About once a month or so I browse the new release section of my local video store. Most of these stores have gone the way of the dinosaur, but this one is part of a national chain, Family Video, and seems to be doing quite well. I’ve stumbled across some interesting films there, mostly indie releases, and Shotgun Stories was one of these. Picking it up and reading the description, the name of the producer caught my eye. It was David Gordon Green, whose own film Snow Angels I had watched and liked. On the strength of that, and on the appeal of the synopsis, I took it home. I did not really know what to expect from a film from a first-time director and a cast of (to me) unknowns, but I ended up being very pleasantly surprised.
The story concerns two sets of half-brothers and the escalating feud that develops between them when the eldest son of the older set insults their newly deceased father at his funeral. This man had been an abusive drinker in his first family, but after leaving them cleaned himself up, got religion, and became a moderately successful farmer, fathering four more sons with his new wife. The original three Hayes boys, Son, Boy, and Kid (their impersonal names seem to reflect their father’s lack of interest in them) have been raised by their mother, a bitter, spiteful woman who transferred her animosity towards her ex-husband and his new family onto her sons. At one point in the story after a particularly hurtful incident, Son comes to tell his mother what has happened. She has no response, to which he says "You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it's come to this." That could sum up the theme of the story which, as one reviewer has said, brings classical, even Biblical drama down to the scale of small town life. Point being, it’s all ultimately human, whether the antagonists are Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, or the two sets of Hayes brothers.
The film runs for only an hour and a half or so, but takes its time in a somewhat Malick-esque fashion. Wide, lingering landscape shots set the tone, and sometimes serve as links between the dramatic scenes. The dialogue is minimalist, but no less rich and telling for that. And despite the title, the violence is sporadic and brief, realistic, but not in a graphic or gory way. Oddly enough, this serves to make it more painful-looking when it does occur. The acting is all top notch, despite the largely unknown cast, but Michael Shannon is a standout as the eldest brother. He manages to communicate his character’s inner moral confusion with minimal speechmaking and facial expression, doing it all in a way that makes it all seem completely realistic. I don’t know any other actor currently working who’s able to make this minimalist approach work like Shannon does. When he’s in a scene you don’t want to take your eyes off him, because he’s able to communicate so much while seemingly using so little.
Much credit also must be given to first time director Nichols, who took a miniscule budget and made one of the best films of 2007. Seldom has a first time director, coming out of nowhere, demonstrated such maturity and confidence. The film is morally quite serious, and in no sense can be reduced to simply a “revenge picture.” As such, despite its rather simple plot, it’s a film which grows upon repeat viewings, and which can thus prompt a fair amount of discussion, especially for the viewer who’s interested in the human side of such dramas.
Jeff Nichols has gone on to direct three additional films, all of them very good – Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. And he’s only 37, which means that he made Shotgun Stories when he was still in his 20’s. An auspicious beginning, I’d say.
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.
From Damon Linker. Surely he exaggerates in saying that progressive beliefs have been "shattered," but they certainly have been shocked and challenged.
But I suspect Angela Merkel is the real catalyst behind the outcome of the UK referendum. Not only did the German chancellor insist on admitting well over a million refugees and migrants from the Greater Middle East into the heart of Europe. Supporters of the policy have also made it clear on numerous occasions that they consider racism and xenophobia to be the only possible grounds for opposing her stand.... Merkel's grand progressive-humanitarian gesture has backfired badly — rekindling and potentially intensifying the very nationalistic solidarity that progressives once hoped the EU would dissolve or erase.
I wonder, too, about the influence of Mr. Obama's little jaunt across the ocean to instruct the British, in his distinctively condescending way, about the foolishness of leaving the EU. No way to measure that, I suppose. Rudy Guiliani shocked a lot of people a while back by opining that Obama does not love America:
“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
It was a very harsh thing to say. But I think Guiliani is basically correct, as the famous "bitter clingers" remarks suggested. And I think Obama's basic view of Americans--that most of us are primitive, bigoted, superstitious creatures in need of general enlightenment and particularly in need of constant policing to prevent the spasms of mindless violence to which we are naturally prone--is similar to that of European progressives toward many or most of their countrymen, though I suppose all would agree that Americans are the worst.
