They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
—Philip Larkin, from “This Be the Verse”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia is one of those films that demands repeated viewings. I believed so in 2000, when it became the first movie I ever purchased on the then-new medium of DVD. It contains both great performances—I’m not sure Tom Cruise has been better before or since—and real emotional depth, brought from the all-too-common situation of children being damaged from their parents and upbringing, and the far-too-unnoticed, synchronistic connection between lives. The film explores the connection with our past that leads to the mistakes or sins of the future, and the forgiveness we might need to exhibit to others or ourselves, and ultimately, the act of letting go. Through the unlikely circumstances of infidelity, incest, theft, betrayal, and abandonment that make so many feel worthless, unlovable, or bitter, we receive a kind story of salvation and redemption.
The film begins with three stories, or possibly urban legends, that show the possibility and importance of synchronicity in the world, with the narration, “It’s 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.” From that tone-setting introduction, it moves to the main action of the story with a montage of all of the major characters to the tune of Aimee Mann’s (the songwriter for most of the film’s music) version of Harry Nilsson’s “One”, which highlights the isolation and loneliness the characters are experiencing. “One is the loneliest number…” the song says, and although all of the main characters are surrounded by people, they are all experiencing their own disconnection in what is revealed to be an extremely connected world, much like what is described initially with urban legends. The action takes place in Los Angeles, and the first theme I want to discuss is their connectedness through L.A. culture, which is largely based on the entertainment world.
The characters of Magnolia are, at least through degrees of separation, connected to the television industry. This is an important theme, since often they have an outward persona that we perceive first, only to be followed by what lies beneath: the truth that is off-camera, and the real struggles that are hidden from others. Although I don’t expect anyone to spend their time reading this that hasn’t seen the film, for those who haven’t in a long time, I will give a brief synopsis of the main characters with some of their connections.
“Big” Earl Partridge (Jason Robards, in his final role) is a dying television producer who’s afflicted with brain and lung cancer. He’s connected with his much younger wife, Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore); his caretaker, Phil Parma (Phillip Seymour Hoffman); his estranged son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise); and one of his productions is the television show, “What Do Kids Know?”, which is hosted by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) and has featured two child prodigies, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and, currently, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). He left Frank and Frank’s mother when she was sick with cancer—an action that Frank has not forgiven.
Frank T.J. Mackey is a motivational speaker who stars in informercials about bedding down women with sexist rants and catchphrases, often leading seminars with such topics as, “How to Fake Like You’re Nice and Caring.”
Linda Partridge is his much younger wife who’s stealing his drugs and having a breakdown both from her regret of past adulterous affairs and her decision to marry Earl for the money.
Phil Parma is Earl’s hospice caretaker, who is one of the cast members who we know little about other than his empathy and willingness to help others.
Jimmy Gator is the host of “What Do Kids Know?” which is the show that “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith and Stanley Spector have become famous for winning, and he’s the father of Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters), whom he molested in the past, which leaves their relationship strained and Claudia in a mess. He, too, like Earl Patridge, is dying from cancer and trying to repair relations with Claudia and his wife, whom he has cheated on many times, not counting his abuse of Claudia.
“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith is the former childhood star and record holder of “What Do Kids Know?” He was struck by lightning and had his financial winnings stolen by his parents, and is now a recently terminated employee of an electronics store—a job he was given for his minor celebrity rather than his expertise. He seeks companionship from a brace-faced bartender named Brad, even though he has no idea how to go about it, although he thinks getting braces might be the answer.
Stanley Spector is the reigning champion of “What Do Kids Know?” and he’s interested in everything from the meteorology center at the network where the game show appears to most any book of information at the library. He has a selfish and overbearing father, who, like Donnie Smith’s parents, seems more interested in the celebrity and money associated with the show than Stanley’s well-being.
Claudia Wilson Gator is Jimmy’s daughter with a cocaine abuse problem and a low self-esteem. She feels broken from the abuse, and develops a relationship with Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly, in one of his best roles).
Officer Jim Kurring is a divorced police officer that is empathetic to most of the people he deals with. He’s logical and seems to look out for the best interest of everyone with whom he comes in contact. He has a relationship with God, shown by his crucifix on the wall of his apartment and the prayers he says throughout the day the film takes place.
Dixon is an African-American child whose path interacts both with Jim Kurring and Linda Partridge, although to most adults he’s largely ignored. He’s aware of the situation with Marcy and offers to help Jim Kurring with the case and even names “The Worm” as the culprit during his rap to the officer.
