Magnolia is a film that means a whole lot to me. Favorite. Yeah. That's the terms they throw around these days. Now I must preface this analysis/review with a word of warning. I went into this film the first time, cold. Not knowing alot about the big events that occur within, I was taken aback but elated that it dodged every way I thought it was going to end. I suggest to those who have not seen the film that they do the same.
A murder. 3 executions. Another murder. A suicide. An attempted suicide turned homicide. & that's before the title even shows up. The terrain this film navigates is vast and its depth expansive. It's a film encompassing 9 lives in a small time frame. It's filled with extremes-- whether it be examples of love or pain. A musical number and an event straight from the Bible even show up. Nothing is played safe. For a film that begins in black and white and ends on a smile it certainly is an exhaustive journey.
There are few films that I have been obssessive over as much as this one. 2001 is one. Apocalypse Now is another. Watching Magnolia for the first time, or any great film for that matter, is a one of a kind experience. You literally have no idea what to expect next. & that's just what this film does-- subvert expectations. With this in mind, Magnolia is the kind of film that divides audiences just as much as critics. Controversy is a vital sign of life, and that's why I love a lightning rod. It was not a film that instantly jumped to my all time favorite list upon first viewing. I would be surprised if it did anyones. Repeat viewings is where a major strength of the film lies. Because there is so much packed in, it allows for it to improve on a 3rd, 4th or even 5th viewing. Even looking at reviews of the film, there is a variety that essentially exist between two poles-- love or hate. It's been called many things: too long, too short, pretentious, perfect or as PT says in the making of "what kind of ending is that? People won't care about her smiling." & for any film to create such passionate reaction amongst viewers, there is at least something happening that's right.
By now you know the characters. But for those not in the loop (go out and netflix now! or better yet buy it), I'll get into the details. A major string tying this fiesty little yarn down is the broken relationships between fathers & sons and in one case father & daughter. Frank T.J. Mackey is a misogynistic infomercial salesman and head of Seduce & Destroy. His estranged father is Earl Partridge, a cancer ridden, bed stricken old man whose wife goes to get him more medicine. Did I mention guilt ridden? Earl is a man whose cheating on his past wife has forced him to try to come to terms with his son.
In our next corner we have Stanley Specter, a quiz kid constantly under pressure to win from his overbearing father. The head of the game show is Jimmy Gator, another ailing old man dying of cancer. & another man who cheats on his wife. His daughter, Claudia Wilson Gator isn't too good either. She's a cocaine addict who shamelessly sleeps with men just to get by. Donnie Smith, a former quiz kid, is another fractured soul in the midst of this storm. He seeks love and unfortunately in the wrong places.
Seem like a lot? It is. I remember watching this film with a friend and the one thing they said during the whole running time was "This has to be the most dramatic movie I've seen." I really can't help but agree. There's a whole lotta drama. It can be almost too much for some. The thing that helps this ship from flying apart is Anderson's constant rhythm & pacing of scenes. Something that can also be attributed to his editor Dylan Tichenor. The more times you see this, the faster it flies by. At least for me it does. For a film with many characters, it ends up holding together cohesively. Each character weaves their own narrative into a collective whole. What seems to elevate each character is that as inexplicable their behavior may be, it never seems forced.
Among all of these damaged lives exist two sympathetic characters: the nurse, Phil Parma, who takes of Earl Partridge and Jim Kurring, a police officer who falls in love with Claudia Gator. For a film filled with abrasive characters, both Phil & Jim act as the center. If I had to choose one character out of this ensemble as a particular favorite it would have to be Jim. He is a man of routine. Yet he seeks to live a better life. He even monologues to himself in the car. Throughout the entire intro, we are introduced to characters who are busy with their own lives. Whether it be having sex, going to school, going to the dentist, nursing or dying. Even on his date with Claudia, he is taken aback by the use of the terms "piss" and "shit". A simple man just trying to do the right thing.