This is an interesting case. I don't think advertising can make people buy something for which they don't feel a real need or which isn't so rewarding in some way that people come to see it as a need, and which doesn't to some degree provide what it purports to provide. At least not over a period of years--little bubbles of basically nonsensical enthusiasm--fads--can probably be generated with little more than clever marketing. But bottled water seems to be somewhere between those. I suspect that most people who habitually drink bottled water have a vague idea that it's healthier than tap water, but as the article says for most people this is not true. So apparently it is satisfying a need that is either based on misinformation, uncorrected for decades now, or is just some purely emotional but nevertheless persistent phenomenon.
Jean de Florette came out in France in 1986, and by 1987 in England everyone was talking about it. It was the must-see film of that year, and very rightly so, I think. It was the last year of my PhD research at London University, and I saw it in a London movie theatre with a friend. At the time I was locked into the struggle to complete my PhD, and impracticality versus worldliness was on my mind. I told my friend that the movie dramatized the defeat of the romantic, unworldly ‘Jean’ by the down to earth, farming Soubeyrans. My friend did not agree, arguing that the younger Soubeyran, Ugolin, also has a dream, of planting carnations on the land which Jean inherits. Certainly the movie is about the battle to possess this rich soil which Ugolin covets for his carnation project, but which the urbanite, tax-collector Jean has inherited from his mother.
Jean does not know he is in a battle with Ugolin Subeyran, or with Ugolin’s wicked uncle, César Subeyran. This ignorance on his part underlies much of the tragic irony of the movie, as we witness repeated scenes of lies, hypocrisy and double-entendre on Ugolin and César’s part, and of misunderstanding and false confidence on the part of the outsider, Jean. The Soubeyrans lie not only to Jean but withhold essential information from the villagers about him. So the hunchback Jean, his wife and their little girl are utterly isolated by this stream of bare faced lies and misinformation.
The basic lie told by the Soubeyrans in fact concerns a stream! Ugolin needs water for his planned carnation crops, and there is not sufficient on his own property. There is an old abandoned stream on Jean’s property. Ugolin and his uncle deliberately block the stream, and conceal its existence from Jean. Jean has arrived with his own romantic project, of escaping city life and breeding rabbits on his property. Without water, his hopes literally shrivel, his plants dying of thirst and his rabbits starving for lack of feed. Jean is destroyed by his increasingly heroic efforts to create a water source on his land.
The great irony of the film is that Jean has come to the French countryside in search of authenticity. Ugolin has never heard of that, and wonders if it is a plant which he will grow.
I remember, and I imagine most people, remember Jean de Florette for the wrenching performance as the hunchback by Gerard Depardieu. Its almost as tragic as the film itself to think of the fantastic promise of the young Depardieu, who displayed outstanding talents as an actor, and of his latter days when he has become famous for demeaning, drunken antics. Watching the film for a second time, after thirty years, though, I was struck by the wonderful, fox-like performance of Yves Montand as César Soubeyran, wicked through to the marrow, and of his weaker and more conflicted nephew, played by Daniel Auteil. All three of the main actors give brilliant performances in their roles.
The character played by Jean de Florette has been a staple of French comedy since Molière: he is the romantic idealist, whose ideas about how to live in the world come from textbooks, manuals and mathematical formulae. The comedy occurs when the rubber of the mathematical formulae hits the road of real life. So the city-dweller versus the earthy-peasants theme is a basic motif of French comic drama, and there is absolutely no doubt that the peasants have the upper hand, because their grasping nature leads them to grasp reality more firmly. Based on a novel by Maurice Pagnol, Jean de Florette is clearly no comedy because what happens to Jean is the stuff of tears, not of humour. But nor is the movie exactly a tragedy, because Jean lacks any tragic grandeur.
