Free essay from our new issue: Andrew Root on Magnolia
(artwork by Justin Reed)
A Film in a Minor Key: Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia
by Andrew Root
In the Bangkok Post, May 26th, year 1967, there is an account of a concert pianist, a piano, and the pianist’s wife: the humidity of the climate produced a swelling of the felt pads within the piano, causing several of the keys to stick. The wood slowly expanded, warping the strings and changing their pitch and timbre, and what had begun as a performance of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D-minor” finished as “Fantasia and Fugue in G-major,” much to the annoyance of the American pianist, Myron Kropp, who departed the stage in an unexpectedly collected manner. Kropp returned shortly thereafter to destroy the piano in front of the shocked audience using an axe that had been hung backstage in case of fire. Several ushers, the house manager, two stagehands, and a passing police officer eventually succeeded in disarming Kropp and dragging him off stage, but not before he had pulverized the temperamental piano. The Baldwin Concert Grand, generally regarded as a fine instrument, has been noted to be particularly sensitive to its environment, and while many blame the humidity for the instrument’s strange behaviour, others point to the attitude of Kropp himself, who – that very evening before the performance – had murdered his wife with a handgun upon discovering an infidelity. The aforementioned police officer stumbled upon the body of Kropp’s wife and her lover – a man named Gregory Sanford Baldwin – upon returning the pianist to his hotel room to calm down. While the exact cause of this acutely bizarre series of events may never be known, the inextricably interconnected nature of the players in this drama – be they human-to human, human-to-instrument, or instrument-to-climate – bears mentioning. Relationships, in all their forms, are powerful things.
The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film Magnolia (which Anderson insisted on personally directing) sells the film–and its multitude of relationships–thusly:
There is the story of a boy genius; and the game show host; and the ex-boy genius. There is the story of the dying man; his lost son; and the dying man’s wife; the caretaker. And there is a story of a mother; and the daughter; and the police officer in love. And this will all make sense in the end.
Paul F. Tompkins (who plays Chad, the “Seduce and Destroy” operator) has remarked that the film has a phone book sized script, and the plot of the movie is that “everyone in the phone book starts talking to each other.” With a cast that features Tom Cruise, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards, Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, and William H. Macy—among dozens of others, all of whom have a distinct storyline which criss-crosses nearly every other character’s—it’s an apt description. Each character is introduced in a self-contained manner; this is a parent, this is a child, this is a genius, this is a misogynist, this is a drug addict. When you first meet these characters, they are striking in their completeness. Cruise’s Frank ‘T.J.’ Mackey is a force of nature as undeniable as a thunderstorm as he leads his “dating” seminar to a packed room of grunting dudes. Walters’ Claudia Wilson-Gator is hopelessly broken, bringing random men to bed in her drug-filled, bed-sheets-for-curtains apartment. Hall’s Jimmy Gator is a charming, beloved tv host. Robards’ Earl Partridge is a cranky old man. Hoffman’s Phil Parma is a nice guy. You can pick them out as easily as notes on a scale. This is a C, this is an F, this is a B-flat.
I took piano lessons for six years, and my favourite pieces to play were always in a minor key. These songs could be haunting, or threatening, or melancholic, and they could contain moments both soft and dark, all depending on the relationships between the notes – a single semi-tone one way or the other could transform a phrase entirely, taking it from joyous and celebratory to mysterious and contemplative. At the height of my ability, before I lost interest in the classical standards that were being provided, I once transposed The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” from major to minor (you can hear a similar exercise here). A simple change in the relationships of the notes gave the song a new emotional resonance; what was once a song about helping a sad child come into the sunlight became the tale of a kid on whom it never stops raining. Every lyric became bitterly ironic, the final chant becoming a jeering taunt. The song still felt valid, neither better or worse.
There are a lot of people who are stuck in the rain. There’s a regretful, absentee husband who lies dying of the disease that killed his wife; there’s a boy genius who was betrayed by his parents; there’s a father who wants to confess all of his sins, but not that, please no, I won’t speak of that. There’s the story of a man who pressure moulds a lifetime of grief into a domineering need for control; of a daughter whose self-medication speaks to her stripped ability to trust; of the nicest person you’d ever want to meet who has the saddest job in the world. And these things happen all the time.
