[Written by Josh Ilan]
In an interview in the build up to her new album, Fiona Apple said she quit cocaine after a night listening to her then boyfriend Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino both high on the drug in a private cinema. However, this is not the only thing that connects these auteurs. Both are celebrated poster boys of the 1990s, whose works depict the interconnected lives of their disparate characters under a united cause or setting, as depicted in Anderson’s Magnolia and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The former is a mosaic about loss, parental woes, and repercussions of the past; whereas Tarantino’s Hollywood follows the film industry at the end of counterculture. Both, however, focus on how their characters are defined in a world of fate by their connection to one another.
Anderson and Tarantino utilize montages at the beginning of these films to underpin the themes connecting their disparate characters. Magnolia opens on a frame story, musing about how fate and coincidence conspire through three events involving death, with the narrator ruminating that ‘this was not just a matter of chance.’ This structural choice creates a world where characters do not determine their fate, but that fate will determine who they are. Tarantino, however, uses montage to display how waning Western actor Rick Dalton is a man out-of-place in his current landscape. By showing clips from his older television and film successes, which are born out of pastiche, it shows how his genre-laden stoicism is a contrast to the hippy glimmer of the late-1960s. This is illuminated by the film’s structure, where the events take place over a couple of separate days in February and August 1969 respectively. By creating an atemporal separation, the passage of time allows for the intricacy of character to be developed, namely Dalton’s career struggles, Booth’s omnipresence in the Hollywood environment, and Sharon Tate’s burgeoning stardom in a sun-soaked backdrop. This atemporality also underpins Magnolia, following characters over the course of a day, creating a state of ordinariness that enhances the nature of fate. The film’s opening credits depict this naturalist underpinning by showing the characters moving in their daily lives, from Frank’s pseudo-machismo to Claudia’s cocaine habit.
The world of entertainment provides the setting that punctuates Magnolia and Hollywood. Anderson’s movie sees the characters connected, either tangentially or indirectly, through a television programme entitled ‘What Do Kids Know?’; namely the story strands involving dying producer Earl, the family turmoil of host Jimmy, and the lives of participants past and present on the show. ‘Quiz Kid’ Donnie Smith, whose success on the show as a kid has dwindled into an adulthood of unfulfilled potential, parallels with Stanley, a current contestant on the show who is belittled by those on the show and his own father. Although their lives do not directly connect, the mutual source of the television show acts as a conduit to having their lives determined by calculating and bad intentioned parents. If people’s lives in Magnolia are determined by the actions of others, then status is the driving force in Hollywood’s society. Through paralleling the lives of Dalton and Tate, this provides a boundary between the Old and New Hollywood they respectively encapsulate within their shared world of the film industry. The editing provides a juxtaposition of these worlds, with the image of Dalton struggling to learn his lines being immediately replaced by Tate at a celebrity-filled party at the Playboy Mansion. The respective mise-en-scene in these scenes, from the solitary sparseness of Dalton’s world to the congested luxury of Tate’s, highlights their statures in a world governed by status. The use of mise-en-scene to elucidate status is also a staple of Magnolia. As Earl lies in his mansion, dying from cancer, his house is one without personal artifacts or the presence of other people, with his wife Linda afflicted by guilt and his son Frank wanting nothing to do with him. Although he had built up a life of luxury, the emptiness of his house signifies how Earl’s world is signified by absence.
Owing to their characters’ struggles to deal with the past, some attempt to suppress this through substance abuse. Claudia’s character is informed by her struggles dealing with her father Jimmy’s sexual abuse towards her as a child. Spending her days in a cramped apartment, she is shown in the thralls of a cocaine habit, emphasising her impulsive personality where her thoughts and actions are dictated by her self-doubt. Whereas Claudia’s fluctuating emotional state stems from trying to block out the past, Dalton’s relationship to alcohol is influenced by his struggles to find his place in a changing world. After failing to remember his lines on set, he breaks down in his trailer, condemning his drinking habits for affecting this, before reaching for the bottle again. Dalton’s excess is defined by his personal problems, using alcohol as a form of self-medication, standing him in stark contrast to others in the film, whose LSD usage is depicted as a recreational embodiment of their time period. DiCaprio provides Dalton’s character with a layer of melodrama, an acting method also used by Julianne Moore in Magnolia. Depicting Earl’s wife Linda, she is racked by the guilt of having married him for the money, only to have fallen in love with him, now wanting no financial gain from his will to repent for her past. The heightened potency of her emotions, categorized in conversations through a sense of disgust and outrage, highlight her character’s inner turmoil, culminating in a failed suicide attempt by overdose.