The movie has a direct religious theme from the start. The news that the land the Soubeyrans covet has slipped from their grasp comes to them in a letter from a priest’s housekeeper, who states that the man who has inherited the land, Jean Crespin is ‘a hunchback by the will of God’. In a great, unforgettable and climactic scene, when rain comes but falls on the other side of the mountain, not on his own crops, Jean cries out to ‘God’, demanding to know if he is ‘up there’ and if so how he could inflict such injustice on a hunchback. At the end of the movie, the exultant Soubeyrans perform an inverted ‘baptism’ of themselves in the gushing spring, blackening or blaspheming the sacrament. Jean de Florette is thus about the most typical of French theological questions, the absence of God. It may have been the last great burst of French Jansenism before the culture lapsed into secularism.
—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.
...to show us that we don't have to take seriously everything a pope says.
I said that to my wife earlier and she laughed, but I'm only half-joking, at most. The remark was prompted by the latest round of confusion (to say the least) created by some of his off-the-cuff remarks. (Basic story here, a couple of commentaries here and here.) I'm beginning to shrug these things off: Oh, there he goes again, never mind.
That's not really the attitude I'd like to have. But this sort of thing is a pattern with Francis, and you can either spend a lot of time and anxiety trying to get it straight and fit it in with the Church's established teachings, or just...shrug it off.
And really, when it comes to the everyday chatter of a publicly loquacious pope, is there anything wrong with that? We were blessed over most of the past thirty years with two popes who combined depth of intelligence and insight with skill and care in expressing themselves. John Paul II especially was such a giant, and reigned for so long, and was so beloved by those of us who felt some kind of course correction was in order after the mistakes following Vatican II, that we tended to become papal maximalists. We were glad to see the pope exercising his authority in defense of the Church's teaching, of course, which is as it should be. But we--and really the whole world--tended to view the pope's every utterance as definitive and moreover to expect a steady stream of detailed and authoritative commentary on everything from him. This is really not the way the papacy has worked historically. It's only been made possible by modern communications. And it's not a burden that we can expect every pope to handle well.
Roughly twenty years ago, after the Catechism had been published, John Paul began making some fairly strong statements against capital punishment. I didn't (and don't) have a very strong opinion on that subject. But I had a conversation with a friend who was very opposed to it that troubled me--not because I was opposed to the pope's judgment that capital punishment should be used only rarely if at all, but because of something my friend said. He quoted then-Cardinal Ratzinger as saying that the Catechism might need to be revised to reflect what John Paul was teaching.
I found this shocking. It seemed to me that it was much too close to what many outside the Church believe--erroneously, I thought--to be the way the papacy works: that the pope has the authority to revise old doctrines or make up new ones as he pleases, or perhaps as the Spirit moves him.
That is in fact wrong, of course. Francis's habit of speaking spontaneously and sometimes carelessly, then having to clarify or correct what he said, is a good reminder that the authority of the papacy and the protection of the Holy Spirit don't necessarily extend to casual conversations of a specific pope.
This reminds me: a month or so ago I posted a complaint about some remarks made by Francis on the relationships among Christianity, Europe, and Islam. I modified the complaint after reading the full interview from which the remarks were taken, but still had some significant reservations. Here is a piece by Carl Olsen in Catholic World Report which articulates some of the same reservations I had. Reviewing this, I'm more convinced that we ought to start treating these more or less impromptu remarks by Francis as just that, as if they were part of a rambling and often speculative conversation with a friend, not fully-considered and definitive statements.
A good piece, I think. That is to say, I agree with his view. He's a little rough on the young Thomist he's arguing with, but I can sympathize with his exasperation.
I sympathize with the Thomist insistence on precision, too. We need it. But in some hands it can result in a maddening narrowness. I lost my temper with a Thomistically-inclined fellow once when he insisted that because the word "conservative" can't be defined rigorously it must have no meaning at all. Like a lot of things in life.
