Movie Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent ViceWatching Inherent Vice, it’s easy to see Paul Thomas Anderson loves his source material, his actors, and 70s-era LA. Anderson’s take on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel is an entertaining ride, suffusing melancholic nostalgia with druggy irreverence. But the film is likely to fall just short for fans the novel.

Aside from some changes to the central plot, the movie is like a really stripped-down version of the book. The most prominent and interesting departure Anderson makes is his use of a minor character as the novel’s omniscient narrator. This lets him deliver some of Pynchon’s prose verbatim, a trick he gets away with because, goofily enough, the character is a psychic.

The plot is a bit of a quagmire, introducing a new, memorable character in almost every scene and somehow connecting it all to Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s pot-fueled investigation of his ex-old lady’s new lover. The lover, prominent land-developer Mickey Wolfmann, seems to have a finger in every pie; his name comes up in connection with Black Panthers, Neo-Nazis, a consortium of dentists, a heroin cartel, and a New Age spiritual retreat.

Joaquin Phoenix plays a loveable, faithful version of Doc, sporting big Neil Young chops and hair he styles per occasion (whether it’s his “straight banker” wig or his failed attempt at an afro). But within this levity is a weight of sadness, felt from the first scene in which Doc’s ex-lover Shasta surprises him with a visit. That sadness can be ignored for a while (weed helps), but comes tumbling back inevitably as Doc witnesses the utopian 60s crumble around him, and the cold reality of the 70s rears its head.

The face of the new era is Doc’s nemesis, detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen, played to the hilt by Josh Brolin. Brolin knocks this role out of the park, with a performance that’s somehow hilarious and frightening in every scene. Phoenix and Brolin are great foils for each other, and the rest of the cast just sizzles. Owen Wilson, Benicio Del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Katharine Waterston, Martin Short, Michael Kenneth Williams, Eric Roberts and Maya Rudolph fill out the panorama with fantastic nonsense.

This is the first major adaptation of a Pynchon book. As I see it, the main reason for trepidation in adapting his work (other than potentially pissing off a giant) is that Pynchon’s books are incredibly complex, have so many connections, and have such a distinct feel and atmosphere, that some of his paranoid complexity must get left behind on film.

The biggest disappointment I experienced with Inherent Vice is that Anderson seems to have left much of the book’s atmosphere to the wayside. Pynchon’s novel is rife with beach culture, surf music, urgent, stoned phone calls about late-night television, Manson-trial references, and midnight meals on Gordita Beach. But the movie has ignored most of this flavor to economically handle the sprawling, spider-webbed plot.

And even the plot underwent significant alterations on its way to the screen. Several great characters and significant storylines have been cleanly nixed, though a viewer unfamiliar with the book might not believe it considering the density of what remains.

Anderson’s directorial style is solid throughout, and his actors really sink their teeth in. Long, single-take scenes give the performers room to breath and explore, and Anderson kept me fully engaged even as I puzzled over the screenplay decisions. His soundtrack (opening perfectly with Can’s “Vitamin C”) is great, and conjures the feeling of the era.

I get the feeling that Anderson loves the novel so much he was afraid to make it his own. He goes to great lengths to capture the dialogue, even much of Pynchon’s prose, but I sense he was afraid to change anything too greatly, so his alterations are tentative, like he’s hemming a suit instead of making one from whole cloth.

I can’t help but feel a tinge of dissatisfaction from this adaptation. The movie was enjoyable throughout, but captures the novel in only broad strokes, and I’m not sure it stands as a fully realized separate piece. Run-time constraints trimmed many of the relationships from the book into just a few scenes that fail to capture the weight necessary to pull off their own dramatic purposes. Doc’s connection to undercover sax player Coy Harlingen comes to mind here, but most prominently abridged is Doc’s love/hate relationship with Bigfoot.

One of the most striking omissions from the novel is the glut of surf music that paints the background of Doc’s existence. In the book, he can hardly escape it. But outside of a brief visit to the house of notorious surf band The Boards (with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from The Growlers), surf music is completely ignored. If you ask me, the movie should have been drenched in surf. I’ll take the Can though.

Whether you’re a Pynchon fan or not, Inherent Vice is a really good movie. I’ll watch it again. Someone had to be the first to adapt Pynchon, and I’m glad it was Anderson. He picked the most adaptable of the author’s novels (by a long shot) and gave us something interesting, unique and engaging. It’s funny, well acted, beautifully shot, and there isn’t a movie like it.

Convergences

Reading Vineland or Inherent Vice, you can really feel Thomas Pynchon’s love for surf music. His books stoked my interest in the genre, but it was my brother who introduced me to The Growlers. They’re one of my favorite current acts, and it was a trip to learn they appear in P. T. Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice.

I assume The Growlers are playing the notorious cult/surf band The Boards, because it would be perfect. The timeline of a) my rising interest in surf music; b) reading Pynchon; and c) getting into The Growlers makes me feel like this cameo came to being just to give me a thrill. It’s just great timing.

