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Karma, Coincidence, & Sin: the Wisdom of Magnolia
by Matt Berry

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And in a globe of frogs...

And in a globe of frogs...

After PULP FICTION, MAGNOLIA may be the most debated movie of the 90's. Often noted for its storytelling quirks and kaleidoscopic aesthetic, MAGNOLIA has been interpreted as both a denouncement of and an argument for karmic justice, the displacement of religion in our lives by popular culture, and the far reaching influence of divine intervention. Existing on opposite ends of the emotional and stylistic spectrum, PULP and MAGNOLIA ultimately carry the same message: life is chaos, and its meaning is no more or less than we allow it to be.

The following is my interpretation of a complex and deeply resonant movie that may not be what it first appears to be. In my opinion, MAGNOLIA is about many things, not the least of which is the meaning of life (and the meaning of MEANING itself for that matter).

Magnolia begins with the dissection of three events, each of them couched in potentially meaningful matters of odd coincidence. The content of these anecdotes itself has nothing to do with the rest of the film's plotlines but seems to suggest that the world of MAGNOLIA will run on a fated course and that what looks like chance may in fact be something more purposeful, something more cosmic, something intended. The prologue appears to make a case for fate being responsible for its strange Fortian stories vs. mere randomness or circumstance.

It also suggests people being punished by a higher power for their wrongdoings, the hand of karma providing appropriate and ironic comeuppances for those who have left the light of good, Christian behavior. These 3 tales of torment explore the themes of innocence and guilt, and randomness vs. responsibility.

The final stylistic touch that director P. T. Anderson brings to his grand introduction is an entity born of his brother in monogram, P. T. Barnum: a touch of showbiz. Ricky Jay (a magician by trade, I should add) adds an air of Circus to the sequence's Voice Over, suggesting the smoke and mirrors that the prologue ultimately turns out to be forged from. The idea of showbiz promoting religious iconography, the idea of theatricality supplying meaning to the wilderness of life, and the notion that the reality constructed by Hollywood and Television serves as the postmodern world's most sacred of contexts are examined throughout the remainder of the film. And in the end of the beginning, those final Barnumesque questions will provide the key to unlocking the truth of the entire movie.

As with Anderson's previous opus, the wild ride of BOOGIE NIGHTS, we are treated to an opening montage (to the appropriately maudlin strains of singer-songwriter Aimee Mann) that makes quick work of introducing a host of characters and the volatile situations they find themselves batted around by. Whereas in most Hollywood productions, we are given a glimpse of our characters just prior to the inciting incidents that propel them through the story beats that lie ahead...Anderson throws us in mid-story where our heroes and villains are already on the verge of falling to pieces.

Because of his penchant for dropping his audience into the story midstream, Anderson is able to deliver a narrative that grabs collars and never lets go. This quick kick-start gives the film an anarchic feel that keeps the tension ramped until the very final frame. This freewheeling roll, however, is not simply a matter of filmmaking indulgence, as it provides the viewer with yet another clue to the movie's true thesis. This nearly relentless depiction of life as chaos, as an always moving, always twisting, noirish beast that snakes and slithers with no regard for proper order is PTA's comment on the nature of the human experience. We are, according to the film's unmoored camera movements and jump-cut editing flash, corks in the ocean, forever tossing over constantly turning tides. Life is, according to Anderson's thinking, a rollicking surf that never lands one where they expect to be cast.


The first story that MAGNOLIA plunges into is that of Earl Partidge, a dying old man in a bed, racked with regret and, as it turns out, a significant link to all other characters in the film. His story explores the themes that will dominate the other plots: damaged children, predatory adults, and the worst tendencies of human behavior. Since most of MAGNOLIA is about life (in general), it is only fitting that this segment be dedicated to its finality and the effects of that impending final act on all those involved.

Dealing with his death, Earl expresses a lifetime's worth of regrets and only a slight glimmer of hope that there may be something beyond. His lack of faith in an ever after may stem more from fear of judgment than from cynicism or atheistic logic. Earl has lived his life and is, on some base level, ready to leave it all behind.

In the movie's Los Angeles-centric lexicon, Earl, a successful television producer, is the pinnacle of success and power, a God figure in the land of make believe who represents something akin to the WIZARD OF OZ's meek man behind the curtain, who, in the end, for all his control, for all his lording puppet mastery, despite all the influence he has wielded over the players that inhabit his universe (and our story), is helpless and weak and completely reliant on the kindness of a sweet, timid male nurse named Phil Parma (the suggestiveness of Karma in his name surely no mere coincidence!). In the end, whether god or man, we are all frail creatures and the results of our lifetime worth of decisions.


