One of the central mysteries of magnolia involves the three “unbelievable coincidence” tales that bracket the rest of the action. The film reveals to the audience these three bizarre stories in its prologue, suggesting that they will, somehow, inform us of a subtext for the plot to come: emotional breakdowns during a freak frog rain in the San Fernando Valley. But this has always been an unsatisfactory, if not dubious, explanation for the placement of the three coincidental tales. First, while a frog rain may be bizarre, it is not, strictly speaking, a coincidence. There is no meaningful or ironic intersection of events, unless you make some stretches, such as Dixon’s “good Lord bring the rain in” rap or the myriad Exodus 8:2 references coinciding with the frog rain later that day. But those are really products of Anderson’s narrative structure, and not integral to the tale of a frog rain, itself. We can say the same of similar coinciding events, such as Earl’s death, Linda’s foiled suicide, Donnie’s secret mission and Stanley’s epiphany. To call these events “coincidence” misapplies the term; they just all happen to happen at the same time. If these vignettes serve as more than a merely disorienting teaser for the strange story to come, do they offer clues to another cinematic agenda? What do the three urban legends actually mean, anyway? In a film dense with rich, novel symbols, these three tall tales, dissected like lab frogs, offer not only a Rosetta Stone for the ultimate meaning of magnolia, but also provide the most ambitious prologue in film history.
A clear understanding of this theory requires a segregation of the prologue into three distinct short films. Once interpreted individually, the three tales may then be conceptually reintegrated in a manner that explains their own presence, as well as the three-hour opus to come.
I. The Greenberry Hill Murder: “The three vagrants whose motive was simple robbery” attack a well-respected chemist. Ignorant of, or unconcerned with, his status and appreciable wisdom, Green, Berry and Hill murder Sir Godfrey beneath the storefront which proclaims his now-lost art of optical-chemical analysis. The black and white and rotoscopic effects, cropped within a small, square view, drive home the antiquity of the event. While Ricky Jay’s narration relies upon an article that dates the event in 1911, a more ancient date is referenced by the Greenberry Hill, London sign: AD. 1356.The most striking feature of the first minute of magnolia is not the corny name coincidence, but it’s parallels to the central initiation myth of American Freemasonry. New initiates to the Masonic order are subjected to a re-enactment of the death of another wise man felled by the hands of “three vagrants whose motive was simple robbery.” For masons, the legendary Hiram Abiff, architect of the temple of King Solomon, represents the hidden wisdom of the ages, lost to the simpleminded greed of his aggressors: Jubelo, Jubela, and Jubelum. The death, burial and rebirth of Hiram Abiff are the metaphorical touchstones for the Masonic initiate, leading to subsequent grander insights about the human condition as he proceeds through the path of enlightenment from Entered Apprentice to Master Mason. (An aside on the notion of “rebirth”: curiously, Sir Edmund Godfrey is reincarnated later in the film, when the same actor plays the concerned young pharmacist during Linda’s breakdown.)The Masonic connection in magnolia is hardly speculation. From Ricky Jay’s Masonic ring and “meet upon the level, part upon the square” comment, to the placement of Albert Mackey’s “The History of Freemasonry” tome on Stanley’s cluttered library table, to Donnie Smith’s infiltration of Solomon Solomon’s “temple,” the film is cluttered with masonica. The first minute of magnolia serves as both an imprimatur on the film as a Masonic document and, perhaps, as a shorthand “initiation ceremony” for each of its viewers.
Equal scrutiny of the remaining coincidental prologue tales yields no less surprising results. Though both devoid of Masonic reference, the second and third tales, examined individually, reveal an agenda of an even higher order.
