Magnolia — Overcoming the Sins of the Father

Film:Magnolia Poster

Magnolia, 1999

Starring Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, John C. Reilly, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Felicity Huffman, Philip Baker Hall, and Alfred Molina.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

24 hours in L.A.; it’s raining cats and dogs. Two parallel and intercut stories dramatize men about to die: both are estranged from a grown child, both want to make contact, and neither child wants anything to do with dad. Earl Partridge’s son is a charismatic misogynist; Jimmy Gator’s daughter is a cokehead and waif. A mild and caring nurse intercedes for Earl, reaching the son; a prayerful and upright beat cop meets the daughter, is attracted to her, and leads her toward a new calm. Meanwhile, guilt consumes Earl’s young wife, while two whiz kids, one grown and a loser and the other young and pressured, face their situations. The weather, too, is quirky. Written by {jhailey@hotmail.com}

My Thoughts:

This film is dark, and sad, and clever.  Through out it one of the themes I picked up on was how “sins of the father” affect the children.  Various characters suffered abuse, abandonment, and molestation at the hands of their fathers leaving them angry, depressed, and struggling.  The film even quoted scripture regarding it.

“And he walked in all the sins of his father, which he had done before him: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God”  1 Kings 15:3

I remember watching this film when it first came out and really hating it.  I realize now that what I disliked was the tragedy caused by the actions of the fathers in this film.  The film reveals how much pain and suffering there is, and how so much of it we put onto each other.  Frank T.J. Mackey, abandoned by his father, and left to take care of his dying mother, rewrote his own history.  Ironically, he became a misogynist and used women just as badly if not worse than his father did.  Jimmy Gator left his daughter a neurotic, self-loathing, drug abuser by the worst sin of a father, sexual molestation.

“If love and agreement are manifest in a single family, that family will advance, become illumined and spiritual; but if enmity and hatred exist within it destruction and dispersal are inevitable” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

We see evidence in this film of family disunity and how destructive it can be.  Often the rift starts between the married party and then effect the children.  Several characters had committed infidelity.  In one scene Linda Partridge (Julianne Moore) broke down in tears lamenting how she did not love her husband when she married him, and just wanted his money, and so she had constantly been unfaithful.  Now that they had been together for a while, and he was dying she realized she truly did love him and because of that could not possibly take a cent from the will.  The lawyer told her that adultery was not illegal.  That did not comfort her because either way it was wrong.

“Every other word of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings is a preachment on moral and ethical conduct; all else is the form, the chalice, into which the pure spirit must be poured; without the spirit and the action which must demonstrate it, it is a lifeless form.  When we realize that Bahá’u’lláh says adultery retards the progress of the soul in the after life – so grievous is it – and that drinking destroys the mind, and not to so much as approach it, we see how clear are our teachings on these subjects.” ~ From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.

I think this scene was an incredibly potent one and points to how often the people who suffer most by committing a wrong against someone is not the victim but the perpetrator.  God has given us spiritual guidance, whether it be the 10 commandments, or the Laws of Bahá’u’lláh, or the Middle Path of Buddhism, that is meant to protect us from ourselves.  These laws actually free us from the pain we would suffer by not following them.  This film shows that pain, whether it is through drug use, sexual impropriety, or not being a good parent.

It also shows how important honesty and truthfulness are.  Many characters were both not honest with themselves or with others, but despite trying they could not hide from the truth for long.  While most of the film was dark and forlorn, there was a glimmer of hope in two story lines, one of which touched upon the importance of kindness and the other of truth.

Stanley, a quiz kid genius has had a lot of pressure to deal with.  While it is not explicitly stated, he lives in a single parent household with his father.  His father is often on his case, and picks him up from school late.  He brings him to the game show and is more excited about the prospect of Stanley winning a lot of money, than for his actual wellbeing.  Stanley is a good kid.  He is under a lot of pressure, and because he arrived late to the studio was not able to go to the bathroom before the show started.  He is on a role answering every question, until his bladder fails him.  Mortified he sits like a statue and no longer participates.  He realized that everyone was really just using him.  The show for ratings, his father for the potential payout, and he is left forlorn.  It is hard to see a child experience disillusionment, but in the end Stanley stands up for himself telling his father that he has to be nicer to him.  Stanley has the potential not to fall in the same trap Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) did, and for this there is hope.

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”  ~Mark Twain

The other hopeful story consists of an unlikely match.  Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) and Claudia Partridge (Melora Walters) met through a disturbance call.  He was a cop and she a drug-addled victim of abuse.  She spent the beginning trying to hide the fact of her drug use from him.  However, the cop liked her anyway and asked her on a date.  He was a Christian and prayed to God regarding meeting this woman.  In fact, they showed him in prayer more than once, and he was the only character in the film portrayed with any faith.

As they went on their date the woman asked if he ever lied on dates, because he was afraid the other person would not like the truth.  Or even if he hadn’t lied, maybe left important things out.  He said that was natural, and tried to waylay her fears.  She then said they shouldn’t do that.  They should be honest and tell their secrets.

“Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

She clearly was trying to get up the courage to admit her addictions and seek help.  She told him she thought he would hate her, because he was so together, and such a good person, and she was not.  He then comforted her by admitting that he had lost his gun that day and was now the laughing stock of the entire police force.  He too made mistakes.  She then kissed him and ran off, chickening out.  At the end of the film though, there is another scene with them together, and the cop is talking about how people have great capacity to forgive and to help each other through times of trouble, and she smiles.

She was onto something about honesty and he was onto something about help and forgiveness, and trying not to be judgmental.  It is through these two characters, and the healing power of faith and listening to divine guidance that this film has a sliver of hope to it.

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Dolores Claiborne — Prejudice, Justice, Truth, and Forgiveness

Film:Dolores Claiborne Poster

Dolores Claiborne, 1995

Starring Kathy Bates, Jennifer Jason Leigh, David Strathairn, Christopher Plummer, John C. Reilly, and Judy Parfit.

Synopsis (from IMDB):

Dolores Claiborne works as a maid for a wealthy woman in remote Maine. When she is indicted for the elderly woman’s murder, Dolores’ daughter Selena returns from New York, where she has become a big-shot reporter. In the course of working out the details of what has happened, as well as some shady questions from the past and Selina’s troubled childhood, many difficult truths are revealed about their family’s domestic strife. This is cleverly portrayed with present reality shot in cool blue tones blending seamlessly into flashbacks shot in vivid color. As small town justice relentlessly grinds forward, surprises lie in store for the viewers

My Thoughts (SPOILERS!!):

I had seen this movie when it first came out years ago, but just recently caught it again on HBO.  Since that time I have doubled in age and gained some perspective.  See this movie, if you haven’t, because it’s really quite good.  Stephen King wrote the part with Kathy Bates in mind after her stunning performance in Misery (1990).

This film challenges our perceptions and our thoughts of what justice is.  It opens on an event that we can only hear but not fully see.  Two women are arguing and then we see one fall down the stairs (we’ll discover later to be Vera), before the other soon runs after her (Dolores).  She proceeds to run frantically to the kitchen in search of a weapon only to return with a rolling pin held high above her head.  But she can’t do it, she stands there mustering the strength, the will, but can’t do it.  Vera (Judy Parfit) passes on, and the door is opened by the mailman who spots Dolores (Kathy Bates).

This is the inciting incident, the incident that begins the inquest, the incident that colors our perception of who Dolores is and what she’s done, and the incident that drags Dolores’ daughter Selena (Jennifer Jason Leigh) back to Maine from New York City after 15 years away.

But is it the truth?  Was it a crime?

Through out the film we will eventually find the answers to these questions, or at least a broader perspective in which to come to our own conclusions, but not before finding out a lot more about Dolores Claiborne and Selena St. George.  And no, the name difference is not arbitrary, it is representative of the conflict between them that has kept them apart for so long.

“Is it possible for one member of a family to be subjected to the utmost misery and to abject poverty and for the rest of the family to be comfortable? It is impossible unless those members of the family be senseless, atrophied, inhospitable, unkind.” ~‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Nearly two decades before Dolores was involved in another incident, which was ruled an accident, though the chief investigator (Christopher Plummer) was sure was murder: the death of her husband (David Strathairn).  Dolores husband was no prince.  He was an abusive drunk.  Selena, however, does not remember him that way.  She remembers the good, and only that Dolores was somehow involved in his death and therefore responsible for destroying the family.  Since then Selena has had a nervous breakdown and is on several medications, none of which seem to be keeping her fully stable.

But is this the truth?  Was it Dolores who destroyed the family?

“In order to find truth we must give up our prejudices, our own small trivial notions; an open receptive mind is essential. If our chalice is full of self, there is no room in it for the water of life. The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is essential if we would reach Truth, for Truth is one.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

Dolores had worked hard for Vera Donovan for a long long time.  She started at $40 a week and eventually was making $80 a week as a live-in maid/nurse.  Yes, a whole whopping $0.20 an hour.  It was hard labor and Vera was a demanding boss, so why did Dolores stay?  Initially to make money to pay for Selena to go to college.  Over time she had saved over $3,000.

She put up with Joe’s abuse for a while, but soon it became too much and she fought back.  Joe had been sneaky though, never abusing her in front of Selena, but Dolores, defensive not sly, was caught by Selena having hit back, Joe’s face bloody.  Selena, having only seen the end of the fight, thought Dolores was crazy, much like how the mailman must have in the first scene we saw.

Dolores became more crazy when Selena’s grades started dropping and she was getting moody and depressed.  Selena was going through puberty and there must have been a boy involved.  Except it wasn’t a boy, it was a man, it was Joe.

Dolores went straight to the bank to get the money she’d been saving so that she could take Selena and leave.  Except the money was gone.  Turns out Joe had found out about it and because it was a custodial account and he was the other parent, was able to access it.