Numerous references throughout MAGNOLIA make it tempting to read a spiritual or dogmatic endorsement into the film's frantic fabric. There are direct Bible quotes, talk of prophets and parables, and recurring images of the numbers 8 and 2 (allusions to Exodus 8:2, which hints very directly at the film's controversial final act). There is also the Born Again devotion of John C. Reilly's cop character, Jim. These allusions, though, are not necessarily a collective indicator that the story itself is at the mercy of a Master Plan or a Supreme Being's whims. These allusions are, in fact, quite the opposite. They actually represent the grip (urgent, desperate, and sometimes casual) with which we tend to cling to our faiths, filtering all that happens in life through a veil of denominational contexts. And these allusions are ultimately a decoy, a red herring, a good old fashioned straw man that hint at the false hopes and misplaced confidence that clouds our minds from discovering the realities of how the universe truly works and the nature of its influengripce on our lives.

The movie, however, is not anti-religion as some critics have maintained. While not implicitly supporting belief in a higher power or a specific deity, Anderson's script takes care to note the power of faith in Jim's life and the unwavering decency it instills in him. That streak of decency will play a pivotal role in the lives of several characters as the film continues to unfold.


Several characters scattered throughout the film play the parts of abusers who've damaged the children who act as the heroes of the piece. These men (and in Anderson's world, they are pointedly men) are acting in their own selfish self-interest and are likely the results of having been abused themselves. They represent a vicious cycle that in the hands of the strong could be halted. But just as Jules determines towards the end of PULP FICTION, the men of the world who engage in tyrannical behavior are doing so because of their own weaknesses and a need to compensate for the abuse they suffer in their daily lives at the hands of more powerful individuals.

These men represent the power of choice in the world, a central theme of MAGNOLIA'S thesis. They are meant to represent the power that men hold as opposed to God or fate or the Wheel in the Sky.

Much like Woody Allen's CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS, MAGNOLIA takes a bleak stance on the ability of the universe to dole out some sort of cosmic punishment to those who commit evil acts (either intentional or casual). But unlike Allen's meditation on a godless world where rules are the contrivances of the likes of P. T. Barnum, Anderson's take is more didactic; his edict is that the bad men of this world, the bullies and the tyrants, are punished in the end not by the self-torture of their guilt but by the very circumstances of their survival. Jimmy Gator, who cannot bring himself to admit that he is a monster (a manipulator, an exploiter, a pedophile) is destroyed first by cancer, then like the Frankenstein that he is, by a blaze of hellfire, not by the hand of god but by his own destructive ways.

Earl Partidge, similarly abusive to children and other meek individuals, and a man who left his son and ailing wife to fend for themselves, is destroyed by disease and the refusal of his adult son to forgive and forget. These men have chosen the low path, and they pay dearly for it. Not because they have attracted the ire of an angry Old Testament wrath but because they've made their own beds of nails and must now suffer eternally with the curse of what they've done. And in the end, to paraphrase the film itself, we may THINK we're through with the past...but the past sure as hell ain't done with us!

End of Part 1

In my next column, I'll continue my exploration of this deep, thoughtful movie, delving into its second and third acts, its mysterious final reels, and the ultimate meaning of MAGNOLIA!

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Jun 22, 2012 2:09 AM
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Will you also discuss PT's inability to edit?

Maybe I'm still bitter because I was plagued with the nickname "The Piece" for six months.

Jun 24, 2012 10:29 PM
[X] delete
I don't use this phrase lightly, Denise, but L! O! L! I never thought of that, but I'll bet you hated Tom Cruise for a good while! Heh heh!

As far as P.T. goes, he just never met a running length he didn't like. He apparently likes the indulgence of telling a story really really slow while he moves the cameras around really really fast!

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They Called Them The Rebel Kind
Every other Tuesday

The 90ís was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.

Other Columns
Other columns by Matt Berry:

The Top 10 Most Influential Films of the 90's

Lookin'California:the Top 5 Cult Movies of the 90s

The Darkness Reaching Out For the Darkness


Let's Get Ramblin': the words of Tarantino (VOL 2)

All Columns

Matt Berry
Matt Berry is a copy writer, music journalist & occasional author of Weird Tales-inspired short fiction from Illinois who loves talking and writing about movies and music almost as much as he loves the music and the movies themselves. And the more coffee, pie, and cigarettes consumed during those discussions, the better!

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Matt Berry by clicking here.

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