Both films offer explorations into the male psyche through the cultivation of ‘families’ beyond their own. A charismatic figure, Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth, is noted for his friendship and devotion towards him. Their symbiotic nature sees Dalton gain Cliff work in the film industry as his stunt double, whilst Cliff acts as a confidante to Dalton’s afflictions. Their relationship is summed up by the narration of ‘a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife,’ with their sense of camaraderie being a source of stability against an ever changing backdrop. Anderson, however, utilises hyper masculinity to depict pick-up artist Frank T.J. Mackey’s inner turmoil. He is a figurehead for ‘90s incels, aiming to show others who also believed they have been wronged how they can gain control over their lives. When he is first shown on stage, a wide shot symbolises how he is at one with the environment he has built. However, following the revelation of his childhood trauma caused by looking after his dying mother after his father’s abandonment, he returns to confront his dying father, with a close-up shot encapsulating his buried sorrow. Whilst Mackey’s world was created to escape from this personal pain, the environment in Hollywood is a creation of the culture. The inception of Spahn Ranch, the Manson Family’s residence, displayed the dark heart of the counterculture lurking beneath Hollywood’s sunshine surface. When Cliff arrives there, having dropped off hitchhiker Pussycat, he finds that his tyre has been slashed. Booth, a mysterious man with a history of reputed violence, responds to this intimidation by beating the aggressor up viciously, then forcing him to change the tyre as he stands there watching coolly. The juxtaposition of Cliff’s charisma with a violent side shows how he is guided by primal urges, reminiscent of Mackey’s utilization of sexuality to hide his inner sensitivity.
In films with a large array of characters, both directors deploy one who acts as a metaphorical centre. Police officer Jim Kurring provides Magnolia with a black-and-white morality grounded in compassion. His character has monologues at the start and end of the film, delivering his belief that if he can do good then he can help the world to be inherently good. This attitude is carried into his professional and personal life, from giving Donnie clemency over his robbery by encouraging him to put the cash back, to forming an intimate bond with Claudia where he supports and joins her attempts to be open. Whereas Kurring acts as Magnolia’s moral compass, Tate stands as a cultural embodiment of her time period. Margot Robbie captures the actress’s essence with a transcendental fashion, expressing the hope and freedom associated with late-1960s America. This emphasis of movement over dialogue, showcased when she goes to watch her own film at the cinema, expresses the notion that life and cinema are not separate entities, but work together symbiotically. Tarantino uses the audience’s knowledge about the fate of Tate to provide an eerie backdrop of foreshadowing, elevated by projecting her as a symbol of hope in the film rather than a figure besmirched by death. Anderson also engineers this manipulation of audience expectations through the character of Kurring. The role was developed in coordination with actor John C. Reilly, who aimed to break out of being typecast as a simple-minded character in favour of a romantic storyline. By going against type, it provided different layers to Kurring’s characterisation grounded in him being an out-of-luck, old-fashioned romantic.
The thematic concerns of these worlds and characters are brought together through climactic circumstances. The parable of fate in Magnolia leads to the biblical allusion of a rain of frogs, which descends over the night sky of the San Fernando Valley with unintended consequence. One frog falls through the roof of Jimmy’s home, knocking the gun he had pointed at his head out his hands, causing it to misfire and hit the television, setting the house ablaze. The cinematography here provides a visual metaphor of a famous television presenter shielded by his persona of being a family man being killed by the two things that protected him. In Hollywood, the climax is the collision of Manson’s followers with Dalton and Cliff. The Manson clan target Dalton’s house due to his television and cinematic fame, believing that these mediums taught them violence, so they are merely copycats of all they have learned. By portraying the clan sardonically, Tarantino offers a satirical commentary that it is absurd to state that culture rather than a person’s nature that influences the decision to enact violence. By contrasting their frenzied state with Cliff’s blissed out nature, having smoked an acid-laced cigarette, it compounds the insincerity of their beliefs. A psychedelic cover of The Supremes’ You Keep Me Hangin’ On heightens the surreal nature of the situation, highlighting Tarantino’s usage of music from the era to encapsulate mood, setting, and character. Anderson also uses music as a leitmotif, with many Aimee Mann songs featuring in the film, notably when all the characters are shown singing along to Wise Up before they all face a critical juncture. The song concerns letting go of the past, and how only by acknowledging this can one move forward, shown by Frank who makes the decision to face his past and visit his dying father.The endings of Magnolia and Hollywood follow the atemporal nature of their worlds by providing conclusions where the fates of the characters are left unresolved. The final scene of Magnolia is centred around Claudia. After her mum Rose left Jimmy to be with her after believing her accusations, she is visited by Jim, who tells her of his desire for things to work out between them. A close-up of her face, which smiles for the first time, ends the film on a hopeful tone. The subjectivity of this shot provides a directness of emotion that transcends the objective nature of a world of fate. The theme of fate, however, is subverted in Hollywood, which foreshadows destruction through its innocuous nature. The story of Tate, who was murdered by the Manson family, is one known culturally as the day the counterculture died. Instead of showing her demise, she is shown having invited Dalton to her apartment for drinks, noting how they had not met before. This represents the joining of the two worlds, Old Hollywood and New Hollywood, under a dark cloud of a wide overhead shot showing the powerlessness of their fate. Though some critics have termed the film as Tarantino’s love letter to Hollywood, it is in fact a subtle warning about the future of cinema told through the parable of interconnectivity: Rick as Old Hollywood, getting pushed into mediums representative of streaming services like Netflix; and Tate as New Hollywood, where the spectre of death looms over. What both convey, however, is that we are enveloped in our settings, where the past is a powerful actor in our present-day lives, and how no one can escape the hands of fate.