Why Are There Frogs Falling from the Sky?

(Culture Snob’s first offering for its own Misunderstood Blog-a-thon.)

Frogs!Why does nobody take the frogs seriously? Why does nobody question them?

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, the cataclysmic, apocalyptic rain of frogs seems casually accepted. Nobody says: “That’s some fucked-up shit, those frogs.”

And I guess it’s a testament to Anderson’s script, direction, tone, pacing, and heavy foreshadowing that I’ve never heard anybody say anything along the lines of: “You know, I was with it right up until the frogs.” I led a small-group discussion on the movie last year, and nobody had any problem with the amphibians, and nobody ascribed a grand meaning to them. As Stanley Spector says in the library, with wide eyes but no curiosity: “This happens. This is something that happens.”

Stanley is a child, though, and it’s dangerous to confuse his extensive knowledge of trivial facts with wisdom. His statement comes in direct opposition to the words of the movie’s infrequent narrator, who admonishes the audience in the prologue not to brush off coincidences and strange events: “This is not just ‘something that happened.’ This cannot be ‘one of those things.’”

So: What are we to make of the frogs?

Most Christians and Jews will recognize the frogs as a motif from Exodus. In case that wasn’t clear, Anderson fills Magnolia with the numbers eight and two (the chapter and verse, respectively, in which the frogs appear) and several explicit references to Exodus 8:2. The frogs are one of the plagues that visit Egypt as God tries to compel Pharaoh to release the Israelites from enslavement.

You probably knew all of those things, but that basic background doesn’t illuminate what the frogs mean, or why they’re so prominently featured in a seemingly irreligious movie.

Magnolia has but one devout character — police officer Jim Kurring — and the script implicitly mocks him as a simpleton whose piety seems contingent on favorable treatment from God. When he loses his gun, he thinks the Lord has abandoned him and begs for help. Kurring is good-hearted but not rigorous in his faith.

And the movie is populated with lost, lonely people. Addicts, adulterers, misogynists. Greedy, mean, egocentric. Friendless, pathetic, stunted. They’re miserable, and many of them are wicked to boot. These characters are so far gone that only something nearly miraculous could awaken them from their moral and spiritual slumber. God’s weapon of choice? Frogs.

You might dispute the divine source of the frogs, noting that reports of natural frog precipitation are hardly unprecedented. But the movie offers no hint of a rational explanation.

More importantly, a scientific accounting for the frogs would render them meaningless as a narrative device. The amphibian downpour would merely be, in Stanley’s words, “something that happens,” no different from a spectacularly heavy rain. And if the frogs are insignificant beyond assisting the plot, then Magnolia must be a terrible, lazy movie. Either the frogs are an essential, pregnant component of the film, or they ruin it.

I subscribe to the former view, and the only way to justify the frogs is to bring God into the picture — the jealous, angry, ostentatious Lord of the Old Testament. Sometimes you gotta break out the big guns, particularly when people are this spiritually dead.

And once you have their attention, you can add a little sugar. The climatic fury is tempered in the denouement by the simple truths spoken by Stanley and Jim, and the gentle assistance offered by Jim and Phil, and the mother’s comfort given by Rose. They inject some New Testament values: Love thy neighbor, and treat others as you’d like to be treated. “You have to be nicer to me.” “Sometimes people need a little help. Sometimes people need to be forgiven.”

And sweet Phil Parma, the only character to consistently show empathy and compassion for another human being in this profane place, cries.

Phil wept.

Actually, I was someone who wasn’t with Magnolia, even before the frogs. Aside from isolated moments (I loved the cast sing-a-long to the Aimee Mann song), the whole film played to me as if the religion in question was Robert Altman (a fine choice for a religion, if you ask me), but it was being preached by a false prophet. The opening sequence with its incredible tales, two of which had previously recounted on the TV series Homicide, made me feel even more like Anderson was just grabbing things from anywhere he could and trying to dress it up to look like his own original creation.

I wasn’t aware that two of those stories had been lifted from Homicide.

I obviously feel more kindly to Magnolia than you do, but I think your criticism of it is more valid than the more-common complaint, which was that it was a mess.

I drew the comparison to Altman in a previous essay — and I get no points for that, I know — mostly to contrast them. There are essential distinctions, for me, in tone and empathy.

To be fair, the stories in Magnolia’s prologue are lifted from general urban-legendhood, as were, presumably, the Homicide storylines. Snopes links! I don’t see anything problematic with lifting existing stories in either case, but then, I have a bad attitude towards narrative.

