A Film in a Minor Key

Magnolia (1999)

illustration by Justin Reed
In the Bangkok Post, May 26th, year 1967, there is an account of a concert pianist, a piano, and the pianist’s wife: the humidity of the climate produced a swelling of the felt pads within the piano, causing several of the keys to stick. The wood slowly expanded, warping the strings and changing their pitch and timbre, and what had begun as a performance of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” finished as “Fantasia and Fugue in G-major,” much to the annoyance of the American pianist, Myron Kropp, who departed the stage in an unexpectedly collected manner. Kropp returned shortly thereafter to destroy the piano in front of the shocked audience using an axe that had been hung backstage in case of fire. Several ushers, the house manager, two stagehands, and a passing police officer eventually succeeded in disarming Kropp and dragging him off stage, but not before he had pulverized the temperamental piano. The Baldwin Concert Grand, generally regarded as a fine instrument, has been noted to be particularly sensitive to its environment, and while many blame the humidity for the instrument’s strange behaviour, others point to the attitude of Kropp himself, who – that very evening before the performance – had murdered his wife with a handgun upon discovering an infidelity. The aforementioned police officer stumbled upon the body of Kropp’s wife and her lover – a man named Gregory Sanford Baldwin – upon returning the pianist to his hotel room to calm down. While the exact cause of this acutely bizarre series of events may never be known, the inextricably interconnected nature of the players in this drama – be they human-to-human, human-to-instrument, or instrument-to-climate – bears mentioning. Relationships, in all their forms, are powerful things.

The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia (which Anderson insisted on personally directing) sells the film–and its multitude of relationships–thusly:

There is the story of a boy genius; and the game show host; and the ex-boy genius. There is the story of the dying man; his lost son; and the dying man’s wife; the caretaker. And there is a story of a mother; and the daughter; and the police officer in love. And this will all make sense in the end.

Paul F. Tompkins (who plays Chad, the “Seduce and Destroy” operator) has remarked that the film has a phone book sized script, and the plot of the movie is that “everyone in the phone book starts talking to each other.” With a cast that features Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, and William H. Macy—among dozens of others, all of whom have a distinct storyline which criss-crosses nearly every other character’s—it’s an apt description. Each character is introduced in a self-contained manner; this is a parent, this is a child, this is a genius, this is a misogynist, this is a drug addict. When you first meet these characters, they are striking in their completeness. Cruise’s Frank ‘T.J.’ Mackey is a force of nature as undeniable as a thunderstorm as he leads his “dating” seminar to a packed room of grunting dudes. Walters’ Claudia Wilson-Gator is hopelessly broken, bringing random men to bed in her drug-filled, bed-sheets-for-curtains apartment. Hall’s Jimmy Gator is a charming, beloved tv host. Robards’ Earl Partridge is a cranky old man. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is a nice guy. You can pick them out as easily as notes on a scale. This is a C, this is an F, this is a B-flat.

I took piano lessons for six years, and my favourite pieces to play were always in a minor key. These songs could be haunting, or threatening, or melancholic, and they could contain moments both soft and dark, all depending on the relationships between the notes – a single semi-tone one way or the other could transform a phrase entirely, taking it from joyous and celebratory to mysterious and contemplative. At the height of my ability, before I lost interest in the classical standards that were being provided, I once transposed The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from major to minor (you can hear a similar exercise here). A simple change in the relationships of the notes gave the song a new emotional resonance; what was once a song about helping a sad child come into the sunlight became the tale of a kid on whom it never stops raining. Every lyric became bitterly ironic, the final chant becoming a jeering taunt. The song still felt valid, neither better or worse.

There are a lot of people who are stuck in the rain. There’s a regretful, absentee husband who lies dying of the disease that killed his wife; there’s a boy genius who was betrayed by his parents; there’s a father who wants to confess all of his sins, but not that, please no, I won’t speak of that. There’s the story of a man who pressure moulds a lifetime of grief into a domineering need for control; of a daughter whose self-medication speaks to her stripped ability to trust; of the nicest person you’d ever want to meet who has the saddest job in the world. And these things happen all the time.