The characters of Magnolia are often cruel to their partners, as the story begins we’re shown Marcie (Cleo King) being investigated for a disturbance, which leads to finding a dead man in her closet. (And features one of the more quoteable lines from the film, “I don’t even know no loud crash!”) It’s revealed that she has many wedding rings and many lovers. Earl Partridge tells his Phil about how much he loved Lily, his first wife (and Frank’s mother) and how he treated her poorly by cheating. Jimmy Gator, whose character runs almost parallel to Earl’s, as he also shares television work, cancer, infidelity, and damage to his own offspring, had cheated extensively on his wife, which we both see in the opening montage, and, later, hear his confession. In a karmic show of what-goes-around-comes-around, we learn that Linda Partridge is broken from her guilt of cheating on Earl. Earl, Jimmy, and Linda all express regret for their actions and try—to some extent—to repair their actions. Linda wants to be taken out of Earl’s will, Earl wants to reconnect with Frank, and Jimmy wants both his wife’s forgiveness and to reconnect with Claudia. Not all of their attempts at redemption work and not all can be forgiven, which is consistent with real life.
Damaged Children/Dysfunctional Adults
Frank T.J. Mackey hates women or at least puts up the front that he hates women, and it’s due to caring for his mother while his father, Earl, left them in their time of need, leaving Frank to care for his mother. Often people’s anger gets misdirected, and while he—in all rational thought—should hate men instead, he misplaces his anger towards the victims. While this is in no way admirable, it’s natural in the way psychology tells us that the abused sometimes become the abusers. Frank deals with his grief by becoming all that he hates, continuing the cycle.
Claudia Wilson brings home men from the bar, does cocaine, and considers herself too broken from the abuse of her father to be good enough for anyone. Anderson has said that Claudia was his first inspiration for the film, sprung from the Aimee Mann lyric, “Now that I’ve met you, would you object to never seeing each other again” (From the song “Deathly”).
“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith has had his life thrown into a downward spiral by losing the easily gotten fame of childhood, combined with his selfish parents, to where he, like Claudia, feels unworthy of love and doesn’t know how to express it to others. He’s dysfunctional, perpetually late to his job, and forgetful—which is shown by the way he drove into a 7/11 and walked away with his keys in the door to his job at Solomon & Solomon, the electronics store.
Stanley Spector is verbally abused by his father and treated badly by adults that he comes in contact with throughout the film. When he needs to use the bathroom on “What Do Kids Know?” the producers don’t listen to him to the point that he wets his pants. His father, also, is unsympathetic. Stanley is not yet damaged from the adults that he’s surrounded by, but it’s easy to see how he could easily become damaged in the future.
Dixon, an inner-city child, is shown to be nothing but helpful. Like Stanley, he is ignored by the adults he encounters. He tries to help Jim Kurring solve the murder, after initially deciding to root through the purse of an overdosed Linda Partridge; he ends up saving her life as he calls 911 to get her help. Even though she isn’t able to speak, it looks like it’s nothing new for Dixon, who’s used to adults ignoring him. Dixon calls himself of prophet, and accurately (by chance or not) predicts that “he’s running from the Devil, but the debt is always gainin’ and when the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord brings the rain in.”
In Donnie Smith’s barroom rant, after being ridiculed by a wealthier patron that maintains his bartender/crush’s attention that “it’s dangerous to confuse children with angels”, he screams that “it’s not dangerous to confuse children with angels!” Anderson seems to assert that children are basically good until circumstances, mostly caused by their parents, make them jaded, heartless, or cold. The two children of the film are mostly good and mean no harm. Stanley is even shown sitting in front of the symbol of a winged Asclepius, the universal symbol of medicine, which from behind could look like wings growing from his back. (It’s worthy noting that we begin to see Linda Partridge unravel in a pharmacy, which often uses the Asclepius as an international symbol.) In Judeo-Christian mythology, Moses attached a bronze snake to his staff and those who looked to it could be healed, which was probably Anderson’s intent more than the Greek Asclepius, since there are references to Exodus and the Old Testament throughout Magnolia.
Claudia is damaged from the sexual abuse of her father, Frank is damaged from the neglect and emotional abuse of his, and Donnie is damaged from the lack of attention and exploitation of his parents. Anderson is showing us the before and after, and possibly what damaged those who damaged their own children. Yet, with the symbolic use of the Asclepius and the deus ex machina later, we’re to believe that such destruction that cannot be reversed, can at least be healed.