One thing I forgot to write before (which was one of my principle problems with the movie) is that the Ricky Jay setup leads you to believe it’s about to tell a story of amazing coincidence but in the end, the film isn’t about coincidence, it’s just about a large cast of characters, some connected, some not, who all happen to be in the same place at the same time when frogs fall from the sky.

That’s a very literal interpretation of the prologue.

I read it in a more general way: “Pay attention. Don’t dismiss things just because they’re strange. Give yourself over to the story.”

To me, Anderson is emphasizing the importance of the suspension of disbelief with this particular movie.

As a big fan of “Homicide”, I wonder how the fact that I missed the opening of ‘Magnolia’ affected how I saw the film.

(I finally caught up with the opening just a few weeks ago. Didn’t remember those episodes, but it’s been longer now, obviously, since I saw those episodes.)

“the film isn’t about coincidence, it’s just about a large cast of characters, some connected, some not,”

That’s a quote from a critique a few posts up, i just watched the film my first time 5 minutes ago and if during the movie you look at the tv screen (in the daughters house/apartment ) when the show “what do kids know” as the credits are rolling up you see that the shows creator was Partridge the old man dying, so all of the characters are connected through this single individual which is extremely coincidental, “some connected, some not” i think you may have spoken too soon without actually understanding the films subtleties, there is much more to the plot than is revealed in the cameras central focus. Perhaps you should watch again...

I would have preferred to have not seen the opening vignettes. I was looking for the sort of interlocking lives and coincidences like in the movie “Grand Canyon”. Intead their were two stories (dying horrible father & brilliant wunderkind) that showed through compare/contrast:
1) The reprecusions of the choices we make
2) The power of forgiveness

The opening sets you up for a WTF! moment that never comes. Instead, the opening should have been stories about how a minor choice can change a life forever. For example, I think there is a case of someone who didn’t go on the Titanic because they were late or the famous coin-toss that resulted in the death of Richie Valens.

Is it a fucking coincidence that I just wrote a 4-5 paragraph essay on my thoughts on the movie Magnolia, typed in the “CAPTCHA”, and previewed it. Now, it’s mysteriously gone....if it doesn’t show up, I was writing it for the feedback of Culture Snob.....Come off it, I’m the prophet...gonna tell you ‘bout the Worm...Fuck!!!! I hate computers, whenever I write something that takes more than 2 minutes, it disappears! Zoe in Sarasota

Zoe: The computer ate your comment. No sign of it on the system. Sorry.

If you preview the comment, you also need to repeat a CAPTCHA on the preview page.

I just watched “Magnolia” for the first time, and in the daze afterwards I stumbled on this article. I found it very interesting, but after looking on imdb I found that Anderson had the idea for the frogs before being aware of the biblical story. It was after finding out that he incorporated all the 8s and 2s. What do you make of that? To me it means that, on one level, Anderson incorporated the religious story into his film which definitely makes it relevant when discussing the frogs. I get that. In fact, it’s easier for me to process this way. But, on the other hand, that means Anderson had this idea as the original ending anyway, without any religious framework. What the hell does that mean? I guess it could still suggest God interfering, and maybe it does. Maybe it’s just a huge coincidence that he thought of that and then found the perfect story to support this image. Anyways, something to think about.

Nathan: I prefer to look at the text rather than what the creator intended, or what the creator intended originally. And regardless of direct references to Exodus, the rain of frogs is inevitably going to be interpreted by many people in its cultural context. That is, it’s going to be read religiously, and it’s a valid interpretation no matter what the creator intended.

But if we’re going down this path, I’d say that many good or great ideas were born from bad ones. So if Paul Thomas Anderson initially intended the frog storm independent of religion (which I think would be a bad idea), that doesn’t affect how I feel about his ultimate decision to reference religion (which is a good one).

Isn’t the frog storm supposed to be ironic? After seeing multiple characters in their cars, and knowing that many of these players have connections to one another, then isn’t the trained viewer supposed to expect some deus ex machina. Except Anderson plays on the term and gives us something completely (un)natural. I feel like it is equally as Greek as it is Hebrew, and i think Aristophanes would agree.