Assuming the universe caters to my interests, it makes sense that the return of Twin Peaks should feature some of the other music I’ve been listening to these days. Two groups that stand out, probably because they seem to have been heavily influenced by Angelo Badalamenti’s enveloping original score, are Beach House and Bohren & Der Club of Gore.

Check out this ridiculous Beach House video with another interesting artistic convergence.

If you’re feeling darker, drape yourself in this thick cloak of a tune from Bohren.

Or maybe David Lynch will offer up some of his own work. He’s released a number of projects on Sacred Bones Records, including The Air Is On Fire, which plays like the soundscape of one of his films (think Eraserhead OST, but much more sophisticated and subtle).

This one requires headphones, volume, twelve minutes and a dark room.

Inherent Vice: Are You In Or Out?

Inherent ViceWith the movie adaptation set for release Christmas day in Toronto, I used my California vacation as an opportunity to re-read Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon’s cannabis-infused detective story and elegy to 1960’s California. I originally read it upon its release in 2009, shortly after his epic tome Against The Day, and by contrast Inherent Vice seemed light and breezy, fully enjoyable but almost a throw-away effort.

But like all of Pynchon’s work, a second reading exposes layers of detail and meaning not obvious the first time through. Inherent Vice is essentially a novel of ideas that kept me so entertained it only felt like it was dashed off. Pynchon’s funniest novel to date follows Larry “Doc” Sportello, a comically stoned, pseudo-hippy private investigator who is one of Pynchon’s most loveable protagonists.

The 60’s have just ended and Doc stands between two worlds. He is, by nature, a typical 60’s pothead, smoking joints like they’re cigarettes and theorizing abstractly about Gilligan’s Island, mixing freely with surfers and musicians, flirting harmlessly with the bikini-clad beach bunnies of Gordita Beach, and a lineup of his friends and associates would make The Big Lebowski bust a gut.

Conversely, Doc is a real PI—a surprisingly straight occupation for a man of his habits—who cuts deals and shares info with cops, including his counterpart and nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen. Doc is a next-generation Philip Marlow, when shifting cultural paradigms replaced whiskey with weed. Like Marlow, Doc follows his own code, and goes about his business with a sense of humour, generally—not always—staying just sober enough to get his job done.

When his ex shows up concerned for her new boyfriend, the affluent, married land developer Mickey Wolfmann, Doc can’t help himself; without any real prospect of payment, he takes the job. In no time, Wolfmann goes missing and Doc is knocked unconscious and framed for the murder of Wolfmann’s bodyguard, only to be set free under close supervision by Bjornsen and the Feds.

Doc’s investigations lead him into an intricate and deranged plot involving The Golden Fang, which might be a boat, a heroin cartel, a dental office, or a PCP-induced Anubis-like apparition, threatening to escort Doc to the land of the dead. Pynchon plots are sometimes vague and don’t necessarily promise resolution, and while Inherent Vice escalates and complicates Doc’s predicament in every scene—often introducing a cavalcade of bizarre characters with preposterous names—Pynchon somehow weaves the multitude of threads together to make this a surprisingly fast and coherent read.

The only lull in the plot comes about three-quarters through, while Doc is wading deep in chaos and getting thoughtful. The Wolfmann plot that started it all seems to resolve itself, only after tangles of subplots and sub-subplots have developed and gained momentum. And when Wolfmann reappears, Doc is there to see him, only in passing, without directly contributing to his return.

Doc begins to realize the world is much more complicated than it used to be, and in this way he embodies the main theme of Inherent Vice. It’s 1970; the Manson trial is on everyone’s television, and the end of an era is making itself felt. The hippies sought exemption from straight society, sought to “Turn on, tune in, and Drop Out,” while straight society kept on moving, watching with a chip on its shoulder. But illusions dissolved, and the boundaries of those safe and distinct pockets of society had already begun to break.

With respect to the coming era, as for the Wolfmann story, Doc is simultaneously present and exempt. He is down in the trenches, living first-hand the hippy ideology, yet somehow the cultural movement has passed him by. He can’t help but feel a bit impotent, like merely an observer. He is both there and not there, physically present, yet stoned and abstract, a real person and a ghost (“bilocation” is a theme Pynchon also explored in Against The Day). The TV show Dark Shadows offers us a hint at what Pynchon is getting at.

            “This was around the point in the Collins family saga when the story line had begun to get heavily into something called ‘parallel time,’ which was confounding the viewing audience nationwide, even those who remained with their wits about them, although many dopers found no problem at all in following it. It seemed basically to mean that the same actors were playing two different roles, but if you’d gotten absorbed enough, you tended to forget that these people were actors.”

This theme is played out in many of the tangents and subplots that develop along the way, including acid-born theories on Lemuria, a continent long-lost beneath the Pacific, gone but ever present, and seeking to return. The climax of Inherent Vice comes as Doc is captured and into smoking enough PCP to down an elephant.