This series has so far had a definite tilt toward the Serious or Very Serious Film. I guess the lightest one up until now was my Marx Brothers contribution. Well, this week I'm moving the needle a bit further in that direction. Napoleon Dynamite could reasonably be described as pure fluff. So could a Marx Brothers comedy, of course, but the Marxes have attained classic status, which makes lending attention to them a mildly serious business. I'm suggesting that you see Napoleon, if you haven't already, for sheer fun. It soars to no great height and plumbs no great depths, but it's hugely enjoyable--to my taste, anyway.
It seemed for a while some years ago (ten? fifteen? I'm not sure) that the word "quirky" occurred much too frequently in reviews of movies and popular music. Since Napoleon Dynamite was released in 2004, maybe it was part of that quirkiness boom. At any rate I don't think I've ever seen a movie that more deserved the description, in fact almost defines the term. But I don't know how I could possibly communicate that quality in this review, so I'll just have to give you a sketch of the characters and plot, and a clip or two.
Napoleon Dynamite is a nerdy high-school student. As far as I can recall the name is never explained, but it's been some years since I saw the movie, so I could be wrong. Napoleon and his equally nerdy older brother Kip live with their gruff grandmother in a small town in Idaho. I don't recall that the missing parents are explained. The locale is rendered with a physical and cultural flatness (though there are mountains in the distance), in slightly washed-out color, that serves as an image of the flatness of Napoleon and Kip's situation and aspirations.
The brothers are pretty thoroughly ill-equipped to triumph in the contests of adolescence. Napoleon wants to acquire "skills"--"You know, like numchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills"--which will make him attractive to girls. He has no skills, and he is not attractive to girls. Kip is similar. He claims to spend a lot of time "chatting with babes" on the Internet, but this also seems dubious, at least initially. Quite early in the movie their grandmother is injured and is out of the picture for the rest of the story. Her place as nominal caretaker of the two boys is taken by their Uncle Rico, a fairly obnoxious fellow whose life peaked when his high school football team might have won the state championship "if coach woulda put me in fourth quarter." Rico thinks of himself, or wants to think of himself, as a man of the world, but he does not competently navigate even this very small world.
We are invited to laugh at these losers, and we do, but for the most part it's not cruel laughter. This is in the end a very sweet film. I think it's the combination of sharp satire and sweetness that makes it so engaging and memorable. And quirkiness, of course.
Napoleon gets involved with a couple of other outsiders: a Mexican boy named Pedro and a sweetly shy girl, Deb, who inflicts great suffering on herself by selling "home-woven handicrafts" door-to-door to make money for college. Pedro decides to run for class president. Napoleon gets involved in the campaign and also woos Deb in the most hapless way you can imagine. Silly things happen: there are Deb's glamour photo business, Rico's herbal breast-enhancement business, a piñata that looks like the most popular girl in school, Pedro's menacing cousins, a soul mate for Kip.... I don't think I'm giving away too much in saying that there is an absurd but highly satisfying happy ending. If it were on Netflix I'd watch it tonight.
Here is an early scene which includes Grandma.
Ever since I saw this movie I've had trouble saying the word "quesadilla" without prefixing it with "dang" and pronouncing the "ll" as in "laughter."
Uncle Rico reflects:
Just to cover my bases, in case you watch it on my recommendation and don't like it, I'll mention that there is by no means universal agreement with my view: Roger Ebert hated it. But note that when I googled "napoleon dynamite ebert review" I got a number of items disagreeing strongly with him.
This is becoming normal in America: an abominable crime is committed and the first reaction of way too many people is to exploit it in pursuit of their political aims, which involves trying to blame their opponents for the crime. Even those whose better impulses might lead them to avoid participating find themselves responding to attacks on them. I might say "on their faction," but increasingly people are their factions.
