Monday, September 27, 2010

Magnolia's Metaphysical Melodrama

by Brandon Colvin

This piece was originally published in the recently completed PT Anderson blogathon at our friend Jeremy Richey's terrific blog Moon in The Gutter. I'm just posting the text here. If you want pretty pictures to go along with it, see it at Moon and catch up on what you missed during the quite strong "blogathon."

I first saw Magnolia (1999), Paul Thomas Anderson’s 3-hour masterpiece of meta-melodrama, at the tender age of 14. Lugging home two VHS tapes containing the movie, I was unaware of the formative impact the film would have on my understanding of cinema. I watched the film three times during that initial three day rental period, and I’ve seen it at least twice each year since. Every viewing serves as a reminder of the narrative virtuosity and unfettered emotion that first knocked me on my ass in a year that offered many video store treasures: Solaris (Soderbergh, 2002), Donnie Darko (Kelly, 2001), Punch-Drunk Love (Anderson, 2002), and Adaptation. (Jonze, 2002). Magnolia, however, towers above these foundational pillars of my cinephilia, primarily because it almost single-handedly taught me a very valuable skill – how to understand and appreciate the melodramatic mode of cinematic storytelling.

The source of Magnolia’s instructiveness towards the end of accepting melodrama lies in its relentless self-awareness as well as its sheer bravery, complimentary traits that support the film’s two-fold method of demonstrating the emotive capabilities of melodrama. This method is realized in the way Magnolia first presents itself as a self-conscious exemplar of post-modern insecurity only to explode that trepidation with unhinged histrionics and full-throttle excess in the form of cosmic coincidences and unabashed artificiality.

The fact that Magnolia begins in the post-modern mode before diving into extravagance is indicative of PTA’s awareness of his primary audience – educated adults attuned to the conventions of “art” or “indie” cinema and the attendant “grittiness” or “realism” of such film practices (my younger self included). Throughout the film’s first few hours, Anderson is covering his bases, so to speak, anticipating possible criticisms by co-opting them into a series of strategically self-reflexive moves – moves which allow him to nip certain objections to implausibility and assumptions of “realism” in the bud in an attempt to open up the skeptical viewer to a different type of storytelling: the melodramatic.

The first of these post-modern gestures, the film’s six-minute, Ricky Jay-narrated prologue, essentially serves the rhetorical function of addressing and invalidating the audience’s potential skeptical prejudices against chance, coincidence, and melodrama as reliable narrative tools for gaining insight into the human condition. Reality is depicted as unquestionably containing the incredible chance occurrences described in the prologue’s three vignettes: the Green-Berry-Hill murder, the scuba diver and the gambler, and the failed suicide-cum-homicide of Sydney Barringer. The vignettes point to something beyond happenstance, something which Anderson seeks to investigate through his film’s engagement with causality and artifice. As Ricky Jay’s narrator comments on Sydney Barringer’s death, “This is not just ‘something that happens.’ This cannot be just ‘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. These strange things happen all the time.” In this way, the prologue provides an immediate, ready-made defense of Magnolia’s commitment to the coincidental and the fantastic as the centerpieces of its narrative structure: “these strange things happen all the time.” Through the prologue and its suggestive narration, PTA preemptively strikes, perhaps out of fear that a modern audience will reject his seemingly naïve immersion in the ostentatious.

This almost neurotic need to justify Magnolia’s deliberately fanciful approach pervades the film’s first few hours in the form of self-referentiality and, ultimately, self-defense. During the stunning post-title montage (cut to Aimee Mann’s rendition of “One”), which introduces the audience to Magnolia’s numerous intertwined characters, this self-consciousness is prominent in the form of omnipresent screens and ornately orchestrated cross-cutting, both of which throw the viewer, almost apologetically, into an overt awareness of the film’s constructedness. The shift to slight self-parody comes soon afterward, when Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman) realizes he must track down Earl Partridge’s (Jason Robards) son, Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise) in order to satisfy the dying man’s final wish. In a wide shot, Phil stands by Earl’s eventual deathbed. As Phil mentally develops his plan of action, Wagner’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” swells, Mickey-Mousing his banal movements while also forming a sound-bridge to Frank Mackey’s infamous “Respect the Cock” speech. The joke is an intertextual one, mockingly comparing Phil’s moment of realization with the epic images of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – the cultural counterpart to Wagner’s composition. PTA seems to be self-consciously poking fun at the balls-to-the-wall ambition behind Magnolia here, placing his film alongside Kubrick’s in a way that highlights the potential silliness of his own hubris. Once again, Anderson is beating his critics to the punch by demonstrating his self-awareness, winking at the skeptics, saying, “I know, I know, but just keep watching.” Similar moments of meta-commentary (even mockery) occur throughout the film, such as when Earl’s wife, the drug addicted Linda (Julianne Moore) exclaims, “This is so fucked up and over-the-top” or when Earl himself acknowledges his hackneyed situation, apologizing to Phil for how pathetic and clichéd his “whole man on a bed” circumstance is. A certain insecurity suffuses these moments, an admittance of deviance from “art” or “indie” cinema’s realistic grounding; Anderson appears to be hesitant, but he is simply earning a sort of credibility by demonstrating his self-consciousness.

