"You talk in rhymes and riddles and rub-a-dub," says a character in Paul Thomas Anderson's astonishing "Magnolia." That indeed categorizes the way that character speaks, but more important, it expresses how the movie itself speaks.
"Magnolia" is a piece of work, a God-mad chunk of pure American magic realism that chatters away (for more than three hours) in voices, tongues, images and symbols, possibly even numerical sequences, while illuminating a landscape that appears to be our country in the here and now--a few square blocks of the San Fernando Valley--but really isn't. It has more to do with the miracle-haunted landscapes of medieval religious art, with martyred saints and God's eternal mystery in every corner. In this land, one woman can hate herself for having given other men oral sex while her husband lay dying and another can snort an Arm & Hammer box's worth of cocaine, and still the miraculous does happen--to both of them. On top of that--it rains frogs!
In one sense, the movie is a meditation on the intricacy of whimsical patterns, like snowflakes of life. It begins by citing three of them, odd coincidences of name and fate and circumstance that are simply too ridiculous to be true and would be unbelievable in any movie, except that in defiance of all odds, they are represented as having occurred. The movie then seems to be obsessed with patterns in the randomness of life, recurrence, doubling, coincidence, the strike of lightning, the fluky movement of cars through an intersection. But it finds so much order in them, so much logic and symmetry, it comes to postulate that they can't be the products of accident, but must instead represent the intercession of a cosmic intelligence. Or, to put it in more human terms: of God.
But the movie's theme isn't merely that God moves in mysterious ways, it's that God is Himself mysterious; He answers no questions and gives no interviews. He doesn't even have a PR rep or run weekend junkets. And He is not where you'd expect to find Him. In "Magnolia," God isn't a pious Hollywood Jesus or a celestial light accompanied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the string section of the New York Philharmonic. But He's there.
So in one sense, "Magnolia" is a throwback to a wondrously vulgar, now all-but-dead genre, the miracle movie. There must have been dozens of them, but "The Song of Bernadette" and "The Next Voice Your Hear" spring to immediate recollection. In them, God doesn't move in mysterious ways at all; He moves in cheesy, obvious ways that hacks who'd been promoted from poverty row westerns wrote cynically under the influence of bourbon and self-loathing, and B-level directors directed in a year when they would also direct nine other films. Religious? Yeah, as a plastic Jesus on the dashboard, but so craven in their hunger to sucker bucks out of the pockets of the faithful that they had a kind of charm to them, especially when the soundtrack announces God's presence, along with the lighting and the sudden look of benign gravity that creeps into the actors' faces.
Of course, Anderson, who did one film on professional gambling ("Hard Eight") and another on the porn industry ("Boogie Nights"), is far too sophisticated to portray his faith in such cheap ways. He's ironic and postmodern even if, as the movie makes clear, he's a believer. So instead, "Magnolia" is a kind of tapestry of codes, playful and elegant, inviting penetration. That is, in fact, the movie's greatest fun of all: figuring out the subtexts of the text.
To begin with, the movie isn't, as so many have stated, a series of interrelated short stories more or less organized around a satirical vision of a long-running quiz show titled "What Do Kids Know?" It's something else, and one character acknowledges it when he says, "Spoke and wheel, spoke and wheel, round and round and round." That's the true narrative design of the movie, a series of circularities in which the same information is observed at different moments in the revolution of the wheel of life and an odd pattern of recurrence develops so that the movie comes to achieve a certain rhythmic density. We see things over and over again but from different points of view in different lives, the same weird litany of child abuse, cancer, parental regret, arrogance and death.
That's another way of saying there's really only one story: It's spread among four families and viewed at different stages of its development, but nevertheless it has but one beginning, middle and end. It's an old story too, so old it could be biblical. You may be familiar with it in its more common format expressed as follows: Pride goeth before a fall.
There is a man; he is proud, even driven. His name may be Earl Partridge (played by Jason Robards) or Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) or genius-child Stanley's father, Rick (Michael Bowen), or he may already be out of the story, as is the father of ex-quiz kid and now comic geek Donnie Smith (William H. Macy). He had to succeed and succeed he did, but at great cost. Under stress and swollen with vanity, he gave in to the darker side of his nature and either abandoned the child (as did Earl his son Jack, who has renamed himself Frank and is played by Tom Cruise) or he exploited him (as does Stanley's father) or molested her (as did Jimmy his daughter Claudia) or stole from him (as did Donnie's father).
But at one point in the story, near its end, the father figure is dying, as represented by the two oldest fathers (as hungry cells devour the healthy ones, just as he seemed to devour his child). As he dies, he seeks forgiveness for his sins, and reconciliation with those he's hurt. Is it possible? This is God's task.
And who is God and how does He work? Well, God appears to be a small black child who speaks in rap music and wanders through the blasted landscape issuing small, graceful and tender mercies and at least one major-league big-time Cecil B. De Mille miracle. He intercedes where he is wanted. At one point he tries to explain himself to a policeman, and he does so in a rap so rhythmic and dense it can hardly be understood. Only one sentence leaps out at you: "I am the prophet," he says, and he is. Anderson actually finds a visual strategy to make this clearer, positioning the camera behind the boy's head as he surveys the confused officer, showing us reality from God's own point of view. The boy's head dominates the foreground: vast and giant and mysterious. The cop, confused and pitiful, languishes uneasily in his mighty gaze. It replicates the point of view of God in the tradition of religious painting as well; it's the world seen from Christ's position on the cross (it was used in "Ben-Hur," among many other religioso flickers).
And God also has angels. They enter the story at odd times and seem human enough, but theirs is the true scut work of the miracle trade. They don't snap fingers or flick amphibians from the sky, they do the hard labor of making arrangements.