This is one of those songs that make me think there might be something wrong with anyone who doesn't like it. If there is such a person. I don't even know what she's saying. I get a few words: sunlight, creation, love. I didn't know until I watched the video that the chorus is spelling out "amorcito" ("ah eemay oh..."), which apparently means something like "darling" or "sweetheart." I wonder if she's talking about that child on the bike rather than a lover. It probably wouldn't be too hard to find a translation.
Katrine Myrdal’s (Juliane Köhler) life is about as close to perfect as lives get. She lives in Norway in a lovely house on a cliff overlooking a fiord in a beautiful sylvan setting with her loving husband, her daughter, granddaughter and her dear mother (Liv Ullmann). She is happy in her home and successful in her career. Why, then, do we meet her in disguise, a tense and haunted woman on a mysterious trip to Berlin?
Two Lives(Zwei Leben) is in some ways similar to Michael Clayton. The main character is suspended between two versions of herself that cannot continue to exist in tandem. There is a loving family on one side, and a system of intrigue and death on the other. However, while Clayton has a choice to make, the choices that Katrine made in the past are rapidly bringing any chance she has to control her life in the future to an end.
Two Lives takes place in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. The catalyst that sends Katrine on her clandestine trip to Berlin is a visit from a young and zealous lawyer, Sven Solbach, who is bringing a suit to seek reparations for Lebensborn Norwegian children. These were children of German soldiers and women who lived in occupied Norway during World War II. They were taken from their mothers and sent to orphanages in Germany, and then perhaps to live with German families, the point being to raise children to serve the Reich. Solbach believes that the testimony of Katrine and her mother, Ase, is crucial to the case because Katrine was the only kidnapped child who as a young woman escaped and returned to her mother. This, by the way, is not true. In reality there were other escapees, but I suppose this unhistorical construct was important to the movie.
In Berlin, Katrine visits the former orphanage seeking information about one of the nurses and making sure that any mention of this nurse and of Katrine Evensen is removed from any public records and destroyed. She calls a man named Hugo and tells him that she is in danger, and gradually we begin to learn about her past life.
The story is told in the form of flashbacks—in bits and pieces—and takes a long time, the rest of the movie really, before we figure out what really happened. The flashbacks are grainy, which gives them a sense of having been filmed long ago, and which is probably helpful in hiding the age of the actors who are playing their younger selves. The only characters who are played by different actors in the past and present are Katrine and her husband. The actress who plays the young Katrine, Klara Manzel, is so like Juliane Köhler in both looks and mannerisms that it took me a while before I was sure that it really was two different people.
The acting throughout is good. While Juliane Köhler, whose character, like Karen Crowder, is desperately trying to hold her life together, is not as proficient as Tilda Swinton, she does a good job of portraying a woman who stands to lose everything she holds dear, and Katrine, unlike Karen Crowder, has very much to hold dear. Liv Ullmann is, of course, excellent. She does not spend a lot of time on screen but when she appears, she excels in her own quiet way. The final shot of Ms. Ullmann looking out the window captures all the sadness and bewilderment of the family's plight.
I had not previously known anything about the abduction of these children by the Nazis or the way in which they used some of the children like Katrine. It's a very distressing story, and while Katrine made some bad choices in her early life, when we find what was behind the choices, it is heartbreaking.
The movie is loosely based on Ice Ages, a novel by Hannelore Hippe which had not been published previous to the film. Wikipedia says:
She was inspired by reports in the late 1980s of the discovery of the half-burned body of a young woman near Bergen, and there was speculation as to her identity. This was just before the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany.
I tried to find out more about Hannelore Hippe, but could find little except that her real name is Hannah O'Brien, and that she is a novelist and journalist who has written several books, one about Einstein and one about the Summer of Love—yes that Summer of Love. I'd like to read Ice Ages but it doesn't seem to be available anywhere.
