Face up to Croaking it

By Charles Jason Lee

magnolia-paul-thomas-anderson-1.jpgMagnolia, 1999

Forgiveness and Judgement: injustices to an unjust God in Magnolia.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia constructs a God who offers justice in this world, rather than the next. Given Christ’s remit to establish God’s kingdom now this may not be anti-Christian. With its emphasis on co-incidence, synchronicity and fate, the film suggests that freedom to move towards a less sinful existence is ultimately out of the individual’s hands and concurrently sinfulness will be punished in this world. There is a duality here, with both free will and fate being stressed, The New Testament God of forgiveness and The Old Testament God of the law being dominant. Like Short Cuts (Robert Altman, 1993) in conception and location and similarly using an ensemble cast, Magnolia expertly explores the interwoven tragic lives of desperate and apparently disparate contemporary Californian Americans. Again, like the maverick Altman, frustrated with the studios promotion of the film, Anderson took full control of Magnolia, resisting the studio’s attempt to cut it, refusing their aim to make it a vehicle for Tom Cruise and, as well as directing and writing, working on the artistry of the posters and the soundtrack. The thirty seven million dollar film encompasses eleven main characters, and nine stories, explicitly threaded together by the music of singer/songwriter Aimee Mann. Eight of the actors appeared in Boogie Nights (1997), Anderson’s previous film.

We have the former champion quiz boy Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and his contemporary equivalent Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), being able to answer any question but unable to answer the most important one “why won’t someone let me love them” meaning “please someone love me”. Donnie is abused by greed driven parents as a child prodigy and their theft of his money gained on the quiz show leads him to attempt a theft from his former employees. Stanley’s father abuses him but in the final sequences of the film he confronts his father’s abusive behaviour, which suggests change. There is motherless Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) who teaches men how to get “pussy” and put women in their place, to “tame” them, who eventually reveals his emotions to his dying father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) while his stepmother Linda (Julianne Moore) attempts suicide. Christian policeman Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), who in many ways takes centre stage, eventually saves and is saved by a drug-addicted victim of child sexual abuse Claudia Gator (Melora Walters). The presenter of the quiz show where adults compete against children, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), diagnosed as having a medical condition collapses on the show, then admits that he is not sure whether he has abused his daughter. All are victims of abuse, including the policeman Jim who is the victim of a damaged marriage, not of childhood, even though his odd religious behaviour suggests that he too has not managed to gain the correct level of self-love that comes through good (enough) parenting.

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The film does not simply demonise adults as has been maintained, nor is it “anchored in the hope that children will be released from the captivity on them by adults who fetishistically cling to fame and wealth”. Stanley’s child team members on the quiz show are just as obsessed with fame and wealth as their adult competitors, with many of the adults in the film behaving like children. In fact it is adult America’s worship of childhood, as Robert Bly has shown, that is a central problem in society. Mackey’s dying father Big Earl Partridge owns the company that produces the quiz show, America’s longest running, thus all the characters are brought together via the televisual, the drug-addict daughter watching her father as he collapses during hosting the show. Although Anderson “lack’s Altman’s penetrating cynicism and improvisatory genius, he inarguably has more heart and soul. Better soundtracks too.” Unlike Altman, there is forgiveness and healing here, for the daughter is taken on by the police officer. He wants to understand and not judge, despite his moral God-of-judgement driven motivation. The police officer faces death every day, communicates constantly with the person who has faced death and lived, Jesus, thus the central nexus of the film is this hope but there are paradoxes. The battle here is with the sins of the fathers’ and the film examines this in detail and the reality of all fathers “croaking it” and facing their mortality, possibly alone, without receiving forgiveness but there is also, with the absent mothers, the ineffectuality of women that is pointed to. The drug addict’s mother (Melinda Dillon) has done nothing to help her daughter, and never presumed her celebrity husband was the guilty one until this moment when he is on his last legs and semi-confesses to Rose about abusing Claudia. Mackey’s mother has died and left him, and also was reliant on him to care for her whilst she was dying when he was only a child, thus reversing the roles and making him invulnerable as an adult. The young quiz boy Stanley does not appear to have a mother.

