Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia is one of the more divisive films to come out in the past decade. Everyone who sees it seems to have an opinion about it, offered in strong terms. It’s often a love it or hate it proposal. This polarized reaction is quite interesting, and seems to be spurred on by the feature of the film that most excites me: its aggressiveness. Director P.T. Anderson leaves no room for middling positions on Magnolia. The varied opening sequence, complete with an homage to silent films, certainly raises an eyebrow for the uninitiated. The confidence and fluidity of his camera cause the viewer to either come along for the ride or bail out quickly. The in your face attitude of characters and dialogue, often so full of vulgarity that it cannot be ignored, leave viewers challenged and at times, reeling. Even the placement of music, with his fearless decision to turn his film into a musical 2/3 of the way through, smells of someone throwing all his cards on the table in an effort to push the viewer into a corner, leaving them nowhere to go and unsure of what might come next. And of course, no one could imagine what would come next, with Anderson leaving his most aggressive move for last.

All of this gets the blood boiling, as these elements contribute in their own ways to imbuing the film with meaning. However, it is chiefly that meaning, varied and expansive, that makes this film memorable and infinitely watchable several years after its release.

Once the characters are introduced, we hear the key line in the film, spoken twice fairly early in the film: ‘And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”’ In the film’s early moments, we are introduced to a series of people deeply scarred by their pasts. Lies, drugs, sexual indiscretion, desertion, and theft populate the lives of these characters. This repeated line should resonate in our minds as we watch these people and the mess they’ve made of their lives.

The real centerpiece of the film’s story, it seems to me, is the game show What Do Kids Know? hosted by Jimmy Gator. The title’s double meaning in the context of the film is telling. While the show deals with mindless trivia that either feeds kids’ overenthusiastic sense of pride or places them up on a pedestal only to be knocked down for the sake of entertainment, the mosaic of the film is all about parents and children. As we see both kids and the adults they become scarred by a lifetime of poor decisions their parents made, we wonder if the title of that game show might have been in Earl or Jimmy’s mind some other time in their past. Also, a line that seems to come from almost out of nowhere takes on a much greater significance in this context. After Donnie confesses his love for Brad the bartender, he runs to the bathroom, and while vomiting over the toilet, he can be heard mumbling a verse from the Bible (Exodus 20:5). He says the children are punished for the sin of the fathers. The fact that it comes from a religious text lends transcendence to the proceedings, though Anderson subverts it nicely by having it spoken over a filthy barroom toilet. Big things are indeed happening in the midst of the stench of this world.

This punishment spoken of by Donnie raises its head in the form of suffering and poor choices, and is true of every child in the film: the young African-American boy named Dixon, Stanley, Donnie, Frank Mackey, and Claudia. Each of them carries deep scars and pain from the failure of their parents (usually their fathers). In Dixon’s case, his father is a killer, thus putting his son in harms way. On top of that Officer Jim Kurring fails to listen to his rap, thus denying Dixon an important moment in his life (and bringing further harm on himself). Stanley’s dad is more concerned about money and using his kid to bolster his acting career than he is about caring for the real needs of affection and approval in his son. Donnie’s parents stole his money. Neither does it seem they prepared him well for adulthood. Frank’s father Earl bailed on the family when his wife Lily got sick. Jimmy molested his daughter and even when staring death in the face, refuses to admit it. The cause of all these failures is beautifully summed up in a line from Earl Partridge (father of Frank), when he states: “I’ll tell you the greatest regret of my life: I let my love go.” This heartbreaking commentary on a failed life gets at the heart of the conflict in each relationship. It also provides a link toward the way of reconciling with the past and moving forward in renewed relationships – these people need to find that lost love.

Just after the characters sing Aimee Mann’s Wise Up, a moment at which it seems they will each give up, the rain stops and they seem to be making some changes. Jim and Claudia, Jimmy and Rose, Frank and Earl – all of them are honest with each other, revealing bits of who they are and how they feel about one another. But with that honesty, there is still anger, mistrust, and fear. Then, the frogs come.

They are an announcement, a judgment, and a means of grace rolled into one. They announce for us a second time that something transcendent is going on. There is more going on in this world than meets the eye. These people are not alone (both the biblical references to Exodus 8:2 and the framing segments on coincidences are key in this conclusion). The frogs also come as a judgment on the truly wicked lives these people have led. Earl takes his last breath during the downpour. Jimmy appears as if he will suffer his last months alone. Donnie, recently becoming a thief, is thrown for a hard fall from the ladder.

