The Transcendent Made Immanent: Magnolia

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Where does saving come from?

On the (rather respectable) Image Journal/Arts & Faith Top 100, you will find P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia sitting at #16. In fact, it’s only one of a select few on the list that was produced in the last 15 years. This recognition likely means nothing to you unless you’ve seen the film. And if you have, you are likely wondering how this arguably dark and profane film about unexplainable events that surround 12 highly complex individuals is touted as one of the top spiritual films of all time.

Full disclosure first: I am biased. Magnolia is one of my all time favorite films of all time. It’s complex. It’s layered. It’s rich with meaning and wonder. And it moves you.

But I’ll be honest, these things don’t happen without a little commitment. It’s hard to watch. We come face-to-face with sexism, failed parenting, serious depression, drug use, sexual assault, suicide, and cancer (to name a few).

Awesome, huh?

As painful as it might appear, it’s this foundation that eventually brings Magnolia to a state of redemption. As Aimee Mann’s “Save Me” plays towards the film’s end, it levels the playing field – bringing each character to the same point of need and hope. And here’s where it gets interesting.

Anderson tackles this “save me” pursuit by culminating the film in the same place it began – in the extraordinary, in this case a rain of frogs. Yes, frogs. Anderson makes a decision to engage the transcendent, the Deus Ex Machina (as Donnie Darko’s director Richard Kelly names it) and place it within the narrative. In other words, Anderson is bringing that which is deemed beyond (i.e. the transcendent) and making it immanent – an important reality in various spiritual/religious pursuits, including Christianity.

In fact, it’s this climactic and extraordinary scene that Anderson seemingly pays homage to Christian scripture – in particular Exodus 8:2. I say seemingly because as deliberate as it may seem, Anderson claims that he was unaware of the Exodus verse. This said, he liked this discovery enough to go back and place the reference throughout the film. Exodus 8:2 reads as follows:

“If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country.”

Anderson allows the prophecy, the ensemble of characters bathe in the unexpected, and the audience is left with the introspection of their own life. And this is Anderson’s real genius. As the music elevates the visual and the narrative points beyond itself, we see that this dysfunctional cast is really no different than us. We all long to matter. We all seek understanding. And we all welcome grace. The question is – Where do we welcome it from? From within humanity? Or, from the outside?

“Save Me” by Aimee Mann