"My children were raised, you know they suddenly rise
They started slow long ago, head to toe healthy, wealthy and wise."
-Heroes & Villains (The Beach Boys)
THE DAMAGED GOODS
One of the most thoroughly explored themes in MAGNOLIA is the subject of child abuse. In addition to Earl's redemption arc (which goes poetically unfulfilled), the movie tells the stories of Stanley Spector, a child prodigy who has become a popular contestant on a local Quiz Show, Donnie Smith, a former child star of the same show who has fallen on hard times as an adult, and Claudia Wilson Gator, the grown daughter of the Quiz Show's host, Jimmy Gator, an adulterer, child abuser and molester.
Stanley, the only one of the three who is still in the midst of being used, exploited and abused by the adults who should be protecting him, represents a hope that the meek of the world can eventually stand up to their oppressors and change the course of their damaged fates. Stanley ends up filling in as a kind of makeshift prophet in the story. He offers the truest and most pure explanations for the events that happen to and around him. And eventually offers the words of advice to his father that may ultimately save them both.
Donnie Smith represents the other end of that spectrum, a seemingly lost cause who was used by his parents, by the entertainment industry (more on them later!), and by an audience complicit in their willingness to be entertained by the corruption of children's souls. At one point, Donnie states the thesis of this element of the film: "We may be through with the past, but the past ain't through with us." He's a lonely soul looking for love, as are all the damaged kids who litter the story's façade.
And none more than Claudia; because of her father's abuse, Claudia has become a self-loathing, self-destructive drug addict who sells sexual favors and lives life believing that she is undeserving of real love. She believes, as does Donnie, that she has no choices in life. She represents the psychologist's notion of the hurt child who finds no healing in moving on and insists that life remain smothered in misery and insurmountable despair.
Claudia is in the clutches of an existential crisis that has her convinced that her life is a prewritten book into which she is relegated to adding only the most trivial of mad-lib details. This is the universe that Paul Thomas Anderson alludes to in his Prologue but that he ultimately denounces in his final act surprise.
And then there's Earl Partidge's son, Frank "TJ" Mackey, who because of his father's neglect, has become a tool of the same entertainment industry that corrupted his father. He is now a wannabe misogynist, aspiring to corrupt men and abuse women as a manifestation of the rage he harbors against his neglectful father and dead mother. Frank is the embodiment of the wounded child trying to wound the world.
The theme of child abuse is the core issue of the movie for it shows the power that man has not only over his own fate but also over the fate of those in his care, those he has been entrusted to protect, and those who are helpless against his self-serving tyranny. For children there is no God, there is no hand of fate, there is no great Karmic Wheel in the Sky. There is only mother and father and the choices they make on a child's behalf. In Anderson's microcosm, there is no greater breach of trust than that of a parent using their children to their own end. And in MAGNOLIA, these villains pay dearly but not at the hands of the cosmos.
"Once at night catillian squared the fight
And she was right in the rain of the bullets
that eventually brought her down"
-Heroes & Villains (The Beach Boys)
"Stand or fall I know there
Shall be peace in the valley
And it's all an affair
Of my life with the heroes and villains"
The power of good, of what decent men do in dire circumstances, is another theme tackled by Anderson's screenplay. The two characters who best exemplify this line of study are Phil Parma, Earl's caretaker in his final moments, and Jim the Cop.
Phil, unlike Earl who has dedicated his life to show biz, has given his time to helping the terminally ill. Phil represents a force of good in the world that is far from supernatural and far from anything literally spiritual. Phil touches one life at a time (and the lives of families), doing the kind of good that a priest promises but often fails to deliver. The movie takes at once an extremely positive yet quite cynical outlook (a pair of key ingredients to a full understanding of the movie's meaning).
Jim the Cop, a born again Christian who leans on his religion as a daily affirmation, has only good intentions as he serves and protects. He is an innocent among tyrants, and though his voice is small, he is still able to make profound impacts on several characters throughout the film. The most significant impact is on Claudia, who realizes, because of Jim's wide eyed optimism and faith not in his learned Higher Power but in other people's abilities to be good and to redeem themselves, that she too can have a life as sweet as any, that she does have the power of choice, and that what her father did to her as a girl does not have to overshadow what she can and will do with the rest of her life.
