A professor included me in an email question they had regarding assigning the film Magnolia as a cultural interpretation of the Beatitudes in Matthew 5's Sermon on the Mount for a class on Biblical interpretation practices. The instructor has used the film for a number of years, but had reason now to wonder if it was outdated, too offensive, or just not the best option out there. I found as I responded, that I both really wanted to protect the film from being called offensive (the instructor wasn't calling it that but was aware of how it has been received by some- I also know it as one of the few films my parents ever walked out on). I certainly made some assumptions as I wrote about what people might find offensive, and tried to make a strong and contextual defensive case (pressing my point a bit harder than PT Anderson probably would), but I also tried to hold some space to say maybe its okay for people to be offended. I think I too easily mark "being offended" as a sin of close-mindedness, which is an incomplete assumption. So I liked where my email response took me, and am posting it here.
Thanks for including me in the question
I think one thing that’s hard regarding art is understanding the difference between offensive characters and offensive content. We are supposed to recognize TJ Mackey’s grossness, not align with it- the filmmaker wants the audience to be repelled by Mackey and thus long for his reconciliation and redemption- not for us all to be more like him.
But all of us have our exposure limits- where seeing certain things hurt our soul no matter how it is intended- (I can’t watch mob violence- but sword fights and war scenes don’t bother me)
So it may just need contextualization- and as I think you’ve done in the past, an option not to watch it maybe-
But perhaps a good way to speak of the film is that it (like many Independent films as opposed to Hollywood studio films) deals with depravity as a means to explore longing. So if we only see “oh- so much depravity” we may be missing the story that’s actually being told.
As a caveat, I would suggest mentioning that the language and imagery is harsh and often highly sexual, and people may want to decide for themselves what they want to be exposed to- but without telling people how to feel about the film (I don’t want to patronize people into feeling that if they don’t like it that there is something sheltered or limited about them- though it’s easy to be passionate about something you love when other people deem it yucky) it may help to remind people that with a film like Magnolia, we are meant more to follow the Characters, than we are to follow the Plot- it’s in the characters that we experience narrative arcs, more so than in the plot narratives. Might make it easier for people to put up with the graphic elements if it’s in context of what people are dealing with, rather than as gratuitous exposure to ugly things.
That’s what your question brought up for me- not sure if it’s helpful at this point. I love that you use Magnolia- helped me fall in love with a movie that I had only cursorily noticed before hand.
Currents, May 2017
11 hours ago