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Magnolia: Spirituality in Film
And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just "something that happened." This cannot be "one of those things..." This, please, cannot be that. These strange things happen all the time.
These words, spoken in the beginning of Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, inaugurate the movie's unpredictable narrative that many reviewers claim is a comment on "chance" as a part of life. However, careful viewers will note an ongoing obsession with the numbers 8 and 2 that reveal a different message. "82" appears attached to a hanged man, on an airplane's fuselage, and on a rooftop beside a suicidal jumper. It provides an 82% chance of rain, an unlucky combination of playing cards, and appears in everything from apartment numbers to answering machines to public meetings at 8:20. Eventually, the motif refers to Exodus 8:2, a verse citing a plague God used to deliver the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. The verse lurks on signs and posters in the background of the film's present day Los Angeles, but it's not until well into the movie that its significance becomes clear when the Divine enters human affairs late one night on Magnolia Avenue.
Magnolia is a creative frenzy of a movie, highlighting the intensely spiritual struggles of its characters caught in contemporary emotional conflicts. It hops from character to character tying them together in a web of loneliness, rage and guilt that builds to a crescendo until brokenness ultimately yields confession, grace and forgiveness. It's a movie that holds the depths and heights of humanity in perfect tension and it does so by overtly suggesting the work of God, making it something of a miracle in itself.
And it's a good thing, too, because the characters in this movie are in dire need of a miracle. And like the Children of Israel, the children in the movie are the ones most in need of liberation. The film's wounded characters come in pairs: TV executive Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and TV personality Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) are dying of cancer; their distraught wives Rose (Melinda Dillon) and Linda (Julienne Moore) respectively respond through emotional suppression and drug addiction; their prodigal children Frank (Tom Cruise) and Claudia (Melora Walters) escape their troubled pasts through misogyny, denial and drugs. Two other characters provide separate views of exploitation, quiz show kid Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) and middle-aged, ex-quiz kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), who reminds everyone that he used to be smart. Finally, two characters of compassion, LAPD officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and male nurse Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) attempt to traverse the lives of these characters with grace and sensitivity.
The film sees relatedness in people, not so much in blood relationships, but by their spiritual and emotional struggles. All of the characters in the film begin the movie in crisis and the drama rises and falls in an universal arc emphasizing their common humanity. And most of the characters' lives revolve around the television, which both empowers and oppresses them. The TV studio ultimately appears as a microcosm of the larger world with its many narratives teeming beneath one roof.
Anderson's flashy visual style is at times fast and furious (like the brilliant opening sequence depicting some urban legends) and at other times is fluid and graceful. Grounded in a world of cluttered apartments, professional offices, darkened bedrooms, TV back stages, and dilapidated streets, the sets provide a sense of realism that reinforce the raw emotions exhibited by their inhabitants. The film's narrative is finally graced with a collection of soulful Aimee Mann tunes that regularly appear throughout, much like Simon and Garfunkel's work in The Graduate.
Magnolia is Anderson's third feature after Hard 8 and Boogie Nights, and the 29-year-old writer/director is trying hard to establish himself as America's brightest young star on the filmmaking scene. In many ways, he's succeeding. While Magnolia sometimes seems like a never-ending sequence of explosive acting monologues (Anderson has written his stock ensemble plenty of showy material), the film gradually reveals a larger view of humanity and its potential for redemption-- the sort of thematic material one rarely expects from today's Hollywood. (Or those familiar with Andersons previous work, for that matter.)
Through an abundance of profanity and anguish, the movie's characters reveal the fears, dishonesties, and delusions that define their hopelessness. TV executive Earl Partridge is on his deathbed and speaks in painful gasps: "Now I'll die and I'll tell you the biggest regret of my life: I let my love go... Mistakes like this are not okay. You know that you should do better... I'm 65 years old and... don't let anyone tell you that you shouldn't regret anything. You regret what you want... use that...use that." He asks his nurse Phil to contact his long lost son, Frank.
Phil develops a genuine compassion for Earl and decides to do whatever it will take to find Frank. Phil is one of the few characters in the film who isn't obviously struggling with his past, and uses his balanced persona to offer compassion to the people around him. Even in a hurried phone conversation based on a lead, a stranger mentions his mother had cancer and Phil's train of thought is quickly interrupted as he consoles, "I'm sorry. Did she make it? It's a terrible disease."
Frank, as played by Tom Cruise in the first truly inspired performance of his career, hides a disappointment from years past by leading male-empowerment seminars promoting women as sexual conquests: "I'm in charge. I'm the one who says yes, now, no or here... That is not to say that we don't all need women as friends, cause we're gonna learn later in Chapter 23 that having a couple of them laying around can come in real handy in setting Jealousy Traps." Frank lives in a sexually-charged present and bristles at any mention of his past. "The most useless thing in the world is that which is behind me," he repeatedly intones.
Earl's wife, Linda, finds herself in a perpetual state of drug-induced emotional turmoil as she attempts to escape the pain of Earl's death and her inadequate role as his wife: "I don't want him to die, I didn't love him when we met, and I've done so many bad things to him that he doesn't know, but now I do: I love him." Like many of the film's characters, she's convinced she's unlovable, and tries desperately to remove herself from Earl's will because of the guilt she feels from cheating on him.
The other line of characters begins with Jimmy Gator, the no-nonsense game show host who wants to reconcile his daughter Claudia, but refuses to confess the truth about their relationship. His life is one of moral denial and surface facade. One of the film's great moments occurs when Jimmy's inner turmoil builds to a climax and he finds himself stumbling over his questions on live TV, his denied emotions breaking free from their entrapment.