One, that lonely cop, is assigned the task of soothing the horror in Claudia's life. Claudia (Melora Walters) is the daughter of quiz show host Jimmy Gator, who's been on the air for 12,000 hours, nearly a record (records are another motif in the film, as various of the humans try to set them; they are all, of course, stupid and futile, almost funny in God's view).
Claudia is a hurting creature, a self-loathing barfly and cocaine head, so ruptured by her rage she can hardly be called human. She's a tube of hate, raw nerves and despair. Lost and lonely himself, the cop, Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), goes to investigate a domestic altercation (a screaming match between father and daughter) and finds himself in the presence of Claudia's rage. He soothes her in small cop ways, by cadging coffee and pretending to listen. But soon he's the one entranced and he offers her, in his clumsy way, what her father has never been able to, which is love. Does it cure her? Well, not exactly, not instantly, but the movie ends with an image of hope for her.
His activities--indeed the activities of all the other characters--seem to occur in accordance with a principle elucidated in the Encyclopedia Judaica: "There is here the parade of the 'two-level' view of history characteristic of biblical narrative. Human events are shaped by the will of God, yet they unfold in accord with the motives of actors who do God's will without realizing it."
Another angel is the nurse Phil Parma (the sublime Philip Seymour Hoffman, his face alight with empathy), who is helping old Big Earl Partridge die. As Big Earl perishes in screaming pain, he blurts out his last wish: to see the son he abandoned. The young fellow (Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey), hardened by the pain, has become a professional: He's an avatar of hate, selling self-help tapes and seminars under the title "Seduce and Destroy," which A.) represents his anger at the world and B.) replicates exactly what his father has done to him, that is, seduce him into loving him and destroy him by betraying him.
It falls to Phil to reach Frank through the levels of his corporate structure--a phone call that's passed from an order clerk to an administrator to a personal assistant and finally to Frank himself. At each point he's got to re-explain his situation--in other words, degrade himself, debase himself, get through the hell of hold (he's on hold longer than sinners are in purgatory), all while Earl chokes in the master bedroom, his throat bloated with cancer, and while Earl's trophy wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), careens about the valley in another fog of self-destruction, realizing as he dies that she loves her husband and is sick at her own deceits and infidelities.
Meanwhile, in still another story, former quiz kid Donnie Smith is hellbent on the worst kind of self-destruction, embittered by his father's theft of the money, falling in love with a bartender and losing his job. His angel is a waspish little seraph played by Henry Gibson, whose intercession--painful though it is--seems to keep the distraught Smith from doing something really stupid. Still another variant of the same theme watches as Stanley is browbeaten into performing brilliantly on "What Do Kids Know?" even as he has begun to shrink and possibly curl in bitterness at his father's rage and ambition.
When all seems lost--there are other calamities too numerous to cite, including a suicide attempt, grand larceny, breaking and entering, ritual confessions--God sends a cleansing rain to the world, as if to wash it away. That is, he sends a downfall of frogs.
It is part of the movie's spirit of the miraculous that nobody ever says, "Gee, it's raining frogs!" No, indeed; they simply shield themselves from the falling amphibs, then, when the scaly rain has finally stopped, sweep them aside and go about their business. It's as if falling froggies are as common as falling rain and the weather channel might banally say: NO PRECIP BUT 2 INCHES FROGFALL INDICATED FOR LATE P.M./ EARLY A.M.
Curious about frogs in Western religion, I once again consulted the Encyclopedia Judaica, where it turns out that a great deal of study has been spent on frogs. They are a part of the plague cycle that God inflicted upon the Egyptians to secure the release of His chosen people, and as the scholars point out, they have many meanings. One is literal, suggesting that frogs, boils, floods, blood tides and so forth have their roots in natural phenomena of the Nile River basin. One is ironic: the frogs reflect a pattern in the plagues that echo or express metaphorically the ways of kings, that is, the ways of warfare: frogs are clamor, meant to unhinge the enemy, followed by lice, which suggest arrows.
In still another, the order of the arrival of the plagues (10, according to Exodus, seven in the Psalms, though the frogs are always second) has mystical numerical significance, particularly in Exodus, where the sequence is three, three and three, each one replicating the principle of destruction (though inflating it) in the triplet before, until the capper, the 10th, which is the death of the firstborns. (That numerical pattern, by the way, might be buried in the movie, which seems to move with an odd mathematical logic.) But in a still larger sense the frogs--and all the plagues--are not meant merely to free anyone but to impress upon the world the folly of defying God.
All these themes play through "Magnolia" in some form or other, but the difference is that the original plagues were sent as intimidations from God; in our age, Anderson appears to be arguing, He no longer can scare us (we scare ourselves far more effectively) but only offer us assistance. These frogs are benevolent: They save lives, they clarify situations, they unify the bitterly opposed, they heal the pained, they give hope.
So the gospel according to "Magnolia," while not strictly Judeo-Christian, nevertheless is an argument for God's engagement in the world and His mercy. Of this I have no opinion and no means of evaluation, except to say that faith is a handsome platform upon which to build a film, and the movie at the end of its long three hours (I've now seen it twice) sends one out in a blast of optimism. Miracles of love and redemption and reconciliation, it postulates, can indeed happen.
And who says the miraculous has vanished from the Earth? I had a weird little taste of one my own self. I raced out to see the movie a second time, stopping only at the old Style supply cabinet to grab a pad of paper for notes. I got to the theater (it was snowing--flakes, not frogs, however) and sat, waiting for the movie to start, the pad in my hands. Yet something was strangely odd about the tablet; my fingers wandered to its backside and encountered something that wasn't mere cardboard tablet, but tablet coated with something.
I flipped it over, and here is what I found: