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Magnolia: A Children’s Story by Paul Thomas Anderson

“But if you refuse to let them go, behold, I will plague all your country with frogs.” – Exodus 8:2

In the third movie of Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia, year 1999, there is the casting of a woman, Veronica Hart, as a dental assistant to child star Donnie Smith. Hart, actress, director, and all-round success, was cast by Anderson two years prior, as the custodial judge to Amber Waves. Identified as an actress in porn, the very topic of Boogie Nights, I would like to think this was only a matter of chance.

As written in 1998, there is the story of a several characters filled with childhood anguish and despair. Writer of the motion picture, Paul Thomas Anderson – well regarded as a promising filmmaker. His good friend Aimee Mann (husband of Michael Penn, who scored Anderson”s first film Sydney) was recording a new album, to which inspired the collaboration with Anderson for Magnolia. But most curious side note is the producer of Mann’s music, Jon Brion, not only composed the score for Magnolia, but was also producer of the albums of Fiona Apple – Anderson’s then girlfriend. And I am trying to think this was all only a matter of chance.

The tale first told at the 1999 premiere of Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson, writer and director of the picture, began with a three-segment prologue. To explain: the hanging of three men, the scuba diver ad the gambler, the suicide / homicide of Sydney Barringer. And it is in the humble opinion of this writer that this is not just “Something he wrote”, this cannot be “One of those films”, this, thankfully, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can’t. This was not just a matter of chance. Oh. These strange stories are told all the time.

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One is, indeed, the loneliest number. The ensemble of Magnolia may in some way cloud the perception that this motion picture is really about individuals. The heavy downpour of isolation drenches its audience, sure, a feeling that overpowers both us and the characters on the screen. Back and forth we go, characters from many walks of live in the San Fernando Valley interact, pass by each other without even noticing, cause friction, so and so and so on. But ultimately repel and take cover from the outside world, and the tensions and fears of conversing with others – whether in a similar boat or not.

Take Jim Kurring, a police officer, is seemingly swept to the edges, or hardly noticed at all. A figure of authority who is practically invisible. And quite blind of what is right in front of him in terms of his role as a server and protector. He’s kind of like a young boy with not many friends, or any at all, but a great big heart. His dating ad reflects a self-awareness of his solitude. He knows the law, sure, but not until he sees Claudia Wilson does he really, truly see something of focus. His flirting (inappropriate for the job, but meh), and new found positivity in his body language allows him to be the popular kid in school. And Paul Thomas Anderson lets his time in Claudia’s apartment linger.

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Then there’s Donnie Smith, once a quiz kid but now a bumbling man-child who wants teeth braces to impress his so-called crush. When taunted by a bully in the bar, made an easy target by his odd behavior (but still no excuse), Donnie sinks deeper into childlike ridicule. Mumbling his way through his declaration of “love” to Brad, all the while reminding the onlookers of the mistreatment from his own parents when he was an actual child on a successful game show. Earlier, Donnie is screamed at by his boss, Solomon, as if being sent to the principle’s office. For being pretty lousy at his job and constantly late, rather than, say, being disruptive in the classroom. And even then, he sulks and curses, throwing his toys out the pram, and later rebelling by breaking into his place of employment.

Linda Partridge is another character whose status is deployed as somewhat false, and characterized by her young age in comparison to the dying Earl Partridge. She is foul-mouthed and stroppy, kind of understandable as she has pain all around her. But her frustration emerges as guilt and pending grief. Losing Earl now becomes the center of her life. Her outburst when discovering Phil Parma has located Earl’s estranged son is one of panic, conveyed as rage, making the adult nurse blubber. Both have reason to cry, of course, and in the film’s unavoidable contact with Earl, they are reduced behaviorally to children losing a loved one.

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Even Frank TJ Mackey, the son in question, has conditioned himself to believe his misogynist seminars and guru status make him the most popular boy in school. Of course, he is lying to himself. In a line from the script that didn’t make it to the screen, Earl later tells Frank that he is not who he thinks he is. Stop lying son, your father knows who you really are, even through the pain of the past. The lying son is sussed out by cunning interviewer Gwenovier, the over-confident public speaker is reduced to a regretful silence. And why? Because she reveals the truth to his face about his parents. Frank is knocked down several pegs, an adult reminded he was, and is, someone’s child.

Then the actual children of Magnolia. The smart ones you could say. Dixon, a cocky little street kid, tells police officer Jim “I can help you solve the case. I can tell you who did it.”, but Jim is just too caught up in his own lack of trust of the outside world to even consider the boy might have the answers. “I’m the profit, the professor, I’m gonna teach you ’bout The Worm”, Dixon raps, offering Jim the chance to be the hero – “Now that shit will help you solve the case.”. Jim shrugs him off, unable to absorb the truth right before his eyes.

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Modern day quiz kid Stanley Spector is also tormented, not only by his over-bearing father, but his own status as a boy genius. Stanley is pushed into the spotlight, a place perhaps a child ought not to be able to handle. And the brutal reminder of his kid status emerges in several ways – including pissing his pants. His teammates, his age, appear to have grown up in a damn hurry, they talk and act like they are adults, bragging about their privileges or cursing like there is no tomorrow.

The title of the quiz show, What Do Kids Know?, reflects a whole array of deep-dark secrets, as well as an abundance of current and potential revelations. Host Jimmy Gator might be dying, but his own stumbled admission that he sexually abused his daughter Claudia comes to light at the end of the film. Claudia’s hatred of the man, wanting him nowhere near her, is finally given a backstory. It is Jimmy’s wife Rose who drags the awful truth from him, interrogating him like a mother pulling teeth from a cowardly child. And Dixon, his association with The Worm, what kids know can solve a crime, make the streets safer. God only knows what else.

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As Donnie’s tormentor declares “It’s a dangerous thing to confuse children with angels.”, the former quiz kid stands up for the statement. And perhaps rightly so, in one of Donnie’s rare stronger moments. Though he vomits moments later. The lack of respect and comfort of the children, even the grown-up ones, is a throttling motion in Magnolia. Hardly ever lets its grip loosen.

Paul Thomas Anderson wanted a very intimate movie (his own father had died of cancer not long before), putting an epic scope on the emotional impact between human beings. Forgiveness, secrets, lies, guilt, loneliness, coming apart at the seams. The movie is both seductive and overwhelming. Father figures, and young followers, family dysfunction, and traumas of the their past – a popular through-line in Anderson’s work.

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That’s not even tipping the iceberg of the Biblical references. Or more directly the studies of Charles Fort, and the showers of frogs (and many other animals). The sins of fathers in turn transferring to their children. And their children’s children. The revolving doors of generational torment and pain. Thankfully, although it does not change much of the past, Magnolia still manages to come through all the emotional rubble with a smile.

And so now then. There is the account of the quiz kids. And the troubled sons. Regretful fathers. These children’s stories of coincidence, and chance, and intersections, and sorrowful things told. And which is which and who only knows. And we generally say: Well if that was in a movie I wouldn’t believe it. Some child’s so and so meets someone else’s so and so and so on. And it is in the humble opinion of this writer that these childhood stories happen all the time. And so it goes and so it goes and the book says, “We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us.”. Amen to that.

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