Monday, 31 March 2008

Magnolia and apocalyptic: a plea for help

In a rash moment, I agreed to give a lecture in a couple of weeks on apocalyptic theology and popular culture. Instead of talking about boring or stupid forms of contemporary apocalypticism, I thought I’d discuss cultural instantiations of Pauline apocalyptic (following J. Louis Martyn’s interpretation of Paul). Initially, I thought I’d talk about the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and the music of Tom Waits. But now I’m wondering whether I might focus instead on Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia.

So does anyone have any good ideas? Or any reading suggestions for a theological engagement with Magnolia? I’ll be preparing this lecture on a wing and a prayer, so I’d be grateful for any help!

29 Comments:

Shane said...

Just tell them that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the new messiah.

/lecture

Chris TerryNelson said...

Talk to David Congdon over at Fire and Rose. He's a pro when it comes to Magnolia!

Bruce Yabsley said...

The trailer for Magnolia, after rehearsing the (very varied) elements of the film, stated that "it will all make sense in the end". And the film is indeed one of that type where the disparate elements are eventually revealed to be tied together in some overarching order. So if you want to consider it an example of apocalyptic ... maybe this design is as important, or more important, than the apocalyptic special effects (see: frogs, Plague of ).

LTallon said...

Magnolia is a bit fuzzy in my memory. When I thought of apocalyptic in modern film, I thought of M. Night Shyamalan: his bread and butter is a last minute revelation turns the plot on its head and forces the audience to reinterpret everything that has gone before - not unlike the early Christian conviction that a final revelation would turn the narrative of history on its head.

Anonymous said...

magnolia bored me to tears. why not something like children of men?

Anonymous said...

What about "The Nostradamus Kid" Their is a great seen where Noah Taylor complains that his Seventh-day Adventist eschatology put him at a romantic disadvantage relative to his Presbyterian best friend

Cheers

Steve Rowe
Toronto, Canada

Dave Belcher said...

I have to say that Itallon's insight seems right to me. That is, if Magnolia really is a "makes sense only from the end," "where the disparate elements are eventually revealed to be tied together in some overarching order," then I don't know that it would suffice for "apocalyptic" at all...perhaps in fact the opposite of apocalyptic: Hegelianism.

Dave Belcher said...

Strike "is a" and replace with "only." Sorry

Drew said...

Two places that are helpful at least to generate ideas are:

http://www.daughtersofstpaul.com/mediastudies/reviews/index.html

Sr. Rose is a great resource for these kinds of things. She has contacts in Hollywood and can direct you to a resource on this film for sure. Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP Director Pauline Center for Media Studies.

The other one is http://stevebrownetc.com/podcasts/watching-theology/watching-theology-a-new-podcast/

Cheers.

Sean Winter said...

Hi Ben

Adele Reinhartz has a chapter in her Scripture on the Silver Screen (Westminster John knox 2003) - though the focus there is on the frogs and Exodus.

a. steward said...

David has a post specifically on the magnolia that is one of his best, as far as I'm concerned. Check it out here .

Robert Johnson's Useless Beauty: Ecclessiastes through the lens of contemporary film isn't a fantastic book, but it makes a few interesting points about Magnolia.

I don't know if you've seen it yet, but Magnolia makes a fascinating contrast with Robert Altman's film Short Cuts. Anderson relies on Altman very heavily for the structure of running multiple parallel vignettes and connecting them at the end. But the way they differ in bringing them together is crucial. For Altman, it is just a chance of nature, an earthquake. But for Anderson it is absolutely apocalyptic, the crazy plague of frogs (predicted by the sign held up in the audience of the quiz show). It is statement that our redemption requires intervention from outside ourselves, and that intervention will take the form of judgment. All of Anderson's films have these moments when the characters confront the depths of themselves, but I just love how in your face and confrontational about it in Magnolia ("some will seek forgiveness, others escape").

joel hunter said...

Ransom fellowship has a review by Steven Garber (The Fabric of Faithfulness). General public level. A theologically pregnant line (perhaps) from the movie: “It’s dangerous to confuse children with angels.”

Richard said...

There are also a few references to the film in William Romanowski's Eyes Wide Open but nothing especially profound from an apocalyptic pov though. It's a great film though!

Drew said...

Haven't seen Magnolia, but a good help would be "Everyday Apocalypse" by David Dark

Dave Belcher said...

Now Adam Steward's point to me would seem to go against the grain of the quote that Bruce provided...and I tend to agree with Adam's particular take on Magnolia: that is, judgment seems to complete displace or interrupt any "overarching order" toward which disparate elements might seem to be moving.

Dave Belcher said...