And then frogs fall from the sky. And the piano re-tunes itself. And these are also things that happen. Because we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us. What we’ve done and what’s been done to us informs our present moments almost entirely; an old man wakes up and sees his estranged son before he dies, allowing the son to confront a lack of control he’s been avoiding for years; a police officer realizes that helping people is more than just his job; a man who has a deeply buried secret is denied the chance to take his own life with his crimes unspoken; and an exploited child regards the chaotic storm with serene calm, perhaps knowing that while some things in life just happen, many more things are distinctly in his control.
How do we take part in a world in which things “just happen?” Comedian Tig Notaro, a regular at the Los Angeles nightclub Largo—also frequented by Paul Thomas Anderson— recently endured a string of things which “just happened” (chronicled on her album, Live). She contracted pneumonia, followed by a life-threatening intestinal infection called “C. diff.” A few days after she was released from the hospital, her mother died unexpectedly. She broke up with her girlfriend, and was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts which required a double mastectomy. This lifetime’s worth of tragedy took place over just four months, which caused Notaro to remark that it was difficult to hold a conversation without sounding like a “total drama queen.” She concludes by saying that she still can’t quite make sense of it all, but she’s hopeful, joking about a dementedly self-assured God who is sure she can take a few more hits. In one of Magnolia’s most striking sequences, the characters – each lonely, broken, confused and at their lowest—sing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” They’re dying, and betrayed, and so uncertain of what lies ahead that the repeated line “it’s not going to stop” feels like it’s referring to their respective misfortunes.
The song’s final line (“so just… give up”) feels like a particularly crushing blow, but giving up isn’t always a defeat. Giving up, giving in, giving over to the flow of events that life sends your way can be freeing. The joke is that it’s all a joke; life is painfully funny. And life goes on; things keep happening, some planned, others not so. You lose your parents, and you have a child that you love more than anything. You hurt people that you love, and maybe they forgive you. You work in a job that strains you more than anything because it helps people. You can feel the weight of every bad decision you’ve ever made, but you use the regret to make things better. Life isn’t going to stop raining frogs on us, so just… give up. Give in. Give over. And if the past isn’t through with us, then we need to use the present to do good. (It’ll be the past soon enough.)
The account of the pianist Myron Kropp is actually an urban legend, though the murder of the pianist’s wife was my own addition. Similarly, the stories of the murdered pharmacist, the dead scuba diver in the tree, and the suicidal teenager noted as an accomplice in his own murder which are featured in Magnolia’s opening are also urban legends (with various details added by Anderson). When I think about Magnolia, I first think about the cosmic improbability of the relationships featured therein, and a quick story about an equally improbable set of relationships helped me approach and unlock this film that I’ve been returning to for over a decade now. Perhaps I can’t say why Magnolia made such an impact on my filmic landscape. Maybe it was coincidence, or chance; maybe it “just happened” that I first saw it in a darkened dorm room at the rare invitation of a group of older students, but watching the stories of these characters made me feel like I was leaving one part of my life behind and entering into a new phase. It felt like so much more than coincidence.
In 1997, Paul Thomas Anderson saw his father die of cancer, a condition which sadly seems to “just happen.” The loss of a parent is a downpour of frogs, and can’t help but be a defining moment in a person’s life. Graduating from high school and moving away from home might only require watching a movie to help make sense of it, but for something on the scale of the loss of a parent, sometimes an intense philosophical reimagining is required. Sometimes we tell stories to help understand moments like these. Magnolia’s trailer promises that this will all make sense in the end, but the trailer itself ends with Frank Mackey, sitting in his interview chair, asking “was that unclear?”
“Kind of,” replies Gwenovier, the interviewer.
“Oh, god,” says Frank, twisting his mouth in mock apology. This is Anderson winking at us—his film is going to be complicated, and it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to be in a minor key. And this is true not just his film, but also of the experience of life itself. And if you’ve ever seen the video of the director horsing around behind the scenes with Philip Seymour Hoffman, being an absolute goofball while filming a scene directly inspired by one of the most tragic events of his life, you know that he gets the big joke: it all makes sense in the end, even if it makes no sense at all.
Andrew Root is a professional part-time job holder, and a Senior Editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room. He lives by a creek in Peterborough, Ontario.
This essay currently appears in the April 2014 issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room Magazine. To read the rest of the issue, download the Bright Wall/Dark Room app to your iPhone or iPad for free, or purchase a copy of the issue for just $1 and receive full access to the issue online.
The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken. We call this period of research “childhood.”