The fact that these intentionally archetypal gestures populate Magnolia’s plot is most directly addressed and defended during a scene in which Phil Parma pleads for assistance in finding Frank while telephoning an employee of Frank’s company. Anderson’s awareness of his audience’s possible skepticism is once again on display, as Phil remarks, “I know this sounds silly. And I know I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene in the movie where the guy is trying to get a hold of the long lost son, ya know. But this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen. And, ya gotta believe me, this is really happening.” Anderson returns to the qualification that the seemingly grandiose events of his film happen all the time, that the syrupy, fantastic clichés are rooted in reality, but perhaps not “realism.” Phil’s remarks take up the self-conscious line of argument introduced by the narrator in the prologue and present the key for understanding Magnolia’s subsequent departure from rationality – that such implausible, artificial events are in movies because they actually have a correlation with reality, with lived experience. Indeed, interrogating and interpreting the nature of this correlation is what leads Magnolia to its eventual eruption of cosmic histrionics.

The film truly leaves behind its tentative relationship to the coincidence and obvious artifice that comprise it at the 139-minute mark, when the startling “Wise Up” sequence begins. Here, perhaps as well, is the point at which PTA feels the skeptical viewer will have been fully convinced to accept (or at least play along with) the type of narrative leaps found in Magnolia’s final hour – leaps that take it far away from any concept of “realism.” The scene begins with Claudia Gator (Melora Walters) snorting a line of cocaine while ostensibly listening to an Aimee Mann song on her record player; Mann’s music flows throughout the film, blurring diegetic boundaries in numerous instances (and giving credence to the film’s claim to melodrama), but nowhere is it as remarkable as in this show-stopping shot sequence. As Claudia listens, she begins singing along sullenly, continuing for a few bars before, surprisingly, Anderson cuts to Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) singing along as well, followed by Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), Phil and Earl, Linda, Frank, then Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman). Of course, they can’t all be listening to the same song at the same time. It is diegetically impossible. What Anderson does here, however, is to impose an extra-diegetic linkage system that unites the characters around a common emotion – sorrowful resignation, as indicated by the song’s lyrical content (“It’s not going to stop / so just give up”). All of this is deliberately artificial, yet convincing in an emotional sense. The emotional, perhaps even spiritual or existential, content of the scene blatantly supersedes any obligation to “realism” or legible causation or continuous temporality; indeed, time seems to stand still for the scene’s duration. This emotional resonance is uniquely powerful as a direct result of Anderson’s willingness to suspend “realism” in favor of artifice and contrivance. With the “Wise Up” scene, PTA lays the groundwork for his eventual masterstroke, providing an expressionistic model of melodramatic storytelling in which emotional intensity overrides rationality and plausibility as a narrative imperative.

The correlation between reality and melodrama, between what “really happens” and what cinema represents, then, is one of emotion, of feeling, according to Anderson’s film. Melodrama externalizes the most intense interior states (as in the “Wise Up” scene), dramatizing passions and beliefs individuals are perhaps too timid or isolated or self-conscious to express – whether they be romantic, violent, or even metaphysical. The progress of Magnolia’s carefully arranged self-presentation – from insecurity to justification to excess – mirrors this process of externalization, providing a cautious arc toward extravagant artifice that is careful to keep the reluctant spectator (which certainly included my teenage self) credulous and interested.

Magnolia’s full melodramatic externalization of its emotional core, of course, famously comes in the form of a rather curious bit of precipitation – a narrative gambit of Biblical proportions. I speak of the millions of frogs which cascade over Magnolia’s San Fernando Valley during its concluding half-hour, washing over the landscape and characters at the precise point that the weight of coincidence, of unmitigated sorrow, of hopelessness, of tears and sins, of all the film’s building melodrama becomes unbearable, and the film must climb to newer heights of expressive intensity. The raining frogs are, appropriately, Magnolia’s signature image, representing one of the bravest creative choices in the history of narrative cinema, a moment of melodrama in its most abstracted, virtually transcendent form. It is a scene of celestial histrionics, of the unbelievable; yet, it is also the truest, most sincere, most profound scene in Anderson’s entire filmography (which includes it as one of the greatest world cinema has had to offer in the past two decades). It is also, particularly upon initial viewing, mystifying, and its significance as an expressionistically melodramatic explosion, one that exemplifies the pulverizing power of excess and emotion flying in the face of “realism,” is best explained by answering the perplexed Phil Parma’s stammering question upon witnessing the meteorological marvel, “How are there frogs falling from the sky?”