“After a while Doc finds himself walking along beside himself in the street, or maybe a long corridor. ‘Hi!’ sez Doc….It seemed there were these two Docs, Visible Doc, which was approximately his body, and Invisible Doc, which was his mind, and from what he could make out, the two were in some kind of ill-tempered struggle which had been going on for a while…Fortunately for both Docs, over the years they had been sent out on enough of these unsought journeys to have picked up a useful kit of paranoid skills. Even these days, though occasionally surprised by some prankster with a straight-looking nose inhaler full of amyl nitrate or a rose-cheeked subadolescent offering a bite of a peyote-bud ice cream cone, Doc knew he could count on the humiliation if nothing else to pilot him, and his adversary Doc, safely through any trip, however disagreeable.”

Though I failed to realize it on my initial reading, these themes are laid out on the back cover: “…Pynchon, working in an unaccustomed genre, provides a classic illustration of the principle that if you can remember the sixties, you weren’t there…or…if you were there, then you…or, wait, is it…”

Inherent Vice is an exploration of an era and its ethos, but it remains engaging, funny and strange, full of psychedelic colours and a hilarious cast of dozens. Pynchon’s style and the difficulty of his writing can be off-putting for some, but this might be the perfect introduction to his oeuvre, especially for those excited for the film.

Going Back to Cali

Inherent ViceAn unseemly hour of departure tomorrow means I have time for few words. My destination is California. My plan is to re-read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon while I’m there. Most of his books are complicated enough to be more rewarding the second time through, so I plan to have the novel freshly processed before the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation. This is not necessary; it’s for pure joy. Inherent Vice is the first Pynchon novel to be adapted for film, and this is the most I’ve looked forward to a P. T. Anderson movie. Check out the trailer. Read the book. Enjoy.

 

 

Neophile, The Gambler

I read that there are two types of people in the world, neophiles and neophobes. Neophiles love new things, ideas and experiences. Neophobes fear new things, ideas or experiences. It seems to me that most of us are essentially hardwired neophobes.

When you learn a new task you form a neural connection. When we establish the connection the task comes easier. When the connection becomes permanent, mastery can happen. The things we’re good at, the things we know and love, the things we usually go back to, are old hat. Every time we choose something familiar we make a case for neophobia.

Even when we make an effort, for instance finding new music, we send feelers out for familiar territory. When I look for a new movie, I look for directors I like, styles I’m into, themes I’ve been satisfied with in the past, etc. Because I like Thomas Pynchon, I will go see the new movie adaptation of Inherent Vice. It’s very rare for me to find something new using none of my normal criteria.

After all, we might try something new and hate it. Sometimes the stakes can be higher, like bungee jumping for the first time. We essentially gamble our time with every decision, so it’s a lot easier to use the information we have to weigh our actions. Based on what I know about myself, I’ll enjoy watching Game of Thrones more than I’ll enjoy dinner at Medieval Times, unless I’m very hungry. After all, if I really wanted to gamble I could stay home and get a room at Castle Jackpot.

But without trying new things, we don’t expand our knowledge of ourselves. So our criteria remains static even though the world is changing all around us and within us. Even if we progress to new things through familiar lines, we can broaden our experiences and generate more possibilities, activate more potentialities, and keep things interesting. Inertia keeps us in familiar loops, but the very intention to try something new can add a curve here or there.

On that note, I hope Pandora comes to Canada.

Unconscious Dominoes

In 2010 Thomas Pynchon released Inherent Vice, one of his shortest, funniest novels. This was on the heels on his 1100-page sprawling masterwork Against The Day. Inherent Vice made me laugh out loud regularly, which is a feat novels rarely accomplish. It’s The Big Lebowski as written by Raymond Chandler. Lebowski, I know. It’s one of the funniest movies ever. But I realized that I had somehow never read Raymond Chandler.

I read The Big Sleep right away and was thoroughly impressed. Here was a guy who obviously discovered what he was meant to do.

Around that time I heard an interesting story about Freemasons. They had given some jewelry to one of their members, and when that member died, they asked for the jewelry back. I thought that was interesting. Who doesn’t love a good Freemason conspiracy-theory?

Shortly thereafter, I read a short story by Raymond Chandler called Pearls Are a Nuissance. It’s a classic Chandler first-person mystery. In the story a man tries to find a stolen string of pearls to impress his girlfriend. She asks him not to drink whiskey, but of course the case demands that he does. He gets more and more drunk as the story goes on and things get more and more hilarious. Chandler had me busting the proverbial gut, with gems like this:

 “A wise guy,” the fat man sneered again. “Down the hall, bud. Two-eighteen.” He waved a thumb the color and almost the size of a burnt baked potato.

A plan was forming in my mind even though I didn’t know it. When a few friends and I got together to experiment with a writing group, things aligned and I decided to write a short story based on these elements.

I decided I’d write a mystery in the first person about a piece of missing Masonic jewelry. This was intended as an experiment to get me writing in different styles, so I didn’t feel bad about loosely following the existing plot in Chandler’s story. But instead of whiskey, I went Lebowski’s route and had him smoking more and more cannabis.

Because I borrowed from Chandler’s original, I don’t intend to sell the story as my own. Instead I’m posting it here. Click below to download the PDF. Comments and criticisms welcome.

Freemasons Are a Drag

Enjoy.