Much is made throughout the movie of the gestalt that modern Americans create (then worship) through televised entertainment and popular culture (yet another thematic link to PULP FICTION). Men create worlds in which they have power then surround themselves with bright lights and jubilant music (the common ornaments of medicine show charlatans, sideshow barkers, and televangelists). They cast characters and plotlines that captivate audiences who soon obsess over every detail. The world of MAGNOLIA runs on a producer's watch, and its players (despite which side of the camera or looking glass they find themselves on) are all the master's puppets.
Anderson's point, though, is less about a postmodern consumerism and the replacement of Nietzsche's Dead God with Reality TV and Tarantino movies than it is about the need that people have to worship something, anything. In Anderson's estimation, it is the nature of people (or at least Americans, or at LEAST Los Angelinos) to desire context and to infatuate themselves with good old fashioned parables or morality plays (the kinds of stories that ascribe meaning to life and order in the universe) that place their own lives within a framework that makes sense of their daily efforts to do right or wrong.
By demonstrating the power of the Television Producer, the Circus Magician, the Carnival Freak and their abilities as storytellers to mesmerize an audience, Anderson is commenting on how desperate we are as humans to contextualize our places in the world and to find definition for our time here on Earth. It is this desperation that leads people to see coincidence in chaos and intentions in accidents. This habit, Anderson contends, keeps people in cages, leaving them devoid of personal freedom, deprived of existential development, and incapable of controlling their own lives and destinies.
THE HAND OF GOD? (THE MEANING OF MAGNOLIA & LIFE )
"I've been in this town so long, so long to the city
I'm fit with the stuff, to ride in the ruff
And sunny down snuff I'm alright
By the Heroes & Villains"
"...And then fucking frogs rained down from the sky!"
-Kevin Smith (discussing MAGNOLIA)
In many interpretations of MAGNOLIA, the Hand of God conducts the symphony of events that unfold throughout the narrative. The PROLOGUE appears to establish a world in which lifelines are preordained and the intersecting of stories is a symbol of a fated universe. In my opinion, however, the Prologue is a farce, a satirical representation of the strangle of religion in our lives where we are conditioned to believe that there are no coincidences, that we are all special children of god who have a select place within a calculated order, that no moment big or small is spared importance to the larger picture. The Prologue sets up, in a smoke and mirrors theatricality, that coincidences of a certain degree certainly cannot be the byproduct of mere chance. "This surely cannot be one of those things."
In the final moments of Magnolia, all stray storylines are finally linked by, if nothing else, the fact that FROGS suddenly RAIN DOWN FROM THE SKY. And this third act twist has led many critics and essayists to assert that this is an endorsement of a higher power at work in the characters' lives. A Grand Architect who conjures an absurdity in order to jolt his clueless subjects out of their malaise and onto something greater.
Many saw Anderson's choice of finale as a cop out, a Deus Ex Machina that stripped the story of any real drive or matter. Many reviewers interpreted the movie through that ending but failed to see that its absurdity was its very point.
MAGNOLIA'S final act, like its prologue, is pure satire. A commentary on the tendancy of the human mind to see purpose where there is only anarchy. To see the men's faces in rocks on Mars and the Hand of God where there is only meteorological phenomenon. To see the Light of Life where there is only weather.
The insanity of the moment frogs fall from the sky and its almost inescapable biblical implications is the very point of the movie. The thesis of MAGNOLIA is that life is full of these random ocuurences, some extreme, most mundane, that drive our collective consciousness to see a logic at work, a mathematical pattern in nature, a force that must surely stand behind such strange goings on...but that ultimately just isn't there.
The point of MAGNOLIA, in the end, is that people cause the damage that goes on in life, and people save each other from the ripples of that damage. There is no coincidence, no Karma, no all controlling God.
There is merely human nature and the fact that in this life, you're going to collide with the good, the bad, and the ugly. There is good and evil in all of us, and we suffer for our sins because we're flawed, guilt-ridden, and mortal. Not because we're punished from above or below. And our good deeds are rewarded not because of some great cosmic force but because people who've had good deeds done on their behalf will do good deeds for others.
Anderson's contention is that we have to not just accept but find true comfort in the fact that life is meaningless, a cosmic hiccup, a happy accident and that the meaning of life is that there is no meaning of life. It's a blank slate, tabula rasa, and it is ultimately what we make of it.
Coincidences, after all, are exactly that. It's not what we make of them, but what we do with the opportunities that define their meaning.
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The 90’s was one of the great decades in American Cinema, and I intend to explore it one film, genre, or director at a time.
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!|
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