Most foolish of all was both polls' approbation of Todd Haynes' desiccated Safe, the quasi-spoof on American paranoia set (surprise!) in suburbia. This represents The Magnolia Syndrome's typical show of middle-class arrogance, accepting Haynes' disregard for the actual victims of environmental racism and industrial pollution to confirm only a white middlebrow housewife's suffering. But worst of all, The Magnolia Syndrome shows itself in the way critics forgot that this same theme was already handled, superlatively, by Antonioni's Red Desert 30 years earlier. Haynes is praised for making a tepid Red Desert. If that's an advance then film culture has truly gone backwards. Pleasure can't be had from movies like Safe; however, middle-class reviewers are aces at substituting pleasurable insight and esthetic excitement with intellectual superiority. (Red Desert is visionary; Safe is drab and smug.)
Something similar takes place with American critics loving Magnolia. P.T. Anderson's cutesy portrayal of American habits distracts from what was terrifying in Short Cuts, Altman's incisive survey of disconnection that cut wide and deep through the decade of denial. Denying Short Cuts' truth, critics approve its trivialization in Magnolia. Even NPR did a special listeners' discussion of Magnolia?a triumph of promotional hype for what must surely be the most politically jejune drama released in the past decade. (NPR would better help its listenership by holding a panel on Office Space.)
If critics really cared about esthetic advancement, they'd demand it, or at least recognize it, when American masters like Altman, De Palma, Spielberg, Walter Hill, Alan Rudolph (Anderson's betters) display it. Falling back on non-English filmmakers invalidates the various polls' pomposity. The estimable Kent Jones should take a bow for Hou Hsaio-Hsien being chosen the decade's best director by the Voice simply as a result of his HHH program at the Walter Reade Theater; it was complete enough and recent enough to alter that Manhattan-centric poll's outcome. Yes, The Magnolia Syndrome smells good, but it's really rotten. Hou, Safe and Magnolia are part of a millenarian deceit; critics use them to ignore movie history while seeming to honor it.
American solipsism is the real point of American Beauty and of the various polls. It takes imagination to review movies worthily, but most critics don't think beyond the cineplexes. Few critics have seen 1999's most amazing films, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence and Patrice Chereau's Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. When the NSOFC's Best Foreign Film category came down to a race between Eric Rohmer's Autumn Tale, Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels and Pedro Almodovar's All About My Mother?good films all?it was embarrassingly obvious that only safely familiar, nonchallenging (and highly promoted) movies dominated critical consciousness.
Non-American films used to inform cinephilia (the NSOFC first distinguished itself by honoring Antonioni, Bergman, Truffaut over mainstream Hollywood fare). In the 80s and 90s critics acquiesced to Hollywood influence. Despite paying lip service to Iran, Hong Kong and Taiwan, critics continue to promote Hollywood hegemony?even at the expense of contemporary European masters Andre Techine, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Bela Tarr. Consider: critics who swear by American Beauty did not see François Ozon's Sitcom, which took exactly the same premise but did it with humor. What seemed (to me) to be old hat in Ozon's film suddenly, to parochial critics, looked fancy when given American Beauty's American setting. Where Ozon was transgressive (critiquing patriarchy, burlesquing sexual fetishes), American Beauty was simply glossy and dishonest.
The Magnolia Syndrome may also explain critics lavishing Hilary Swank with successive film prizes not so much for the quality of her acting in Boys Don't Cry, but as a consolation prize?the Matthew Shepard Memorial Award. The fatuousness of Swank's praise was tipped off when The New Yorker's David Denby added his typical bourgeois justification to her acclaim. He commented that Swank wore "her husband's shirt" to a Boy's Don't Cry audition?an irrelevant detail proving critics' liberality is granted only when art is nonthreatening. Such choices often show poor taste (several actresses gave more complex performances than Swank?especially Chloe Sevigny in the same film) and almost always in favor of fashion-conscious causes. This year it's gay martyrdom but probably never again ratifying American race issues (critics having spent their condescension on Spike Lee's Malcolm X). Voting in bad faith, critics approve Boys Don't Cry, satisfied that its story's really fake and pretty and essentially straight and working-class (but expensively produced). Small, urban, gay-themed movies like Beautiful Thing and Twisted won no critics' prizes.
Fact is, the polls and lists reflect the elitism of mainstream critical tastes more than any political diversity. There's little appreciation for how filmmakers dealt with commonplace concerns or fantasies. Critics want to be Safe from genuine American experience. So foreigners Hou and Kiarostami replaced decade favorites Jane Campion and Lars von Trier who worked in English. That's certainly an improvement, but my complaint is that it's not real. The movies critics normally praise have none of Kiarostami's virtues or Hou's idiosyncrasies. It's a sign that, like Magnolia's undisciplined, scattershot narrative leaning on the odious mock-documentary device, our century's-end film culture coddles itself, avoids home truths and can't be trusted.
Cinema's past golden eras featured diverse approaches to human experience but they also inspired a general assent to pioneering visions (at various times Welles, Renoir, Kurosawa, Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Truffaut, Godard, Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg). Now polls and lists agree on nothing that unifies or clarifies. The Magnolia Syndrome rationalizes this fragmentation and isolation by ignoring what great art like Short Cuts has taught?which may explain why critics indifferent to Altman's and Alan Rudolph's poetic expressions of loneliness fall for P.T. Anderson's patchwork pathos (it's more prosaic and obvious). Anderson's film falsifies individuals' shared humanity into melodramatic cliches?a remoteness, I submit, that's also at play in the celebration of Hou's obscure, formalistic melodramas. Kiarostami's films (like Altman's) examine the customs that sustain our isolation but, in truth, American filmgoers (cued by critics) just don't care. The Magnolia Syndrome comes out of that social disconnection. Anderson's rotten movie and these wayward lists and polls keep up the confusion.