Most basically, Phil’s question is a metaphysical one, pondering how the basic laws of reality appear to have been transgressed and contradicted. In this light, the term deus ex machina seems particularly apt (the god in question being PTA). With the falling frogs, Anderson employs a deus ex machina to a deliberate end (rather than demonstrating the laziness typically ascribed to the use of such overt narrative intervention), one which elucidates the melodramatic ethos of Magnolia by aligning the film’s entire universe with its core emotional concerns – perhaps the ultimate form of expressionism. Indeed, the spiritual overtones of the sequence (look for references to Exodus 8:2 throughout the film) point to a certain transcendence-seeking impulse often associated with profound emotion, an impulse Anderson is happy to indulge by emphasizing the act of forgiveness (Christian connotations abound). A specifically cosmic variety of forgiveness is the source from which the frogs fall in Magnolia, whether that source is an implied deity/metaphysical force or simply the writer-director (the god of the narrative machine). It is a forgiveness from outside, one which deliberately pushes people together, saves them from themselves, and retracts their seemingly deserved punishments. It is a narrative leap predicated on emotion and sympathy – that of the filmmaker, and, perhaps, the audience, for the characters; however, the leap is also motivated by the emotion and desire for redemption buried in the most intense interiorities of the characters themselves. Overflowing with these swirling sentiments, Magnolia’s surge into unfettered melodrama seems somewhat inevitable – fated, one might say, not just “one of those things.”

But the falling frogs are still more complex. As the scene concludes, the audience is presented with the same sort of defense of the fantastic and coincidental as earlier in the film. A close up of the corner of a painting’s frame in Claudia’s apartment reveals a strip of paper reading “but it did happen” and, while watching the frogs rain from within the confines of his school library, Stanley mutters, “This is something that happens.” In this new, metaphysically provocative context, however, the previously self-conscious move of rhetorical defensiveness becomes something different. Rather than suggesting the actuality of the fantastic (“these things happen all the time”) as a method of justification and reliability, Magnolia now points to the unbelievable wonder of actuality, offering a phenomenon that demonstrates the shockingly strange qualities of real occurrences. (Raining frogs actually occur in nature. Seriously, look it up.) Ultimately, the recurrence of the “this happens” motif results in an underscoring of the relevance of melodrama to our lived experience. The most outlandish moment has a relatable root in reality, even if that root is essentially emotional. It is all startlingly reminiscent of one of the most memorable scenes of Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s aforementioned Adaptation., in which Robert McKee (Brian Cox) berates Charlie (Nicolas Cage) after the later remarks that he wants to make a movie in which nothing happens, as in life, to which Robert responds:

"Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind? People are murdered every day. There's genocide, war, corruption. Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it. For Christ's sake, a child watches her mother beaten to death on the steps of a church. Someone goes hungry. Somebody else betrays his best friend for a woman. If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know crap about life! And why the FUCK are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie? I don't have any use for it! I don't have any bloody use for it!"

Like Adaptation., Magnolia is a film at odds with itself regarding its post-modern and melodramatic tendencies. Magnolia, however, is decidedly more committed to the latter, demonstrating the truth of McKee’s powerful objection by extracting and externalizing the power and intensity of world that frequently seems banal. The world, Magnolia suggests, is vital, dynamic, and beyond our ken – its full expression requiring a narrative mode imbued with the cataclysmic, the extravagant, the super real, in other words, the melodramatic.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Thanks for reposting this terrific piece here and thanks for the link back to Moon. Brandon did a terrific job with this...

Anonymous said...

A lot of really interesting points here, especially your treatment of the postmodern self-referential aspect leading into higher forms of melodrama and artifice.

Although I must disagree with you on the point about the significance of the end. The frogs falling from the sky is not about forgiveness, rather it is about judgment (just as it is about judgment in the Exodus account). Now, it is true that the overall mood does eventually flesh out into a collective forgiveness for the the majority of the characters, but this is only through the crucial death and judgment of Earl, the wealthy strongman who directly and indirectly influences the entire cast of characters (a sort of Pharaoh figure). Now that Earl is gone everybody can move on with their lives: the crisis has done its worst and now its time to rehab. In this way, PTA is leveling an implicit albeit scathing critique against the quotidian, quizzical entertainment industry, an industry in bed with the tentacles of consumerism, careerism, and most of all a chauvinism which thumbs down not just women but men too.