Magnolia (1999)

by Todd Ramlow


My Favorite Flower

As Academy Award nomination season rolls around, I hope that Paul Thomas Anderson’s absolutely brilliant Magnolia receives the accolades that it so richly deserves. The pedestrian tastes which seem so dear to the Academy, however, nearly ensure that Magnolia will be eclipsed by that other flowery feature of 1999, American Beauty. Where American Beauty(TM) serves up the perfumed, FTD’d, standardized, suburban banalities of its floral namesake, Magnolia‘s flowery secrets unfold in a lugubrious decadence, evoke a gothic aesthetic, and dizzy with a narcotic attar. While American Beauty is visually impressive, Magnolia is simply, and entirely, astounding.

Anderson’s film is a multi-layered, richly textured, daring and innovative piece of filmmaking that defies easy explanation. Simple plot exposition does not do the film justice. On a very basic level, Magnolia is a family drama in the grand and pathos-driven tradition of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. Like Williams and O’Neill’s plays, which broke out of the limits of “family drama” to become philosophical excursuses on human conditions and influences of the past, Magnolia surpasses (or, rather, shatters) the conventional limits of dramatic film and muses on the interactions of past and present. One of the most refreshing aspects of the film is its willingness, in a po-mo culture which seems focused only on the present, to revitalize history and demand that we look to the past if we are to imagine any future.

cover art


Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Jason Robards, Julianne Moore, Tom Cruise, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Melora Walters

(New Line Cinema)
US theatrical: 8 Dec 1999 (Limited release)

Magnolia is framed by several deaths which establish its preoccupation with chance: three men hanged whose last names (Green, Berry and Hill) iterate the area of London in which their crimes were committed; a scuba diver found dead atop a tall pine tree in the middle of a forest fire, having been scooped out of the lake he was diving in by a dousing plane, which then deposited him atop said tree; an attempted suicide which becomes a murder as the jumper falls past the apartment window where his mother, arguing with his father, fires a shotgun out the window, killing her son as he falls. The question arises, are these just freak coincidences or something less random?

The movie suggests that the aleatory wanderings of chance are never as aleatory as we might imagine — or hope. Nearly invisible lines connect us to what appear to be the random accidents of chance, proving to be, rather, links is a chain of causality. This is the first lesson of Magnolia: a narrator tells us that in his “humble opinion” — these things did not happen by chance.

Questions of chance and causality inform the narrative structure of Magnolia, which seems to borrow from theoretical physics. By now we all know the physical postulate of interconnection and indeterminacy whereby a butterfly in the Amazon River basin flaps its wings, stirring air currents, ultimately causing a hurricane off the coast of Rangoon. And so, too, in Magnolia the atmospheric (and invisible) minutiae which produce the weather are repeated and reflected in the hidden webs of desire and experience which connect the various characters and their lives. Further, fractal geometries are replicated on a human level in the production of certain “types” of subjectivity: for example, aging kid quiz show whiz Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) and up and coming kid quiz show whiz Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) are connected (or, perhaps, being cloned) in ways they couldn’t possibly imagine. The film, however, helps us to imagine the characters connections inside causal processes: one of the categories from which Stanley must choose on the tv game show “What Do Kids Know?” is “string theory or chaos theory.” What appear as mere accidents or chance coincidences in the characters lives and what seem throwaway details of the film are intimately connected and integral to these lives and to our understanding of the film. These things do not happen by chance.

Walter Benjamin has written that the past carries with it “a temporal index” to which “our image of happiness is indissolubly bound,” an index that is bound to “the image of redemption.” In other words, individual or collective happiness cannot be thought outside of redemption, and notions of “sin” and the past are simultaneously caught up in a vision of a forgiving future. Benjamin’s remarks are made in the context of his analyses of historical materialism and the messianic mysticism of Jewish Kabbalah. In an oddly similar manner, Magnolia directly traffics in Old Testament style metaphors and structures of judgment, punishment, and redemption, and is intimately concerned with questions of the past and of happiness. Indeed, the main underlying theme of Magnolia is the biblical adage about the “sins of the fathers.” In the film the sons and daughters bear the burden of their fathers greed and avarice, and their only possible future happiness is in facing the past (in the figure of their father), and the effects that past has had on their lives. Their fathers’ imminent deaths provide the occasion for this confrontation with the past.

After the many horrors of the past and their interconnections are revealed, after we have seen exactly how the “sins of the father” have been carried upon the sons and daughters, we are given a good old fashioned, Exodus-style plague of frogs falling from the skies. Mimicking one of the Biblical plagues visited upon Egypt which precede the Jews liberation from slavery, this rain of frogs signals an epiphany in Magnolia, after which (a limited) forgiveness and redemption ensue. For Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), his second wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), and his son Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), as well as for Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), his wife Rose (Melinda Dillon), and daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), the past has finally caught up with them, they have each faced it in their own ways, and can begin to move beyond.

This forgiveness and redemption, however, is only for the victims of the past. The fathers’ desire for forgiveness is rejected. It is not so much that the sons and daughters have forgiven the sins of their fathers, but rather have forgiven themselves for the role they had believed themselves to play in those sins, and in doing so redeemed themselves from the past and might move towards a future happiness.

It seems I have said very little about the film itself, about its story. I could have told you how it is about incest, abandonment, and familial abuse; indeed, it is largely about various forms of child abuse and how they are carried into the future — both by the children abused and the abusers. Admirably, Paul Thomas Anderson takes on a number of topics that could easily devolve into melodrama or psychoanalytic reductionism, and he avoids these pitfalls. I could also have told you how the film’s pathologized representations of race and homosexuality are its one major failure. Or I could have told you about its fantastic ensemble cast, every member of which turns in a stunning performance. And that even though Tom Cruise will no doubt get all the attention, and in Magnolia he stretches his acting abilities farther than he ever has before, nonetheless, his performance is the least remarkable in the film (Julianne Moore, who can do no wrong, is mesmerizing, for example).

Rather than focus on the film’s plot, I have chosen to briefly elaborate on two of its more transcendent themes. Magnolias philosophical ruminations on chance, interconnection, and causality, and on happiness, forgiveness, and redemption opens a door, if only for a brief time, onto a vision of subjectivity and the human condition rarely seen in film.

See Magnolia. Disregard critics, or your friends, or neighbors who tell you it’s too long, or all over the place, or that it doesn’t “make sense.” If Magnolia doesn’t seem to make sense, it’s only because we, as a viewing audience, have been beaten into expecting that a movie must not be too challenging (visually, narratively, or intellectually). Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is a brave, intelligent, and exciting piece of work which is not to be missed.

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