"completely displace"...I just can't get anything right today!

Dave said...

I second drew's recommendation of Everyday Apocalypse by David Dark. It's fantastic, and I know that he spends some significant time on Flannery O'Conner.

Really, it's a great book for anyone, and if you get a chance to see David Dark speak somewhere, do it. I don't think he really speaks often because he is a high school teacher, but I saw him at a conference last year and it rocked my socks. Hearing him and reading the book helped me begin to open up to a new way of looking at things.

dan said...

Hey Ben,

While I like a good deal of what Martyn has to say about Paul, I'm not sure if his application of the term "apocalyptic" is accurate. I think that Pauline "eschatology" is the proper term for what Martyn describes.

I tend to agree with those who understand "apocalyptic" as a subversive (literary) genre which funcions as the voice of those who have been oppresed by the dominant powers of their day. Consequently, I'm not entirely sure that Magnolia could, or should, be described as apocalyptic. That is to say, I'm not sure if there is anything in Magnolia that actively subverts the powers or, just as importantly, inspires the reader/viewer to active resistance. Granted, there are some surface similarities (bizarre symbols/events, numerology, etc.) but, at the end of the day, I think that Magnolia doesn't really disturbs the status quo.

Mind you, it has been some time since I last watched that film, so maybe I'll have to think things over and watch it again.

Chris Grataski said...

You'll be able to get some good conversation and book reccomendations from writer and activist Gareth Higgins from Ireland. Check out his blog "God is not elsewhere" and his delightful book How Movies Helped Save My Soul. He's a good man, and would be excited to hear about your upcoming lecture.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Hi dave, all,

I don't want my remarks to be over-interpreted, especially as apocalyptic is the genre with which I'm least familiar (and, I must say) least in sympathy, among those found in Scripture. If you want an authoritative discussion on whether something is or is not apocalyptic, and in what sense, then I am not your man.

My point was the more limited one that it's the structure of Magnolia that's key here: the plague of frogs matters, but it matters as part of that structure. The discussion here is taking that into account, so I'm happy.

Having said this, dave (belcher), I think your statement that judgement in the film tends to `complete[ly] displace or interrupt any "overarching order" toward which disparate elements might seem to be moving' is an imposition on the material. (And possibly, although he can speak for himself, an imposition on what a. steward said.) Judgement in the film certainly interrupts the lives of the protagonists but it is not an interruption of the film's own point of view. Rather it comes from the same sort of place. Think of the torment that the Julianne Moore character is going through; or the scene between the motivational speaker and his father; or just about anything involving the TV producer and his daughter.

This is not a film where everything goes on as it always has since our fathers died, and judgement suddenly hits. Judgement --- not a perfect word, but I'm willing to run with it --- is woven into the fabric, and is then manifest with particular intensity at various points. The action pauses to have everyone sing "It's not going to stop until you wise up", for heaven's sake.

Dave Belcher said...

Bruce,

I'm okay if that's the case....it's been a long time since I saw the movie.

Luke said...

http://books.google.com/books?id=Ec7oEAVt6dcC&pg=PA65&lpg=PA65&dq=alan+jacobs+magnolia&source=web&ots=KEdjCE5Drn&sig=YiPx8TtX_-XpD5fiKzVuEDCrcXo&hl=en

Anonymous said...

http://www.h2so4.net/politics/magnolia.html

an insightful little piece on the film focusing on freedom and nietzsche

LTallon said...

In light of the modern uneasiness with biblical apocalyptic literature (witnessed to by some recent posts/comments on this blog), I think that an investigation of Balthasar on this topic would pay dividends. He thought that apocalyptic was the Christian genre par excellence. Along this line, Cyril O'Regan (an delightful guy and an insightful theologian at Notre Dame) has done some work recently on the relationship between the importance of the apocalyptic in Balthasar and his use of resources from contemporary culture - perhaps not material you want to delve into for a talk, but definitely a good resource for this discussion of the apocalyptic and popular culture.

byron smith said...

I third the recommendation of DWC's piece at F&R. I watched Magnolia again with some of my Bible study on Saturday and then we read his review and had a great discussion.

Anonymous said...

Alan Jacobs has an essay on Magnolia in his book Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling. Not sure if it is exactly the resource you are looking for, but it was enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Have you come across Robert Jewett`s `St Paul at the Movies` might give you a few ideas not necessarily Magnolia but on Apocalyptic.
Andrew Bourne,
Castleford,UK

Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for all these extremely helpful comments and suggestions. I really appreciate it!

Bruce Hamill said...

You might want to check out Robert Barron's reviews of both Apacalypto and No Country for Old Men on youtube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcyLpTzsktA&feature=related

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