“Magnolia’s most instructive revelation occurs obliquely and, quite literally, microscopically. The shot occurs during the climactic rain of frogs, as Claudia and her mother, panicked, cling to each other in Claudia’s apartment. The camera bends away from their embrace toward one of Claudia’s paintings, zooming in so that we can read the words “but it did happen” in the bottom right corner . . .”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) is not known for its restraint. Stocked with high-strung, spiraling-out-of-control characters who inhabit a narrative design that willfully verges on incoherence, the film dares viewers to identify a point at which its bravura becomes bankruptcy. Indeed, Mark Olsen, reviewing Magnolia for Sight and Sound, calls it “a magnificent train wreck of a movie, an intimate epic of full-throttle emotions that threatens to go off the rails at any moment during its three-hours-plus running time.”1 Mim Udovitch, writing for Rolling Stone, analogizes the film to John Lennon’s “primal-scream tour de force, ‘Mother’ [from Plastic Ono Band (1970)],” and remarks that Magnolia is “transparently, almost embarrassingly sincere.”2 As Mark Rance’s Magnolia Diary (2000) documents, during production Anderson himself joked about the project’s mushrooming scale. Standing behind the film’s quiz-show lectern and pretending to read questions off of cards, Anderson solicits guesses about how many takes he will shoot of the current scene (his prediction: twenty-five) and then asks, “What will the final running time of this motion picture be?” A chorus of voices throw out varying estimates of well over three hours; Anderson smiles and points at the person who sarcastically offers, “Eighty-eight minutes,” and retorts, “Very nice. Eighty-eight minutes for the prologue” (0:39). “[Originally] I wanted to make something that was very intimate and small-scale, and I thought that I would do it very, very quickly,” Anderson reflected on another occasion. “It kept blossoming.”3
I want to consider here, however, not Magnolia‘s hyperbolic flourishes but rather a deft and understated shot that provides a useful perspective on the film’s effusiveness. For despite its extravagances, Magnolia‘s most instructive revelation occurs obliquely and, quite literally, microscopically. The shot occurs during the climactic rain of frogs, as Claudia and her mother, panicked, cling to each other in Claudia’s apartment. The camera bends away from their embrace toward one of Claudia’s paintings, zooming in so that we can read the words “but it did happen” in the bottom right corner. The zoom is so extreme that it requires a magnifying lens to be placed in front of the camera — the upper edge of the additional lens is briefly visible as it comes up from the bottom of the frame before the focus shifts to employ the additional magnification. In effect, the camera lens is changed within the shot.
2:50:27: Claudia’s painting: the words “but it did happen” are in the lower right corner
2:50:28: The magnifying lens enters the frame
2:50:28: For a fraction of a second, the magnifying lens blocks most of the image
2:50:28: Focus shift to employ the additional magnification
2:50:29: Focus shift to employ the additional magnification
2:50:30: Claudia’s painting: “but it did happen” in focus
This arresting device puts special weight behind the painting’s claim that Jimmy molested Claudia. That is, though Magnolia‘s story never quite answers this question — Jimmy does not deny the charge, but ultimately all he can tell his wife Rose is, “I don’t know what I’ve done” (2:40) — I do not think we are meant to doubt Claudia. The cinematography here adjudicates the issue for the audience via pure authorial proclamation: it did happen. At the same time, delivering this information nondiegetically underscores that the question is not settled for the characters. The camerawork thus solidifies the basis of Claudia’s desperation: like each of the abused or neglected children in the film, Claudia urgently needs her painful story to be heard and believed, and yet Anderson suggests that it will never truly be comprehended by the other people in her world. This holds true for Magnolia‘s three other damaged children (Donnie, Frank, and Stanley) as well. By the film’s end, all of them articulate something of their suffering, and the wellsprings of their behavior are uncovered for viewers, but whether their experiences are genuinely understood by any other character remains at best ambiguous. Anxiety about the futility of personal revelation motivates Magnolia on a nearly scene-by-scene basis; by confirming Claudia’s story through this technique, Anderson reminds us that, on her own terms, she cannot meaningfully convey her experience any more than Donnie, Frank, or Stanley can communicate with Brad, Earl, or Rick.