But what makes this final climactic incident so important is the way it allows for grace in the lives of these lonely people. Jim is able to give a helping hand to Donnie, who desperately needs someone to care for him. Claudia gets to experience the comforting embrace of her mother, this time with all the honesty of their past open before them. Frank and Stanley witness this strange and miraculous occurrence, softening their hard edges and providing them with the courage to strive for a better way once morning comes.

After the narrator repeats the key line: ‘And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us,”’ we get a final monologue from Jim. It’s on the subject of forgiveness. The implication here is that through forgiveness, one can find that lost love Earl spoke of. Jim talks honestly about forgiveness, that it isn’t easy, and at least in his job, not always called for. But he asks the question: “What can we forgive?” In other words, are things ever so far gone that we can’t forgive?

The film leaves us then with people on the road to personal renewal: Frank, his face tear-stained, stumbling through the hospital to visit Linda, Jim helping Donnie to return the money, Stanley telling his dad how their relationship needs to be characterized by kindness, Rose caring for Claudia, and Jim coming to be with Claudia, who, in the famous closing shot, provides us with a glorious (albeit slightly broken) smile after all this madness.

The question remains: What do kids know? Well, maybe they know more than trivia, more than we parents give them credit for. Maybe they know how to forgive, to begin the process of healing their broken relationships, and to move on with their lives. Maybe they can even break the cycle of wickedness, sparing their own kids some of their torturous experience. Maybe…

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18 thoughts on “Magnolia (1999)

  1. Thanks for taking the time to offer some thoughtful insight into a film that I feel is severely underrated and underappreciated. Sure, it wears its heart on its sleeve and one can easily dismiss it for doing that.

    I like your ideas on the theme of childhood in Magnolia. The movie opens with a flower opening and blossoming, a symbol that could be attritubed to growth, change, adolesence, awareness, etc.

    On my first viewing, I had a hard time swallowing it all but on multiple repeat viewings I’ve discovered that this film is a gem. Lots of layers, lots of things going. Thanks for giving me more food for thought the next time I dust this DVD off.

  2. This is a great review, John. People have used the word “operatic” to describe the film; PTA used the phrase “writing from the gut”; your comments nail the movie’s “aggressiveness.” And yet, as you detail, there is a real underlying structure to it all that is deeply hopeful.

    I saw this film three or four times in the theater when it was released–I kept taking more friends to see it–but oddly enough, I’ve never watched it on DVD since. I think I worked it out of my system or something, like a good cry. I should watch it again some day.

  3. Thanks for the comment, Anon. I love the flower image in this context – I hadn’t made that connection. It seems so obvious now that I think about it though! I too had a hard time adjusting to this the first time I saw it in the theater. After letting it simmer, I returned to it on DVD and completley rethought my initial desire to hold the film at a distance. My recent viewing was for the first time in two years and it felt as fresh as ever. Just an amazing piece of work.

  4. Doug, thanks for the PTA quote. “Writing from the gut,” That helps to contextualize much of the raw emotional power of the film.

    Having not seen the film in some time before this recent viewing, I was surprised at how well it held up and how powerful it remained for me, maybe even moreso than before. This is one of the signs of a great film for me – something that holds up and even reveals greater depth on repeated viewings.

  5. JOhn,

    Thanks for the great summary and review. It’s a film that, due to its complexity, is difficult to synthesize and even analyze. We’ve chatted about it before, and I think I may have softened my original negative opinion about it slightly.

    The film came up again last night at my reading group, so I ended up thinking about it again. In fact, I’ve thought about it quite often since I saw it. . . . so if that’s not a sign of a “good” film, what is?

  6. Good to hear from you, Mike. I agree about sticking with you. Those tend to be the films I most like, and want to come back to again and again.

  7. I was recently walking through my neighborhood and stepped on something that continues to stick to my shoes. Sometimes “sticking with you” is not a good thing.

    Be careful Svigel, if you desert me and become a fan of Magnolia we will have almost nothing in common.

  8. Well, since we’re telling parables… There was a man walking through his neighborhood and found a basketball near a hoop that no one was playing on. Having not picked up a basketball in some years (since a dislocated shoulder), the man was apprehensive, which was understandable. But since no one was around, he decided to shoot a few baskets. To his great surprise he has been shooting hoops every weekend since. He really can’t get enough of them.

