Magnolia: Where Brecht meets celluloid?

New Line Cinema
Paul Thomas Anderson/United States 1999

Whether or not he knows it, P.T. Anderson seems to have a bit of Bertolt Brecht in him. In many ways, his self-proclaimed seminal work, Magnolia, revitalizes the Brechtian approach to drama and narrative storytelling, shifting the theory of epic theater and the infamous “alienation effect” from stage to screen. Like a Brechtian play, the film breaks down the proverbial “fourth wall” and subtly calls attention to its own devices, ultimately demanding to be considered – not just merely enjoyed.

Between its incongruent amalgamation of characters and overtly bizarre turn of events, Magnolia has something to say about the nature of contemporary life in the American suburbs, but it leaves that something up to the viewer to discern.

True to the Brechtian spirit, it is not an easy film to watch nor is it conventionally satisfying. But as a meditation on the modern condition – characterized here by social estrangement and compulsive cultural mediation – and the common perceptions of chance and coincidence, Magnolia is a unique piece of self-reflexive cinema. It reinvigorates the often-overlooked, but incredibly crucial, societal component of Brecht’s philosophical program.

While his work seems to now serve as a metaphor for politically-oriented self-conscious art, Brecht’s theory of drama really centers on the effort to disrupt the complacency of audiences and inspire meaningful reflection on the social condition. Avoiding direct engagement with current politics, Magnolia does just that. Of course, the social element exists as intertwined with the political, and it is possible to extrapolate a political slant from the film’s complex narrative. From its self-reflexive beginning, the film makes clear that its focus will not be to advance a particular political program but rather to expose the characteristics of modern humanity through the narrative treatment of them.

The film opens unconventionally: a narrator’s voice stands in place of music, relating a series of “true” stories of extreme coincidence that have presumably been taken from reported news accounts and reenacted for the camera. While neither the use of voice-over narration or visual reenactment is inherently self-reflexive, this introduction exists in complete separation from the diegesis of the film, as the voice-over is not heard again until the end. The lack of voiced narration in the remainder of the piece retroactively reinforces an awareness of the device, which has already called attention to itself by occurring in a non-traditional manner.

Furthermore, Anderson subtly highlights the already apparent artifice of the reenacted opening scenes by framing the images within a space smaller than the actual frame; the result is a visual field that deliberately echoes the appearance of early films. Arguably, all of this intends not only to thematically introduce the subjects of chance and coincidence but also to establish in the viewer a lasting consciousness of the artificial nature of the film that is to follow.

Anderson’s characteristic cinematic style sustains the spectatorial awareness of artifice throughout the progression of the diegesis. His ever-roaming camera, fast pulls, canted angles, and unnatural edits seem to deliberately deter Magnolia from achieving even the illusion of realism. In one particular scene, he even allows for the flickering effect that results from the filming of a television screen to be visible – in fact, the very number of TV sets within the frame seems to encourage one to take notice of this very distinct indication of the cinematic apparatus. And while his technique self-reflexively exposes the practical elements of artifice, Anderson’s narrative also makes several tongue-in-cheek references to the conventions of filmic storytelling.

At one point, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, private nurse Phil Parma, desperately tries to convince the assistant to Frank TJ Mackey (Tom Cruise) that the dying man in his care is Mackey’s father; near the end of his plea, he compares the situation to a movie in which a dying man wants to make contact with his estranged son. “You know why I think they put those scenes in movies,” he says; “I think because they’re true.”

As with the introductory narration, the self-consciousness of this statement alone would be merely humorous or constitute a brief moment of amusing disruption to the narrative flow. But taken in conjunction with the other moments of self-awareness and Anderson’s overall self-conscious style, Parma’s comment helps to maintain the objective distance between audience and film that makes Magnolia essentially a Brechtian social drama on celluloid.

The parallels between examples of epic theater and this film are never more apparent than when the disparate characters individually and (presumably) simultaneously break out into song, each singing the lyrics to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” as the film cuts between them and their various places within the diegetic world. The insertion of a musical number into the otherwise non-musical narrative seems a definitively Brechtian device, particularly as this technique is distinctly motivated by the desire to both subvert the tendency toward realism through a disruption of the narrative flow as well as startle viewers into active contemplation of the narrative content and the devices at work.

Like a typical Brecht play, Magnolia raises a number of social issues for consideration. In this way, it makes possible many interpretations of its thematic material without offering a any definitive comments. That is not to say that the film is without perspective – there clearly exists a critical undertone with regard to the American media industry and alienated social condition. It does provide, however, little to no feeling of resolution in the conventional sense (by wrapping up all loose ends, etc.); the film concludes with the overtly absurd – and thus totally unexpected – rainstorm of frogs. The event makes no logical or narrative sense, which is ultimately what gives the entire undertaking its Brechtian success – who could walk away from this entirely bizarre twist without pondering the meaning of the film? And – if such a strange development of narrative is not enough to secure the awareness and contemplation of filmic artifice – in the final moments of the diegesis, Magnolia turns again to the use of voice-over narration, not to explain the on-screen happenings, but rather to make one final comment about the nature of film and the jadedness of modern society: “There are stories of coincidence and chance, of intersections and strange things told, and which is which nobody knows; and we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.’ “ The irony, then, is that Magnolia doesn’t really expect us to believe it.

“I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I’ll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I’ll make some clunkers, maybe I’ll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I’ll ever make.” – personal quote recorded on The Internet Movie Database.

© 2007 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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