This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Michael’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
"And we generally say, 'Well, if that was in a movie I wouldn't believe it.'"
Magnolia is not a small film. It is not a quiet film, not a subtle film. It is teeming with life, each plate, of which there are possibly hundreds, constantly spinning on its own and threatening to topple the others. Magnolia is a film which is rough around the edges, which feels like it may tear at the seams at any moment. Narration, montages, quick zooms, one-take scenes - P. T. Anderson has a whole slew of cinematic tricks stuffed into this three-hour powerhouse. Yet among everything calling attention to itself, there's one petal of this Magnolia that I'd like to really discuss, a petal which may be smaller than the others, a bit withered, but contains, as far as I'm concerned, everything that makes this film succeed where it could have been nothing more than a self-indulgent exercise in futility.
"But it did happen." Four words, matter of fact, containing almost no significance. When I first watched this movie, that scene was the one that struck me as weirdest. And whenever I want to get a further understanding of a film, I always start with the weirdest scene. (I mean, I guess in a movie with spontaneous musical numbers and raining frogs, "weirdest" isn't the exact right word, but "most surprising directorial choice" is a bit clunky.)
It occurs when Rose and her daughter Claudia cling to each other in the midst of the frog storm. The camera pans over to a picture on the wall and magnifies into a word-clipping so small that it would have otherwise been missed. It reads, "But it did happen." This works on two levels.
On a plot level, it works as a Word of God type thing. Whether or not Jimmy Gator really molested Claudia is left somewhat ambiguous (though every character knows the truth), but here P. T. Anderson comes down from his metaphorical heaven and divulges his divine truth. It happened. Incorporating yourself as the word of God is a ballsy move for any filmmaker, and it rarely works out - often coming across as spoon-feeding the audience or being overly self-important. But somehow, perhaps due to the lack of embellishment in the matter, it works here: this 29-year-old filmmaker is able to use it with such finesse and confidence that it not only works, it's one of the most memorable aspects of his film. Damn.
But there's more than that. In true PTA fashion, we're never done once we establish the surface layer. Hell, I'd bet that there's more meaning to this one, 5 second shot than even I'm attributing to it, that I'm missing out on something completely. There's an aspect of Magnolia that feels real. It's a film which is constantly reminding its audience that it's nothing more than a film: whether with the fourth-wall biblical foreshadowing of the frog shower, tongue-in-cheek narration, musical numbers, or attention-drawing shots, one could never mistake Magnolia for reality. However, by the end, the audience has become so drawn up into its world that it feels real. Frank T. J. Mackey kneeling in front of his dying father, crying and clutching and cursing him; the mother and estranged daughter seeking solitude in each other; the emotionally stunted ex-quiz kid on a misguided quest for love; the future Donnie Smith in making who seeks nothing more than his own agency. I've said in the past that Magnolia is one of the most truly emotional films I've ever seen: the feelings which it generates within me are not artificial, they are truly genuine. After being stuck in the rain and the frogs for three hours, we come out the other end transformed, with Claudia's fourth-wall-breaking smile promising that we should not just give up, that one day it will stop.
And so we get to the narrator cheekily telling us that if any of this were in a movie, he wouldn't believe it. Again, drawing attention to the illusory aspect of the film. But that contradicts what PTA so brilliantly told us in that one shot. This happened. And, in a way, both are true: these things happen. From the opening coincidences to the rain of frogs, these events have occurred and are occurring and will occur. It happens. Film, as a medium, often distances us from the subject: there is a literal and figurative screen between us. That is not the case for Magnolia. It constantly reminds us that, yes, what we are seeing is a dramatization, but these things do happen. For all its theatrical flourishes, Magnolia is truth.
And with Claudia's smile, we know. That the storm will pass, the sky will lighten, that whether it's through divine intervention or simply someone willing to give you a chance, something can, and something will, save you.