Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Inherent Vice (2014) - New York Film Festival 2014

Thomas Pynchon's work is usually described as unfilmable, though Inherent Vice is probably the most filmable of the bunch. It's one of Pynchon's California books, for one, which tend to be breezier and lighter, and it's among his shorter novels as well. A Southern California noir set at the beginning of the 1970s, we follow stoner detective Doc Sportello (played in the movie by Joaquin Phoenix) as he tries to crack a case given to him by his ex-lover Shasta (Katherine Waterston). Her current squeeze is a big-pockets real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and Wolfmann's wife and her lover may be trying to have him committed to an asylum. The plot becomes more convoluted from there, involving murder, land deals, dentistry, and conspiracies enacted by outside players.

Two things are surprising about this adaptation:
  1. Paul Thomas Anderson and his cast make Inherent Vice compelling and funny for the most part even when the plot goes by the wayside or becomes too hard to follow
  2. Present-day Paul Thomas Anderson proves that Thomas Pynchon is unfilmable, but the younger Paul Thomas Anderson who made Magnolia might have been able to pull it off
Inherent Vice the movie is loose and breezy, but sometimes too loose and too breezy--a leisurely stroll vibe rather than a sprinting one--and while there are great moments and memorable scenes, I feel ambivalent about the whole of Inherent Vice. I don't know if it'll be rectified much by repeat viewings either. There's a shaky feeling I got after watching The Master that felt like I had to process the density of the material I'd just watched. With Inherent Vice, the shaky feeling had to do with a kind of lack of density to the material, and also a greater sense that Anderson missed so much of the layered textures that make Pynchon's writing what it is.

What Anderson's Inherent Vice excels at is a bleary, drugged-out feel, particularly at the beginning where the world seems hazy and Doc's general engagement with what's going on is low stakes. He shambles from his beach house, he shambles around various locales, his note-taking skills could be better when key evidence is around. Yet when he senses that Shasta's life is in danger and gets deeper into the interconnections of the Wolfmann crime plot, the filmmaking, like Doc, becomes more engaged. There's one paranoid car ride mid-film that gets the totally wigged-out feeling just right, both for the dopers (paranoid about getting busted) and for the cops (paranoid that these hippies are Charlie Manson & Company II).

Anderson punctuates much of the film with long takes and secretive conversations, the information mumbled or whispered conspiratorially to avoid prying ears, though sometimes to a fault. There's something off with the audio mix of the film, and many lines are either unintelligible or too muddy. This issue is most apparent with Doc's dialogue more than anyone else's (e.g., you never have a problem hearing Josh Brolin's straight-laced LA cop Bigfoot Bjornsen or Joanna Newsom's side character/film's narrator Sortilège), and while some of the indistinct dialogue is intentional and hilarious, the rest is problematic since the tone of the information is conveyed but the information itself becomes lost in the haze.

What's missing in the film version of Inherent Vice is a greater sense of texture, which is something that Pynchon excels at on the page. There's a surf band in the novel called The Boards and their sax player Coy Harlingen (played by Owen Wilson who's whispery in a good way) is part of the case Doc's working on, but we don't really get to hear any of that music. As far as I can tell, none of the fake songs by fake bands in the novel were recorded for the film (The Boards, The Spotted Dicks, Meatball Flag); life at Gordita Beach isn't really discussed either; Pynchon's various side trips that deepen or enliven the story (there's literally one flashback [acid] trip in which Doc thought he was a time-traveling alien named Xqq) aren't given their due.

In particular, the grander sense of conspiracy isn't quite there--the drugged-out paranoia, sure, but not the sense of larger political or systemic forces at work to subvert and exploit the inherent vice of the hippie generation. The dental metaphors tied up in heroin use and The Golden Fang are mostly subtext and unspoken in the film. I think the obsessives out there who are tuned in to the film's disillusionment about the 1960s will find some potent meaning in those dental metaphors regarding the death of that generation's optimism and the encroaching cynicism, consumerism, and anxiety of the 1970s.