Dolores: It’s because I’m a woman ain’t it?  If it had been the other way around, if I had been the one passing out the ferry story, how I’d lost a passbook and asked for a new one… if I had been the one drawing out what took 11 years to put in… you would’ve called Joe.

This scene is indicative of the sexism in society, back then and now, just as the domestic abuse was and continues to be a problem not just in America but world wide.

“And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is the equality of women and men. The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible.” ~ Abdu’l-Bahá

It is in this context, broken and alone, fearing the safety of her daughter and without the means to protect her, that Dolores falls apart in Vera’s living room.  It is the first time her guard is let down in the entire movie and her vulnerability is exposed.  It also is when her shift in personality from well-behaved and hard working, to bitchy and bitter takes shape.  Vera councils her:

Vera Donovan: Husbands die every day, Dolores. Why… one is probably dying right now while you’re sitting here weeping. They die… and leave their wives their money. I should know, shouldn’t I? Sometimes they’re driving home from their mistress’ aparment and their brakes suddenly fail.

Vera Donovan: It’s a depressingly masculine world, Dolores.

Vera Donovan: Sometimes you have to be a high-riding bitch to survive. Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold onto.

So we see how Dolores could be driven to do what she did to her husband, but what exactly did she do?  She supplied him with alcohol, but he was the one who chose to get drunk.  She provoked him, but he was the one that chose violence.  She led him to where the abandoned well was, but he fell in, she didn’t push him.  She did choose not to help him out though.

Is it a crime to choose not to save someones life?  We see reporters do it all the time when they film atrocities but do not get involved, but this is not the same as that.  Is it the same as murder?  Is leading someone to their death knowing it the same as killing someone?

Maybe this is why Dolores stayed so long in that awful job afterwards.  She committed this deed to protect her daughter who only then despised her for it.  In fact Selena had repressed the memory of her father’s sexual abuse so she also could not fathom what drove her mother to commit that act, an act nobody even had proof of but merely conjecture.  There were no witnesses to her father’s death and he was a known drunk so it logically could’ve been an accident.

Also, Vera understoon Dolores and her problems the way nobody else had.  This is also why it becomes clear that Dolores would not have murdered her, despite the $1.6 Million she stood to inherit.  In the end we see that it was Vera who had thrown herself down the stairs.

Dolores Claiborne: [sobbing] Why? Why’d you do this, Vera?
Vera Donovan: Because I hate the smell of being old.

Vera then asked Dolores to help her, which spawned the frantic search for the rolling pin, but in the end Dolores couldn’t.  There is a difference between passively setting up a scenario which could lead to a persons death and actively killing someone after all. And we are reminded that this is how the movie began, and this is the case the detective is prosecuting, not Joe St. George’s death 18 years prior:

Selena St. George: Eighteen years ago, my father drank a bottle of scotch and fell down a well. Detective Mackey didn’t think it was an accident, which is… why we’re here today.
Det. John Mackey: And what do you think, Selena?
Selena St. George: I think I owe you an apology. I called you a son of a *****. You said you thought we were a lot alike, and you were right. We both spent the past 18 years prosecuting this woman. We came out here- I know I did- believing she was guilty. We forgot this case is about Vera Donovan. Not my father.
Det. John Mackey: And what if it wasn’t an accident?
Det. John Mackey: Look. It’s been 18 years. I don’t know what this has done to you, but let me tell you, it’s consumed me. I have lived with this every day of my life. Every day. I was wrong and I won’t do it any more. And if I can say that, my God, can’t you?

Selena came to terms with what had happened, both to her and her father.  She was able to finally forgive her mother because she could understand the motivation.  As for the current death, she knew her mother would not have been capable.

“Divine civilization, however, so traineth every member of society that no one, with the exception of a negligible few, will undertake to commit a crime. There is thus a great difference between the prevention of crime through measures that are violent and retaliatory, and so training the people, and enlightening them, and spiritualizing them, that without any fear of punishment or vengeance to come, they will shun all criminal acts. They will, indeed, look upon the very commission of a crime as a great disgrace and in itself the harshest of punishments.” ~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I feel like for Dolores this was the case.  She did not want to do what she did, and she knew it was wrong, and it consumed not only her but her daughter for these 18 years.  She punished herself through her bitterness and isolation.  She serves as a warning that even crime committed for the most desperate and understandable of reasons is polluting to the spirit and soul.  Maybe now with new found understanding between daughter and mother she can be forgiven and redeemed.

“O Lord! Have pity on these ignorant ones, and look upon them with the eye of forgiveness and pardon. Extinguish this fire, so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all countries.”

~ ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

I find Dolores Claiborne to be an intriguing film that challenges us a lot.  Dolores was treated with injustice and acted in desparation and I think that a lot of crime happens for this reason.  What does this mean for our society?  We must seek justice.  Women need to be treated fairly.  Children need to be protected.  Joe St. George was a criminal who may never have been brought to justice, and while Dolores should not have taken the law into her own hands it is understandable as to how that impulse would arise.

Your Thoughts?