Beyond all these desperate motherless and soon to be fatherless lives is a poignancy that the title of the film points to. The film opens with a series of historical stories that prove that life is stranger than fiction, and that co-incidence does occur of an absurd and excessive nature, but people carry on regardless often ignoring the potential meaning of this. There is an ongoing catch phrase in the film “if this happened in a movie you wouldn’t believe it”, meaning that some things are just too unbelievable to be believable yet they are so bizarre nobody could make them up. This argument has been used in the case of Jesus Christ: a nobody from Nazareth actually being the Messiah is so preposterous it cannot be fiction. Three vignettes begin the film concerning theft and violence, gambling and suicide and marital violence. Anderson seems obsessed with sin, given his previous two features Hard Eight (1996), which concerned gambling, and Boogie Nights (1997) about pornography. The most interesting vignette reveals the precise trajectory of a young man who dies attempting to kill himself by jumping off a building but is shot accidentally by his mother pointing a gun at his father. The theme again of weak parents is covered. As Mark Olsen maintains, these pre-credit sequences possess more energy and extravagance than that contained in most whole movies. After this fast action cerebral opening with elaborate graphics, the film’s pace drops and pauses to enable the audience to assess the emotional states of the primary protagonists, implying that it is emotion that matters here. Magnolia is stereotypically the non-offensive colour, hence in many ways it is the offensive paint colour, and the film looks at how lives are painted, watching this particularly paint-dry over one afternoon-night-dawn. Explicitly this is the “dark-night-of-the-soul” of St. John of the Cross for the primary characters but also in atmosphere and for the audience. The film refers to a peculiar ennui in the apparent inanity of life; essentially there is no plot here as there may be no clear trajectory in an individual’s life, but due to the power of the acting and the intensity of the events portrayed, this is anything but tedious. Mark Olsen states that what occurs as a semblance of a narrative are stock movie motivational devices, such as the son looking for the father. But it is more the stories of sons and daughters attempting to forgive their parents, and hence themselves, reverse prodigal stories that are not of the norm.

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Child abuse is positioned as a central reality of existence, with the film ending on the embrace of the police officer and the drug addict prior to her smile at the camera, yet child sexual abuse is not all consuming. There is healing, and with the abuser confessing to his wife, a new relationship can also begin between daughter and mother. Prior to this point, with the celebrity husband Jimmy Gator being dominant, there is no way such a shift can take place, but as his health fails there is the link between the conscious awareness of his previous acts and his decay, physical and moral deterioration being equated. The film then offers hope to the hopeless, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Earl Patridge’s nurse Phil Parma playing in many films, such as Magnolia and Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998), the character that typifies this loser with ‘truth-seer’ status who as nurse co-ordinates the deep personal healing of relationships, plus there is the punishment for past sins with the ill health of both the celebrity and TV mogul. The “molester” here is the one suffering from a version of false memory syndrome, not the victim, because he does not know whether he abused his daughter or not. His wife believes he obviously has carried out the molesting if he cannot remember whether he has not, but the reality maybe more ambiguous.

While establishing the film as an explication of the peculiar coincidences that occur in life that maybe down to fate or chance, Anderson’s film actually suggests that what occurs in life is a form of karma, thus chance is in many ways negated, abusers will always be punished at some point, thus there is an overreaching power that means justice will be done in this world, that fate prevails. Hollywood cinema itself performs this function. By having a title card about the weather to separate each section, the idea is that the weather conditions dictate behaviour, and the apocalyptic deluge of frogs at a crucial moment in all the lives of the core characters means that what occurs is outside the hands of individuals, the god of the weather being a God who punishes the wicked. The frogs rain down on windscreens, swimming pools and windows, with ominous pops as they explode and die, reminding the filmic viewer, that is the protagonists, and the film viewer, the spectator, of their own end, and possibly their origin given evolutionary theory. “So, now, then” is the title that follows the frog deluge and a brief return to the resolution of the opening three short stories with the voice over of Ricky Jay from Boogie Nights. “You may be through with the past,” says the voice over, “but the past ain’t through with you”, the frogs a symbol of that which has been repressed, returning to the theme of the sins of the fathers and mothers. There is also the tender scene that follows between captured and released thief Donnie and off-duty but always on a mission Jim; Donnie is the frog that with a kiss could turn into a prince. Call it chance or co-incidence, life goes on, and nobody really knows what is happening, is the message. The controlling theme of weather is a perversion of both ideas around fortune and chance and the God of The Bible however, who lets the sun shine on both the wicked and the just, for there is no discrimination. The police officer Jim Kuring prevents the adult quiz boy going to jail and the daughter dying from drugs. He is the institution of both earthly and religious law given his daily prayer ritual and his constant conversations with God, thus simplistically justice prevails in this world.

