Magnolia and Regrets

I was in my parents’ living room the first time I tried to watch Magnolia. For as long as I can remember, my family has done this thing when we watch movies together. Right at the most emotional or romantic moment in the film, someone will pat the left part of his or her chest and say, as dramatically as possible, “Gets ya right here.” Then someone else would repeat it and pretty soon no one would be watching the movie anymore. We would even do this when guests were around.

My brother had a boarding-school roommates who was less than impressed. “You’re going to have emotional problems,” he said.

The only thing we were worse at handling than emotion was vulgarity. Well, by about Tom Cruise’s first potty-mouthed tirade, everyone in the house knew I’d made a mistake by thinking I could watch Magnolia in my parents’ house. I finished watching on a laptop in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

While the film is vulgar, it’s also a tragically beautiful tale about families and sexuality and forgiveness and how the wounds and sins of the generations get passed down. The film is told in haunting and complex layers of abuse, abandonment, rejection, betrayal, sexism, porn, and addiction; it is as good of a case for connectedness and responsibility as I have ever come across, definitely the kind of film I had to watch more than once.

I watched for a second time with a girl I was dating, which seemed to work better. At the beginning of the film, the narrator quotes, “We might be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” At the film’s climax, frogs fall from the sky while Aimee Mann sings, “It’s not going to stop/ It’s not going to stop/ Till you wise up.” And toward the end, Earl – who spent most of the film on his deathbed lamenting to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, a caretaking nurse – had this to say:

Don’t ever let anyone say to you, ‘You shouldn’t regret anything.’ Don’t do that, don’t! You regret what you fucking want! And use that, use that, use that regret for anything, any way you want. You can use it, okay?

Earl’s sentiment may very well have come right from Magnolia’s Catholic director, Paul Thomas Anderson. He was asked by The New York Times Magazine when he last went to confession. “It’s about three hours long,” Anderson answered. “Haven’t you seen it?”

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