Why must this be so? Curiously enough, Anderson blames cinema. As he explains in a 1999 interview by Chuck Stephens in which he alludes to his father’s death,
I’m a film geek; I was raised on movies. And there come these times in life where you just get to a spot when you feel like movies are betraying you. Where you’re right in the middle of true, painful life. Like, say, somebody could be sitting in a room somewhere, watching their father die of cancer, and all of a sudden it’s like, no this isn’t really happening, this is something I saw in Terms of Endearment. You’re at this moment where movies are betraying you, and you resent movies for maybe taking away from the painful truth of what’s happening to you.4
From Anderson’s point of view, not only does Hollywood cinema fail to supply a useful vocabulary for “true, painful life,” it furthermore hinders our ability to articulate our experiences, even to ourselves, because the Hollywood vocabulary usurps the place of some other, more functional language. Magnolia‘s shooting script evokes this dilemma by capitalizing many of its hackneyed phrases, such as the repeated remark that it is raining “Cats and Dogs” (59, 91), or Jim’s question to Claudia, “You Tryin’ To Damage Your Ears?” (77), or Earl’s concession that “I Live My Life. And I’m Not Fair” (149). The capitalization gestures at an obstruction between expression and meaning; the performers often capture this by adopting declamatory cadences to suggest that their words are tokens of the desire to say something rather than effortless, direct communication. Anderson introduces this concept into the film through the unnamed narrator, who expounds prior to the main title sequence that “This is not just ‘Something That Happened.’ This cannot be ‘One of those things . . . ‘ This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This Was Not Just A Matter Of Chance” (12). The ungrammatical fragment “And for what I would like to say, I can’t” is the structural equivalent of the clichés surrounding it — the language deteriorates because it cannot bear its intended meaning, and consequently also blocks that meaning. Thus Magnolia is not a Lennon-like primal scream, if by that we mean a return to a fundamental expressiveness; rather, it is a resounding howl of frustration at our inability to reach past the barrier of language.
I doubt that we can really blame Hollywood for this state of affairs. But regarding our understanding of Magnolia, it is sufficient to know that Anderson, who considers himself “raised on movies,” also considers himself betrayed by them. Certainly Magnolia‘s furious attack on the tropes of personal revelation — that it is possible, and moreover therapeutic or redemptive — challenges a longstanding tenet of Hollywood storytelling. Given this attitude, we might expect Anderson to write un- (or anti-) sentimental films in the manner of Robert Altman, whose influence on Anderson is indeed apparent. Yet ultimately Anderson’s films register an acute ambivalence about sentimentality; like Pedro Almodóvar, he is drawn to sentimentality even as he distrusts it. The magnifying-glass maneuver epitomizes this ambivalence: Anderson is a sufficiently orthodox storyteller that he wants to affirm that “it did happen” in order to resolve Claudia’s story for the audience, even as he also enforces Magnolia‘s narrative principle to deny Claudia that resolution. Unlike Almodóvar, however, Anderson does not explore ways to revitalize a once-useful vocabulary by closing the gap between “true, painful life” and the melodramatic conventions of Hollywood cinema — rather, he posits that the vocabulary cannot be revitalized, and also that there are no other available options. Cinema is his native tongue, and yet it prevents him from saying what he would like to say. That parental betrayal, too, cannot be repaired.