I suppose that you would say that Two Lives is a thriller. Some reviews say that is in the manner of something by John le Carre. I don't know because I'm not that familiar with his work. When I watch a film, I don't usually think in terms of genre. What really interests me about films is the characters, and the story, and whether or not one can find grace lurking in some unexpected corner. In this case, I found the characters and the story to be engaging, but I'm sorry to say that grace seemed to be completely lacking, which is part of the tragedy of the film. One wonders how the story could have been different with the slightest bit of illumination in the life of even one of the characters. I'm not saying that I think that the movie should have been different, only that it illustrates the weaknesses inherent in a simply secular view of life.
I would suggest that if you are interested in watching the movie, you not read any reviews beforehand. They all seem to give too much away.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.
Never let it be said that I'm all doom and gloom. This is from a review in the March New Criterion of a book called Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta, a rather interesting-sounding book about an English journalist who went to live in the Mississippi Delta. As will come as no surprise at all to anyone who knows the South, the reality of what he found there did not match the standard caricature. The reviewer, Richard Tillinghast, says:
The observations made by Bill Luckett, Mayor of Clarksdale and Morgan Freeman’s business partner, ring true from my own experience: “You’ve got five to ten percent on either side who hate. Most folks get along now, treat each other with politeness, courtesy, and respect, and that’s really all you can ask for. We don’t all have to be best friends.”
That rings true to my own experience, too. I just got back from the post office, where I listened to the friendly banter between the black man ahead of me in the line and the white woman behind the counter. "Have a blessed day," said the man as he left. "Thank you, and happy Monday," said the clerk. This is in my experience by far the most typical sort of encounter between the races. It would be foolish to pretend that racism, mild and severe, does not still exist. But every day I see--well, I used to see, before I stopped going in to work every day--people of all races working together and generally going about their business with, as the mayor says, politeness, courtesy, and respect to each other. The question for us now is whether this quiet movement will be stronger than the efforts to exacerbate the divisions. And let's not pretend that there are not parties on both sides who are doing that, for reasons which are mostly obscure to me.
I'm also reminded of something from several years ago which made me want to jump up and cheer. Artur Davis, at the time a Congressman from Alabama, was running for governor. In an interview, asked about racial opposition to him, he said (I paraphrase from memory), "There are a certain number of people who will vote against me just because of my race. There are a certain number who will vote for me just because of my race. I can't worry much about either of those groups. I just have to make my case to the others."
That's the attitude we need: not an absurd and contradictory demand that race be emphasized at all time so as to eliminate awareness of race...or something...but an acceptance of difference, and realism about the intractable nature of racial prejudice combined with a determination to remain above it. A tendency toward hostility among social groups (ethnic as well as any other, including allegiance to an football team) is as much a part of human nature as the very existence of social groups. It will never disappear completely. But we don't have to feed it.
Unfortunately Davis did not make it out of the Democratic primary. Having voted against Obamacare, he was all but expelled from the party. I'm not sure what he's doing now.
Most of these posts have been about the attempt to shut down dissent on same-sex marriage etc. Here's something on another question which is probably just as important: at The Federalist, "How Anti-White Rhetoric Is Fueling White Nationalism". As I've been saying for a long time, "sow the wind, reap the whirlwind"--and as anyone with the least grasp of human nature ought to have seen would happen. As the Federalist writer says, the use of "white" as a pejorative is becoming both more common and less light-hearted. Of course there's no serious danger now, but to be a member of a politically and/or economically dominant minority is very dangerous if the mob's blood-lust gets going.
I see no reason to think that either Donald Trump or the majority of his supporters are deeply and seriously racist. But it can't be denied that he has attracted racists and doesn't seem terribly concerned about it. That also seems in part associated with the effect described in the article cited above. Last March, writing at USA Today, Glenn Reynolds opined that the hateful response of progressives (which includes of course most of the media) to the Tea Party helped to fuel the Trump phenomenon. Something to that, I think.
