The Maturing Moviegoer: Magnolia is the biggest flower

Eli Flesch

Eli Flesch

If you’ve been reading my column for the past couple of weeks, you are probably a brave, intelligent and interesting person. I thank you. As a reward, I’m going to talk about one of the finest movies ever made: Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 Magnolia.

I cannot say enough about this movie in the narrow confines of this column. It’s a film that relies less on plot, and more on story. This distinction helps us play up the importance of the many characters and the way their lives intertwine in the course of a single day in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.

In the many stories presented in this three-hour tale, there is one that gives a beautiful and sad depiction of a young boy’s coming-of-age. His name is Stanley, and he’s a boy genius whose talents are used by his father for monetary gain via a game show.

Stanley’s got it rough, but he doesn’t show it. He loves learning more than Fox News loves miseducating. He pursues knowledge in spite of ridicule and pressure from both his father and his fellow game show contestants.

Eventually, he is pushed to the brink and runs away from the show and his father, taking solace in a library. He returns only to tell his father that he needs to be nicer to him.

Actions have consequences. Magnolia shows us here that our lives are often pulled in different directions by things dependent and independent of our will. And that means we stand a fighting chance in how we choose to age.

Take Donnie Smith, former boy genius, who is portrayed as a depressed, pathetic and helpless adult. He steals from his employers and drinks away nights in the hope that something good will happen to him. In comparison, Stanley’s strength lies in that he is much more of a doing character rather than a waiting one.

When we consider the similarity that Donnie’s past has to Stanley’s life, we realize that taking actions for ourselves is of utmost importance. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to every single tide change as we grow, we’ll eventually drown. It’s a little pessimistic, but I’m a guy who thinks that not only is the cup half empty, but the other half is probably reserved for some rich kid who gives not even a single whisper of attention to your thirst.

So what do we do about the things in our lives that are out of our control? No matter how much I want to, I’ll never rule the world. So instead of being delusional, how do I cope? Magnolia makes a case for just accepting some events, like the inexplicable rain of frogs that occurs toward the end of the movie. This event, a culmination of religious motifs throughout the film, helps justify that some events are inescapable.

I tend to shy away from religious explanation, if for no other reason than I don’t like to take things on faith. It’s perfectly acceptable for a question not to have an answer. So that’s why when things happen outside our reach, we shouldn’t just accept it, we should question it, and work toward an answer.

Growing up, there are many such instances of these things that happen out of your control. Many pertain to how you, as an individual, are perceived by everyone else. Don’t just accept a classification for the mere fact that you could not control it — question it. And then you can decide whether or not you want to do something to change it. This just goes to show that you have more influence than you think.

So even for a film upwards of 180 minutes, we are still left with a sense that something needs to be explained. Sounds familiar. Sounds like a lot of the things I wish were explained to me when I was growing up.

There’s no denying our past has an extraordinary pull on us. If it didn’t we would be radically different creatures, probably on a day-to-day basis. But that means even the painful parts of our past shape us.

Regret is a strong theme in both Magnolia and coming-of-age. I could give you a laundry list of things I’ve done that I’d bleed to take back. I’m sure you could too. Sucks, doesn’t it?

By now, I’ve touted the advantages of aging through a sort of “live and learn” attitude. But there’s a limit to that philosophy. People often mistake that phrase for “live and learn and live again.” No. You got to learn. And then live smart. Don’t squat in your past shits. Flush them down the toilet and wipe your dirty asshole. And on that flowery note, I hope you join me next week.

If you would like to recommend a film and/or talk about your own poop-like experiences, you can reach ELI FLESCH at ekflesch@ucdavis.edu.

 

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