Step 1: Form a Tragedy // “Magnolia”

On lying to make people feel bad.


And we generally say, “Well, if that was in a movie, I wouldn’t believe it.” Someone’s so-and-so met someone else’s so-and-so and so on. 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.

            Narrator, Magnolia (1999)

…and if it’s worth bein’ hurt, then it’s worth bringin’ pain in.

            Dixon, Magnolia (1999)

But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality.

            Aristotle, Poetics (350 BCE)

In the spotlight his face strikes a manic tableau before the black backdrop. Frank T.J. Mackey, author of the self-help program Seduce and Destroy, paces the stage, his arms flexed in masculine postures, and instructs his male audience on how to manipulate a woman into fulfilling one’s sexual wishes. His first bullet point – “Form a Tragedy.” Make up some story that will create sympathy for you, that will evoke in her mind the notion that you are a sensitive, caring person who has endured hardship. Make her feel bad for you and respect you at the same time. This will give you a foot in the door, a short path that ends with you getting exactly what you want from her.

This describes a scene from the film Magnolia, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. At three hours long (actually, sources say it’s the length of pi down to the second), the film contains a massive cast of high-quality actors who are each given a chance to show some real emotional range. Each one gets some time in the limelight in which the character develops, runs into conflict, becomes obsessed over something. And then, as the film rolls on, each of these lives collide into contact with one another. The relations between them are revealed, their obsessions run into opposition with one another, and, most significantly, their particular tragedies appear suddenly as though both universal and cyclical.

I found my perception of these people developing in some odd way parallel to the changing mind of the narrator, who speaks of episodes which lie tangentially outside the scope of this story: his “and I would like to think this was only a matter of chance” becomes “and I am trying to think this was all only a matter of chance” – until he arrives at the opinion that this cannot be “just one of those things,” that “this was not just a matter of chance.” And the question is, what would it mean for a series of events to unfold as something other than a matter of chance? A first response could assert that some mystic force binds living things inexplicably into ordained patterns of behavior – some stitching on the soul, or primitive wisdom in the blood. The sovereignty of Fate. Hell, it could all come from the laws of nature, laws of physics, laws of attraction. Yet there is another response to explain the non-randomness of a life – that the life has been constructed according to the will of an author.

Nothing random ever happens in a film – or in a novel, musical, stage play, or epic poem, for that matter. All of these things are manufactured, synthetic. The events inscribed by the plot are selected by the author and set in an order which suits the author’s purposes, whatever those purposes may be. Sometimes an author determines that working within a stock pattern for selecting events and setting them in order can be helpful for getting the desired reaction from her audience. This is one way in which genres arise, especially in film. People get used to patterns. We become comfortable with them, and in some Pavlovian process of conditioning, we acquire these learned responses for patterns of plot construction. When we watch a horror movie, we sit in suspense, alert for the sudden appearance of something dangerous. We enter into a romantic comedy prepared to be relaxed and amused. Some of us want a happy ending because we like the reassurance of it. We want a hero to rise from the ashes, the oppressed to seize their moment of triumph over their oppressors. We want the leading pair to fall in love. And we have a hard time knowing quite what to do with instances where genre conventions are jumbled together, as in Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited, which can have you cracking up at its silliness until you’re thrown out of sorts by the sudden death of a young boy. Both aberrations from convention and total conformity to it can be used to elicit some desired response from an audience. To take them to the place you want to take them.

Magnolia zeroes in on one of the oldest patterns of plot construction – the tragedy. Frank instructs his audience to “form a tragedy,” to create a linked series of events which fit the tragic pattern and to communicate this narrative to a woman as naturally and truly as possible, eliciting the desired response which, in the end, is sex. It’s a manipulative project, anyone can see it, and the scum who would use it ought to be ashamed, right? The problem is, Anderson is manipulating his audience no differently – to different ends, sure, but isn’t it the manipulation which we really take issue with? Perhaps we would rather the guy at the bar only speak true things about himself, in whatever manner is most sincere for him. That he would “tell it like it is.” But that would be boring. Try to think of the last time you were on a date, and all you did was narrate the events of your day as clearly and with as much detail as possible. Unless you’d had an unusually cinematic past few hours, not only would you lose the attention of your date, but you might even feel like you hadn’t given off an accurate impression of yourself. We picture ourselves, not in the unending mass of the minutia we experience, but in the overarching fictions we keep telling ourselves about ourselves.

This is why watching films and reading books sometimes affect us on a very deep level. Turning our attention to tragedy, Aristotle said that tragic stories do something therapeutic and constructive to us when they pile on all the bad feelings. When we watch a character make a grave mistake that ruins the life of another or of herself, we feel all the pity and terror which such an action preempts. We get to purge these dark and necessary emotions from our souls while not facing the practical consequences of the deeds depicted. I have read neo-Aristotelian philosophies of literature which argue that literature (films included) even offers us a form of moral instruction – it teaches us to be better people who know how to feel empathy and pain for others, who learn the finer intuitive impulses that motivate us to act with respect for the dignity and value of other living creatures once we have felt their pain, their heartache, their regret.

Magnolia calls our attention to these tragic constructions in such a way that we cannot deny their constructedness. I mean, at one point the characters are all singing along to Aimee Mann; at another, frogs are falling from the sky. We know that these simply do not happen in real life, and Anderson is telling us a story made to make us feel certain ways. Paul Thomas Anderson is Frank T.J. Mackey. He understand this. He tells us this. But then our job, once he has shown us that he’s manipulating us with his stories, must be to try to figure out why he would want to do that. Because it’s not for sex, at least not likely. I think he’s getting more after something along the lines of Aristotle. There is a value in making people feel the tragic emotions. We need to feel the pity, the fear, the heartache, the humiliation, and “the goddamn regret,” because when we are made to feel those things, however we are made to feel them, we become more human. We grow, with more substance in our soul, more fellow-feeling and compassion.

A story, in only its raw, unconstructed material, does not have much to offer us. We wander on through undivided episodes, sensations, days and years, every bit of it no more meaningful than a hiccup in a vacuum. We supply the meaning upon retelling. When Frank’s father lay on his deathbed telling the story of his most tragic mistakes in life, he says, “Oh, God. This is a long way to go with no punch. A little moral story, I say… Love. Love. Love.” Even if the moral is a product of construction – a little sort of manipulative fable we make out of the immensity of life – we can only learn to actually love once we’ve turned our eyes to the darkness and the hate we can inject into the lives of others. And what if all this time we’re missing the truth that we are the oppressors – the fathers denying love to our sons, violating the integrity of our daughters, turning the children into our toys – how will we learn? First, we must pay attention to the selective stories we tell ourselves, of ourselves. And then we must learn to listen to the coded cries of others, to not avert our eyes, to let ourselves become tender to the pain.

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