In his novel A Flag for Sunrise, Robert Stone invents this old American saying: “Mickey Mouse will see you dead.” I have spent many profitable hours mulling over that coinage; and I’ve concluded it has something to do with our national aversion to tragedy.
American novelists have written “tragedy” into their book titles; America’s playwrights, sending doomed men to center stage, have told us that attention must be paid; but the audience, after a dutiful sigh, always turns back to comedy. I don’t mean just the banana-peel stuff (though we’ve certainly had our share of that). I’m talking about fictions that end with fresh beginnings: couples paired off, society renewed, May buds blooming over pots of gold. The comic mode rules in America, no matter the sufferings that lie in our past or the catastrophes that await, well prepared, in our future.
Perhaps the only form in which tragedy has flourished in America has been film noir–though “flourished” may be the wrong word for a mode that mushroomed at the bottom of cheap double bills and then had to be named in French. In the years when noir was fully alive, a few such films were deemed respectable and given awards, if Billy Wilder had made them; but most, like their protagonists, lived in the shadows. Noir was, among other things, a shade cast by the uneasy conscience of the people who won World War II; the grief and terror that underlay victory played in distorted shapes across the walls of grind houses. Eventually, noir succeeded in emerging into the light; it entered the museums and film societies. And so it became an object of nostalgia, drained of a large measure of its power.
As for those recent productions known as neonoir: You can’t sweat out a movie like a guilty secret when the picture keeps offering to be your guilty pleasure.
The historians who someday will define us by our stories, as we define the Greeks and Elizabethans by theirs, will note this curious gap in our imagination. But they won’t be able to judge us by nonexistent tragedies; their only measure will be the comedies we’ve produced. If we hope to make a good showing, then those comedies had better be something more than funny. They will need at times to be deep and challenging–which is why I return to Magnolia.
It is a long, emotionally taxing film, one that elicited from my friend Gerald Peary a groan of, “Cry me a river!” As I noted last month, the characters in the film’s intersecting stories include two men dying of cancer, two women who are walking pharmacological experiments, four abused children and one professional misogynist. Did I mention the dead dog?
The writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson, throws that in, too–and yet the mood at the end is comic. You can place Magnolia by the startled laughter that erupts at the climax, during events that are (paradoxically) both cleansing and slimy. There’s comedy as well in the final reconciliations, the pardon-granting, the blossoming smile on which the picture ends.
I had hoped a film this strong might win a few critics’ awards. (To date, only the Toronto group has cited it.) I also hoped it might inspire analysis and debate. But Magnolia is being neither honored nor much discussed; and so, rushing into the near-vacuum, I want to review it in more detail–especially now that it’s in wide release, its secrets having been revealed by several critics who should know better. Those of you who haven’t seen the picture and want to preserve its surprises intact should stop reading now. All others may join me in pondering how much weight Magnolia will bear.
Let’s start with a theme that’s announced in a prologue: Some coincidences, especially when they’re mortal, are so uncanny as to prompt us to imagine a guiding hand. Unsympathetic reviewers have suggested that this theme is a mere ploy, meant to rescue Anderson from the banality of his individual story lines. I suspect many of these same reviewers would tag as sophomoric the whole question of randomness versus design. True enough: This is the sort of riddle posed at college bull sessions. It’s also asked, in a different tone, by the middle-aged at 3:00 am. By raising this theme, Anderson puts himself in a line that runs from the Greek tragedians–those connoisseurs of implacability–to D.W. Griffith, the first great filmmaker to cut between scenes on the basis of theme and not story.
What is montage, that basic tool of the movies, if not the construction of a pattern, devised by a godlike hand that goes unseen by the characters? Far from being a superficial ploy, Anderson’s prologue goes to the heart of both drama and filmmaking. The only question is whether the film can live up to the question.
The answer begins with a whiplike montage sequence in which Anderson introduces the characters you’ll be following for the next three hours. And, in a sense, he keeps on introducing them. It’s not just that he gradually reveals their interrelationships: the business tie between the two dying men, for example, or the sexual loneliness that’s shared by the cop (John C. Reilly) and the onetime quiz kid (William H. Macy). Anderson also tricks you into judging these characters, then smilingly changes your mind about them.
A small example: When the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the role of a private nurse, shyly phones a convenience store for a delivery of white bread, cigarettes and three porn magazines, you will certainly guess what’s coming next. But the narrative hint turns out to have been a feint; the man has an altruistic use for stroke books. A larger example: A young black kid (Emmanuel Johnson) comes across an obviously wealthy white woman, who is slumped unconscious in her open car. He rifles through her purse–and, having found her cell phone, calls for help. Finally, two glaring examples: Here are Frank (Tom Cruise), a strutting TV preacher of male supremacy, and Claudia (Melora Walters), the coke-addled, bar-trolling daughter of a quiz-show host. Talk about bad first impressions! The whole burden of Magnolia is to show that even these monsters–highly plausible ones at that–may conceal human hearts.
Is this, too, a mere narrative ploy? Not when so many other characters get their chance to be better than expected. A generosity of spirit, which is comic in itself, runs through all of Magnolia–which is fortunate, with that rain of frogs on the way.
Yes, it’s time to talk about the frogs. Only the laziest movie-watcher could claim they’ve simply been dropped into the picture. All through Magnolia, to prepare you for the plague rain, you’re kept informed of the changing weather. The younger of the quiz kids, Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), even asks for meteorological instruments (and has been studying a book by Charles Fort, chronicler of unexplained downpours). Three times, amid normal precipitation, characters say, “It’s raining cats and dogs.” Three times you see signs that read “Exodus 8:2,” giving chapter and verse of the second of Egypt’s plagues.
Still, who could believe that Anderson would pull such a stunt? Playing on your expectations, he begins the episode with another feint: While having you follow the cop along a midnight street, Anderson lets you think you’ve heard gunshots. That’s what the cop thinks, too, having been fired upon earlier in the day. Now he slams on the brakes–and sees two frogs sliding down his windshield.
Suddenly, the rain of frogs becomes general. It translates the cop’s personal humiliation into widespread, public calamity–something out there, which calls for him to do what he likes best, helping others. To Claudia, by contrast, the frogs manifest themselves as the ultimate drug heebie-jeebie. (With classic slapstick timing, they fall only when she looks away.) At the home of the dying TV producer (Jason Robards), the frogs plop down comfortably in and around a spot-lit swimming pool; a sterile Southern California “oasis” suddenly teems with life. To the producer’s self-destructive wife (Julianne Moore), lying in the back of a careening ambulance, the frogs are disaster piled on catastrophe. To the quiz-show host (Philip Baker Hall) they’re a judgment from on high, prolonging a life he no longer wants. To young Stanley, smiling dreamily in the grammar school library amid their drifting shadows, the frogs seem the fulfillment of a promise.
In brief, there is no single rain of frogs; there are many. And that’s what makes this plague–or blessing–seem so miraculous: not the freakishness of the event but its democratic multiplicity. I could say much the same for the miracle of Magnolia‘s performances–each flamingly intense, yet all blended into an ensemble–or for the wonder of an actor-centered filmmaking that’s intricately imagistic. On every level, from its montage technique to the objects of its meditations, Magnolia tests to the limit the tendency of life to fall apart; and in pulling against that entropy, to gather (some of) its characters into a (mostly) happy ending, it offers a comic vision that almost does the work of tragedy.
From now on, under the legend “E Pluribus Unum,” let the dollar bear the sign of a frog.