There follows a program of renewed inquiry, often involuntary, into the nature and effects of mortality, entropy, heartbreak, violence, failure, cowardice, duplicity, cruelty, and grief; the researcher learns their histories, and their bitter lessons, by heart. Along the way, he or she discovers that the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember, and struggles to reconcile this fact with the ache of cosmic nostalgia that arises, from time to time, in the researcher’s heart: an intimation of vanished glory, of lost wholeness, a memory of the world unbroken. We call the moment at which this ache first arises “adolescence.” The feeling haunts people all their lives.
Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.»Michael Chabon, The Wes Anderson Collection
A Field in England (2013)
THERE ARE NO SIDES HERE, FRIEND.
by Karin L. Kross
“What do you see, friend?”
In many reactions to Ben Wheatley’s seventeenth-century trip movie A Field In England—including my own, the first time I watched it—there’s a common theme of what the hell did I just see? What are you supposed to make of the rowan-wood stake and rope required to drag a man out of a fairy ring—an enchanted ring of mushrooms—especially since you might not even know that was what was going on until you read an interview with Wheatley? What happens during and after the intense, hallucinatory mushroom-trip sequence? Why are dead characters apparently coming back to life? This is the director they tapped to direct the first two episodes of the next season of Doctor Who? What’s going on?
One interpretation—for which J.J. Abrams and Lost probably have something to answer, and which Wheatley has danced around a bit—is that the whole thing is taking place in Purgatory, and that the cowardly scholar Whitehead (Reece Shearsmith), the deserting soldiers Friend (Richard Glover) and Jacob (Peter Ferdinando), and the menacing alchemist O’Neil (Michael Smiley) and his henchman Cutler (Ryan Pope) are enacting some kind of mutual and self-inflicted punishment. It’s a convenient explanation for Whitehead’s visions of a dark planet filling the sky, the apparent resurrection of Friend, and any number of other bizarre, not-easily-glossed moments.
But maybe it’s a little too simple a reading for such a compelling, suggestive film, one that inhabits so many different types of liminal, borderland spaces. The field itself is untilled land that lies between the chaos of a brutal battlefield and the peace of a rural alehouse. The men who occupy this field themselves exist in a historical space between science and magic, between blind obedience to an absolute power and a government defined by the will of the people. They are pushed deeper into the gap between the real and the imaginary by a batch of hallucinogenic mushrooms. In seeking the secrets of this field, they draw down evil upon themselves, but it is no more or less than the evil that they have already brought in with them.
“My master predicts that impending events will stagger the monarch and kingdom.”
The seventeenth century and the English Civil Wars have yielded a fairly striking harvest in British cinema: A Field in England has amongst its antecedents Kevin Brownlow’s documentary-style Winstanley and the horror films Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw. This is one of those transitional periods in European history: neither the Renaissance nor the Enlightenment, a time of enormously complicated turmoil. This can make these periods difficult to teach or summarize. If you came up through the American educational system like I did, it’s entirely possible that you might not have known until fairly late that England had a civil war—or more correctly, three civil wars, fought in fairly rapid succession between 1642 and 1651. In brief, they were a series of conflicts over the governance of England, fought between the supporters of King Charles I, who backed Charles and his belief in the king’s divine right to rule and absolute power, and Parliament and its supporters, who sought to invest more power in a representative form of government (depending on who you asked and when, either a constitutional monarchy or a true republic).
Those interested in the details would do well to start with episodes 1-16 of Mike Duncan’s Revolutions podcast; such discussions are beyond the scope of what we’re about here. We’re less interested in the political and military movements of the Cavaliers and the Roundheads—or even what sides our characters are on—than with the social situation created by the wars. To borrow a phrase that has gotten quite a lot of use with regard to this subject, it was a period in which the ordinary citizen would have believed the world was turned upside down.
These tumultuous years contributed toward a climate of wildly disparate and strongly held beliefs, both religious and civil. In this era, people like the lecherous and avaricious title character of Witchfinder General could leverage a genuine fear of witchcraft for personal gain. There was an actual faction in the government at this time known as the Fifth Monarchists, who believed that the war was paving the way for the rule of Christ Himself on Earth. In a dramatic arc of social mobility, Oliver Cromwell was a fairly ordinary gentleman of good family who rose to become Lord Protector of England, king in all but name. Meanwhile, activist Gerrard Winstanley preached a kind of Christian communism that held that God intended the Earth to be “a common treasury for all”—you can see how that turned out if you watch Winstanley, a beautiful, spare film that draws heavily on his writings to tell the story of the failed Diggers settlement on St George’s Hill in 1649, and which Wheatley has cited as an influence on A Field in England. It was a messy era of history, full of little insurgencies and revolutionary movements and cults, in which the faith of the average man or woman in Church and State was shaken and broken down. It’s a perfect time, in other words, for the highest and strangest drama.
