Not so long ago I was speaking to university students from throughout Indiana. After one session an undergraduate from Purdue came up to talk.
We had had a conversation earlier in the day, and I had been impressed with his thoughtfulness about life and learning. He asked a question, and I responded with a reference to the film Magnolia. All of a sudden his eyes opened with surprise, and he said, “You’ve seen Magnolia?”
He explained. “My friends and I have seen it several times, and we talk about it for hours. But our parents have no idea. They would never see it. And of course, we could never talk about it with them.
Over the last couple of years I have had conversations like that one, time and again. From California to Massachusetts I have met students who repeatedly watch Magnolia—and then talk and talk and talk about it. What are they seeing? What are they hearing? And perhaps more pointedly, what of it for folks like you and me, for people who want to understand our culture through the eyes of faith, who want to develop discernment for a deepened discipleship?
I have a very good friend with whom I share my life. The happiness, the sadness, the glories and the shames…day after day we talk and pray through it all. We also see movies together, and promise each other a good conversation about it afterwards. In January of 2000 we decided to see Magnolia within a few days of its release. It was the first film I saw in the new century. We do not talk while a movie is running, and so neither had any idea that the other was wishing we had done something else that night. I did not get up and leave, partly because Jerry was sitting beside me, and partly because I had paid the full evening fare for the film. Yes, yes, I did think about my sense of vocation too, that some of what I do is “read” the world for others. But for two hours I strained against all that I was seeing and hearing.
Why? I don’t like postmodern storytelling very much at all. It seems to celebrate fragmentation, the disconnectedness of life. It is too much perspectives and pastiche, out the kazoo. My heart longs for coherence in everything. So there was a deep dissonance between what I was viewing and what I was wanting.
The director, Paul Thomas Anderson, tells a tale set in his own neighborhood, the San Fernando Valley of southern California. (One reading of the film’s title is that it refers to a major avenue running through the valley.) A wunderkind at 30, with three films under his belt, he has already been granted “final cut” authority, a privilege typically reserved for filmmakers with decades of experience. One serious European critic compares film and filmmaker to Citizen Kane and Orson Welles. Time will tell.
But to use that measure, even proximately, means that Anderson’s ability and vision are unusual. As The New York Times Magazine argues,
Unlike most filmmakers of his generation, Anderson is not only technically astute (“I’m still young and I have to show off”), but he seems to have a larger, moral imperative in his films. They are not preachy, but it’s clear that Anderson was raised Catholic, that he believes in atonement and redemption. “When did you last go to confession?” I asked him. Anderson paused. “It’s about three hours long,” he said. “Haven’t you seen it?”
Windows into Worldviews
Simply said, it is one of the most impressive movies I have seen. What happened then, between my longing to leave the theater, and that decidedly-different judgment? The longer I watched the more I began to understand something of what Anderson was arguing, cinematically and philosophically.
The film asks two large questions, ones that humans ask and answer in every generation, in every culture. Who are we, and what is the universe all about, anyway? Anderson sets deeply different visions before us, asking us to ponder their moral meaning: 1) all that is is a result of time plus chance plus matter, and so human life is first and last wholly accidental; or 2) we live in a world where human beings make real choices and there are real consequences, for blessing and for curse. The differences are decisive.
In the first five minutes of the film, we are offered windows into that first worldview, with three stories of the most wildly, horribly coincidental tragedies imaginable. Well, actually, they are unimaginable. All involve deaths, and with each vignette the narrator makes a judgment about chance. For the first, “And I would like to think that this was just chance.” The second, “And I am trying to think this was all just a matter of chance.” And the third, “This was not just a matter of chance.” And yet, every bone in one’s body cries out that it must have been. How could it have been otherwise? Way too incredible, way too awful, way too random.
The prelude over, we are then set down in the middle of television-shaped California culture. An uncharacteristically rainy day all day for the Golden State, we are introduced to a dying TV producer (Jason Robards), his sad, drug-addicted trophy bride (Julianne Moore), his misogynist, alienated son (Tom Cruise), and others, including TV whiz kids, a game show host, a policeman, a young woman bearing bruises inside and out, and a hospice nurse. For three hours, we walk with them through the day, flitting from one to the other, feeling the fragmentation of their lives and of life as the rain pours down upon them, unrelentingly.
Long a believer in the importance of “not leaving my brains at the box-office”—as Donald Drew taught me years ago—I was desperately trying to make sense of it all. As I sat there in the dark, wondering why I was still there, I thought of Lesslie Newbigin’s perceptive insight about moral meaning: if the story as a whole makes no sense, there is no way for our individual stories to make any sense. This is the conclusion of a several-page long meditation on a conversation with a Hindu scholar, a friend of several decades who one day said to Newbigin, “I have read your Bible, and I find it to be a completely unique book. It offers a view of universal history, a meaning from beginning to end, and a view of the human person as a responsible actor in history.” Newbigin argues persuasively that the two go together, the one implies the other. I know that when I first read those words I had literal chills run down my spine. It was so true, deeply, profoundly true. How was it that the Hindu could see so clearly what many Christians could not? He saw where the line-in-the-sand was, and could see what it meant for human life—for pre-modern, modern, and post-modern man.
