Musical ‘movements’ in Magnolia

When people discuss Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, his carefully placed symbolic objects (e.g. the numbers 8 and 2, the frogs) are usually brought to the forefront of the conversation. However, the movie’s auditory symbolism is just as stimulating; specifically, the soundtrack of the movie is just as rich in analysis as all of the visual symbols.

Of course, everyone already talks about the big Aimee Mann scene towards the end of the film, where the legion of characters is united in song, heart, and story, despite having differing conflicts up until that point. But also worth mentioning are the long ‘scenes’ beginning from the very start of the plot, in which long plays of the non-diegetic soundtrack section off bits of the narrative, often overlapping between the characters. Anderson’s use of music is unique in how its distinct presence works to produce the mood, tone, and implication of scenes simultaneously.

Take for example, the first ‘scene’ of music — in which Stanley arrives at the quiz site before the show starts (in one of the longest takes I think I’ve ever witnessed); Jim meets Claudia for the first time; Linda gets the prescription for her dying husband; Frank begins his interview; Donnie pulls up to the bar to see Brad the bartender; Nurse Phil begins chasing after Earl’s dying wish — all of this takes place with the same tense orchestral music bobbing in the background. Though there are a couple of diegetic interruptions, the background track never leaves and plays consistently up until the end of the first round on the quiz show.

What’s interesting is that all the scenes before this point lacked accompanying music like this, so the soundtrack picks up just after 40 minutes into the film. Additionally, it is almost a full 40 minutes later when this particular song from the soundtrack cuts off. Thus, all of the action that takes place above it, despite it coming from different characters, is grouped into a single section. This technique repeats later in the film to different songs, resulting in larger chunks (or movements, if you will) of the story. We know a particular ‘strain’ of the story has ended when the backing song does.

Like in the other films we’ve discussed, I believe this technique works similarly to how an apocalypse brings people together in the other movies. The backing music of these large movements unite the cast and parallel their actions temporally and symbolically. If examined like Melancholia, we could say that Magnolia unites all the character’s personal apocalypses to merge into one larger one (and perhaps this event is the frogs raining). Furthermore, since this technique reoccurs throughout the movie, could this work for us (through the characters) to think about our future at various points in time, like with the other films?

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