“The world is turned upside down, Whitehead, and so is its pockets. Yes, make a note of that, Cutler, for my memoirs and recollections.”
Winstanley opens with a scene of pitched battle between Parliamentary and Royalist forces; the opening of A Field in England might be taking place on the other side of a hedgerow from that very battle. References to Cromwell’s victory over the Welsh at Pembroke and to the King place the action of A Field in England in 1648, during the First Civil War and before Charles’s execution in January 1649. Whitehead, a nervous scholar with a hobby in lacemaking, escapes from a battle, pursued by a mercenary who curses him for his cowardice and his failure in an unnamed mission. But the mercenary takes a pike through the chest and Whitehead falls in with a trio of deserters from both sides of the battle—simple Friend, sardonic Jacob, and enigmatic Cutler.
The quartet set out across a field with the promise of an alehouse where they might rest, get a drink, meet some women. Instead they are waylaid: first by a meal of psychedelic mushrooms found in the field and prepared by Cutler—of which Whitehead pointedly does not partake—and second by an Irishman named O’Neil, who turns out to be the object of Whitehead’s mission. O’Neil has stolen some papers from the learned gentleman of Norwich who is their master. Rather than arresting O’Neil, however, Whitehead falls under O’Neil’s power instead, his own weak will forced into subservience as O’Neil and Cutler force compel Whitehead, Friend, and Jacob to search the field for a buried treasure—an errand that will not turn out well for anyone.
“If you do not cease, we may be blasted by an ill planet.”
A Field in England can take place in no other time than the peculiar borderline years of the English Civil War, and knowing a bit about it can help a great deal in unpacking one’s confusion. It helps to know, for instance, that Wheatley intended the highly stylized still tableaux that punctuate the film to echo the stilted postures of seventeenth-century woodcuts. And when you realize just how tightly science and magic are married in this world, your understanding of the film can change dramatically. This is a time where the supernatural is just as real to people as the gout, hemorrhoids, and venereal ulcers afflicting Jacob.
Take Whitehead—by the standards of his era he is something of a scientist, having knowledge of “physick” such that he can diagnose Jacob’s astounding array of diseases and afflictions and offer a sort of herbal poultice as a treatment. At the same time, Whitehead notes in perfect seriousness the “angel” that Cutler wears, a coin indicating that he has been touched by the King as a divine cure for scrofula. As well, Whitehead is also an astrologer and a kind of seer, whose gifts in this regard are regarded by O’Neil—despite his overwhelming contempt for the other man—to be greater than his own, and that’s why O’Neil puts Whitehead to some unspeakable ordeal that turns him briefly into a kind of human scenthound, racing through the field on the end of a rope to sniff out the treasure that is supposedly buried there.
To survive and escape O’Neil’s malign influence, Whitehead must overcome his cowardice and his faltering, blind obedience. In this world where the rational and the mystical blur into indistinction, the way out comes through psychedelics. Whitehead devours handfuls of the mushrooms he forwent earlier, and the resulting visions grant him the strength to confront his oppressor. The wind that strikes down O’Neil’s tent while somehow leaving its contents untouched—is it an actual magical wind, perhaps with its source in Whitehead’s “ill planet”, or is it Whitehead’s drugged visualization of an act of rebellion that he has finally found the will to commit? We have ventured by now so far into the realm of the uncanny that both interpretations are possible, and neither is mutually exclusive.
Understanding the border spaces of reality and history inhabited by the characters is one of many means by which we can negotiate our bewilderment over the intensity of the mushroom trip and the fantastical events, visions, and resurrections. But it’s by no means the only way; even without a complete understanding of the historical period, it’s possible to find your way through the beautiful, hallucinatory images devised through Laurie Rose’s cinematography and Ben Wheatley and Amy Jump’s editing—to simply accept everything without trying too hard to interpret it—and you will find yourself confronting a deeply elemental, blackly comic story of men attempting to wrest control of their own destinies from others who would dominate and subjugate them. Is there any real magic in this story, or is it just the mushrooms and an unreliable point-of-view character? The answer, for Whitehead and for us, is yes. And yes.