What Can We Forgive?

Magnolia (1999)

New Line Cinema
At 3 hours and 9 minutes, there are, admittedly, much longer films than Paul Thomas Anderson’s MagnoliaSátántangó (7 hrs. 30 min.), Fanny and Alexander (5 hrs. 12 min.), Nymphomaniac (4 hrs. 1 min.), and Gone with the Wind (3 hrs. 58 min.) to name but a few—but Magnolia has always represented the “long movie” for me, even moreso than its lengthier brethren, in part because it has all the flaws we normally associate with long movies. It’s bloated, messy, grandiose, ostentatious, overambitious, and overwhelming—or, in the words of its auteur in the behind-the-scenes documentary featurette on the DVD: “it’s too fucking long…it’s all just too fucking ‘too.’” Yet somehow this movie that’s “too fucking ‘too’” also happens to be my favorite film.

And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just “something that happened.” This cannot be “one of those things.”

Magnolia follows the lives of a plethora of intersecting characters on a single day in the San Fernando Valley on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Frank T.J. Mackey is a hucksterish, motivational pick-up artist with a vile but catchy mantra (“Respect the cock and tame the cunt”) and a hatred for the father that abandoned him as a boy, leaving him to take care of his dying mother. That father, Earl Partridge, is now on his deathbed, eaten away by cancer, and being attended to by his nurse, Phil Parma. Earl’s second wife, the much younger Linda, originally married him for his money and cheated on him often, but has since fallen in love with him and is now overcome with guilt as he withers away. Earl is the producer of a long-running quiz show (What Do Kids Know?) where a team of kids and a team of adults challenge one another in a game of trivia. The current wunderkind on the children’s dais is Stanley Spector, who seems to know everything, except perhaps  how to make his father treat him better. The show’s host, Jimmy Gator, like Earl Partridge, is dying of cancer, and he’s been trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Claudia, who has accused him of molesting her. Claudia has since entered into a seemingly endless spiral of drug addiction and meaningless sex, but has a bizzaro meet-cute on this particular day with an insecure, hapless cop named Jim Kurring, when he is called to her apartment for a noise complaint. Throughout the day Jim finds a dead body, loses his gun, and helps Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, who had a long run as a child genius on What Do Kids Know? years prior, but who has since run into a streak of bad luck, including having his money stolen by his parents, getting struck by lightning, and crashing into a 7-11 storefront.

If that plot sounds convoluted, you don’t even know the half of it. There’s a whole narrative thread about the dead body and the lost gun that dissolves mid-film and remains somewhat of a mystery (except to the fanboys and completists who have read the published shooting script, which includes the original trajectory of that storyline). But there are also rapping kids, overdosed dogs, pharmacy breakdowns, press confrontations, and inconvenient urinations that I have brushed past in my brief plot synopsis. Not to mention, there are frogs—a whole lot of them—and they rain down from the sky.

But the first things we see and hear when the lights go dark, the curtain goes up, and the film starts to roll are three brief tales narrated in voiceover, unrelated to these characters and their tangled plot, except in the ways that they clue us into the film’s thematic framework and visual language. These are “stories of coincidence and chance and intersections and strange things told and which is which and who only knows?” The three stories in this prologue condition the viewer to accept that “strange things happen all the time.” They set up a movie about odd coincidences, intersecting lives, and inexplicable phenomena. They also touch on certain motifs which continually crop up throughout the rest of the film: the weight of guilt, the cycle of violence, the damage inflicted on children by parents, the prevalence of the numbers eight and two, etc. One prologue story even foreshadows, with the vaguest of hints, the infamous, amphibious deus ex machina at the climax, with a “frogman” of sorts—a scuba diver—being dropped from the sky.

Of course, the frogs that rain down on Southern California two hours and 45 minutes later come as a shock to almost every first-time viewer. We look on, like nurse Phil, with contorted faces, whispering, “How are there frogs falling from the sky?” One of cinema’s most discussed dei ex machina, Magnolia’s frog rain is actually a clever sleight of hand on the director’s part, for though it looks like a deus ex machina on the surface, it doesn’t actually act in the conventional ways a deus ex machina should.

