The Minor/Major Hope Offered in Magnolia

This is the third in a series of articles that will explore the musicality of film and how a deeper understanding of film music might grant us insight into the spiritual dimensions of both film and filmgoing.  Part 1 on the marimbas of American Beauty can be read here and part two on the on-the-nose use of music in Watchmen can be read here.

For more thoughts on the spiritual and theological significance of music in film, check out Kutter’s upcoming book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience (available January 2013).

Authors Note: No work of art stands the test of time simply because of its formal qualities. Regardless of how perfectly a painting or a poem or a sonata is crafted, art that transforms is art that continues to address new and ever-changing circumstances. I wrote the bulk of this article long before the recent shootings in Newtown CT.  But as I read it again in light of this tragedy, I am reminded why Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia continues to haunt my imagination.

It raises a number of questions that are nearly universal in scope but nevertheless have very real and immediate resonances: in a world marked by violence, chaos, and darkness, can we speak of hope? Is it even appropriate to do so? What does community look like – what does family look like – when we have wounded one another beyond measure? How do we live in response to the finality of death?

Magnolia does not attempt to directly answer any of these questions. Enduring art rarely does. Rather, it offers a mirror into which we can look, reflecting back to us an image of our broken selves and our fractured communities. And all we are asked in return is to have the courage to not look away. My hope is that, rather than ignoring what we cannot figure out, we find the strength to stare horror in the face long enough to realize that we are simply looking at ourselves. – Kutter Callaway

In his lovely book, Useless Beauty, Robert Johnston suggests that “the need for a wisdom that goes beyond cultural values is at the heart of Magnolia” (p. 80). Indeed, as the film’s numerous montages repeatedly weave in and out of the lives of the film’s nine principal characters, a profound wisdom emerges that seemingly defies logic. These interlaced vignettes point to the reality that, even when the random and chaotic events of life fail to make any sense or suggest any larger purpose, a greater interconnectedness envelops us all.

But there is more. This interconnectedness is not the result of mere coincidence. As the film’s narrator states during the prologue: “It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just ‘something that happened.’ This cannot be ‘one of those things’… This was not just a matter of chance. These strange things happen all the time.”

[Editor’s note – SPOILERS follow throughout.]

Perhaps no event in the film is stranger or more inexplicable than the torrential rain of frogs that occurs during the film’s climax. Although wholly mysterious, this deluge functions as a supernatural catalyst for good amidst a number of seemingly arbitrary events. It forces the characters (and the audience) to “confront a reality that is beyond their ability to control” (82).  It also suggests that, in some way, from what would otherwise seem to be happenstance and heartache, meaning can and does emerge.

As the film progresses, the characters discover a wisdom deeply imbedded in the chaos of their lived experiences – one that suggests that the meaning of life is fundamentally relational. Thus, the film’s tragic quality issues from the fact that each of the characters has attempted to manufacture this meaning at some point in the past, thereby denying their fundamentally inter-relational constitution and wreaking havoc in their already fragmented lives.

However, for Johnston, the point at which these characters finally recognize their need to give themselves over to a relationally oriented wisdom occurs when the characters sing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” That is, “the song connects the characters with one another and with the audience in ways that the story structure and dialogue cannot. It reveals that they are at the same point in their transformation process” (81).

Here, Johnston rightly points to the centrality of Magnolia’s music in his interpretation of the film. The corporate singing of Mann’s song does in fact function as an expression of the characters’ collective desire to “wise up” and to embrace a “wisdom that defies our traditional human agendas, whether power, fame, pleasure, or knowledge” (82).

However, Johnston engages far more with the meaning of Mann’s lyrics than with the music per se, thus interpreting her song essentially as melodic dialogue. In doing so, Johnston unintentionally overlooks both the musical significance of “Wise Up” and its relationship to a number of other pieces of music – a relationship that provides the context for Mann’s song and allows it to function in the transformative manner that he suggests. Thus, we can bolster and even expand upon Johnston’s interpretation by simply approaching the film’s music first and foremost as music.

For example, the majority of the non-diegetic musical pieces in Magnolia are constructed almost entirely in a minor mode. This is true of both Mann’s popular, lyrical music and the orchestral music that underscores large portions of the film. In this way, the music that precedes the corporate singing of “Wise Up” establishes a relatively dark and brooding atmosphere through its predominantly minor modes. This atmosphere reflects and reinforces the tragic tone that characterizes the first two and a half hours of the film.

Yet, significantly, as it is played in a major mode, the appearance of “Wise Up” counteracts this musical trend. In doing so, the song points to the significance of the scene, not simply because the characters sing along with a non-diegetic song, but also because the shift to a major mode occurs in the midst of the film’s otherwise minor score.

Moreover, as the major/minor distinction functions primarily as an emotional category for most filmgoers, the musical parameters of “Wise Up” signify the characters’ readiness to embrace their hard-won wisdom as much, if not more than, the song’s lyrical content. For, especially within a context that “feels” predominantly heartrending and diseased, Mann’s song confronts the audience as a moment of emotional transformation – one that moves us from sadness to joy, from fragmentation to integration

So this song does indeed function as the emotional heart of the film. However, we recognize its significance, not simply because of the words that the characters sing, but also because of the film’s entire musical context.

Significantly, while it serves as the emotional turning point in the film’s narrative arch, “Wise Up” is not the only music we hear in a major key. Rather, immediately following the enigmatic shower of frogs, the narrator from the prologue returns to remind us of the strange-but-true stories that began the film.

As the narrator speaks and we see images of the film’s various characters finally embracing the relational wisdom that unites them as human beings, we hear an orchestral piece titled “So Now Then” played in a major mode.

Here, then, is the culmination of the personal and communal transformation that begins with the “Wise Up” sequence. Indeed, our understanding of one piece of music is not complete without the other. Simply voicing the need to wise up is only one part of the process of transformation.

Just as Mann’s song functions to reveal that each character is at the same point in his or her transformation process, “So Now Then” functions as a realization, albeit a partial one, of that transformation. If considered in this light, we are able to bolster Johnston’s claim that “the movie thus presents through music and image a coherent understanding of life, one rooted in others and quickened by the reality of death” (85). Yet, as we hear these two songs in a major mode sound and resound in the midst of a minor score, the film also offers to us an understanding of life that is rooted in something that seems as incomprehensible in the modern world as frogs falling from the sky: hope.

Kutter Callaway is the Director of Church Relations and an Affiliate Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. His theological musings are often focused on contemporary culture. His book, Scoring Transcendence: Contemporary Film Music as Religious Experience, on the theological significance of music in film, is due out in January of 2013 through Baylor University Press. He also contributed to Halos and Avatars (2010), the first book on theology and video games, and Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), a dictionary of religion and popular culture.