There are films that are not the least bit concerned with the profound, but from which some profundity might be teased out, and films that openly grapple with profound matters. While my idea of this site is to deal primary with the former, I want to highlight some of the latter as well, starting with this post.
Paul Thomas Anderson makes films about broken people living in a broken world, full of profanity and deviance, and what’s marvelous is that these people long for love and a connection with such hunger that they hit upon epiphanous truths in spite of their brokenness.
In Magnolia, Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) longs desperately for love, so desperately that he wants to get braces that he doesn’t need just to have something in common with a man to whom he is attracted. In his most poignant bit of dialogue, near the end of the film, he states:
Quiz Kid Donnie Smith: I don’t know where to put things, you know? I really do have love to give! I just don’t know where to put it!
Donnie has all of this love to give, but no one to whom to give it. He tries to pour it all into an inappropriate crush. He longs to connect with someone, and to give of himself.
My favorite character in the movie is Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). Jim is a bumbling cop; he knows that he is not a very good cop, but he remains hopeful. Much of his plotline deals with his interactions with Claudia Wilson Gator, who is a cokehead, may have been molested, and has long-since given up on herself.
Claudia Wilson Gator: I’m really nervous that you’re gonna hate me soon. You’re gonna find stuff out about me and you’re gonna hate me.
Jim Kurring: No. Like what? What do you mean?
Claudia Wilson Gator: You have so much – so many good things. And you seem so together. You’re a police officer and you seem so straight and put together – without any problems.
Jim Kurring: I lost my gun today.
Claudia Wilson Gator: What?
Jim Kurring: I lost my gun today when I left you and I’m the laughingstock of a lot of people. I wanted to tell you. I wanted you to know and it’s on my mind. And it makes me look like a fool. And I feel like a fool. And you asked that we should say things – that we should say what we’re thinking and not lie about things. Well, I can tell you that, this, that I lost my gun today – and I am not a good cop. And I’m looked down at. And I know that. And I’m scared that once you find that out you may not like me.
Claudia Wilson Gator: Jim. That, that was so…
Jim Kurring: I’m sorry.
Claudia Wilson Gator: – great. What you just said.
Claudia’s fears are ones that many people share. She thinks that she needs to keep people at arm’s length so that they will not see her for who she believes herself to be. Against this, Jim’s honesty and earnestness are disarming. His lack of guile pierces Claudia’s defenses.
Jim provides voice overs periodically throughout the film, returning to a single theme and expanding upon it a little each time. In its final iteration, he says:
Jim Kurring: And what most people don’t see… is just how hard it is to do the right thing. People think if I make a judgment call… that’s a judgment on them, but that is not what I do. And that’s not what should be done. I have to take everything… and play it as it lays. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part… making that call. I mean, the law is the law. And heck if I’m gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that’s the tough part. What can we forgive?
Officer Jim represents God, in a way. He judges transgressions, not transgressors. He recognizes that sometimes people need a little help, that sometimes they need to be forgiven, and that forgiveness is the difficult part.
This last voice over feeds directly into the final monologue of the film. When I saw Magnolia in the theater, I was unable to make out the words that he was saying beneath the swell of the orchestral score. (I’m not sure if the sound was mis-balanced in that theater, or if this was somehow intentional, like Sofia Coppola keeping us from hearing whatever Bill Murray whispers to Scarlett Johanson at the end of “Lost in Translation”.) It wasn’t until I rented the DVD and watched the final scene with the subtitles on that I discovered what Jim had said, and it retroactively cast the whole film in a new and improved light for me.
At the end of the film, Claudia has run off, again insisting that she is stupid and a bad person and that Officer Jim is better off without her. Again, he refuses to accept that. He chases after her, and catches up to her:
Jim Kurring: I just wanted to come here… to come here and say something… say something important, something that you said. You said we should say things and do things. Not lie, not keep things back… these sorts of things that tear people up. Well, I’m gonna do that. I’m gonna do what you said, Claudia.
I can’t let this go. I can’t let you go. Now, you… you listen to me now. You’re a good person. You’re a good and beautiful person and I won’t let you walk out on me. And I won’t let you say those things, those things about how stupid you are and this and that. I won’t stand for that. You want to be with me… then you be with me. You see?
Claudia has made mistakes; she believes that as a result no one could love her. Jim, like Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, has a lot of love to give. It would be easy to believe that he has just latched on to Claudia because she is available, and needy. I think that would miss the point, though. Jim recognizes in Claudia the innate goodness and beauty within us, and refuses to accept Claudia’s protestations to the contrary. He is willing to forgive her for her mistakes, and recognizes that she needs to be assured of forgiveness so that she can forgive herself.
Punch-Drunk Love is a simpler movie, with fewer characters, but similar themes.
Magnolia primarily portrays relationships at their end; the only dawning relationship belongs to Officer Jim and Claudia and the film ends just as it will begin to blossom. Punch-Drunk Love shows the blossoming of new love.
Barry has kept his emotions bottled up. When they do boil over they come out in violent expression.
Barry: I’m lookin’ at your face and I just wanna smash it. I just wanna fuckin’ smash it with a sledgehammer and squeeze it. You’re so pretty.
Lena: I want to chew your face, and I want to scoop out your eyes and I want to eat them and chew them and suck on them.
Barry: OK. This is funny. This is nice.
I love Barry and Lena’s relationship. I love the expression of that feeling of crazy, new love where the intensity of the feeling is difficult to distinguish from violent impulses.
Quiz Kid Donnie Smith has a love within him to give and despairs because he recognizes that he doesn’t know where to put it. Barry also has a love growing within him, but that love is returned, and he recognizes that it gives him strength:
Barry: I didn’t do anything. I’m a nice man. I mind my own business. So you tell me ‘that’s that’ before I beat the hell from you. I have so much strength in me you have no idea. I have a love in my life. It makes me stronger than anything you can imagine. I would say ‘that’s that’, Mattress Man.
Like Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love ends with a powerful entreaty from a boy to a girl, similarly disjointed and longing:
Barry: Lena. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry I left you at the hospital. I called a phone-sex line… I called a phone-sex line before I met you, and four blond brothers came after me and they hurt you, and I’m sorry. Then I had to leave again because I wanted to make sure you never got hurt again. And I have a lot of puddings, and in six to eight weeks it can be redeemed. So if you could just give me that much time, I think I can get enough mileage to go with you wherever you go if you have to travel for your work. Because I don’t ever want to be anywhere without you. So could you just let me redeem the mileage?
Barry pleads with Lena to take a chance on him using the metaphor of “redeeming the mileage”. Barry has a love now that gives him the strength to break free from his past, to forgive himself. He has kept himself bottled up and, like Claudia, has made mistakes. He recognizes that love can redeem him, if Lena will allow him to love her.