The major interpretation to the film is that our behavior has a lasting effect on those close to us. It is passed down. Even a small scene between Dixon and Jim Kurring has Kurring writing off Dixon's song that identifies the killer in a case he is investigating. Miscommunication and in some cases mistreatment of children is something that's inherent in most of the adults in the film. Take for instance the story between Frank Mackey & Earl Partridge. We discover that Frank was forced to take care of his dying mother because Earl was never there. This leads him to choosing to go down his own little path. Creating Seduce & Destroy. It's not until a television interviewer uncovers a couple skeletons in the closet that Frank's armor begins to crack and we eventually see him in his most vulnerable state at the film's conclusion. Vulnerability hangs over everyone here. Donnie Smith's own parents exploited him over a game show. He states that he has lots of love to give but it's not until the end that we find out the missing piece of that puzzle: He has lots of love to give, he just doesn't know where to put it. Going back to the theme of adults damaging children, the show What Do Kids Know? pits the adults against the kids. Because the film wears it's heart on its sleeve, it tends to feel grand in theme but at the same time steeped in earnest character. The music may be the same, but what joy it is to watch it play out with different beats and rhythms.
What I find equally fascinating is the inspiration that Anderson drew from to create-- music. A number of my all time favorite films have scenes that rely heavily on music to create that transcendant quality. For this film, Aimmee Mann lent her talents. Why do people sing along to Wise Up? Who cares? It just is. I'll be damned if it's not one of the most moving scenes in the film. Along with Aimmee's music comes Jon Brion's score.
Then there's the frogs. Oh it's that movie where frogs fall out of the sky. Anderson got the idea after reading about a rain of frogs in the works of Charles Fort. PTA didn't even know about the rain of frogs from the Bible until Henry Gibson gave him a copy. Now I'm willing to bet this had to have been at the earliest stages of pre-production. When I first saw the frogs falling out of the sky, I was taken slightly a back by it. & I do mean slightly. Exodus 8:2 is of course the verse which tells about the frogs. "and if you do not let them go, I will smite thy land with frogs." While the frog part is obvious, it's the "if you do not let them go" part that fits into the larger theme of the film. There's nothing I hate more than movies that pound the message into your skull (Crash, anyone?). Thankfully, PTA averts it here. & you can really cling on to whatever message you interpret from the film anyway.
Now I by no means want to sound preachy. But the one character in the film- Jim Kurring- could be viewed as the most devout character in the picture. Yet even he thinks God abandoned him because he lost his gun. Not even a simple man like Jim Kurring is let off the hook. & after going through nearly three hours of cancer, sex, drugs, embarrasment, and adultery, it seems that the choice of frogs should come more as a "Why not?" than a "What for?" But this movie is not lazy by any means. To say that frogs are just there for the sake of being there would be missing a point thematically. I think it's there to create a larger vision than just miscommunication between adults & children. The same way Jupiter & the Beyond the Infinite is in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without that sequence, the film is basically a metaphor for technology taking over. But with that section, it is able to transcend. It truly is one of the most mystifiying and profound scenes in the history of cinema.
As much as the interpretation of miscommunication between adults & children is sound, to pinpoint Magnolia down to one meaning would be a great disservice. I'm sure there are many more. It's a film that talks more clearly about life than just about any other film I've seen. & when a movie has as many different meanings and feels as personal as this one does, it's easy to see why a person loves it. It is a manic film that arrives with full force and refuses to let you go until its 3+ hour running time ends. Some may hate it. But for the ones who love it, we can't help but resonate with that last simple gesture Claudia gives us at the end. PTA prefaces his script with an introduction. It closes out with: "I set out to write a great movie. I'm not ashamed. I've written from my gut and I will not be ashamed. And one thing I know is this: I'd do it again. So blame me." That's all you could ask from a director. & I'll certainly be standing in line to buy my ticket when he does do it again.