And then frogs fall from the sky. And the piano re-tunes itself. And these are also things that happen. Because we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. What we’ve done and what’s been done to us informs our present moments almost entirely; an old man wakes up and sees his estranged son before he dies, allowing the son to confront a lack of control he’s been avoiding for years; a police officer realizes that helping people is more than just his job; a man who has a deeply buried secret is denied the chance to take his own life with his crimes unspoken; and an exploited child regards the chaotic storm with serene calm, perhaps knowing that while some things in life just happen, many more things are distinctly in his control.

How do we take part in a world in which things “just happen?” Comedian Tig Notaro, a regular at the Los Angeles nightclub Largo—also frequented by Paul Thomas Anderson— recently endured a string of things which “just happened” (chronicled on her album, Live). She contracted pneumonia, followed by a life-threatening intestinal infection called “C. diff.” A few days after she was released from the hospital, her mother died unexpectedly. She broke up with her girlfriend, and was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts which required a double mastectomy. This lifetime’s worth of tragedy took place over just four months, which caused Notaro to remark that it was difficult to hold a conversation without sounding like a “total drama queen.” She concludes by saying that she still can’t quite make sense of it all, but she’s hopeful, joking about a dementedly self-assured God who is sure she can take a few more hits. In one of Magnolia’s most striking sequences, the characters – each lonely, broken, confused and at their lowest—sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” They’re dying, and betrayed, and so uncertain of what lies ahead that the repeated line “it’s not going to stop” feels like it’s referring to their respective misfortunes.

The song’s final line (“so just…give up”) feels like a particularly crushing blow, but giving up isn’t always a defeat. Giving up, giving in, giving over to the flow of events that life sends your way can be freeing. The joke is that it’s all a joke; life is painfully funny. And life goes on; things keep happening, some planned, others not so. You lose your parents, and you have a child that you love more than anything. You hurt people that you love, and maybe they forgive you. You work in a job that strains you more than anything because it helps people. You can feel the weight of every bad decision you’ve ever made, but you use the regret to make things better. Life isn’t going to stop raining frogs on us, so just…give up. Give in. Give over. And if the past isn’t through with us, then we need to use the present to do good. (It’ll be the past soon enough.)

The account of the pianist Myron Kropp is actually an urban legend, though the murder of the pianist’s wife was my own addition. Similarly, the stories of the murdered pharmacist, the dead scuba diver in the tree, and the suicidal teenager noted as an accomplice in his own murder which are featured in Magnolia’s opening are also urban legends (with various details added by Anderson). When I think about Magnolia, I first think about the cosmic improbability of the relationships featured therein, and a quick story about an equally improbable set of relationships helped me approach and unlock this film that I’ve been returning to for over a decade now. Perhaps I can’t say why Magnolia made such an impact on my filmic landscape. Maybe it was coincidence, or chance; maybe it “just happened” that I first saw it in a darkened dorm room at the rare invitation of a group of older students, but watching the stories of these characters made me feel like I was leaving one part of my life behind and entering into a new phase. It felt like so much more than coincidence.

In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson saw his father die of cancer, a condition which sadly seems to “just happen.” The loss of a parent is a downpour of frogs, and can’t help but be a defining moment in a person’s life. Graduating from high school and moving away from home might only require watching a movie to help make sense of it, but for something on the scale of the loss of a parent, sometimes an intense philosophical reimagining is required. Sometimes we tell stories to help understand moments like these. Magnolia’s trailer promises that this will all make sense in the end, but the trailer itself ends with Frank Mackey, sitting in his interview chair, asking “was that unclear?”

“Kind of,” replies Gwenovier, the interviewer.

“Oh, god,” says Frank, twisting his mouth in mock apology. This is Anderson winking at us—his film is going to be complicated, and it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be in a minor key. And this is true not just of his film, but also of the experience of life itself. And if you’ve ever seen the video of the director horsing around behind the scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman, being an absolute goofball while filming a scene directly inspired by one of the most tragic events of his life, you know that he gets the big joke: it all makes sense in the end, even if it makes no sense at all.