    Make of that what you will. :)

  9. A man was walking through his neighborhood when somebody started throwing rocks at his dislocated shoulder. As he ran away to avoid confrontation, he stepped in some poop. Then he climbed a magnolia tree, where he’s been hiding ever since, trying to get that poop off his shoe.

    Don’t try to make anything of that.

  10. A man was hiding in a magnolia tree and suddenly it started to rain. He decided to wait out the storm in the tree, rather than risk falling and dislocating his other shoulder, or even his ankle. But then, as almost always happens when one hides in a magnolia tree, a whole “poop-load” of frogs fell out of the sky. Hey, it could happen!!

    Try to make something really profound and meaningful out of that.

  11. Great review. I liked the interpretation of the title of the game show in reference to the parent/child relationships in the film. Thanks for taking the time.
    -Kiersten

  12. Ok, I repent.

    After a second viewing, I no longer consider this the worst film ever made. I actually kinda enjoyed it. I suspect that I know the reasons I found it so offensive the first time.

    On the other hand, the whole frog thing is still just really stupid. Sorry, I cannot conceive any purpose in going so far outside the diagetic world of the story. In Anderson’s world, as in the “real world,” characters and lives are intertwined, but that redemption would occur through a “miracle” like frogs falling from the sky . . . come on!!! And this single transcendent act would wrap up all the subplots so nicely and so positively . . . come on again!!!

    But, I guess it could happen . . .

    Oh wait, I almost forgot; all those opening stories are urban legends. So NONE of those events happened and neither did the frogs from the sky.

  13. First off, thanks for giving this another go, as I have been anxious to hear your response for a while now.

    I’ve spent some time thinking about your critique, namely that the miracle isn’t consistent with the world Anderson presents. Thus, I offer a few thoughts.

    I think the most important line in your comment above is that “it could happen.” Actually, according to the diegetic world of the film, they did happen. That is the fundamental assumption of the montage that frames the film, that strange things and unexplainable events happen all the time. They are not presented in the film as urban legends, but as verifiable accounts given in newspapers and respected scientific socities.

    I would also disagree that the stories are all resolved positively. Indeed, there is positive change in Frank, Claudia, and maybe also Donnie, but Earl dies without the opportunity to reconcile with his son, Jimmy is left alone, unable to even kill himself to end his pain, and Stanley still has a father that shows no signs of changing his behavior. And even with Frank and Claudia – he still has the issue of his livelihood that remains unresolved, while she never even gives the hint of reconciling with her father. These people still have problems, even as Anderson gently offers us some hopes of change.

    Finally, back on the issue of whether the frogs could happen, I would submit that the jarring nature of the event should remind us of the similar nature of the miraculous in the biblical accounts. I doubt anyone in Egypt had seen or experienced the people. It must have been terrifying and difficult to understand for the everyday man. Yet like in Magnolia, the Bible provides a context in which the miraculous (or in the language of the film, the strange or coincidental) could happen. With that context set up, it seems to me quite acceptable, if a bit shocking, for an event like the frogs to occur. Here I would ask: what would Anderson need to do to make such an event acceptable in the context of the film? Isn’t it an implicit credit to the jarring nature of miraculous events that the frogs, in a sense, come out of nowhere?

    (To mix otherwise dissonant topics, this seems to be part of the answer to the claims of Jack Deere, namely his assertion that the miraculous should be normal. Isn’t the nature of the miraculous that it is non-normative?)

  14. It is the urban legend issue that still troubles me. I know (and so should everyone else) that the opening stories are all urban legends. They are presented as if they are true, and that is Anderson’s inside “joke” (similar to the Coen’s in “Fargo”). But each of the urban legends is explainable, the coincidences are believable. The frogs from the sky are not a coincidence, a believable occurence, they are a miracle. That is what is unbelievable in the diagetic world of this film. There has been nothing to suggest the reality of miracles and nothing to “elevate” coincidences to that level. And this incident is not explained in any way. Perhaps if another “urban legend” formed the background of this incident I could buy it. As it is, the frogs keep this from being a great film. Had Anderson used a believable (within the world of the film) incident (coincidence) I would be more impressed. The frogs are a twist, kind of like being told that a whole year of a television series never happened, it was just a dream.

  15. For what it’s worth, I seem to remember reading somewhere that Anderson got the idea of the frogs from a news account of something like this happening a number of years ago, which would connect it to the other news accounts he uses to frame the film. He later added the the prophetic visual cues of Exodus 8:2 to make the biblical connection explicit.–>

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