Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Half-Believer's Story

I love: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. Yet another film to be poorly received by critics who like their genres tight and their narratives "compelling," Magorium is a vignettish, slightly coquettish, whimsical, sad, and lovely moment that has a character I've only seen in real life, not in movies: the half-believer. I could write for two hours about the many aspects of the movie that were brilliant, but the representation of this half-believing person in Molly Mahoney hurt me. She was me. I was her.

You want some helpful plot? Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a magic toy store. Molly Mahoney was a child piano prodigy and has been working at the store since high school--she's now 23--and is having writer's block in last few lines of her first big concerto. Magorium is 243 years old, and has decided that it's time for him to "leave." Mahoney flips out. She clings, she cries, she threatens. The point is, Magorium wants to give her the store, and she doesn't think she can run it. She's perfectly happy believing in the magic of the store, but she's confined her belief in anything beautiful ("magic," of course, is allegory) to the store, and to Magorium. More than once she says, "but I'm not magic, I can't do it. Only you can."

The poignance of this character in my life can't be understated. I've been her, and I've been the Magic One trying to convince someone else they can! Do it! I'm rarely the Real Unbeliever (here represented by an accountant)--the one who most often appears in children's films as the grown up, or the villain. In films like this, usually, when something fantastic is happening, there's the people who get it, and the people who don't. But Mahoney straddles the land of childhood fantasy/imagination/belief in magic/excitement at the world around AND the land of adult responsibility/pressure to achieve/pragmatism. She actually believes that magic exists, but can't seem to see herself as part of it.

She reminds me of people who come to SARK events and express jealousy at the life SARK has had. They believe in the possibility of an extraordinary life, they just don't think THEY could ever have one. For years I felt this way about SARK too--and about Anthony, Linz, and Louis. It just seemed like the big crazy beautiful things happened to other people. I was jealous of them, but I didn't feel like I was really the "kind of person" to whom those things happened on my own.

What I failed to do for so many years, and what Mahoney fails to do for most of the film, is realize that this pseudo-victim position is actually a position of total culpability. Mahoney's nine-year-old friend Eric tells her this more than once--he knows she could "be magic" if she quit being so insecure, and he knows that no matter how imprisoned she seems to feel, she built the prison to protect herself from the responsibility and potential heartbreak of being BIGGER. SARK's been trying to teach this to people for decades now! And Mr. Magorium has many moments of it that are concrete, if not patently philosophical. (For example, when he and Mahoney are about to run into a mattress store and jump on the beds, she says, "Ok! on Go!" and he says, "No! It's always on Go!" and she says "You're right---um, okay, on Triscodecaphobia!" and then when she yells "TRISCODECAPHOBIA!" off they go. She was already in the eccentric situation of being about to jump on beds, but Magorium asks her to go further, weirder, even more outside.)

Mahoney suffers from that ridiculous pop-psych superstition about "personality" that leads so many people to say they aren't creative, or just "don't think that way." What Magorium helps her understand, and what delighted me the most about the movie, was that there really isn't a "type" of person that is magic. There is just a type of decision a person can make to be so. The decision has everything to do with letting go the self-protective ego, letting go the fear of being out of control, letting go the fear of losing things, letting go the fear of being on one's own, of being disapproved of, etc. There may be circumstances or temperaments that lead some to make this decision easier than others, sure. I'm not discounting the complexity of being a human being who has a particular family, socioeconomic background, experience of real victimization, and so on. However, I think we mistakenly rely on that complexity when almost every time someone thinks they aren't magic it's just because they're afraid of some consequence of being so.

The fear of consequence manifests in another piece of the film's genius--many times characters are being dishonest with each other in ways that are actually socially normalized (for us), but totally unacceptable in a world where magic, desire and curiosity reign. So--instead of their little social stories getting ignored the way they normally would, the stories are pulled out and scrutinized. You must be absolutely honest about what you want or you will be forced to confess it, basically. It's genius, and it's heartbreaking to watch the people in the film putter around something and then finally come out with it, clumsily, abjectly: "I like you," or "will you play with me?" or "I don't understand," or "I'm sorry." Erudition is no help in moments like that, and Magorium's hilarious, wonderful playfulness with language completely falls away when emotions like these need to get expressed. Rightly so. Rightly so.

So the film doesn't just rely on messages about behavioral change, although it is very clear that it is important for everyone to start doing everything differently. It asserts that there is a moment of surrender involved when you want to become "magic"--and that this moment is available at anytime to anyone. You have to surrender to a childlike sense of unfamiliarity with the world in order to see its potential. That surrender doesn't come easy--most adults need something really big to happen to them--a drug trip, a trauma, a baby, falling in love--and then they usually compartmentalize it and try to get back to "normal."

But we should remember Mr. Magorium, who lived until he was 243 precisely because he never came back to normal. He stayed high! He kept a zebra in his house! He learned to play the Euphonium in a hospital bed!

He also never once lied about there being sadness in the world. He was very aware of the loss Mahoney would feel when he died. This is why critics thought the movie was not really for kids--they forgot that whimsy is always contexualized by the rest of life, in the same way that sadness is contextualized by the rest of life, even for kids. There was magic and grief in the store at the SAME TIME. Thank you, Leonard Cohen.

This was especially important for me, right now, as I'm in more than one state of loss. Instead of having the grief paralyze me, I've been keeping it "in motion"--every day trying new ways to engage it. Eroticize it. Write it. Cry it. Fight it. Get pummeled by it. Hate it. Eat it. Triscodecaphobia! There is never a time when we have to stop being magic.


  1. oh wow. i need to see the rest of that movie. i saw the end on tv and thought this is a quirky movie, i need to see the rest of it. and the character you were describing is me. i guess it is all of us. i especially want to feel, to be magic and am jealous of all those people who are. and i feel trapped. thank you. i will get this movie out.

  2. A magical review.
    Indeed, I'd venture that most film reviews are half-reviews. From half-critics, half-believing in their profession, half-believing in film as a magic art form.

    Thanks for fighting off the half-ass blogs.

  3. you are a great writer. thank you for writing this. It helped me to feel my current sadness as a flipped over puzzle piece in a double sided jigsaw puzzle.
    but, where are you?

  4. YES.
    Although I haven't been "trying" anything...
    The magic happens when people can't tolerate the alternatives anymore.

  5. It's sad, though, how LONG people are willing to tolerate the alternatives proferred by the culture industry.

  6. Thank you for your wonderful review. It has inspired me to seek out this film for viewing.