Pynchon accomplishes these textured moments in a paragraph or a few paragraphs, and it's much easier to do in text. He's basically layering stories on stories--a kind of world-building as palimpsest (i.e., in this case, stories written on stories on stories). But that isn't to say this technique is impossible in film or a cinematic analog is impossible. Anderson shows he can do it in several scenes. A few of the long takes in Inherent Vice convey a sense of time passing, character history, and even a sense of disillusionment brewing for months (or years) in just a few minutes. There's a flashback to a kinder and more beautiful time in Doc and Shasta's lives when the desperation for drugs was high but so was their love for each other. That sequence, which plays out over Neil Young's "Journey Through the Past," is followed by Doc's visit to the same location in the present time. The changes in weather, lighting, landscape, and situation provide a cinematic equivalent of this palimpsest in just two adjoining scenes.

A memorable long take near the end of the film is a masterfully done cinematic palimpsest as well. A character tells Doc a story, and while that story about the past is told in dialogue, another story gets told through the careful and minor shifts in character blocking and the shot's composition even though it's a single take, and another story through the body language and the facial expressions, and another in tone of voice and wateriness of eyes, and then all of these stories are reconsidered given what happens in the climax of this long take; and a different context is lent to the texts of this scene in its final moments, and again in the shot that immediately follows this long take. It's these virtuosic conjunctions of composition, lighting, performance, and dialogue that reveal the filmability of what would otherwise seem unfilmable: in one scene, Anderson depicts the death of 60s idealism while doing a dozen other things simultaneously.

And yet for the most part I don't think the present-day Anderson is using the kind of cinematic grammar or cinematic sentence structure to sustain a semi-consistent narrative palimpsest. Oddly, I think of certain cinematic things in terms of sentence structure and rhythm. For example, the sentence structure of a Jackie Chan fight scene is different from the sentence structure of a Bruce Lee or Jet Li or Tony Jaa fight scene.

Present-day Anderson predominantly shoots Inherent Vice in a loose and slow style rather than a dense one, whereas the Anderson who made Magnolia was all about speed, control, and momentum as a means to create the narrative palimpsest. So much is conveyed about characters and character relationships in Magnolia in just its opening montage and its carefully contextualizing voiceover and the steady accretion of information that winds up in frame. While the main story of Magnolia takes place in the present of the characters' lives, so much about their past and the world they live in is communicated by the obsessive details, and it's done so quickly, or with an overt sense of impending. Obviously Magnolia is a different story than Inherent Vice, and yet Magnolia feels more overtly Pynchon-esque to me because of how packed and propulsive it is, like a Pynchon sentence at its best.

Then again, Inherent Vice has been dubbed "Pynchon Lite."

This all sounds like I disliked Inherent Vice, but that's not true. I liked it but felt a bit let down, and some of that may be due to the hype. I love Anderson's movies in general, and my expectations were high, especially when early reports of Inherent Vice suggested the movie was like Anderson doing The Big Lebowski, The Naked Gun, and Airplane! While there is some Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker influence in Inherent Vice, it's mostly garnish and not meal. Again, present-day Anderson's writing his comic sentences differently than the spoofs of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, and while there are a few phrases that are reminiscent of Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, it's not really the same: the composition, pace, and approach to the zaniness is much different and Anderson is not as fast or frequent with the comic phrase in this film (think the firing and loading of a blunderbuss) as Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (think a Tommy gun). I'm a bit surprised that many critics say Inherent Vice is so zany. It's zany in spots, it's weird in general, sure, but I think The Big Lebowski is much zanier and the Coen brothers do more Pynchon-esque things with their approach. Is it weird to say that I expected something much weirder and more psychedelic out of Inherent Vice?

I'll watch Inherent Vice when it comes out in December, sure, because there's this other theory brewing about the approach to the movie. It's based on Anderon's love for Neil Young. Anderson showed a clip of Young's 1972 film Journey Through the Past, which Young directed, during a conversation with Kent Jones of the New York Film Festival. It was a long take of Young silently smoking a joint and eating strawberries on a sunny day with his girl, and then he says something you can barely hear before they get back in their old car and drive off. The Inherent Vice soundtrack features two songs by Neil Young, whose work, as far as I know, doesn't appear anywhere in the book Inherent Vice.

So, like, hear me out: what if the movie Inherent Vice is like Paul Thomas Anderson's cover version of the novel Inherent Vice but done using the sentence structure of Neil Young's Journey Through the Past rather than Thomas Pynchon?

No, I am not stoned.

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