Sunday, January 11, 2015

Inherent Vice

To accuse Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice (2015) of excessive and unmanageable intricacy is, I suppose, to miss the point.  Pynchon's source novel was equally densely plotted and, probably, even more confusing.  The notion exploited in both novel and film is that all affairs in southern California in 1971 are controlled by a web of universal drug-driven criminality:  everyone is smoking dope and hallucinating conspiracies except that the conspiracies are not merely paranoid fantasies -- they actually exist at all levels of society.  Pynchon readers will recognize this theme from the author's other books, most notably The Crying of Lot 49, the shortest and most reader-friendly exposition of this idea -- what was new about Inherent Vice is that the novelist approached this persistent theme through the medium of the crime novel (and the crime film).  As a novel, Inherent Vice was influenced equally by Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (based in turn on the poet noir Raymond Chandler's books) and the Coen brother's The Big Lebowski -- indeed, the film made from Pynchon's novel strikes the viewer as working terrain midway between the two Bigs and, for this reason, will probably seem derivative to some moviegoers:  the movie is funnier than Hawks' labyrinthine film and, somehow, more grave and, even, mournful than the Coen's brothers masterpiece of hipster irony.  To illustrate, the complexity of Inherent Vice consider this subplot, one of about a half-dozen intertwined narratives in the film:  a saxophone player, Coy Harlingen, falls in love with a dope smuggler, they marry, have a child, and, then, the musician, apparently, dies of an overdose.  Later, the musician is mysteriously resurrected and meets the film's hero, Doc Sportello, in the mist at a harbor where heroin is apparently being trafficked -- Doc is a private investigator, hired to locate a missing person, Marty Wolfmann, a real estate developer who has vanished.  Doc is dimwitted and inept and spends all of his time smoking weed, but he is persistent and, as they say, even a blind hog sometimes finds an acorn.  Coy Harlingen gives Doc a clue as to Wolfmann's whereabouts, but, then, vanishes again.  He resurfaces at a party in Topanga Canyon, some sort of weird drug and sex orgy that Doc attends with a prostitute, a woman that the detective met at a brothel featuring a "pussy-eating special" for $14.95.  A banquet is underway and Anderson films the meal blasphemously, parodying Da Vinci' The Last Supper, or, perhaps, in this hall of mirrors film, the shot in Bunuel's Viridiana modeled on that fresco.  Next, we see Coy Harlingen appear at a gathering of the California Vigilance Society, a right-wing club where Richard Nixon is speaking.  Harlingen denounces Nixon and is thrown out of the gathering as TV cameras record his obscene tirade.  But it turns out that Harlingen, in fact, has been forced to denounce Nixon by the LAPD in order to establish his credentials as a snitch blackmailed into infiltrating local subversive and left-wing organizations in order to inform on them to the cops.  Feature this:  Coy Harlingen, a real hippy who hates Nixon is forced to publicly denounce Nixon, by Nixon-supporting cops, so that Harlingen can infiltrate other groups that dislike Nixon and provide the police intelligence as to their activities.  This sort of plotting is characteristic of the film and there is simply no way that the viewer can possibly keep track of the maze of motivations driving the characters on-screen.  So the viewer's sense of the film is impressionistic -- you can't exactly tell what is happening and must content yourself with the gist of things:  a sort of ubiquitous drug-addled menace suffused with a curiously tender eroticism -- much of the film concerns Doc's search for the girlfriend that has abandoned him, Shasta Fat, a woman that he didn't realize that he loved until it was too late.

 I must confess that this genre of film has never really impressed me:  I have watched The Big Sleep about four times because on three of those viewings I fell asleep midway through the picture -- the title of the picture has always seem apt to me.  I have always thought The Maltese Falcon tedious -- at least when Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet aren't on-screen --  and found Chinatown not exactly worth the effort necessary to decipher the sinister crimes disclosed in that film.  Anderson's Inherent Vice (like Pynchon's novel to some extent) has the same effect on me:  the movie is long and contains many fascinating characters and sequences but there is simply too much of it -- after about ninety minutes I found myself longing for some surcease in the plot complications.  Anderson has made the film like Hawks' The Big Sleep; the filmmaking is brilliantly utilitarian -- the camera is always exactly where it needs to be and scenes are shot for maximum clarity.  (There's no point in adding a visual dimension of ambiguity to a film that has this level of narrative ambiguity.)  Anderson avoids "beauty" -- there's nothing pretty in the film, no lyrical sequences in which the camera is given a vacation from recording the facts and just the facts, ma'am, and, on a purely visual level, everything makes sense.  Indeed, the curious aspect of the movie is that the picture is ultimately impressionistic -- that is, we walk away with only vague impression of what has happened -- but that this effect is achieved by the accumulation of innumerable small, clearly shot, and coherently edited sequences.  Anderson uses many close-ups the better to study the faces of his cast and the acting in the film is uniformly superb, surprising, and oddly affecting.  Joaquin Phoenix is excellent as the befuddled hero and the large cast contains wonderful cameo appearances by Martin Short, the great Martin Donovan, and Eric Roberts.  The film has a voice-over pronounced by Shasta, I think -- although I will have to see the movie again to verify this identification and she gives us some access to Pynchon's soaring, if convoluted, prose arias.  But, of course, the book redeems all the hither-thither to-and-fro plotting with Pynchon's unique writing style, a mixture of Hawthorne-like allegory, Faulkner's wild and ornate syntax, and Melville's flights of fancy.  A movie can't capture the ornate writing that is the reader's primary pleasure, and motivation, for plowing through Pynchon's idiosyncratic, and, often, infuriatingly self-indulgent novels.  In fact, Anderson's film style in this movie is unadorned, plain, direct, and very audacious.  He uses very long takes, often shots that are two or three minutes running time and there is one particularly audacious love scene between Phoenix's Doc Sportello and Shasta that begins with provocation, moves through confessional grief and a kind of taunting invitation and, then, concludes with fully realized act of sexual intercourse -- all of this happens in a single, exceedingly forceful, five-minute take.  In sequences of this sort Anderson achieves a peculiar mood of melancholy and regret and many of the scenes in the last half-hour of the film have a peculiar sort of gravity that doesn't exactly comport with the jocular plotting:  And this effect is very characteristic of Pynchon at his best:  in Gravity's Rainbow or Mason and Dixon or any of his novels, the text suggests a vulgar, moronic underground comic book, a kind of Robert Crumb kind of sexually explicit and raw counter-culture comedy that, suddenly, and without warning becomes sorrowful, emotionally intense, and, even, tragic.  Anderson, whose films are always an important event, gets this aspect of Pynchon's writing, even though he creates the effect with very different means.  The score is by Jonny Greenwood and, perhaps, this accounts for the inexplicable power that accumulates around the last half-hour of the movie.  I will have to look at this movie again to fully understand how it is constructed and what it means -- but, perhaps, a second look will merely deepen the mystery. 

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