Economic matters really ought to be considered in any discussion of long-range social trends. I don't often talk about them because I really don't know what to say. There is no identifiable conscious movement with explicitly bad intentions there, as with these other matters. There seems to be evidence that we are heading toward a situation like what we've always decried in Latin American countries: a wealthy oligarchy, a small middle-class, and a vast number of poor. But there are so many forces at work that I don't feel competent to say much on the subject.
Just to pick one factor: I see a lot of people comparing the situation of working people in the present to that of the 1950s. Yes, it's true (well, I think it is) that a man could support a wife and family on a single blue-collar wage then. But goodness--think of all the vast social differences between then and now.
Just to pick one sub-factor in this factor: it's now the norm that both fathers and mothers hold down outside jobs. And I think the root of that development is the deliberate choice made by women to enter the work force. Feminism, simple desire for more material goods...there were a lot of factors at work there. Once that trend got underway--again, so it seems to me--I'm no economist--it became a vicious cycle, with both prices and wages reflecting the growth of the two-income family. And now we're at a point where that second income is no longer optional unless a family is willing not just to scrimp but to suffer financially. And then you add to that the cultural deterioration which makes lower-income neighborhoods, and the schools to which those living there must send their children, not just poor but physically dangerous.
In passing, it annoys me a bit--I want to say it amuses me, but more often it annoys--to hear progressives talk about the 1950s as a wonderful time for middle-class families. Since the late '60s we've been hearing how horrible it was, and still, in most contexts, "1950s-style" is generally a term of scorn. I remember fervent denunciations of factory jobs and an insistence that they were incompatible with a fully human society. A good lesson in "be careful what you wish for," I guess.
And the book says: "We may be through with the past, but the past is not through with us."
When first I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia I left the theatre in a state of befuddlement that hardened over the course of a few reflective weeks into antagonism. Here, I decided, was a movie that, despite its bravura technique and wonderful performances, had dragged me through pools of moral slime only to turn itself, in a perverse act of self-destruction, into an incoherent mess. Let me not sit through that again.
But then, a year or two later, a friend astounded me by not only speaking approvingly of the film, but actually describing it as a work of high intelligence and moral insight, and giving reasons, some of which gave me pause. And so I revisited the film some short time later, and found my experience of it transformed: yes, it made a deep dive into dark and troubled waters, but it did not simply drown in them. There was no getting around the fact that elements of the film were enigmatic, but I began to see that the enigmas were fruitful rather than barren.
Magnolia follows a set of 9 characters over a 24 hour period in California's San Fernando Valley. (The film's title is presumably drawn from the name of a boulevard that runs through the valley.) Though no one character knows more than a few of the others, their paths cross and their lives intersect in a variety of ways.
There is Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), a television producer who is near death; a nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who cares for him in his home; Linda (Julianne Moore), Earl's much younger second wife; Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), his estranged son; Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), who hosts a long-running television quiz show; Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), a young contestant on the show; Donnie (William H. Macy), a former contestant on the show; Claudia (Melora Walters), the drug-addled daughter of show host Jimmy; and Jim (John C. Reilly), the police officer who falls in love with her. (Here is a map of the character relationships.) All give outstanding performances, but I reserve special praise for Tom Cruise, who, in a very unglamorous role, knocks it out of the park; it might be thought damning with faint praise to call it his career best performance, but I don't intend it that way.
There is something thrilling and direct about Anderson's script: it hits the ground running, hurtling along as it roams from one character's story-line to another. It's an open-hearted, earnest film, and it throws us headlong into the turmoil in which these men and women are living. For each of them, things are falling apart, or are about to do so shortly, and we, white-knuckled, do our best to hang on. The many stories and the interrelationships between them are skillfully handled by Anderson, who guides us with a sure hand, the tension building, through what could easily have become shapelessly convoluted. It was on the strength of this screenplay that Robert Altman is said to have pronounced Anderson his successor (perhaps unfortunately, since Anderson hasn't tried to make another ensemble film since). Incidentally, Magnolia was nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay -- and should have won.
