No one's got that much ego to spend

Ever since I first saw it, the film Magnolia has stayed with me like no other recent piece of popular fiction. While many of my fellow film enthusiast friends dismissed it as writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s overblown, self-indulgent epic, I was captivated by the film’s talented ensemble cast, left to the mercy of melodramatic coincidence, interconnected in a desperate web only the eroding spirit of Los Angeles can create. To me, Magnolia was not just exciting visual filmmaking. Above and beyond the role of the camera, it was engaging emotional filmmaking. As emotions have flaws and glaring inconsistencies, so does Magnolia, but at its heart, the film acknowledges that the power of certain human connections may be too unexpected for us to disregard them as anything but mysteriously significant.

Okay, hold up. Let’s take a moment to notice what is happening here. That last paragraph was written on unconscious commentary momentum. What is unconscious commentary momentum? Well, in the most basic sense, it’s a distraction. It’s what happens when you (or is it just me?) sit down with the intention to write or work on an article that requires your productive, focused thinking only to become sidetracked by an impulsive flurry of typing on a particular work of art or idea. The next thing you know, the monitor stares back with two new rambling pages, and you have no idea where they came from. You wonder why this happens, but then you look up, and all the answers are flying around way over your head. This Magnolia distraction is turning into commentary, not just any commentary, but a long, commemorative, uneven commentary, inevitably headed for some closing paragraph wherein I will compare the movie to my life, as if my life deserves it (it doesn’t).

Which causes me to continue my wonder: is it worth my time to put into words what I already know to be true, especially when there are so many other things I could be doing that my head spins just thinking about it? Why can’t I manage to stop myself when this happens and get back on track? Distractions, not laziness, accounted for most of my procrastination in college, more often than not leading to all-nighters with the word processors or editing suites, burning the twilight oil on the latest research paper or documentary project, coming out ahead just inches before the deadline. I’m no heavyweight in the writing community…

(side note: well, in this town, everybody writes, so if you call yourself a writer, you may as well be a human being, no one special, mediocre until proven otherwise. Introducing your profession as “writer” without backup credentials is guaranteed to garner doubtful raised eyebrows on the face in front of you, an expression you’re sure is accompanied by hearty, mocking inner chuckle. But that inner chuckle means nothing to me because I’ve been writing since I learned how to write, so you might as well just inner chuckle the fact that I also have brown eyes. “I’m a writer” is not something I can confidently tell people because that would involve me hesitating and tripping over my spoken words, thus ruining my credibility before anyone has read any of my written words. And although this has been a nice double distraction that really hit my distraction theory out of the ballpark, continuing this parentheses side note any longer would mean getting into a whole other fascinating discussion about the different types of “writers” that I’ve met since moving here, but such a discussion is limiting because I haven’t met near as many writers as I would like, which is a bummer but might also be a case of quality over quantity).

(memory refresh: the original sentence, before the parentheses, started, “I’m no heavyweight in the writing community,”) so I’m not entirely sure if other writers suffer this sidetrack affliction to the same degree as writer’s block. Also, sometimes losing focus can turn into a positive exercise in creative thought; this just may not be one of these times. There’s still time to turn it around, if not now, then someday.

But to get back on the virtues of Magnolia (because as I said before, its impression has never really left me, so if that’s the case, the film isn’t so much a distraction as an inspiration, or in Hunter S. Thompson-speak, fuel), the one thing that gets me is that the film itself can’t really seem to focus, yet it penetrates into characters who need to focus like they’ve never focused before, whose collective focus level needs to be the equivalent to terror alert “RED,” except with meaning behind it and ASAP. As Magnolia speeds towards its amphibiously cleansing denouement, this focus becomes increasingly more critical, yet Anderson’s camera can’t sit still, dipping in and out, staying just long enough to teeter you on the edge of insanity, sucking you in to the attention deficit focus, forcing you to feel the urgency right along with the characters.

So you comply. You focus. Focus like a coke addict doing lines like it’s the last line of defense, the TV screen haunting reminders of a broken past, Aimee Mann nearly breaking the speakers singing of keeping a monotonous routine, a lonely cop at her door with delusions of romance who serves a public safety that can’t even keep safe from itself. Focus like a pompous self-help entrepreneur suffering a gravity free-fall from dormant to volcanic empathy. Focus like a child genius under pressure to win a televised quiz show with a full bladder, with failure and embarrassment imminent with every tick. Focus like a former child whiz turned misfit holed up in a bar yet isolated, desperate for connection yet only finding more lost souls. Focus on love. Focus on death. Focus on forgiveness. Focus on redemption. Focus on what it all means. But be forewarned: the answers may be distracting.

Just like Anderson’s hauntingly contemplative prologue to Magnolia, it may just be a coincidence, all this distraction. Unexpected yet captivating, these wayward tangents may be better lost, but I can’t help but shift focus and write them. Some people may be better left unmet, some films better left unseen, because they may force us to compromise the very beliefs we’ve adopted and taken very much to heart. They may blindside us with their impact. But we have no choice but to focus, react, and go from there, open and ready for the next chance distraction. It may be beautiful or tragic, but we can’t ignore it.

As Aimee Mann (whose music, in my opinion, is the most intense, compelling element of Magnolia because her lyrical spirit inhabits all the characters) sings in “Deathly,” with a hint of self-awareness, “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to, never seeing each other again? ‘Cause I can’t afford to climb aboard you; no one’s got that much ego to spend.” In this lyric, she digresses (in a brilliant way) into Elliot Smith territory, meditating on our relative worth in relationships and how we even have the delusion that we deserve to be loved by another, or whether it’s all just social conditioning, sex-driven, vanity-feed, avoidance of being alone, pressure to beat the biological clock, rescue from childhood neglect, etc.

If and when we realize that, no matter how much we’d prefer them to be just another mass produced product, feelings of human connection like love are real and proactive, perhaps it’s better to never realize such a connection because that would mean distracting the focus from our own lives, compromising our personal goals, hopes and dreams. Relationships are the ultimate distraction, a two-way road that’s nearly impossible to exit safely without good intention, where you have to share your self, receive another, and accept that dynamic, inevitably experiencing ups, downs, further distractions, and reasons to focus. You can defend yourself against this your whole life, but somebody might sneak in and penetrate beneath the surface, and get you. “You’re on your honor, ‘cause I’m a goner. And you haven’t even begun,” sings Aimee Mann. “So do me a favor. If I should waver, do me a favor. Get out the gun.” Every time I hear this lyric, I wonder. Why does it have to be so fatal?

This harrowing relationship-gun image follows me these days, but I know deep down that even though I am truly a goner, nobody needs to get out the gun, not that there should be a gun around in the first place. It may be the ultimate distraction, but like this Magnolia distraction, for the sake of momentum, I don’t want it to end, ever. Just like Magnolia continues to distract me, unconsciously fueling the creative process without needing to watch it continuously, this two-way street works similar wonders, as alternately amazing and confusing as it may seem right now.


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