Nature vs. Nurture is one of my favorite philosophical debates. On one side of the ring, René Descartes, suggesting that human beings are born with innate ideas that inform our decision-making and relationship with the world for the rest of our lives. Across from Descartes stands John Locke, who suggested that human beings begin life as a blank slate and are wholly dependent upon our experiences to form our relationship with the world. Unfortunately, we cannot see Descartes, fighting for nature, and Locke, scuffling for nurture, duke it out in a boxing ring in satin shorts; but luckily, there are movies. Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1999 film, Magnolia, certainly touches on the idea of nature vs. nurture and the development of the mind of the child. I never intend to speak on authorial intent, and instead, seek to explore the themes present in the film that most resonated with me. I can’t say whether or not Paul Thomas Anderson intended to weigh in on a centuries-old debate, but we certainly gain an understanding of the damage that can be done by improper parenting on the nurture side, and the willingness to submit to the notion of chance on the nature side.
Magnolia intertwines the stories of several people whose lives intersect based on, depending on how you choose to look at things, chance, or fate. For instance, Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), is showcased as leading a team of children through a winning streak on a popular televised quiz show called “What Do Kids Know?” Stanley is thoroughly used and exploited by his father, who is all too willing to cash the paychecks earned by his son’s brain and shirk his parenting responsibilities off on the production staff of the show while he attends auditions. ‘Quiz Kid’ Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) gained local notoriety due to his time on the show years ago, and still refers to himself as ‘Quiz Kid’ even though he is well into adulthood. Donnie has wandered through his life, struggling with his identity and a fractured sense of trust after his parents took all the money from his time on the quiz show. The host of the quiz show, Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), is being celebrated for thirty years of being on the air, while concealing the fact that he was recently diagnosed with cancer. Jimmy is loved by viewing audiences for his on-screen personality, despite cheating on his wife and molesting his daughter as a child.
Jimmy’s daughter, Claudia Gator (Melora Walters), has had a troubled relationship with men in her life, and while addicted to drugs, is trying to work through the scars of her childhood trauma as well as cope with the fact that her father is dying. The unlikeliest hero from the film, Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly), responds to a noise disturbance call at Claudia’s apartment, and falls in love with her at first sight, vowing to help her see her worth. The show’s former producer, Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), has also developed cancer and confesses to his nurse, Phil Parma (Philip Seymour Hoffman), that he has a son he abandoned and needs Phil’s help to contact. Earl’s son is Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), who has devised and offers presentations on a program he designed to empower men with the ‘skills’ to seduce any woman they desire. Earl’s wife, Linda (Julianne Moore), is significantly younger than Earl and had married him with the desire to inherit his wealth upon his death. Linda’s plan is thwarted when she falls in love with Earl, regretting all the times she cheated on him, and now seeks nothing from his will. Several victims of abominable nurturing are presented to the audience, each suffering lifelong effects due to their negative upbringing.
Claudia is unable to positively approach relationships with men due to the molestation by her father. Frank T.J. Mackey abandoned his father’s name to distance himself and put himself on stage, spewing such shocking material that is sure to make up for the attention he didn’t get from his father. Donnie, who feels as though he will never be able to match the heights he reached in childhood, doesn’t know how or who to love as the only people who are supposed to love you unconditionally destroyed his trust by stealing from him. Stanley, who is ostracized at school and put in solitude due to his high intelligence, enjoys almost no interaction with anyone as he is almost completely neglected at home, too, by his father who sees his son’s aptitude as an easy paycheck. Where there may be no discernible side drawn between nature and nurture, we certainly gain an understanding of how the impact of poor parenting follows someone their entire lives. The nurture component of the people we meet in Magnolia was insufficient, and the repercussions of such poor nurturing were devastating to witness.
Magnolia opens with multiple stories of several lives intersecting that are unrelated to the lives of those we are about to meet in the film. Each one is discussed as being a matter of chance, or perhaps, ‘something that happened’ that can’t be called ‘chance’ because these things happen all the time. Can chance still be considered chance when its regularity becomes something that we can depend on? Once you expect a random occurrence, it can no longer merely be disregarded as an event over which you no longer control. The Aristotelian concept of fate is an even older philosophical discussion than the nature vs. nurture concept. In his attempt to explore the truth in language, Aristotle made a claim that has divided philosophers ever since its first appearance in his notes, that all statements are either true or false. This statement, which is not only problematic when considering issues of the future, also lays the groundwork for a couple of different schools of thought regarding the human experience. Fatalism suggests that all events in life are predetermined, therefore, unavoidable, while determinism dictates that forces external to our own will cause all human actions. Can the fact that each person in the film lived a life that was interconnected to each other whether or not the connection was perceived be relegated as a chance event?