Jimmy's wife Rose is a determinedly pleasant person who continually subjugates her emotions. Upon hearing a confession from Jimmy regarding marital infidelities, she replies calmly, "I'm not mad... I am, but I'm not. Y'know?" Unfortunately, it takes a more severe accusation to awaken her to her need for moral judgment and action.
Claudia is the movie's key figure, who highlights the tragic position of children and the universal need for love and self-love. She hopes to bury the past through a flurry of escapist activity: cocaine hits, one-night stands, and deafening music. She's convinced salvation is beyond her grasp, and though she desires a healthy relationship, she fears one as well. "You wanna make a deal with me?" she says on a first serious date, "I'll tell you everything and you tell me everything and maybe we can get through all the lies that kill other people." But when she's given the opportunity, she admits fearfully, "I'm really nervous that you're going to hate me soon. That you're gonna find stuff out about me and you're gonna hate me." Claudia's story provides the dramatic paradigm for all the other stories in the movie.
The figure of compassion in Claudia's life is LAPD officer Jim Kurring, who the movie makes clear is a Christian who prays so God will enable him to "do good." Like Phil, Jim seems to have dealt with his past and is ready to help others. "In this life and in this world, I want to do well," he says to himself in his police car, "And I may get twenty bad calls a day. But one time I help someone-- I make a save. I correct a wrong or right a situation. Then I'm a happy cop." It's refreshing to see a Christian represented by the media in a non-stereotypical fashion in these days of WASP deconstruction. (He's no judgmental Bible-basher.) Jim is an ordinary person who struggles with his reputation as a mediocre law enforcer and habitually prays for guidance as well as thanksgiving for what he perceives are the blessings God gives him.
Donnie Smith, the ex-quiz kid, suffers from an inability to find love and acceptance in a world that tossed him aside after winning thousands of dollars on a game show when he was a kid. His parents stole his winnings and he now works as an appliance salesman and hangs out in bars hoping to find romance. He also delivers two of the movie's most profound lines: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us," and "No, it's not dangerous to confuse children with angels." After one emotional eruption, Donnie even quotes from Exodus 34 about the sins of the fathers being placed upon their children and their children's children, thus reinforcing one of the movie's prime concerns.
Finally, Stanley Spector is a younger version of Donnie who finds himself being forced to exhibit his mental faculties on Jimmy Gator's game show "What Do Kids Know?" so that his unloving, domineering father can become rich. Stanley spends his school days sitting alone in a library surrounded by stacks of books so he can perform for the amusement of television audiences everywhere. At a critical point, he says, "I'm sick of being (the winner). The one who always has to do everything." Stanley's future is set on a course that will mimic Donnie's life and he must somehow find a way out before it's too late.
All of these struggles build up to a moment that transcends Hollywood formulas and elevates the movie to a new level. First one character begins softly singing to an Aimee Mann song, then the scene cuts across town as another character picks up where the last one let off, and the film continues to jump from person to person until the song is completed. "It's not going to stop," they sing, "Until you wise up." The characters sing of being trapped by choices they made in the past that seemed right at the time but have only brought misery to themselves and those around them. The inspired sequence emphasizes their need to redirect the course of their lives in a moment of spiritual awareness. It's a moment that affords the audience a larger perspective, a Divine perspective, of the troubles and hurts that pervade the story of humanity and its need for redemption.
Not long after the universal recognition of their need for repentance comes what must be the most startling and unexpected sequence in the movies this year. The distraught lives of the film's characters brush momentarily with the supernatural as the full impact of Exodus 8:2 reveals itself. In the chance that readers have not yet heard what exactly transpires, this review will not give anything away. But suffice it to say that the movie's ongoing references to urban legends and biblical stories rises to the fore in a manner that suggests strange things do happen and offer meaning to our daily lives. The Judeo-Christian tradition teaches that God entered human history at specific points in time, and the movie illustrates this truth in its ultra-contemporary setting.
Fortunately, Anderson plays the miracle out in a mysterious fashion that affects his characters in various ways. To some, it teaches humility and brings about a recognition of false ambitions. To others it forces personal reconciliation. And for some, it hardly has much of an effect at all. But it's primarily the impetus for change that underscores God's supernatural work affording people the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. There is no simple formula for happiness here, but through the mysterious work of grace, salvation is offered.
In the end, officer Kurring reflects on his life (and unknowingly comments on the many characters in the film): "A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to. Take a lunch hour, the job's over, something like that. But it's a 24 hour deal. No two ways about it.. And what most people don't see: just how hard it is to do the right thing. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that's a very tricky thing on my part... making that call. The law is the law and heck if I'm gonna break it. But can you forgive someone? Tough part of the job... tough part of walking down the street."
Magnolia is a magnificent film with startling energy, rage, compassion, and an inventive visual style that offers a unique look at the real-life despairs people often suffer through. On the eve of the 20th century, and in contrast to the sort of cartoon-like religious imagery Hollywood has been dishing out lately, the movie provides a sense of spiritual direction for present day humanity immersed in its own exodus into the next millennium. More than any other film this year, it stands as a testimony to God's hope offered to people who need it.
In interviews, Anderson is wary of delving too deeply into the film's message, hoping the film can be self-explanatory and conducive for personal interpretation. Fair enough, for from a Christian perspective, the movie conveys humanity's depravity and need for salvation through the process of confession and forgiveness and an abiding sense of divine purpose. Intentionally or not, Anderson has stumbled upon Truth with a piercing immediacy. And it is in the humble opinion of this reviewer that this is not just "something that happened." This cannot be "one of those things..." This, please, cannot be that. These strange things happen all the time.
Magnolia is rated R for "continuous strong language, drug use, sexuality and some violence."
Edited by Persona, 24 February 2011 - 10:51 PM.