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.

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