Toads Over Hollywood

von Maël Mubalegh, Lars Tore Halvorsen

The poetic French expression «film choral» meaning “musical choir”, has proven to be a useful concept in describing cinematic narratives made up of multiple storylines following several protagonists within the frame of one story. If we consider this evocative metaphor a stable genre the same way we do «western», «film noir» and «musical», it would take the form of a constant interweaving of character voices, building up to a complex piece of music with recurring themes and motifs unifying in an anticipated climax. An undisputed master of this genre from the American end in the second half of the 20th century was Robert Altman. In cult movies like Nashville, The Long Goodbye and The Player Altman succeeded in orchestrating the chaos of reality, crafting cinematographic frescoes abounding in both tones and pictorial layers. The Altmanesque vision is probably what the widely celebrated Hollywood auteur Paul Thomas Anderson had in mind while directing his third feature film Magnolia, released in 1999.

From the outset, this well over three-hour-long choral film presents itself to the audience as an intertwining of the separate lives of a handful of characters in an American town in the `90s. The absence of direct causal link between the discrete plot elements makes Magnolia unique but may just well be its Achilles’ heel. With the intervention of an extra-diegetic narrator in the introduction, the film aims at deconstructing the choral genre by providing it with a “meta” level, loaded with considerations evoking the “butterfly effect”. The premise is interesting, but after the introduction the film switches back to a more conventional storytelling pattern, leaving the highbrowesque prologue hanging in the air. The dramatic peak is reached towards the end of the film, with the iconic “frog rain”, stitching all the separate stories together and thus fulfilling the prerequisites of the film choral genre, in spite of Anderson’s deconstructivist impulses. The sudden rain of frogs is given no explanation, though the bus station advertisements barely visible in the background in some of the night shots might be biblical hints to the opening on the sky. Quite to the contrary, the seemingly absurd event that retroactively explains, or justifies, the fragmentary aspect of Magnolia coherently brings a tautological meta-discourse on fatality to its (happy) conclusion.

To help me put my thoughts in order after a second viewing of the film, I sat down with my good friend Lars Tore Halvorsen, who studied philosophy in Paris and who, among other things, works as a translator based in Oslo. Among his translations is one of the works of the French philosopher Clément Rosset into Norwegian. The following text is a transcription of our intense discussion.


Maël Mubalegh: Lars, you saw Magnolia some years ago. Can you tell me what your first impressions were then?

Lars Tore Halvorsen: Well, I remember watching it with a friend when I was about 15 years old. I was intrigued by the stylish overture and the explanation of the causal connection between events that on the surface seemed improbable; the philosophical question of whether things happen by chance or there is an explanation hidden somewhere. That’s was what caught my attention back then, at least. In the beginning I remember that we struggled tying the plot lines together. Then, towards the end, there is this epic moment where it starts raining frogs. I remember feeling disappointed. What to me looked like strings of coincidences were suddenly given a vague and rather sentimental explanation. There is an almost religious ending to the film. Now that I’ve watched the movie for the second time, my opinion hasn’t changed much. Of course, it’s much easier for me to spot the biblical references, which aren’t really hidden, and also much easier to recognize the film’s metaphysical allure… The story of Job comes especially to mind; everything is taken away from him and yet Job doesn’t abandon his God, even though he keeps asking why he is being punished. The characters might look like they are just having a string of bad luck, but afterwards they try to figure out why all this happened and whether deservedly or not.

Having seen the film for the third time today, I got the feeling that the frog rain (or more likely toads?) towards the end kind of triggers a series of events relating to the previous ones in the course of the movie. For instance, there is this funny moment when the policeman is talking to a former wunderkind. While they are having a conversation in front of this sea of crashed toads, a new toad falls down, but also the policeman’s gun – the one he couldn’t forgive himself for having lost earlier in the film. I think this moment can be read, like you just suggested, as a modern reinterpretation of the story of Job’s: All the things, be it objects or immaterial qualities, which the protagonists lost during the film, are replaced by new ones towards the end, as though there were a hidden puppet master ruling over Magnolia’s fictional world.

The narrative is important, in the sense that it comments on the way events follow from one another. The narrative reinstates an ordered succession of things, like a metaphysical force, in addition to arranging the film’s order of course. So that, even though they seem chaotic and fragmented, they are following some sort of inner logic. It is as if the film presents us with a cosmology. You can spot these sentences hinting at the idea that we cannot escape our own history or genesis.

