If you refuse to let them
go, I will plague your whole country with frogs.
— Exodus 8:2
Everyone wants to talk about the frogs. Everyone loves to point out those little references to the numbers 8 and 2. I’m one of those people, and in fairness, these are some of the more interesting features of Magnolia. But in a recent viewing, it seemed to me that the prologue had been seriously overlooked and underrated. Here we have these three wonderfully crafted, fast-paced vignettes—“the account of the hanging of 3 men . . . and a scuba diver . . . and a suicide.” Dark, yet delightful, each one a metaphor and foreshadowing. And from this prologue we learn to expect more of the same basic structure in the body of Magnolia. That is, the astounding and unbelievable confluence of unrelated events and people.
One vignette tells of an account, as reported in the New York Herald, of the hanging of three men. On November 26, 1911 a resident of Greenberry Hill, London was robbed and murdered. The perpetrators were identified as Joseph Green, Stanley Berry, and Daniel Hill. Green, Berry, Hill. The other vignettes are even more amazing, but harder to explain.
Sure enough, the central narrative of Magnolia is structured around a similarly intricate web of disparate people and events. In the end they all intersect through random chance on a single day in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. It isn’t long before nine separate stories emerge as parallel stories and are eventually gathered into a single story.
The medium of film is used by screenwriters (and audiences) like dreams—to work out their own unconscious pain, pathology, and passion. Paul Thomas Anderson, the writer and director of Magnolia, is no exception. Its complex characters and storyline serve this purpose.
The trailers tell us it is a film about love lost, gained, given, and withheld. It is a film about mistakes made between fathers and sons. And finally, perhaps the least subtle topic of all, it is a film about how the past will decide what happens in the end. It is a notion made clear by the line repeated throughout the film: “The book says, ‘We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.’ ”
But then frogs start falling from the sky.
And we can’t help it—we watch, curious, then fascinated, wanting to know, and ultimately realizing that we desperately need to know what this has to do with the story.
Well, perhaps nothing. It’s likely that the frogs and the Exodus 8:2 references throughout the film are merely a surprise cinematic twist. In the end, they have little to do with the actual content of the film. They’re just a treat for film geeks like me, so we can spend time in a “where’s Waldo” hunt for the numbers 8, 2, and any references to frogs. In many cases, the foreshadowing feels like a less-than-subtle thump on the head.
But the numerological foreshadowing is largely found in the margins. Even the margins of the title reveal a reference. The word “Magnolia” has 8 letters, 2 of which are the letter “a”—the 8th and 2nd letters of the word. In case you missed that one, there are over fifty of these references throughout the film (proof of my geekness). For some reason P. T. Anderson doesn’t want us to be too surprised when the frogs fall. So, maybe they do mean something.
Perhaps the frogs falling from the sky are not a random interjection, but rather the only possible conclusion to this story. In this scenario, the prologue is really the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.
Inanimate object lessons.
These vignettes serve to distract rather than direct. They distract from their intended purpose—to introduce the true basis of the film. Perhaps the only real purpose of the prologue is to introduce the numerological foreshadowing laced liberally throughout the film. In the first story, one of the hanged men is wearing the number 82. In the second story, the number on the side of the plane is 82. And in the third story, cables to the left of Sidney Barringer’s feet are coiled in the shape of an 8 and a 2. The actual stories themselves are of little consequence.
The implausible interplay of characters and events throughout the film serves a similar function. It is simply another distraction—the woman in the red dress turning our head.
If the prologue and complex storyline are only there to distract us from the true meaning of the film, where do we find meaning? Movie precedent tells us that a film’s title is the seat of meaning. Although this film contains only subtle allusions to its title (such as wall paintings of magnolia flowers), perhaps pondering “magnolia” and its symbolic meanings will grant illumination to our path.
We already know the magnolia is a flower. But it is also the name of the street in the San Fernando Valley where the car crash occurs in the end. Herbal medicine alleges that eating magnolia tree bark can help cure cancer. Additionally, “magnolia” is a phonetic allusion to the ancient mythical region known as Magonia, a kind of purgatory in the sky to which creatures and objects inexplicably disappear—and then occasionally fall to the earth.
It begins to make sense. The title alludes to the cancer themes, the story’s location, and the mythological region from which the raining frogs originate. But by the time we’ve discovered this “truth,” the magician has already slipped the watch from our wrist. Staring gape-mouthed at the holographic head of a wizard framed in flame, we’ve missed the man behind the curtain.
The title is just another part of Anderson’s grand illusion, more sleight-of-hand that misdirects our attention while the master magician performs his trick. So what is the trick, then?
The trick is that the true meaning of the film is found in the margins. The Exodus 8:2 references in the margins of screen and title are not simply prefiguring the falling frogs: They are, rather, a statement of the underlying purpose of Magnolia, which is in fact an allegory of the Exodus narrative of the Old Testament. This old familiar story of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt has been an archetype throughout history. It is a powerful and flexible metaphor only visible in Magnolia when we strip away Anderson’s distractions.