A deus ex machina is a plot device whereby, at a moment when the drama of a particular work of narrative art has seemingly entered into an unsolvable situation, something is introduced that offers a contrived solution. Usually it’s a surprise to the audience, one that comes out of nowhere and suddenly resolves everything in a way that seems unrealistic, and is often unsatisfying. It originated as a way to describe the introduction of a god at the end of a work of ancient Greek or Roman drama, who would then solve all the problems the characters found themselves in, conveniently tying up all the loose ends before the final exeunt. For more modern filmic examples, think of the Tyrannosaurus Rex appearing out of nowhere and saving the protagonists of Jurassic Park from a pack of velociraptors; think of the bacteria in The War of the Worlds that suddenly and unexpectedly incapacitates the Martians; think of King Richard showing up in the last minutes of Disney’s animated Robin Hood to return order and justice to England.

Like these examples, the frog rain certainly comes out of nowhere, although retroactively we can find hints that foreshadow it throughout the film (the weather title cards, Stanley Spector’s interest in the TV station’s meteorological services and in the library books about strange phenomena, the Bible verse “Exodus 8:2” appearing constantly in the background, etc.). The frog rain is also unrealistic (even if there are a few reported cases of such plagues in history), and has left many moviegoers unsatisfied. But importantly—for this is what sets it apart from these other examples—Magnolia’s frog rain doesn’t resolve anything, though on the surface it might seem to.

Sure, a frog knocks the gun from Jimmy Gator’s hand, which inadvertently, at least for the time being, saves him from suicide. Yes, a frog does cause Quiz Kid Donnie Smith to smash his face into the pavement so that he really will need the oral reconstructive surgery he’s wanted throughout the film. And I guess the terrifying chaos of the falling frogs might make Claudia Gator more receptive to the visit from her mother. But what all the characters need—and what the frogs, of course, cannot give—is human care, human love, human forgiveness.

As with all things in life, we cannot know if these falling frogs act as some divine intervention, whether plague or salvation. Anderson, for his part, has said that the impetus for the idea was actually not the Bible but the writings of Charles Fort, a researcher who specialized in collecting and documenting anomalous phenomena. Fort gets two subtle nods in Magnolia—the first, when Stanley Spector has Fort’s Wild Talents in the pile of books laid out in front of him at the library; the second, in the closing credits, where Anderson gives Fort a special thanks. So whether this fantastical rain is of divine origin seems almost trivial to the director. It’s just “something that happens,” something we can never quite understand.

These strange things happen all the time.

Anderson is at heart a humanist, so for him our forgiveness does not come from divine intervention—that can only come from a human source, from ourselves and from one another. We’ve all heard the phrase “to err is human, to forgive is divine,” but in the thematic register of Magnolia, to err and to forgive are equal parts of the human endeavor. Frogs won’t save us, and neither will God—it is on us. We need to do our job—the job of being human—and the toughest part of that job, as Jim Kurring tells us toward the end of the film, is wrestling with the question: “What can we forgive?”

This is why the film is now more relevant than ever. In our current cultural climate of hyperpolarization and unceasing outrage, of cancelling people and policing speech, that central human question—“What can we forgive?”—becomes all the more crucial to debate in our heads, amongst our families and friends, and in society at large. Does Quiz Kid Donnie Smith deserve forgiveness? How about Earl Partridge? Frank T.J. Mackey? Jimmy Gator? As with all great films, Magnolia gives us no direct answer. It doesn’t necessarily advocate a blanket forgiveness; it merely asks us to engage more deeply with the question.

Of course, you might reasonably ask, does a film need an over-three-hour-runtime just to pose the question, “What can we forgive?” But Magnolia does need its length; the bloated runtime helps the movie enact stylistically and formally its own thematic inquisition. In other words, the film asks us as viewers, “What can we forgive?”—not just of ourselves and of each other, but of a film.