“We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” I get the impression that this quote comes from the director himself. At least it doesn’t seem to be from the Bible.

The quote can be read as the director’s own comment. On the one hand it hints at the human tendency of not taking history or our own life story seriously enough. On the other hand it endows history with a will, as though history were coming for us.

The film can be interpreted as a user’s guide to life. In our everyday lives, we may not pay enough attention to details which in the end might be decisive. Magnolia is the pristine model of human existence through which we can sharpen all these blurry areas, made even blunter by the daily grind. Paul Thomas Anderson unties the blindfold we usually deem necessary when confronting reality. Small separate events build up a meaningful causal chain and lead to consequences that with hindsight may explain the seemingly absurd character of life itself.

This is also expressed in the film through the reference to the butterfly effect…

Right, especially at the very beginning of the film and at the very end – there is suddenly a narrator speaking in voice-over.

Magnolia is supposed to look fragmented, constituted by bits and pieces not hanging together. Everything is designed to look discontinuous and more or less simultaneous, but the more you follow these individual stories, the more they eventually lead towards a certain higher order. There is a hierarchical structure in place, in which some events are more important than others. So the structure is not flat, it’s building momentum as we head towards some kind of final judgment. Actually there is some kind of judgment in the end, which fits well with the narrator’s words about history not being done with us.

I think this is precisely what makes Magnolia difficult to talk about. There are some elaborate, even beautiful scenes. You can of course isolate these and talk about how good the film is at «mise en scène», but I think this would lead to a misinterpretation, since every fragment, every individual story, adds up to a harmonious whole. In my opinion, one of the main problems of the film is that it is exhaustingly long, yet it is only possible to evaluate it on the basis of what happens in the last twenty minutes. This is problematic, since we are then dealing with a masterfully staged movie which nonetheless only consists of its plot. Only the narrative gives meaning to the single elements. To me, the movie is both crystal clear, in the sense that there is no secret message in it, but being crystal clear in this way is very much like an empty box. The opportunity for spectators to fill it with fantasies or projections is missing, unlike with the other beautiful empty boxes of recent American cinema, such as Lynch’s Mulholland Dr.

I can relate to this feeling of opening an empty box. The film starts off with a lofty discussion around chronology and coincidence. It is designed to confuse the spectator. At first you’re thrown out of balance by a massive philosophical question. Right after that you are shipped into a film that tries to confuse you until the very last moment, where the narrative comes to the rescue by restoring sense. You are stripped of your interpreting tools only in order to get them back later. Like you said, this is deceiving. The movie encourages you to swallow a metaphysical explanation given in the end in answer to a question that was meant to confuse you from the outset. There is an almost religious violence against the spectator. You’re meant to be driven into a fog only the narrator can get you out of. The way it is done is by an almost magical explanation, delivered at the moment where everything falls into place. This gives a strong impression of a reunited story or a reordered totality. But only an impression.

In my view this is one of the main flaws of Magnolia’s aesthetics. It’s a meta-subversion of the film choral genre, where the characters collide with one another haphazardly. The film is retrograde in that it attempts to deconstruct the genre it still wants to fit into. It provides a meta-reflection on the choral genre while trying to hypnotize the viewer at the same time, holding him in a hallucinatory state of the kind only Hollywood films produce. We never question what we see in the moment that we are seeing it. This is, for me, the key quality of the classical Hollywood era. These films were orderly composed universes without any escape door for the audience, since everything felt very natural. The illusory power of the film medium produced this natural order that quite perfectly imitated the one we experience in our everyday life. In Magnolia, on the other hand, PTA tries to mimic this classical Hollywood naturalism while simultaneously striving to deliver a meta-reflection. This surplus level makes everything hard to follow since we never know where we, as an audience, are supposed to position ourselves. That’s the paradox of the movie: as you noted, everything falls into place, but the audience is stuck juggling between the two levels. This alternation obviously wasn’t intended on the director’s part, it rather seems to be an unconscious residual product of the film itself. This makes Magnolia stimulating to analyze, but in the end it also makes for its central problem.

Interestingly, in Michael Haneke’s choral film from the ‘90s, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, there is no reason why things happen the way they do. The shattered individual story fragments are bound together by an incident, but this event itself doesn’t give any sense to the previous sequences and certainly doesn’t constitute a cosmic totality. The individual storylines are bound together by the accident, but this does not make signify their belonging to a «bigger picture» or «greater story». The various events are simply interwoven by a process with no real hierarchical structure in the storytelling and no sense of morality. You end up with coincidence as the film’s vehicle, whereas in Magnolia, it’s the opposite –a sublime moment gives sense to every single destiny, as judgement is delivered over the lives lived and the choices taken. In Magnolia, the whole is given as a sum of the human activity, and this summing up points just as much towards a common root, behind the intertwining of seemingly disparate events, as to a final judgment.