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Judgement is the core of the text, witness Julianne Moore’s astounding scene as Linda Partridge at the chemist where she harangues the chemist with ‘shame on you’ for apparently judging her suicidal state. How can any one judge anybody else for we do not know what is going on, the film asks, for this is morally reprehensible and factually inaccurate? As Jim meditates on life and speaks with God after dealing with quiz kid adult Donnie Smith, he reflects on the idea of forgiveness, asking what can you forgive? Jim Kurring’s Christian faith is far from “a subtle depiction”, as Mario DeGiglio-Bellemare puts it. In many ways the depiction is an overtly stereotypical mockery, for Jim appears to be in constant crisis, asking God for re-assurance in a ridiculous fashion, and in this way the film encourages a re-examination of a faith that believes God and the self are the same. Jim has been hiding for three years since his divorce, God being the only one he has really spoken to, ashamed to admit his own needs, judging himself as a failure. Also, the plague of frogs is not a judgement on Kurring’s individual style of faith that upholds the status quo. DeGiglio-Bellemare does note that the health of frogs is indicative of the environmental health of an area, LA being infamous for its pollution. What DeGiglio-Bellemare’s does not point out is that the plague of frogs is not a major act of God, given the weird events that have taken place, but the returning gun during the dregs of the frog-storm which he does not mention is the most absurdly miraculous event in the film.

The film in fact suggests that God eventually blesses Jim’s actions when God answers his prayers for the return of his blessed tool of righteousness that falls from the sky after being stolen by a wayward black kid. But Jim does not retrieve the God given gun. Ironically Jim, while seeing himself as God’s justice on earth, has in fact committed the one sin that Jesus was clear about in his many discussions with the Pharisees. Jim is examining his role as a police officer, but for him his job and life are not separate, nor is his life really separate from that of others, despite the Mann version of Harry Nilsson’s ‘One’ (“the loneliest number”) emotively sung simultaneously by all the protagonists in different locations. In his soliloquy, which is a kind of pep talk to himself and God and the world, he declares that forgiveness is not just the toughest part of being a cop but it is a tough part of walking down the street. Yet this is how we survive, for we make judgements at every moment, particularly condemnatory judgements about others. “I’m quietly judging you” Cruise responds to the interviewer, after a tense silence as Mackey’s falsified and repressed history is regurgitated before him.

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“The question of the meaning of human existence in the totality of Being, this fundamental question of philosophy, gains its true and practical importance through man’s total discovery of death.”. The dying of two men and near death of one woman and the life-taking and giving job of one man depicted in Magnolia actually negates the view that “because death is meaningless, civilised life as such is meaningless”. The emphasis on co-incidence suggests that perhaps life is over-meaningful hence humans prefer to ignore it, to be non-reflective animals to avoid the pain of being human. Anderson, by choosing to have the final shot in the film Claudia’s smile, the now happy victim of what is currently considered to be the most heinous of sins/crimes, suggests anything is forgivable, all are lovable, the quintessence of the two core Christian messages. This is a strong and radical message in revenge dominated Western culture, however, if all is co-incidence then forgiveness is irrelevant. There is a deep irony throughout Magnolia; individuals believe they can make a difference, but it is out of their hands, and our amusement is how hard they try to change fate. Donnie is ridiculously and unnecessarily fixated with the idea that if he gets corrective oral surgery men might love him. Descending frogs cause him to smash his face making surgery necessary. The synchronously descending frogs function as a revelation. The film reveals that the co-incidence factor makes our own judgements quite insignificant in the wider painted picture. We make whatever choices we can, judge however inaccurately, falsely believing we are free to do so. Jim does have the choice to arrest Donnie or not, but his love for Claudia is not something he can control. Magnolia paints a God of justice, fate and benign resolution in this world. It paints over the wider picture of the God of The Bible who is actually unjust, allowing the sun to shine and the rain to rain, whether the weather be raining frogs or guns, good luck or bad luck, on the wicked and the good alike, for ultimately we all are both.

Charles Jason Lee has taught film and screenwriting at the University of Essex, the University of Central Lancashire, and St Martin's College Lancaster. He is the author of the double volume The Metaphysics of Mass Art (Mellen: New York, 1999) and Pervasive Perversion- Child Sexual Abuse in Media/Culture (Free Association Books: London, 2005).