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Magnolia

August 31, 2015

Mthe myth of redemptive violence

The film begins with a discussion of the theory that there are no coincidences, that everything works together as part of a seamless, providential whole. Life is too strange to think otherwise, don’t you agree? We are then thrust into a tale of trauma and redemption.A man lies dying from lung cancer, tended by a male nurse, while his much younger wife appears to be swayed by the neurosis of her looming grief. A boy and his father prepare for the boy’s latest appearance on a combative adult/kid quiz show that makes the circus freak-shows of the past seem tame by comparison. The quiz show host is shown having sex with his secretary, before telling his producer that he also is dying. His wife waits at home, nursing the first of many large whiskey tumblers that she will need that day. His adult daughter picks up a trick in a bar and takes him home for a rough encounter that will pay for the rest of the day’s cocaine. A self-help guru begins his seminar for the day, expressing his repellent sexist views on how to “trap women.” A journalist arrives to interview him, sure that she knows more than we do. An electric goods salesman drives his car into a shop window and talks about his plans to have corrective dental surgery, even though there’s nothing wrong with his teeth. A cop prays by his bed after listening to his own personals ad on the phone, and sets off for work. And the weather’s not looking good at all ..’.

There’s a storm brewing at the heart of Magnolia, but before the catharsis of the remarkable downpour that climaxes the film, we get to spend a long time in the company of these broken people. Each of them has been responsible for causing pain to others; each of them has experienced their own trauma, each of them needs a shock to change direction.

Donnie uses a key copy to break in to his workplace and steal wads of cash from the safe. He has to shimmy down a telegraph pole to make his getaway and while he’s doing so, something very strange happens. Frogs fall from the sky, thousands of them. Some of them hit Donnie, and he falls to the ground, smashing his teeth in. A passing cop—the one we saw praying earlier, picks him up, dusts him off, and sits with him under a petrol station roof while the frantic din of the frogs drowns out their conversation.

Magnolia has but one devout character — police officer Jim Kurring — and the script implicitly mocks him as a simpleton whose piety seems contingent on favorable treatment from God. When he loses his gun, he thinks the Lord has abandoned him and begs for help. Kurring is good-hearted but not rigorous in his faith.

And the movie is populated with lost, lonely people. Addicts, adulterers, misogynists. Greedy, mean, egocentric. Friendless, pathetic, stunted. They’re miserable, and many of them are wicked to boot. These characters are so far gone that only something nearly miraculous could awaken them from their moral and spiritual slumber. God’s weapon of choice? Frogs.

Throughout the film, there are references to the Book of Exodus 8:2 “And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.” E.g. 8’s and 2’s scattered throughout the movie, including on billboards, a hanged man’s chest and a weather forecast (“82 percent humidity”) and in apartment and mugshot numbers, a posted meeting time (8:20 p.m.), cards dealt in a blackjack hand and even the shape of a long cord.

The only character who seems to be unsurprised by the falling frogs is Stanley. He calmly observes the event, saying “This happens. This is something that happens.” This has led to the speculation that Stanley is a prophet, allegorically akin to Moses, and that the “slavery” the film alludes to is the exploitation of children by adults.

The climatic fury is tempered in the denouement by the simple truths spoken by Stanley and Jim, and the gentle assistance offered by Jim and Phil, and the mother’s comfort given by Rose. They inject some New Testament values: Love thy neighbor, and treat others as you’d like to be treated. “You have to be nicer to me.” “Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven.”

And sweet Phil Parma, the only character to consistently show empathy and compassion for another human being in this profane place, cries.

Over the soundtrack Aimee Mann sings “Save Me,” a song about overcoming self-hatred through the power of self-giving and mutuality.

One reviewer says that the title “Magnolia” is about the film’s structure which reflects the flower’s shape: Both are built around opposed pairs, of characters and petals, respectively.

Magnolia 2[first lines] Narrator: In the New York Herald, November 26, year 1911, there is an account of the hanging of three men. They died for the murder of Sir Edmund William Godfrey; Husband, Father, Pharmacist and all around gentle-man resident of: Greenberry Hill, London. He was murdered by three vagrants whose motive was simple robbery. They were identified as: Joseph Green, Stanley Berry, and Daniel Hill. Green, Berry, Hill. And I Would Like To Think This was Only A Matter Of Chance. As reported in the Reno Gazette, June of 1983 there is the story of a fire, the water that it took to contain the fire, and a scuba diver named Delmer Darion. Employee of the Peppermill Hotel and Casino, Reno, Nevada. Engaged as a blackjack dealer. Well liked and well regarded as a physical, recreational and sporting sort, Delmer’s true passion was for the lake. As reported by the coroner, Delmer died of a heart attack somewhere between the lake and the tree. A most curious side note is the suicide the next day of Craig Hansen. Volunteer firefighter, estranged father of four and a poor tendency to drink. Mr. Hansen was the pilot of the plane that quite accidentally lifted Delmer Darion out of the water. Added to this, Mr. Hansen’s tortured life met before with Delmer Darion just two nights previous. The weight of the guilt and the measure of coincidence so large, Craig Hansen took his life. And I Am Trying To Think This Was All Only A Matter Of Chance. The tale told at a 1961 awards dinner for the American Association Of Forensic Science by Dr. Donald Harper, president of the association, began with a simple suicide attempt. Seventeen-year-old Sydney Barringer. In the city of Los Angeles on March 23, 1958. The coroner ruled that the unsuccessful suicide had suddenly become a successful homicide. To explain: The suicide was confirmed by a note, left in the breast pocket of Sydney Barringer. At the same time young Sydney stood on the ledge of this nine-story building, an argument swelled three stories below. The neighbors heard, as they usually did, the arguing of the tenants and it was not uncommon for them to threaten each other with a shotgun, or one of the many handguns kept in the house. And when the shotgun accidentaly went off, Sydney just happend to pass. Added to this, the two tenants turned out to be: Faye and Arthur Barringer. Sydney’s mother and Sydney’s father. When confronted with the charge, which took some figuring out for the officers on the scene of the crime, Faye Barringer swore that she did not know that the gun was loaded. A young boy who lived in the building, sometimes a visitor and friend to Sydney Barringer, said that he had seen, six days prior, the loading of the shotgun. It seems that the arguing and the fighting and all of the violence was far too much for Sydney Barringer, and knowing his mother and father’s tendency to fight, he decided to do something. Sydney Barringer jumps from the ninth floor rooftop. His parents argue three stories below. Her accidental shotgun blast hits Sydney in the stomach as he passes the arguing sixth-floor window. He is killed instantly but continues to fall, only to find, three stories below, a safety net installed three days prior for a set of window washers that would have broken his fall and saved his life if not for the hole in his stomach. So Faye Barringer was charged with the murder of her son, and Sydney Barringer noted as an accomplice in his own death. 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. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance. Ohhhh. These strange things happen all the time.

The policeman: A lot of people think this is just a job that you go to … But it’s a twenty-four-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 that if I make a judgement call then that’s a judgement on them, but that is not what I do. And that’s not what should be done … 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 … 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.

Narrator: And there is the account of the hanging of three men, and a scuba diver, and a suicide. There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.”

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