We talked earlier about Hollywood films imitating life and how Magnolia belongs to this tradition. At the same time, the toad rain is highly unrealistic. None of the characters get hit by the falling toads. It’s like a punishment of God, without the harmful consequences. This sudden shift neutralizes the viewer’s participation, as if things cease to matter, not unlike certain TV soap operas, yet far from the thrilling and uncertain irony a director like David Lynch conveys in the “soapy” moments of his films.

The frog rain is definitely more of a fantasy scene. Not only the height from which the frogs fall but also the massive density in which they arrive. The meteorological phenomenon of frog rain has been scientifically described time and again. Tornadic waterspouts might suck up whole populations of frogs and transport them over quite a distance, but the final scene in Magnolia is nevertheless highly exaggerated. It looks more like a supernatural intervention in the realism. Most American film viewers are probably acquainted with the frog rain in the Old Testament. If we take it for granted that they are, it logically follows that they recognize the scene as mythological rather than naturalistic. The frog rain then looks like a punishment, but might just as well be a revelation,like the burning light before revelation irradiates.

Or like a curse hiding a more luminous event… Nevertheless, in Magnolia we are confronted with a “fake” apocalyptic event without a following revelation. It ends with a very traditional, conventional conclusion of the guy next door sleeping with the girl next door. So, all things considered, it’s very much a frustrating ending. On the one hand we get a technically well-crafted movie, on the other hand a smoke screen leaning on a void.

I can see why you think the film is emotionally and intellectually flat. The Hollywood happy end is very often constructed like a set of concentric circles: from cosmological unity down to the individual identity. It is the banal ending where everything converges. This omnipresent harmony is also musically orchestrated. But going back to the frog rain, the scene is still hanging in the air, so to speak. I also think something is missing, but I’m not sure how else it could be done. It gives everything a sense of purpose, but it is disappointing insofar as it brings all the singular questions in the film over to a new level and thereby abstracts them from their singularity.

I’m not sure if I agree. Anyhow, to me the ending is nothing more than lazy plot writing. It is a convenient way of solving all the “unsolved” enigmas. Leaving everything open and undecided would have been much braver, in my opinion. Based on the frog rain coming out of the blue, it is legitimate to expect a much more operatic, «grandiose» ending. I’m really confused with that moment in the film.

What you just said made me think of something not directly related but maybe still interesting. Very often when there is a death scene, at least in literature, involving snow or a snowstorm. So using some kind of meteorological element instead of introducing the supernatural is a well-established way of suggesting eternity. In Magnolia we get both. But I also think (and here comes another digression) that the idea of causality in the beginning of Magnolia is paired with the idea of “what goes around comes around”. When somebody says “what goes around comes around”, it’s very often hard to tell what they mean. If you for instance did something wrong and something bad happened to you and I commented on it by saying “what goes around comes around”, would it mean that I was referring to a metaphysical order imposing a punishment on you, or would it be a more down-to-earth statement? So just as a frog rain can be understood both as realistic and supernatural, the notion of causality can be seen as both that of «karma» and “blind” succession. In Magnolia this ambiguity is intentional and important. We are reminded to be cautious because «what goes around comes around». We discussed Haneke’s 71 Fragments earlier. This film is very different. In 71 Fragments, previous events cannot teach us anything. There is nothing the characters could or should have learned from the past or done otherwise to avoid the catastrophe. The characters doing something unimportant or something nice will all end up getting the same “reward” as the next guy doing the opposite. All events are flat. «A leaf falls, a baby dies.» – reality is indifferent.

This is also something we find in Haneke’s last feature to date, which is also a kind of “film choral” with the (un)programmatic title Happy End. The storytelling base is quite the same as in Magnolia (children harmed by the world of adults, disastrous Oedipus patterns, pathological solitude, hurt egos, lack and transmission of guilt from one generation to the following), even though the narrative is focused on a single family. But ,once again, Haneke doesn’t stage it to fit a reward/punishment pattern. There is no moral overlooking judgment, we’re only confronted with a course of events, to which we have to mentally establish the red, guiding thread by ourselves.