There are a few moments in Magnolia where the movie seems to become self-aware, with characters talking about the machinations of the plot as though they’re scenes from a movie. Phil, the nurse, at one point says to someone he’s talking to on the phone, “I know this sounds silly, and I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene of the movie where the guy tries to get a hold of the long-lost son, but this is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true, because they really happen….See this is the scene of the movie where you help me out…”

In the film’s epilogue, the narrator reminds us what happens when strange things crop up in our real lives: “we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.’” And that’s exactly right. Normally we wouldn’t believe such coincidences; we’d call it bad writing. Normally we wouldn’t stand for a climax this surreal and seemingly contrived; we’d call it lazy. Normally we’d deride a film for its loose threads, its melodramatic scenery-chewing, its operatic pomposity, its po-mo meta self-referentiality, so why give Magnolia a pass for techniques critics and audiences generally pooh-pooh when found in other films?

The truth is that I didn’t fall in love with Magnolia in spite of its flaws, nor unaware of them, but because of them. The film’s overstuffedness is baked into its thematic structure. It is as messy, flawed, and in need of forgiveness as its human characters. It asks us to perform the act that the film holds as one of the ultimate human actions. But forgiveness, like the sky’s frog-giveness, doesn’t solve everything. The past still haunts. Forgiving is not forgetting. We still have to “play it as it lays.”

And the book says we may through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.

Frank T.J. Mackey may think that “swimming in what was” is a detriment to moving forward, but the film suggests otherwise. Forgiveness can only come via swimming in what was, coming to terms with how the past determined what is, and mining it for the raw materials of what can be. This comes to the fore in a particularly odd moment in the film (the only explicitly surreal moment before the frog rain) when Anderson has all of his main characters sing simultaneously the Aimee Mann song “Wise Up.” But need this sing-along be taken as surreal? Sure, some might see it as an unlikely kumbaya, a ridiculous film-school flourish, but in the world of the movie, where “strange things happen all the time,” isn’t it plausible, or at least possible, that these people could in some odd coincidence all sing the same song at the same time? The real question to ponder is not whether this is “possible” or “realistic,” but whether these characters all recognize in this moment the revelation in Mann’s lyrics? “‘Cause it’s not going to stop,” they sing in unison, “‘til you wise up.”

The film’s edict, it seems, is to “wise up,” and to do so by using one’s flaws, one’s mistakes, one’s regrets, one’s wounds, toward something better. “You regret what you fucking want,” Earl Partridge moans from his bed. “Use that. Use that. Use that regret for anything, any way you want.”

Magnolia doesn’t do as Anderson, on the DVD featurette, jokingly yells at it to do: “Hide in the closet with all your length and your frogs!” Instead, it uses these things, these supposed “flaws,” to get at what it wants, for the truth is that Magnolia is only “flawed” in the sense that its conventions are unconventional. These unconventional devices are not flaws; they are merely things that happen in art—sometimes artists put them to good use, more often they do not. Generally narratives dictated by chance are poorly written, their dei ex machina are simplistic solutions, and their strange coincidences neglect potentially more meaningful character arcs. But here Anderson uses them in an attempt to make a movie that more adequately mirrors the chaos of life. If in art (artifice), every action is meaningful, the opposite is true in life. Every action might have a reaction, might connect to infinite other actions in the web of universal happenings, but real world actions don’t have “meanings” meant to convey “themes.” Life is not an Aesop’s fable. The frog’s lesson, if indeed he has one, is rarely as simple as “look before you leap.”

As Jim Kurring says that most important of lines at the end of the film (“What can we forgive?”), he’s talking specifically about being a policeman, and the hard choices cops have to make, the judgments they have to proffer, but notice that he couches it in a more universal description. He says it’s the “tough part of the job, tough part of walking down the street.” Figuring out what we can forgive and how we should love is the tough part of the job of being human; it is the tough part of walking down the street, and inevitably interacting with others who have their own fears and desires, idiosyncrasies and regrets, wounds and dreams, histories and ideologies, inner turmoils and innate abilities, uncrossable lines and inarticulable mysteries.

We all are Quiz Kid Donnie Smiths. We all have “so much love to give.” It’s just we often don’t quite “know where to put it.” One place I’ve found to put my love is in this film—a film which uses its length and its frogs, its flaws and its flourishes, as a mirror. In it we see ourselves and each other. In it we see humanity in full spectrum and in full bloom—a magnolia, that most ancient of flowering trees, which has for centuries symbolized dignity, nobility, purity. For there’s a dignity, nobility, and purity in being messily human—it’s in our flaws, our flourishes, and, especially, in our wrestling with them.