And then the story on-screen changes. The Jason Robards-character, long a major producer of TV-culture, full as it is of false hopes and dreams of the good life, is dying at home—alone. His life-long pursuit of money, sex, and power has left him by himself in the last hours of his life—except for someone he pays to be there, his hospice nurse, who amazingly seems to see his work as more a calling than mere career. He truly cares for the man he is being paid to care for.
The dying man begins to confess to his nurse, to acknowledge his waywardness, his follies, his vanities. Struggling for breath, he remembers his youth, his first love, the start of his skewed sexual prowess, the decisions he made as a young husband and father, his negligence over the years as a man with real responsibilities to others. It is painful stuff.
Regrets and Responsibilities
The transformation of the story begins right in the middle of this confession, as he roots his faults and flaws in his failure to be responsible. “Don’t let anyone ever say to you that you shouldn’t regret anything. Don’t let anyone do that! You regret what you want.” With the moral clarity that death sometimes brings, he sees his life as it truly is, he understands what it is that makes him human: that he has been given the responsibility of true choice, for which there are real consequences, for blessing and for curse. When I listened to him strain to hold onto his humanness, gasping for breath and aching to see his long-alienated son, Vaclav Havel’s straight-to-the-heart insight came to mind, “The secret of man is the secret of his responsibility.” At the end of his days, the dying man was overwhelmed with regret, and grievous as it was, he would not give it up. To give it up would be to give up his responsibility, and therefore his humanity.
Sons of Adam, daughters of Eve, we are able to respond, be responsible—it is the secret of being human. If that is not true, then this is a different universe than the one the Hindu scholar saw set forth in the Bible.
Very artfully, Anderson then draws in the other characters, relying upon the song, “Wise Up,” by Aimee Mann. (Quite profoundly, actually, Mann served as muse for Anderson; he literally wrote his script reflecting upon her music, even developing characters to embody her songs.) Each person, who before this moment has seemed set adrift in his or her own universe, begins to sing:
It’s not what you thought when you first began it
You got what you want now you can hardly stand it, though.
By now you know
It’s not going to stop, it’s not going to stop,
it’s not going to stop.
‘Til you wise up.
For me, this moment in the movie was an epiphany. The scales fell off. Anderson was telling a story that was coherent, after all. Their lives were twined together around the theme of human beings looking for love in all the wrong places. Doing so out of their own skewed sadnesses, they distort love, hurting others along the way. To a person, in the words of the Hindu scholar, they are “responsible actors in history”—therefore the choices are real, the consequences are real, for them and for others.
Seeing with the Eyes of the Heart
Remember where the film begins: a wager on the nature of the universe, on the meaning of human life. Horribly random lives and deaths… and I would like to think that this was just chance. Two hours later, we have lived through the day with these characters, seeing them in their multi-faceted, perhaps even multi-petaled, magnolia-like lives. With a different metaphor, Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times perceptively explains, “The connections are like a game of psychological pickup sticks.” Or as The Guardian put it, “The result is a giant mosaic that makes up one day in the life of the characters, constructed tile by tiny tile until a huge collective portrait emerges, with characters linked by what the film’s narrator calls ‘things that are not, one hopes, merely a matter of chance’.” The characters are, in Walker Percy’s memorable diagnosis, “lost in the cosmos”—but it is a cosmos where responsibility is at its heart, where regret must be held onto, for dear life, even at the door of death.
From the very first minutes, Magnolia is a film for those with eyes to see. But in the last hour the eyes of one’s heart would have to be shut to miss the signs of something more, of a story that makes sense of all the stories. If you have not seen it yet, I will not ruin the end of the film for you, but, better than Cecil B. De Mille ever imagined, there is a judgment in history from heaven before the film is finally done. Choices do have consequences, sometimes for curse. But the biblical vision is that they may be for blessing too. The last minutes of the film have scenes where there is no other word than grace adequate to describe what is portrayed. This was not just a matter of chance.
As is true, anytime and anywhere, this is for those with eyes to see. The online conversations about the film are remarkable for their overall cluelessness. People are intrigued, but can make no sense of what they have seen. The very notion of a moral accountability grounded in transcendence and perhaps even truth, is beyond the comprehension of most. Even with subtle and not-so-subtle biblical references—look for the numbers 8 and 2, from the first scenes on, and Ex. 8:2 twice —your neighbors and mine have no idea what to make of a judgment from heaven. As experienced a reviewer as Janet Maslin of The New York Times interpreted what I saw as an epiphany in this way: “But when that group sing-along arrives, Magnolia begins to self-destruct spectacularly. It is astonishing to see a film begin this brilliantly only to torpedo itself in its final hour.” Where the fragmentation and alienation wearies me, its “edginess” seems to satisfy and stimulate her.