In Magnolia, the opposite becomes very apparent in the scenes featuring the character Frank T.J. Mackey, played by Tom Cruise, who has more or less concocted a whole background story for himself. A fallacious one, filled with whatever he needs for his public ego. The way he depicts himself fits his moral vision: It’s all about having the absolute control over one’s own life, becoming whoever one wants to be, as long as one is strong enough. So Mackey neglects his background and is of course confronted with it. There is a very clear discussion of this topic in the film: What will happen to you if you don’t take your own personal wounds seriously, if you don’t listen to your pain or to the truth about yourself. You’re right in saying that in Haneke’s film things happen much more arbitrarily. There might be a reaction to whatever action, but something unforeseen might just as well block that reaction.

In a “traditional” choral film, the melody line is brought to a “conclusive” conclusion. To the viewer it suddenly becomes very clear that the story ends where it ends. We gain satisfaction, so to speak, from this fulfillment. There is no doubt, no «beyond» to the story we’ve seen unfolding. It’s like a box that closes perfectly. We can reopen it at any moment, but it always needs this closing.

Your remark is in line with what we discussed earlier. In one sense, every film makes its own universe. Those universes look different from each other, even within the Hollywood economy. The Magnolian universe is a causal one. When everything is embedded in a line of causality, all new events end up as reconfigurations of the preceding states. Just like you said, this makes the whole world look like a closed system. It’s like a puzzle. All the pieces are there. They will reconfigure, but in principle you should be able to read what the next picture will look like by observing the preceding one. So you get a closed metaphysics, not so far from what Nietzsche coined when he described the universe as a definite room and a definite space with forces changing shapes – which also leads to the eternal reoccurrence of the same pattern. It’s arguably easier to create a satisfactory ending if you are working with this kind of presupposition. The opposite metaphysic force is the one we find in Bergson’s writings, where causality cannot explain the radical new. Michael Haneke is a director who is not afraid of introducing the incidental «non-derived event» in his films. So here the system is not closed, since events are popping up, as if introduced from the outside. What we might discuss is the rain of frogs, which brings me to the following question: is the rain of frogs something new, introduced to a closed system or is it, just like you mentioned, only a lazy way of making sure that all the threads are intertwined? Is it just an umbrella to catch the universe? Is it a way of finding the “stop” button? Or is it something else?

As I said, on a rough level this ending works as a convenient way of closing the system, since the frog rain is so immediate. It happens so suddenly that there is no sense of space left. In my opinion it should have been brought to life much more carefully, so as to build up a feeling of progressive invasion – of toads colonizing the human civilization. Strangely, it had completely slipped off my mind, but now it’s striking to me that the frogs in Magnolia can also be read as the absolute negative of Hitchcock’s The Birds. The frogs are never really filmed as a threat, you never get a sense of real space in the frame. On the contrary, The Birds can be seen a thousand times and still the birds’ presence continues to challenge you. You don’t get a grasp on them, although they are omnipresent in the movie. That’s also what makes Hitchcock so modern. In PTA’s film, on the other hand, there is no tension. There is no thrill to the toads dropping down. The Birds is an evocative film with a limited set of artistic tools. What is so frustrating about Magnolia is that the financial means were obviously more than sufficient to build a spectacular ending, but the film never feels the slightest bit chaotic.

I also think the frog rain is there because Anderson needed something to encapsulate his fictional cosmos. In contrast to Hitchcock’s birds, the frogs are just stupidly falling from the sky. You cannot make them a real agent, they’re just an element falling down on you. But, more importantly, they are tying all the stories together, delimiting a definite geographical space, because there is nothing happening outside of the frog event once it is there. Unlike The Birds, there is no merging together of two different worlds – the human one, the one of birds – in Magnolia. But all the narrative threads also become simultaneous via the frogs. Suddenly we understand that everything is happening at the same time. What was chronological becomes simultaneous. So the frogs are used to encircle the cosmos spatially, to build walls around it. At least, nothing is filmed outside of this world of raining frogs. But it also limits time. It makes time stop, because all of a sudden everything happens simultaneously, namely in the moment when the frogs are falling. So, that’s the director’s way of – just like you said – boxing in the universe. Unlike Hitchcock’s birds, the frogs are used like a shield that can hold the universe. There is no psychology to them, and in that sense no intention in them – Which makes me think that the birds are much, much more disconcerting, chaotic, thought-provoking, whereas these frogs are loudly and clearly saying: “this is the point where you can’t think anymore”.