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