Seeing Is Not Believing

In Magnolia, we witness a visible and cataclysmic act of God. But in a strange paradox, no one in the film—nor those of us watching the film—recognizes its significance or even acknowledges the role of God. How could we? For the magician-director completes his trick by cueing the narrator for the final distraction. When the falling frogs stop, the narrator emerges again to blur any meaning we might have discerned:

“There are stories of coincidence and chance and intersections and strange things told . . . And which is which and who only knows? And we generally say, ‘Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.’ . . . And it is in the humble opinion of this narrator that strange things happen all the time. And so it goes, and so it goes. And the book says . . . ‘We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.’ ”

Anderson’s sleight-of-hand returns once again in the narrator’s meandering monologue. We are encouraged to accept the fact that these things happen all the time, and that we shouldn’t over-think any of it. Focus your attention instead on the juicy piece of meat—the last sentence. The profound yet irrelevant quote: “The book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.’ ” It’s a quote taken, appropriately enough, from, The Natural History of Nonsense by Bergen Evans. We should consider the whole thing “nonsense.”

But if we can see past this distraction then we can discern Magnolia’s deepest subtext. The frogs reveal Paul Thomas Anderson’s longing for a visible and tangible experience of God. One need not be “religious” to long for a cataclysmic and visible sign from heaven, a sign that we are not simply living in the chaos of a meaninglessly spinning world. Deep down, in secret places, we long for something so tangible that no one can deny it was divine intervention—like Jules’s (Samuel L. Jackson) near-death experience in Pulp Fiction. When we see it in reality, we will know it is truth.

But that’s the trouble. Reality doesn’t tell us about truth. Unfortunately, the stubborn world of truth is not expressed or accepted in a real world that is seen. We nonetheless continue our longing for truth to be made visible in this tangible world. We go on believing that if we just see something for real we will believe it is true. But reality never seems to last. As soon as it happens it begins to decay. Reality, residing in memory, has a half-life, but truth, which does not live in our mind, is far more tenacious.

The visible plague of frogs faded in the Pharaoh’s memory, its effects present only as long as he could see them. It is no coincidence that his part of the Exodus story does not end well. The response from Stanley’s father reveals that the effect has, similarly, already begun to decay for the adults in Magnolia.

And the book says, “Blessed are those who have believed but have not seen.”

Strange things happen all the time. This is the belief of the narrator. If we see it in a movie--or perhaps read it in a book--we are inclined not to believe it--but our narrator assures us that these strange coincidences do happen all the time. But the narrator is telling us about a strange coincidence that did “really happen” even though we are inclined not to believe it because we are seeing it in a movie.

The only allusions to God or religion in the film are the symbolic links to Exodus, where that narrative is explicitly about God and “strange events” that “really happened”. But here too we are faced with irony. We are disinclined to believe those stories too, having read about them in a book, even though strange events like that “happen all the time” in the opinion of our narrator.

But in contrast to the ancient stories, our modern or perhaps “post-modern” story is ambiguous. We do not see clearly the hand of God intervening in judgement, against the sins of the oppressors. Instead we see coincidence, and are left to infer if there is any meaning to such strange things, or if they are just strange things and nothing more.

Some have claimed that after the “rain of frogs” we see a new reality emerge. Perhaps the sins of the fathers have been healed or forgiven. People have been saved, in the words of the Aimee Mann song. The gun is returned. The addict seems freed from her addiction. This is what we would expect from the biblical narrative, where the plagues save the people from Pharaoh. But we don’t believe those strange things anymore, so we aren’t sure. In a postmodern move we are left wondering, with different perspectives: “It happened, it really happened,” but is it a coincidence? After all, strange things happen all the time. There is no certainty of a divine intervention, of a forgiveness and a redemption from the terrible effects of the sins of the fathers, visited on their children and their children’s children--especially if we see it in a movie, or read of it in a book.

Franks’ father dies looking into the face of his son. Is there forgiveness? Perhaps not. As mentioned, the nurse weeps. The other father’s suicide is, ironically and coincidentally thwarted by frogs, but this is no act of forgiveness, just a random coincidence according to our narrator. His drug addicted daughter seems better, and the cop also leads the Macy character to make restitution. But the boy who longs for his father’s love, like Frank, is coldly rejected. There is left, in the experience of those “in the movie”, only the random coincidences of strange events, and there is no clear hand of God, no clear sense of meaningful redemption or forgiveness. There is for some and not for others: “and so it goes, and so it goes...”

But we are at least reminded, in the book, that the past isn’t through with us. Even if we cannot see a clear hand of God, as was so clear in the Exodus, the past will continue to hold us in its grip. Every now and then things will get so bad, and our sins will be so destructive of our relationships, that only a plague of such frightening proportion will be sufficient to re-orient us to a new future. For some that will be the intervention of God, but for others, merely a random strange event. Post-modernism is all about perspective, and there are multiple perspectives in this film, with no meta-narrative to guide us, only ambiguity.

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