Reading the Word and the World
How then do we make sense of a movie like Magnolia? First things first. I would never say to someone, “See this movie!” Some of those I love most in this world have not seen it, nor do they need to see it. Anderson is an unusually gifted filmmaker, but his stories are crude, e.g. they are full of very foul language. As one very thoughtful friend put it: “It is the most sacred and profane film I have ever seen.” There is an “in-your-face” quality to his work which can be offensive, especially to people who love what is holy.
And yet, and yet. At the very same time, the biblical images of salt and light—in particular, the way that Jesus as the Holy One of Israel was salt and light incarnate in the midst of a very unholy world, engaging in conversations and relationships with very unholy people—calls me to think again about these windows into
the human heart that film offers to us.
We are to learn to read the Word and the world, at the very same time. How is it possible? How do we, like the apostle Paul, walk through the marketplace of ideas and images of our day, holding onto the integrity of the gospel, and at the same time engage in “Mars Hill moments” with our family and friends, in our society and the wider world? I would suggest these commitments and questions.
See the film with a friend. And plan to talk about it afterwards. Film is too powerful a medium for us to sit silently in the dark alone. We need the accountability of other’s eyes and ears, especially for a film that is as cinematically and philosophically complex as Magnolia. Develop some questions that provide contours for your conversation. I almost always begin with, “So, what did you think?” It is open-ended, but it also reminds us “to not leave our brains at the box-office.” In the most profound way, we see and hear with our hearts. Because that is so true, the core commitments of our lives ought to be reflected in the questions we ask as we ponder the meaning of a movie. I have learned at the feet of Donald Drew and James Sire here, and pass along their insights to you. In Drew’s out-of-print Images of Man: A Critique of the Contemporary Cinema, he offers Descartes “I think therefore I am” as a tool for critically interacting with the medium of movies. He argues that films are always “images of man” and so are setting forth a particular understanding of what it means to be human, e.g., I work therefore I am, I love therefore I am, I kill therefore I am, I copulate therefore I am, etc. His insights are deeply Christian, formed by both a biblically rich vision of life and a love for film.
No one has written as thoughtfully and persistently about Christian thinking in the last generation as has Sire, and his books take his wisdom and passions all over the world. The first, The Universe Next Door, is 25 years old and now in its 3rd edition; in it he offers a list of good questions to ask of one’s reading, to help us “think worldviewishly” about our reading of anything and everything, e.g., what is reality? the basis of good and evil? the view of human nature? etc. The questions are easily transferable, from books to music to films.
Think contextually, bringing your life and learning with you into the theater, and then into the café afterwards. When I watch a movie, I try to remember that I am being engaged in a conversation by the filmmaker. He is arguing a point, sometimes very artfully, often very persuasively, and therefore it is “impolite” to just sit there, passive and unresponsive. I usually take a notepad with me, remembering key quotes and ideas for the conversation that I know is coming. But also bring you, the constellation of commitments and cares that makes you you, your reading of the Bible and of literature, of philosophy and theology, all the while asking, “How does what I am seeing and hearing connect to the rest of my life, to what I believe to be true about the universe? What is being argued for, and against? Where are the points of tension between God’s purposes for human life, and sin with its temptations and distortions?”
Read reviews of films you want to see, or have seen. The Internet gives us access to newspapers and magazines from all over the world, and with the press of a few keys it is possible to read what the best reviewers are saying. You will find that their opinions are diverse, some more insightful than others.
And finally, some films are not worth seeing. For my love of movies, I do not see very many, really. When I scan the newspaper or walk through our local Blockbuster, I have a hard time finding films that I think are worth my time, my heart, my mind. There is a lot which is the cinematic version of french fries and cotton candy—tastes good for a moment, but does no long-term good; in fact, it makes one unhealthy, rotting tummies and teeth before the day is done. Films can be like that too, so we need to choose well.
Is it possible to make sense of a movie like Magnolia? I think so. Should you see it? That I do not know. The New York Times Magazine offers as succinct a summary as I have read, seeing in and through its complexity “a three hour epic about family, responsibility, and forgiveness… a meditation on accountability at the end of the century.” I agree. It may not be the film for you or yours, but it is one that invites us into a conversation about ideas that matter, about the very fabric of our lives. And it does so with unusual cinematic skill.
It is also one that thoughtful, passionate students who love God and God’s world are seeing—time and again, and I think I know why. Anderson offers a window into the human heart, in fact a surprisingly truthful story of human life under the sun in telling the tale that the sinfulness of sin bears tragic consequences, and that the gracefulness of grace is rare and beautiful and a wonder to behold. In the universe in which we really do live and move and have our being—where responsibility is “the secret of man”—we have choices to make, for blessing and for curse. That is what it means to be human, and that is no small gift in a film from the heart of Hollywood.