The implication is distressing: people cannot change their lives from within them, and what other choice is there? Joanne Clarke Dillman summarizes this predicament by contending that “Magnolia exposes how we perform our lives through the mediation of televisual and filmic images. The film does not envision any ‘real’ beyond this mediation.”5 But this last claim goes too far: the film does imagine an external reality, both explicitly and implicitly. The prologue’s mysterious television (which exhibits Frank’s commercial and selected fragments of both Stanley’s and Donnie’s appearances on “What Do Kids Know?”), the narrator’s voice, the force that stashes 82s throughout the mise-en-scène and that interjects the magnifying lens in front of the camera in Claudia’s apartment — all of these devices bespeak a “‘real’ beyond this mediation.” The Biblical allusion invites a theological interpretation, though according to Anderson his inspiration for the rain of frogs came from a book by Charles Fort, and only later did he tie it to Exodus (206-7). But whether we analyze this external reality in theological or philosophical terms, we should remember that Anderson’s idiom is aesthetic: just as the characters in Magnolia struggle to recognize the numerous signs that there may be another governing logic beyond their comprehension, so too Anderson employs an aesthetic he finds limiting precisely because its limits can be used to suggest the existence of another system. After all, if Magnolia acknowledged no “‘real’ beyond this mediation,” its assertion that “it did happen” would have little significance.
Magnolia‘s most sustained depiction of how the knowledge of an inexpressible reality might operate emerges out of the Mackey storyline, which (it seems to me not coincidentally) culminates with precisely the scenario Anderson describes as “somebody . . . sitting in a room somewhere, watching their father die of cancer.” As we should also expect, the Mackey storyline features repeated self-conscious demurrals acknowledging its clichéd sentimentality: “This is so boring,” Earl admits about his request that Phil locate Frank, “dying wish and all that” (0:22). But acknowledging a limit does not amount to overcoming it, and so this storyline hinges on what might circumvent its Hollywood mawkishness. The crucial moment arises as Phil struggles to persuade the telemarketer Chad to connect him to somebody who can connect him to Frank:
Chad: So, why don’t they have the same last name? I mean, ’cause they don’t have the same last name.
Phil: No, I know, and I can’t really explain that. But I think, I have a feeling there is something, you know, a situation between them like they don’t know each other much, or well, you know, something like they don’t talk much anymore, even. You know? God, does this, does this, does this sound weird?
Chad: I – I – I just, I just don’t understand why you’re calling me.
Phil: Well, there’s no number for Frank in any of Earl’s stuff, you know, and he’s pretty out of it. I mean, like I said, he’s dying. Dying of cancer. So –
Chad: What kind of cancer?
Phil: It’s brain and lung.
Chad: My mother had breast cancer.
Phil: Oh, I’m sorry. Is – is she all right?
Chad: She’s fine now.
Phil: That’s good.
Chad: Yeah, it was scary though.
Phil: It’s a hell of a disease.
Chad: Oh, it sure is.
Chad: So . . . uh, wait, I’m sorry, so why call me?
Phil: I know this sounds silly, and I know that I might sound ridiculous, like this is the scene of the movie where the guy is trying to get ahold of the long-lost son, you know, but this is that scene. This is that scene. And I think they have those scenes in movies because they’re true. You know, because they really happen. And you gotta believe me: this is really happening. I mean, I can give you my number and you can go check with whoever you gotta check with, and call me back, but do not leave me hanging on this, all right? Please — I’m just — please. See, see this is the scene of the movie where you help me out. (1:13-1:15)
Phil’s halting effort to commiserate with Chad about his mother’s illness proves to be a blind alley: rather than goading Chad to help him pierce through the layers of insulation between Earl and Frank, the conversation peters out and Chad again asks Phil why he is calling. Alongside the pathos of the situation, Anderson draws a dark humor from the banality of Phil’s failure to persuade. In point of fact, Anderson does not characterize Chad as heartless; rather, the shooting script capitalizes Phil’s line — Earl is “Dying of Cancer . . . . Brain and Lung” (93) — to suggest that Chad has reason to be unmoved. In contrast, Phil’s second (and successful6) attempt maintains that the insufficiency of the cinematic vocabulary is itself the problem; Chad should be convinced by Phil’s first argument, but he is not because he has seen too many movies. Otherwise, a statement like “This is really happening” would be self-evident (this is always really happening); what Phil means is that this can be both mediated and real. Phil’s rhetorical limitation, in other words, becomes his strongest evidence.