For the readers of this blog I want to be clear that, on the surface at least, Magnolia is prodigiously unwholesome. All of the deadly sins are amply represented. The stories, as they unfold, involve drugs, sex, child abuse, and suicide. There might be films out there more saturated in vulgar language, but there can't be very many. In my judgement this immersion in depravity is justifiable, or at least defensible, when the film is considered as a whole, but your judgement may not concur, and viewer discretion is certainly advised.
Anderson is not regarded as one of the great directors of his generation for nothing: his directorial hand matches the hothouse intensity of the script step-by-escalating-step. We get elaborate tracking shots, wonderfully judged long takes, memorable compositions, a superb synthesis of music and image -- the film is structured around a number of songs by Aimee Mann, and it uses them to good effect, but don't overlook the sequence built around Bizet's Habanera! -- but, beyond merely technical excellence, Anderson makes us care for these flawed, and in some cases deeply reprehensible, people, drawing them out, exposing their hearts, but never in condemnation. He loves them, and we learn to do so too.
All of this, as well executed as it is, would be enough to make Magnolia a very good film, perhaps even a particularly notable example of the ensemble cast film. Film buffs would remember it for its directorial flair and its fine performances. But in the last third of its (very considerable) run-time Anderson raises the stakes, introducing two audacious sequences that, while they might lose some viewers (and they certainly befuddled me on that initial, befuddled viewing), arguably turn Magnolia from a merely very good film into a great one.
I am reticent to say too much about these sequences, lest I spoil them for first-timers. They show Anderson flexing his film-making muscles as few directors can, taking risks that few directors take. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is that, as strange and even unprecedented as they are, both only deepen and enlarge the film, revealing currents of thought and feeling beneath the surface that we had hardly suspected.
One of the film's central ideas, for instance, is that people's lives intertwine in surprising ways. A brief prologue presents a few especially neatly wrapped examples of this sort of thing, and clearly the whole warp and woof of Magnolia is made from interweaving such tales. For most of the film we, the audience, have had a kind of God's eye view of these intersections: we have seen a larger, more coherent structure than any of the characters have seen. Events that, to them, look like mere chance, we see to have had reasons. Yet in the last and most intrepid of the sequences around which I am hopping, something happens that we the audience, too, experience as totally random and unmotivated, just as the characters do, and this raises the tantalizing possibility that we have not, after all, had the God's eye view, but that instead there has been, above and behind us, another perspective, another level of deeper and farther ranging understanding.
If that higher perspective sounds a little like "Providence", this is not wholly inappropriate, for Magnolia turns out to be a film that is theologically interesting. Anderson has downplayed this angle in interviews, but within the film itself he actually plays up the Biblical resonances, and I think it is legitimate to think theologically about the film quite apart from whatever the director's intentions may have been. What does the grace of God look like to a world drenched in sin? If sin seems lovely to a sinner, how does goodness seem? Might it seem freakish and ugly? The Man of Sorrows had no form nor comeliness, no beauty that we should desire him. If the light of truth were to flood into the darkness of ignorance and error, might it not seem, to those sunk in darkness, to be incoherent and bizarre?
This, it seems to me, is one way -- and admittedly not the only way -- of interpreting the pivotal sequence in Magnolia: an act of God occurs, and, in preternatural disguise, grace pours out on all the sickness and sadness of the world. It is incomprehensible, but we know it by its fruits, for it disperses the dark clouds that had gathered over our motley company, clears the air so that their lungs can fill again, and softens their hearts to begin the long process of forgiveness and restoration.
It shouldn't work, yet, somehow, it does, and it makes Magnolia one of the most mysterious and rewarding films I know.
Here is the trailer:
And here, as a little bonus, is Roger Ebert's initial review on his television program. His interlocutor reacted to the film much as I did at first; as you'd expect, Ebert himself was more sensible of its merits.