II. The Frogman: Delmer Darion’s tragicomic fate at the unwitting hands of his troubled nemesis is certainly the most fanciful and amusing of the three tales. But the most potent aspect of this short film – its grandiose visuals – is distinct from the story, itself. From the first transitional shot of flames “licking over” the edges of the Greenberry Hill tale, Anderson frames this vignette amidst the essential natural elements of fire, earth, air and water. The Frogman sequence contains underwater shots, shots of fire, shots of planes soaring through the air, and shots of scorched and pristine earth. One complex shot, in particular, verifies this elemental agenda: an “earth’s eye” view, looking straight up, as a plane passes through a blue sky, dumping water upon fire clinging to tall trees. Frozen in view, this symbolic logos reveals a second magnolia imprimatur: the eastern way. This natural/elemental theory, like the Masonic one of the first tale, is borne out significantly throughout the rest of magnolia. The film we will soon see documents a world beyond Judeo-Christian spirituality, beyond western morality, a world characterized by the interconnectivity of all things, a karmic/Zen alchemical recipe of eastern mysticism and western absurdity. Yet, it is also a very natural world, characterized by clouds and 82% chances of rain.
DIXON: When the sun don’t shine, the good Lord bring the rain in.
The only other character in the balance of magnolia to come to recognize this natural order of things is Stanley, diligent in his studies of natural (and Masonic) phenomena, and curious of the mechanics behind weather forecasting at the WDKK? studios:
STANLEY: I was wondering about the weather department. I was wondering whether or not the weather people have outside meteorological services or if they had in-house instruments.
CYNTHIA: Um, I can check on that for you. Maybe later we can take a tour…You asked about that because it’s raining outside?
STANLEY: I guess.
CYNTHIA: So what do you do? Whatever’s happening, that’s what you look into? Something like that?
STANLEY: I don’t know.
CYNTHIA: You don’t know? Well, it’s not a bad way to be…interested in everything that’s going around.
Stanley is the culmination of eastern and western intellectual traditions. In a crucial moment, Stanley succumbs to “the call of nature” during the gameshow. Later, his frog rain epiphany, that “this is something that happens,” evinces his passage to a new level of elemental and natural awareness. The Frogman sequence serves as a sort of “cinematic feng shui,” reminding the viewer that all the elements are represented here, and that conditions are right for the evolution of consciousness.
Combined, the first two-thirds of the prologue provide substantial ballast to raise the curtain on the human drama to come: the dysfunctional Barringer Family.
III. The Suicide/Murder of Sydney Barringer:The third tale of the prologue, more subtly filmed and realistic in its tenor, is also less symbolic than the other two, though it is equally rich in subtext for the remainder of the film. The essential notion of human suffering permeates the short. From Sydney’s lamentable suicide note, to the stunned and maddening grief of his parents, to the creepily anguished, sometimes backward, purgatorial background music, the Barringer sequence is soaked with sorrow and suffering. It begins, however, on a rather clinical note: the forensic conference where the Barringer tale is told. Punctuated with fast and slow motion, the shot’s most important information is provided on the soundtrack, where the only audible word of the coroner’s speech is found: “curiosity,” that euphemistic synonym for original sin. Sydney’s suicide note, visually pieced together with various close-ups and pans across the words of the page reveals the depths of despair:
“I’m sorry/ but I cannot forgive you now/ I have suffered/ so I will go/ and be with God.”
Sydney is the poster child for the poor of heart. And what else is magnolia, if not a meditation on despair? The perplexing Barringer family dynamic is, arguably, beside the point. The real issues addressed in the short are the root causes of human suffering and individual responsibility for it. The sequence awakens us to this central question of human understanding, particularly within the context of parents and children. Who’s culpable for the death of Sydney Barringer? Sidney? His Mother? His Father? Of course, each one is culpable to varying degrees under various standards. Similar questions will be asked of the film’s many characters as magnolia unfolds, and as the transgressions of parents upon children build to life-defining crescendos. The final tale of the prologue trilogy defines the ultimate inquiry of magnolia: human suffering.
So now then
The prologue of magnolia serves as a primer for the rest of the film. It defines the moral, intellectual and spiritual agenda for the next three hours, and provides the informed and open-minded viewer a glimpse of the grand cinematic architecture to come. This is no coincidence. No, this cannot be that.
Now, that shit will help you solve the case.