If You Refuse to Let Them Go…Frogs: The Mysteries of MAGNOLIA
In reference to Magnolia, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is quoted to have said this film is “the best I will ever make.” Although Anderson’s filmography is an impressive list if cerebral, intellectually stimulating, and brilliantly filmed pieces of cinema, most would agree with his statement regarding Magnolia. There are not many films as rich, well-crafted, and intelligent as Magnolia, certainly not many in today’s American cinema, which may be why so many have spent time writing about Anderson’s film, trying to uncover and discover all of Magnolia’s mysteries.
However, it is impossible to decode Magnolia. True, many insightful articles have been written about the film’s thematic approaches, biblical references (Exodus 8:2), and complicated exploration between chance, coincidence, interconnectivity, and irony. Yet, like a Shakespeare play, Magnolia holds so much ambiguity that it cannot be cracked; there is no answer as to what Magnolia means. Nevertheless, the intricacies of the film’s narrative structure and cinematic composition are overwhelmingly inspiring and demand attention and contemplation from movie lovers. Thus, instead of looking at the film as a whole and attempting to make sense of what Magnolia might means, the purpose of this piece of writing will be to look at one small element of the film, hopefully enhancing an appreciation for Magnolia’s parts that work together to make up such an impacting whole.
One way of summarizing Magnolia is as a film about intersections. Taking place all in one day, the film explores the links between several people in the San Fernando Valley of California: two dying television producers (Philip Barker Hall and Jason Robards), two drug addicts (Julianne Moore and Melora Walters), a misogynistic motivational speaker (Tom Cruise), a home care nurse (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a child prodigy (Jeremy Blackman), a former child prodigy (William H. Macy), a cop (John C. Reilly), and a self-proclaimed child prophet. Each character is connected to one or more of the others, and, on this particular day, each character reaches a breaking point. Furthermore, because their lives are interconnected, these breaking points spill over into one another, exacerbating the emotions during this brief, condensed amount of time. By the film’s conclusion, secrets are revealed, history repeated, lives taken, obstacles overcome, and even a prophecy or two is fulfilled.
One of the symbols Anderson uses to connect his characters and highlight interconnectivity is the television. Almost all the characters either appear(ed) on television, work in television, or are shown watching television. For example, Jimmy Gator is a television producer and game show host. His estranged daughter, Claudia, watches her father on the game show “What Do Kids Know?,” as does Rose (Melinda Dillion), Gator’s wife. Moreover, Earl Partridge and his wife, Linda, also connect to television because he, too, is a producer and colleague of Gator. Earl’s son, Frank, famous for his dating system Seduce and Destroy, records a television interview the day Magnolia takes place. Stanley, the current Quiz Kid, appears on Gator’s television program “What Do Kids Know?,” and his father, Rick, sits in the green-room during each episode and (pretends to) watch him. Lastly, Donnie, yesteryear’s Quiz Kid, used to appear on “What Do Kids Know?” when he was Stanley’s age, but now watches Stanley on television from a local bar.
As a symbol, television connects these characters and is used to communicate how artificial and contrived these people’s lives are. Three of the characters exemplifying this theory best are Jimmy Gator, Frank, and Stanley. Jimmy Gator hosts a wholesome family game show, featuring a team of three intelligent children who compete in a battle of wits against a team of adults. On television Jimmy himself appears wholesome and enviable. Yet, the audience quickly learns Jimmy’s family is broken, stemming from a strained relationship with his grown daughter. Late in the film the audience learns that relationship became strained because Jimmy molested his daughter. For Jimmy, the television perfects his image by hiding his mistakes and projecting an artificial self for the world to embrace.
Similarly, Earl’s son, Frank, uses his television interview to create an artificial image of himself, masking the frightening and difficult realities of his own life with fabricated fiction. During his interview, Frank confides that his father died and he was raised by his mother. He also details an impressive educational history, giving credibility to his marketed dating system, which he claims will work because it is based on research and theory. However, the television reporter interviewing Frank, who has a few theories of her own and has done her research to back said theories up, presents Frank with the actual detail of his life: his father abandoned him, his mother died, he was raised by a woman his mother left him with, and he never attended college. Frank refuses to conduct the interview; Frank refuses to allow his reality televised. As with Jimmy Gator, the other characters, and Anderson’s use of televisions in Magnolia, the television is a symbol that communicates artificial and often perfected reality, the unreliable narrator incapable of credible communication; therefore, Frank cannot give the interview to a television reporter who confronts him with truth.
Also, Stanley, who appears regularly on Gator’s television program “What Do Kids Know?,” conceals a difficult real life with an enviable onscreen image. To those who watch “What Do Kids Know?,” Stanley is a brilliant child, adorable, and loved by his teammates and family. In reality, Stanley is neglected by virtually all adults in his life and endures emotional and mental abuse from his inattentive father. In fact, the adults in Stanley’s world are so remiss they ignore his repeated requests to use the bathroom during a taping of the “What Do Kids Know?.” The result is Stanley has an accident, which he then must conceal from the television cameras. This imperfect image of himself contradicts his television image and puts him in the impossible, embarrassing, and lonely position of hiding reality.
Televisions inevitably play a deeply symbolic role in the film’s climax. After Jimmy Gator reveals he “may have” molested his daughter, causing his wife to leave him, he takes a pistol from his kitchen, loads it, and prepares to commit suicide. Just as the gun is pressed against his temple, a frog falls through the kitchen’s sunlight and knocks the gun from Jimmy’s hand. Instead of shooting himself in the head, the gun misfires and shoots the television in Jimmy’s kitchen.
This symbolic act represents an end to the artifice these characters call life. Jimmy has no secrets anymore; he confessed his adultery, and his secret about molesting Claudia is out. Moreover, Frank confronted Earl and expressed the hurt, as well as the love, he felt for his father. Shortly after, Earl died, making the lie Frank has been telling about his father’s death true, and, therefore, solidifying the artifice is over. And, Stanley’s façade also ends; he refuses to return to the television program, therefore forfeiting the title if Quiz Kid Champion.
Lastly, as an interesting point of comparison, at the end of the film the unknown narrator returns and asks the audience to reconsider the three stories told during the film’s opening sequence: the three robber/murderers who were hung, the scuba diver in the tree, and the son shot by his mother during his suicide attempt. This narrator’s reminder suggests that not only are coincidences, irony, and intersections all around us, they are also recursive. From one perspective, Jimmy accidentally shooting the television during his suicide attempt is no different than the boy who was shot by his mother during his own suicide attempt. That boy loaded the gun that eventually killed him. Symbolically, Jimmy loaded the gun that killed the version of himself presented on television. In killing the television Jimmy killed “Jimmy Gator,” loving father, loyal husband, and successful television producer/host. In both cases the gun misfired and caused a death. Jimmy’s story is as connected to the boy who was murdered while attempting suicide as the frogs, which were sucked up and rained down, are to the opening’s scuba diver who met the same fate.