It seems instead that Paul Thomas Anderson is expressing his humanistic bent and calling the audience’s attention to the fact that each action we make in our lives has an impact far beyond our capacity to recognize. Earl certainly couldn’t have guessed that the son he abandoned would make it his life’s mission to encourage the misogyny of men, and become a public speaker to fill the void of a fatherless childhood impacting the countless amount of people who would heed and apply his message. This ripple effect is astounding to think about, as Frank will also impact the women manipulated by his system perpetrated by the men who attend his speeches. As with most deathbed confessions, Earl was perhaps seeking forgiveness from his son for leaving he and his mother when Frank was young. Linda, too, was seeking forgiveness from herself for disregarding her marital vows to Earl through her many affairs. Forgiveness, both from others and from ourselves, play a large role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia. Anderson makes clear through the film that even those who seem to be above all lapses, are not without mistakes. In truth, each of us makes mistakes throughout our lives, and we will all be in need of forgiveness at one point or another.
Several characters in the film utter the same line: “We may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with us.” Human beings and their relationship with the past are under examination throughout Magnolia. Each of the events or series of events happened to each character in their history, and the ramifications were being carried with them through to their present and will dictate their future if not attended to. For Frank Mackey, the past is so overwhelming that he has altered his, living a lie that rewrites his past while urging men through his seminars to disregard their histories. No matter what the relationship one has with the part of their life that precedes, it remains the same. The past is an unmoving, unchanging series of events that has led each of us to the point in our lives that we are in now. Each choice, circumstance of chance, or ‘thing that happened’ results in the person we are now, further cementing the notion explored throughout the film that the human experience is a shared one that we all go through together. Whether we attribute our experience to something we can control or something that lies beyond our authority, we each have a past, that may define us, an undeniable fact that binds us to each other and our uniquely human experience.
Children and the treatment they receive from adults play an important role in Magnolia. We see Stanley exploited by his father for so long that he eventually decides to stand up for himself on the show by refusing to perform and gain some autonomy over his life. We hear the other children on his team discuss the career opportunities their parents lobby for them while expecting them to perform as props. There is no victory for the children of the quiz show. When they win, they are supposed to, and rather than celebrated, they are whisked away to prepare to succeed again. Donnie was used by his parents solely as a means to provide for them financially, and when his time on the show was over, the notoriety he gained carried him through life as he attempted to recuperate the money and self-esteem his parents stole from him. The name of the show is a telling indication of this type of child exploitation. “What Do Kids Know?” can be asked in a derogatory way to imply that children know very little, an attitude that seemed to be adopted by many of the adults we see in the film. The children in Magnolia aren’t seen as having a vast amount of potential to be cultivated and nurtured, but rather seem to be viewed as an inconvenience, or, a means of achievement for their parents.
This view of children being seen as ignorant, unless they possess a natural ability from which their parents can profit from, is not limited to the children of the quiz show. Just after Officer Kurring makes an arrest early in the film, he is approached by the child of the woman he arrested claiming to know who was behind the crime Kurring was called about. He proceeds to rap what he refers to as hints about the crime to Officer Kurring, who overlooks the point of the child’s words because he is distracted by the profanity the boy uses. It is clear to the audience that Officer Kurring has discounted everything the boy may have to offer because he has already deemed him ignorant solely because of his age. Delivering a line that was as poignant as it was a clever bit of foreshadowing, the young boy says, “When the sunshine don’t work, the good Lord bring the rain in.” This line, of course, foreshadows the rain that comes at the end of the film, the ‘something that happens’ that drives everyone’s lives back to the point where they are reignited with vigor to get themselves back on track. Just as he did in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson reminds us that sometimes, it takes an event that’s bigger than ourselves to reinvigorate the senses and get our lives back on track.
Sometimes it just rains frogs. Life is an interesting journey filled with twists and turns that we’ll call fate or chance. Situations that were destined to happen or that take place because we will them to, and all of it along the way makes very little sense when analyzed. Life makes so little sense that frogs raining down upon us wouldn’t be the strangest thing ever to happen. Those that we look up to crumble once their lives are scrutinized and secrets are revealed and the unlikeliest of heroes might come bumbling into our lives when they’re called to investigate a noise disturbance. Each of us stumbles through life like we’re blindfolded through a hallway, never being sure what’s coming next or how correctly to handle the next issue we encounter. It comforts us to think that a time will come where we’ll know what to do and always have the answers, but the truth is, we won’t. What Paul Thomas Anderson does offer as comfort through his films is the reminder that we all share the human experience and there is solace in that unity. Nature and Nurture, Fatalism and Determinism, Adulthood and Youth may fight it out, but we as human beings don’t have to, and in fact, we benefit in ways we could never imagine when we realize we are all individual petals of the same flower.