The cast of characters is subtle. The oppressed and powerless slaves of Israel are played by the kids. And the oppressive Egyptian masters are played by the adults. The game show, What Do Kids Know? serves as a metaphor for the dichotomy between the two demographic groups. And the adult disdain for the kids is summarized with a statement made by an eccentric bar patron directed at former Quiz Kid Donnie Smith—“It’s dangerous to confuse children with angels.”
Like the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, the kids do all the work while the parents collect the benefits. As a child, Frank T. J. Mackey (Tom Cruise) cared for his dying mother while his father Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) abandoned him. Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) condescends and ignores Dixon (Emmanuel L. Johnson), the young rapper who is offering information to crack the murder case. Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), the child genius and ringer contestant on What Do Kids Know?, is repeatedly used and abused by his father for financial gain—just as former Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) was robbed as a boy by his own parents.
In an unexpected portrayal, Moses is played by Stanley Spector, the boy genius attempting to beat the record on What Do Kids Know? We first meet Stanley sitting alone in an empty library. He is wearing a concerned look on his face as he studies the book in front of him. It appears he is learning as many random facts as possible. An overhead shot reveals the array of books sprawled out before him on the large table. The open books display images of ominous clouds, tornados, and torrential rain. One book is entitled Our Changing Weather. Stanley is trying hard to understand what he already knows is looming.
We cut immediately to Stanley being chided for tardiness and dragged by his father into the game show studio. As they arrive, they are greeted by a production assistant. The first question out of Stanley’s mouth concerns the meteorological services at the news department. He wants to know if they have in-house or outside instruments. The assistant pats his head and responds in a patronizing tone “I don’t know . . . are you asking because it’s raining outside?” Stanley answers with fearful hesitance, “I guess.”
Like Moses, Stanley knows about the imminent plague of frogs, but he tells no one. Like Moses, he is afraid to speak this truth.
In the Exodus story, God works with the fears of Moses, who is unwilling to issue the warning to the Egyptian Pharaoh about the plague of the frogs. God accommodates Moses by sending Aaron to speak for Moses. In Magnolia, Aaron is played by Dixon, the young rapper in the street who provides Officer Jim Kurring with what appears to be a clue to his murder case. The clues come cryptically shrouded in the lyrics of a rap. A closer look at the words betrays the deeper layer of meaning.
Standing in the middle of the street with confidence and authority, Dixon begins,
“Presence. With a double-ass meaning gifts I bestow with my riff and my flow, but you don’t hear me, though.”
He tips his hand: God is “present” and this prophetic poetry is laden with two meanings—one related to the murder case and one to the divine warning—but he knows that neither will be understood.
“Check that ego, come off it, I’m the Prophet . . . you are living to get older with a chip on your shoulder.”
The self proclaimed prophet of Moses now points his warning to the adult oppressors. He continues,
“He’s running from the devil, but the debt is always gaining . . . when the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord bring the rain in.”
He finishes with a final warning and tells of the imminent act of God—the “rain” of frogs is coming. In the Exodus story, Pharaoh’s heart is hardened and he fails to heed the prophets. Dixon’s prophecy likewise falls on deaf ears as Officer Kurring sarcastically responds, “Ok, whatever that meant. I’m sure that’s real helpful, Ice-T.”
A sign on a signal.
As the film nears its end, there is a sudden barrage of subtle Exodus 8:2 references, all within seconds. Then, abandoning its position as a shadowy allusion to the mythic Exodus story, the allegory moves from margin to mainstream as the characters are literally beaten over the head with frogs falling from the sky. The plague of frogs is, for the people of Israel and now the kids in Magnolia, the paradoxical wedding of God’s wrath and grace.
It is wrath, the great equalizer. No one is unaffected by this divine in-breaking. And yet it is also grace, a divine initiative that seeks to free God’s people from slavery. For the Hebrews it was a physical slavery, but for the kids in Magnolia it is emotional slavery at the hands of self-centered, fearful, and abusive adults.
In the end, the only one who isn’t surprised by the frogs is Stanley Spector. He is sitting in the library where we first met him, exuding a peaceful reassurance that he is not crazy as he watches silhouetted frogs falling from the sky. “This happens,” he says, “this is something that happens.”
Then the frogs stop falling. The plague ends. And Stanley, our Moses, stands near the bedside of his sleeping father. This young servant of God, now emboldened with courage, issues that familiar command for freedom: “Pharaoh, let my people go.” Only we miss the command because it is masked in the vernacular of a child.
Stanley issues his equivalent command for freedom with the words, “Dad, you have to be nicer to me”—but like the pharaoh, Stanley’s father, half awake and with hardened heart, ignores his son’s command with the authoritarian words, “Go to bed.” In the final moments, the pharaoh is revealed, and like all the other allegorical characters, he exists in Magnolia’s margin.
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.”
Shane Hipps is student at Fuller Theological Seminary where he is earning a Masters in Divinity. He and his wife Andrea live in Pasadena, CA. Shane once knew a magic trick using rope, but has since forgotten it.