Officer Jim Kurring, whom we’re to assume from the prayers and crucifix is a devoted Catholic, doesn’t seem to be damaged as badly as the others. We know he’s been divorced but also that he recognizes those who are damaged and those who need help and tries to do his job to the best of his ability with fairness and honest judgment.
Phil Parma cares for Earl. He takes extra care to try to find his estranged son, avoids ending his shift because of his desire to help Earl and stay with him through what proves to be his last night. He is courteous to Linda, respectful to Frank, and weeps when he has to give Earl the morphine that he knows will end the Earl as he previously knew him.
Jim Kurring and Phil Parma represent human ideals, those who strive to help others. Kurring almost seems childlike in his conversation, simple and to the point. We know very little of Parma’s desires, but we know that Kurring wants to be loved, the same way Donnie Smith does, which makes sense when Kurring lets Donnie go after catching him trying to return the money he’s stolen. He hears Donnie’s story and he knows what it’s like to long for love and the all-too-familiar experience of being lonely. Unlike the rest of the characters, Kurring and Parma place their caring for others above their personal desires, and appropriately, are the two adult characters that—despite their flaws—don’t appear to be wracked with guilt. The two of them give hope to the possibility that rising above or letting go of the past is possible.
Synchronicity and the Deus Ex Machina
And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs
When the characters are their lowest, the Aimee Mann song “Wise Up” is sung by all major characters, showing their connection both with each other and their shared pain. It’s a delicate scene, considering how having the actors sing could be misconstrued as an ironic take on the situation, when instead it’s sincere and meaningful to the story. The scene begins with Phil Parma administering the high-dose morphine that will ease Earl’s pain, followed by Claudia’s cocaine abuse, Jim’s silent reflection in front of his bedroom crucifix, a drunk Jimmy Gator, Donnie sitting in front of his $100,000.00 “quiz kid” check, a depressed Phil Parma and a drugged Earl Partridge, a suicidal Linda Partridge, a conflicted Frank T.J. Mackey—fresh with the news of his father’s imminent demise, and a humiliated Stanley who has turned to his refuge of the library.
Dixon, the self-proclaimed prophet, ended his rap with the line, “When the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord brings the rain in.” Shortly after Donnie, Claudia, Claudia’s mother, and Jim each cross Magnolia Ave. (this can be seen, although the sign is not in focus), the sky begins to rain frogs. Stanley takes it as face value, “this is something that happens.” Which Stanley should know, since raining animals has been documented, and Stanley is seen reading the works of Charles Fort, who wrote about both the unexplained and the interconnectedness of nature and synchronicity. Once “the Good Lord brings the rain in”, all of the characters begin to deal with their pain. Like Charles Fort, who said that the truth lies somewhere between “true believer” and “skeptic”, Anderson leaves it ambiguous; he doesn’t force the viewer to decide whether it’s God or not-God just that “this is something that happens.” And the interconnected web of characters begins to face hard truths and forgive themselves or those who have hurt them.
Many people whom I’ve met have claimed the deus ex machina of the frogs from the sky is a cheap way to tie together an ending, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. Anderson not only began the film by showing such phenomena but also maintained it throughout the film. Considering that he cut his own trailers, many of which contained brief scenes of the frogs falling from the sky, I don’t think this was supposed to be a twist ending, but rather an expected occurrence of the extraordinary. By showing how tightly the world is tied together, he challenges the viewer to consider the implications of the selfishness and cruelty, and how far-reaching the effect of our own selfish desires (e.g. lust, greed, and neglect) can reach and how long their damage can last.
It’s slowly revealed that when Jim Kurring talks to himself, he is usually in open-eyed prayer. His reflection after the event isn’t about the frogs but about human relationships it’s said simply, but profoundly:
“A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to. Take a lunch hour… 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… is just how hard it is to do the right thing. People think if I make a judgment call… that’s a judgment on them, but that is not what I do. And that’s not what should be done. I have to take everything… and play it as it lays. Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven. And sometimes they need to go to jail. And that is a very tricky thing on my part… making that call. I mean, the law is the law. And heck if I’m gonna break it. You can forgive someone. Well, that’s the tough part. What can we forgive? Tough part of the job. Tough part of walking down the street.”
The film asks a question with an open-ended answer, which is rare in entertainment in general, but the question is an important one for every person: What can we forgive?
Paul Thomas Anderson invites us to consider the answer.
P.T. Anderson’s video for Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated song, “Save Me.”