Matt Brennan of IndieWire posted a piece in his weekly column “Then and Now” drawing some interesting connections between Melancholia and Magnolia. Unfortunately, the article was about 10% interesting ideas and 90% flowery language with a deceptive headline.
Before you read the article, I will save you some time by listing all the substantive points it makes:
- Both films show a biblically symbolic “rain.” At the beginning of Melancholia we see chickens falling from the sky. At the end of Magnolia we see frogs falling from the sky.
- The titles sound similar…and have a nice ring to them.
- The films depict characters’ different reactions to things falling apart, and nether film moralizes on the “right” reaction.
Now, fair enough. These are great points on which I will expand later, but I am frustrated by the amount of time I had to waste to get this information. The article is called “Apocalypses Now and Then: Von Trier’s Melancholia vs. Anderson’s Magnolia.” I was expecting an entire article discussing the differences and similarities between these two films and analyzing how the twelve-year gap in between their releases impacted these differences (hence the “Now and Then” aspect of this column). But nothing substantive about any of this was really offered. In fact, the two films weren’t even discussed in relation to one another until the last paragraph, which was only like six sentences long.
So, what does comprise the majority of this short piece? Hollow, flowery language. A paragraph about the beauty of Melancholia, a paragraph about the beauty of Kirsten Dunst, a paragraph about Von Tier’s beautiful sense of film form that doesn’t really delve into any specifics about what his film form exactly is, and a paragraph briefly ticking through some of the actors in Magnolia and how beautifully they all come together. Frankly, I read through these paragraphs repeatedly and couldn’t find any solid information or even ideas or opinions to take away from them. What did I just read? I can’t really give a clear answer if someone asks me this question, as there was no point to most of the article.
Now, as a right-brained individual with a strong appreciation for journalism and the beautiful power of language, I am 100% in support of using decorative language and powerful rhetoric, but it should all connect to the goal of conveying a solid point for the readers to take away. Rhetoric and ideas should co-exist. As readers, we should not have to choose between reading an article that is pleasantly written and sounds good on our ears and reading an article that gives us something to take away and think about. Too often do pretty language, abstract ramblings, and statements without facts or solid evidence backing them up, pass for good journalism and acceptable, quality content. Quite frankly, I think part of the reason we are where we are as a society today, legitimizing fake news, ignoring real issues and focusing on personality and useless distractions like whether we are using “offensive language,” is because we have grown a sense of complacency and contentment with journalists and other intellectual leaders who do not offer any concrete information, merely useless words, and who deceive us with false headlines like the title of this column, which suggested a full compare-and-contrast analysis of these two films which weren’t even mentioned in relation to one another until the very end of the article. We have become a style over substance society.
If I were writing Brennan’s article, I would have cut everything in this entire column down to one introductory paragraph, then devoted at least two separate paragraphs to discussing, on an individual, detailed basis with evidence from both films, each of the bulleted takeways from the article that I’ve listed above. Then, in conclusion, I would have connected my writing back to the theme of my column…then vs. now, explaining how Magnolia differs from Melancholia due to the years they were released.
To expand upon some of the great starting points Brennan did provide us with, I will comment that Magnolia does seem like an antiquated version of Melancholia in many ways. Both films depict characters who essentially live hollow lives and are seeing their own personal worlds coming to an end. Magnolia takes the approach of basically depicting every character’s world falling apart in a separate way at the same time. The film shows us how different characters react differently. Melancholia takes the approach of juxtaposing Justine, who is in a similar state to the characters in Magnolia of watching her own world end while the literal world is still standing, with Justine’s sister Claire, whose world is mostly fine until the literal end of the world does approach. I think Melancholia in this regard acts as a bit of a more nuanced, developed version of Magnolia. Magnolia doesn’t offer any sort of commentary on how its characters would react to a literal world-ending event like an asteroid or zombie apocalypse. It keeps things on a microscopic level. Melancholia offers an interesting take on the different reactions of Justine and Claire to the comet approaching earth. Justine, whose world has already ended with her depression, is stoic. She has nothing left to lose. Claire, on the other hand, doesn’t know what it’s like to already feel detached from everything in her life. She still cares about this world, and as such does not react as calmly or know how to handle the approach of Melancholia.
I think Melancholia provides some hindsight into just how severe the situations in Magnolia, which to us seemed like largely petty problems and familial infighting, really were. Characters like Donnie, Claudia, Linda, Jimmy, and Earl may have reacted to a comet the way Justine did – aloofness. They have already totally detached themselves from the world and given up on life. So what if the planet literally gets destroyed? This, I believe, is the benefit of the twelve years of time separating the two films, and perhaps a symptom of the different directing styles of Von Tier and Anderson. Von Tier presents a bit more of a cultured, experienced view of depression and life-ending events, using a juxtaposition of a depressed and a non-depressed person to show us how severe the former’s condition is. Anderson’s film really only shows us people who are in as deep as Justine, without a reference point of a non-depressed person for comparison. On the other hand, Melancholia does seem to lose something that Magnolia has to offer – the juxtaposition of multiple tales of depressed people and their different reactions to life’s struggles which coincide almost supernaturally at the end. I guess these two films are best viewed together, as each has something to offer. Magnolia offers a take on how people with similar struggles react differently. Melancholia offers a take on how people with different struggles react differently when faced with the same struggle.
Closing question: Magnolia was released in 1999, just before the turn of the century, and Melancholia was released in 2011, just before the end of the Mayan calendar. Both films come at a time viewed by many, particularly conspiracy theorists and supernaturalists, as a possible end of life as we know it. What might a third film with a similar plot do differently from these two if it were released today?