The cinematography advances this position by diverging from the camera instructions provided in the shooting script. As written, the exchange leading to Phil’s final speech crosscuts between Phil and Chad, then for Phil’s speech cuts to a slow-motion (30 fps) shot of Earl, pushing in on him breathing irregularly in bed while Phil speaks in voiceover (94). The finished film, however, discards the scripted crosscutting, and instead begins with the shot of Earl and then cuts to Phil (reducing Chad to a voice on the phone), slowly pushing in so that Phil delivers his speech in a closeup. These two linked shots now function as one concentrated zoom-in, beginning with a long shot of Earl, pushing in on Earl, then cutting to a roughly equidistant shot of Phil and pushing in to a closeup.
1:13:49: Earl in his sickbed (long shot)
1:14:12: Earl in his sickbed (medium shot)
1:14:13: Phil implores Chad (medium shot)
1:14:58: Phil implores Chad (closeup)
The shooting script supplies the extremity of Earl’s circumstance as the rationale for (and essentially the source of) Phil’s speech. Instead, the finished film emphasizes Phil’s argument about Earl’s situation in order to expose the shortcomings of its underlying principle of negotiation. By keeping Earl offscreen for Phil’s conclusive plea — that “this is the scene in the movie where you help me out” — Anderson displaces what is happening to Earl and refocuses the scene onto the limitations of what Phil’s story about what is happening can accomplish.
This tactic is another version of the magnifying lens: the work of shifting our focus demands that we register the self-reinforcing distance between “what really happen[s]” and our language for it. Again, recognizing the adverse consequences of our vocabulary for our experience does not necessarily lead to the creation of any alternative; it merely demands that we ought not mistake our stories for our selves. Fittingly, Anderson’s most direct statement of this idea is itself absent from the final film. In the shooting script, Earl and Frank share more than a gaze. Earl musters the strength to speak; all background sound drops out except for their breathing. “You are not what you think you are,” Earl says to his son (185). Anderson imbues Magnolia‘s consideration of pain and grief with such strangeness so that we too might apprehend that, for all we can say and think about ourselves, the price of such eloquence is an unbridgeable, inexpressible selfhood.
- Olsen, Mark. “Singing in the Rain.” Sight and Sound: March 2000. 26. [↩]
- Udovitch, Mim. “The Epic Obsessions of Paul Thomas Anderson.” Rolling Stone 833: February 3, 2000. 48, 49. [↩]
- Waxman, Sharon. Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. 194. [↩]
- Anderson, Paul Thomas. “Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson.” Magnolia: The Shooting Script.New York: Newmarket Press, 2000. 205. The Newmarket Press shooting script for Charlie Kaufman’s Human Nature (2002) contains a mordant question-by-question satire of Anderson’s interview. Touching on the themes of his film, Kaufman reveals: “these are very dark and despairing issues. Without going into too much personal detail, I was immersed the last few years in lots of sadness, some of it involving an actual feral person. And there’s nothing funny about it. I wasn’t going to mock it or diminish it by playing it for laughs. Sorry, but the audience is going to have to accept that. Or not. It’s complicated.” Later, he defends the film’s framing device: “I’m saying, look at these stories. They’re all weird and bizarre and maybe true or maybe not, but, hey, if you give me four hours, I will give you a story just as weird and wonderful and amazing as these stories, because this stuff does happen in the world. Y’know?” [↩]
- Dillman, Joanne Clarke. “Twelve Characters in Search of a Televisual Text: Magnolia Masquerading as a Soap Opera.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 33.3 (2005). 150. [↩]
- Note that once again the film nevertheless refrains from depicting a moment of connection: we do not hear Chad agree. The scene ends with Phil’s speech, and when we next return to the storyline, Chad transfers Phil to Frank’s assistant Janet — but it is not absolutely clear that Phil accomplishes this through creating solidarity with Chad. [↩]