The Magnolia Effect, Or What it Means When It Means Nothing


Here is the thing about Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: it shouldn’t work. Actually, it doesn’t work in a number of places. And it’s in those places that it somehow works best. Coming into the movie, I thought I was pretty damn smart. Thought I might major in film and could tell you the thematic weight that fell with Kane’s last whisper of “Rosebud.” I wanted everything to mean something. A tight little analysis I could type up and turn in for an elective course. Everything with rhyme and reason and easily explained over coffee when I wanted to hear myself talk. Pretty damn smart.

Magnolia was smarter. Released in 1999 to positive reviews and audience walkouts, it either had your number or it didn’t. I felt like I’d written mine on a bathroom wall. The film tracks roughly 10 characters of varying ages and fame (Tom Cruise! Julianne Moore! Philip Seymour Hoffman!) over one day in the San Fernando Valley. They are all somewhat distantly related to one another, like six degrees of separation but without Kevin Bacon. It is over three hours long and at the end — blink if you don’t want spoilers — frogs rain down from the sky.

I wasn’t introduced to the film so much as it was transmitted to me through osmosis, bit by bit, by my father, for years, until I finally sat down and re-learned everything I thought I knew about how things should work, feel, and end. When I was eleven, he showed me a scene from smack dab in the middle of the movie, with no context, in which each and every one of the characters is seen singing along to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” The movie is not a musical. It made my dad, who was, to my eleven year old self, a giant and possibly made of stone or unbendable metal, cry. I was knocked off balance.

I came into Magnolia looking for a story I could pick apart later until it was bleached bones and muscle. Empty but for beginning, middle, end. Like they teach in intro writing classes or around the carpet in kindergarten. Magnolia gives you beginning, middle, beginning, middle, middle, beginning. Until you finally get to: End? Or maybe beginning again. I couldn’t tell you. That’s the fun of it, the thread that tugs and makes the whole thing move. Who cares if the rug unravels when you’re having so much fun watching it come apart?

Magnolia, for all its strange Biblical allusions and endless IMDb trivia page, is not trying to preach anything. There is not anything to figure out or to know or to conclusively understand. It didn’t try to teach me right from wrong. The last shot, without giving too much away, reveals no truths worthy of bringing down the mountain. You can’t, in fact, even hear any of the dialogue because Aimee Mann’s Oscar-nominated “Save Me” is playing too loud. But there is a moment, just before the camera goes black, where the character on the screen — a twenty-something blonde who has tugged both pity and annoyance and pity again from audiences brave enough to make it through — looks directly into the camera. Aimee hits a guitar-riff hard before the next chorus. The blonde smiles, just a little, just a turn of the lips. Cut to black.

It’s nothing and it’s enough. It is not pretty or perfect or even exactly profound. But it hits where it hurts, presses just above some hidden bruise. It feels good, like hope and flowers under dirt. It doesn’t feel like a revelation or a lesson. I cannot for the life of me tell you what any of it means. If it’s about anything, it is things that are best left unexplained.

After it was over, my dad asked if I wanted to hear his theory on the frogs. On what the biblical allusions were saying and whether the relationship between the cop and the coke-head was meant to teach us something about saviors. Remember, I was always the one who wanted to tell you about “Rosebud.”

“No,” I said, breathing it all in through my open mouth. “I really, really don’t.”

And he smiled. Cut to black.

text: jadie stillwell
visual: magnolia
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