08 January 2007


'And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs.'
Exodus 8:2

Another DVD that I bought Mat for Christmas is Magnolia, as I thought it would complement Short Cuts nicely. The former is of course P.T. Anderson's tribute to Altman's film and both are indeed similar on many counts. Both portray interlacing lives of many people, no one main protagonist who takes the centre stage. Both touch upon the issues of coincidences and chance.

On second viewing, I found Magnolia much sadder than Short Cuts, and the editing in the first half before Aimee Mann's signature song 'Wise Up' makes the whole thing pretty tense. I got the feeling that time is running out and we are all rushed somewhere, both the characters and us viewers. This probably has something to do with one of the main themes of the film, i.e. that we hold on to life and get carried away -- in fact, so carried away that we sometimes don't know who we are, what we do, and why we do it. This is pretty sad, yet the film offers a rather optimistic twist, with that boy Stanley refusing to play with the game (in contrast, Donnie Smith, another wise kid, didn't refuse and he grows up to be a loser). Stanley's refusal comes as a relief to me as it gives a message that we can still choose to stop and to learn to let go.

Well, that's Stanley, but there are other characters who cannot choose to let go as it's too late. Think about two characters dying of cancer, Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge. Their time is running out and they only have regrets and ask for nothing but forgiveness. This time the people who need to learn to let go are those on the other side, mainly those who have been wronged, such as Jimmy Gator's molested daughter (Claudia Wilson Gator) and Earl Partridge's forsaken son (Frank T.J. Mackey). However, this business of forgiveness and reconciliation is not easy, as one of the much-repeated sentences in the film: 'we are through with past, but the past ain't through with us'.

One thing is clear though: the cop is a good one (unlike that lousy cop in Short Cuts). He's the one who goes out preaching to other people and becomes the voice of the good. The scene of his bedroom with a cross on the wall is pretty revealing. Maybe the director thinks that in the modern world where people lose love, life is too demanding, and families are broken, religion may provide a solution. Unlike Short Cuts, which doesn't give any exit but a suggestion that c'est la vie so be it, Magnolia suggests that we can escape from this malaise by learning to love each other again, by saying what we think, and by learning to forgive. Also, what is important is not to commit the same mistakes again, as one thing leads to another.

However, cause and effect is also a problem in the film. Weird things do happen sometimes. Chance and coincidences, I mean. And this is why in the middle of the film there happens to be some mysterious event that affects everyone. Like the earthquake in Short Cuts, this rain of frogs can perhaps be construed as an act of 'something or someone out there' that is much more powerful than men, as suggested by the Biblical quote above.

Anyway, dense as the whole film is and powerful as these stories are, I reckon it is a tour de force and a worthy tribute to Altman's Short Cuts. I especially love the ending when we are able to see Claudia's smile for the first time. Maybe there's a way out of this urban malaise.

PS. Whilst watching the film, I was deeply moved by Mann's 'Wise Up'. I feel like there's no stopping for me now that I've started working and having a professional life which demands quite a lot out of me. I couldn't help but look back to those days when I was still a student and definitely was able to enjoy life from a less responsible position. Quite sad, eh ...

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