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.

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.

 

 

Pynchon News Is Good News

Shortly after it was released, Thomas Pynchon’s Against The Day was gifted to me and quickly became one of my favorite novels of all time. This novel is a monster. And because it’s so huge, and his previous novel Mason & Dixon came a decade prior, and it was also huge, and Pynchon is getting on in years, I had this impression it might be his last book.

Fortunately I was wrong and he quickly tossed off Inherent Vice, a hilarious detective novel set at the end of the hippy era. Supposedly, Paul Thomas Anderson’s movie adaptation of Inherent Vice is filming now with rumors of a ensemble cast full of stars. But what’s even more exciting is that Pynchon has a new novel coming out later this year. The novel is called Bleeding Edge and it is set in New York between the collapse of the dot-com bubble and September 11, 2001.

Read the first page of Bleeding Edge here.

I’ve read just about everything Pynchon has written, and his longer novels are my favorite. I particularly love Gravity’s Rainbow and Against The Day because there is so much going on in them, so many different angles to the narratives, and so many different ways to read them, that every person who reads the novel comes out of it with a different experience.

A while ago I picked one angle and wrote a review of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Article first published as Book Review: Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon on Blogcritics.

GRAVITY’S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon

Dubbed “The most profound and accomplished American novel since the end of World War II” (The New Republic), Gravity’s Rainbow is a massive, freewheeling, paranoid journey through Europe at the tail end of the Second World War. Novelist and esoterica buff Thomas Pynchon is in top form for this, his third novel. A dense, challenging epic, Gravity’s Rainbow is highly rewarding for those with the attention span and patience to take it on.

From the first line we know the concept of The Preterite, or passed-over, is going to be a prominent theme. “A screaming comes across the sky…” A screaming what? The allusion is to a rocket, faster than sound so its target has no way to hear it coming. And the hunt for this preterite rocket, codename “00000”, and its mysterious black device, the S-Gerat, is a loose analogy of our main character, Tyrone Slothrop. In Pynchon’s own post-modern, self-reflexive words, “Some called [Tyrone] a ‘pretext.’ Others felt that he was a genuine, point-for-point microcosm.” (p. 753) This atypical approach to writing defies expectations, assuring Gravity’s Rainbow a prominent place in the history of the novel, even if it is often overlooked.

Pynchon loves to play with the form. The book introduces a madman’s variety of characters in a stunning array of literary styles. Often hilarious, sometimes shocking, Gravity’s Rainbow is no simple story. Perhaps not since Ulysses by James Joyce has an author swung through the canopy of styles so freely, offering up slapstick, scientific realism, hallucinatory stream-of-consciousness and more. The novel slides from one heterodox story to the next, immersing the reader in the chaos spread across Europe by World War II. Some characters hide, some fall in love or dive into obsession to distract from the reality of wartime, while others charge in headfirst, hungry for glory. And all the while, the real question is being asked – why? Why was there a war? Who made the decisions leading up to it, and how was it determined that war is the best option?

Tyrone isn’t introduced until page 61, but even before that we get a sense of his complicated personality. Tyrone has been the subject of bizarre, pseudo-Pavlovian conditioning that somehow leads him to be sexually aroused just before a rocket strike. Stranger yet is that he seems to have subconscious knowledge of exactly where the rocket will hit, though he thinks he’s just following his libido. We begin to understand that Tyrone’s motivations are not wholly his own. Like everyone in the war, Tyrone is deeply affected by a terrifying situation beyond his control. And like the 00000, we sense that he will only become aware of his true role in all this when it’s too late.

Gravity’s Rainbow has been called meta-historical fiction. The historical context of the story is completely true, but Pynchon draws the reader into the mania of the characters, little tangents and cul-de-sacs of fantasy that elevate the story to the realm of mythology. This sounds intellectual and heady, and it is, but the story never feels dry; sex, drugs, love and mystery drive the plot forward with a knowing humor that is both laugh-out-loud and profound.

Following a variety of WWII fringe groups brings the story into even stranger realms. Shadowy organizations like The White Visitation, PISCES, and Operation Black Wing look at the war through lenses of parapsychology and the occult. Delving into Nazi legend, corporate conspiracy, Kabbalah, the elusive Schwarzkommando, ballistic hermeneutics and a unique brand of rocket mysticism, Gravity’s Rainbow offers up a paranoid dream for hippies and soldiers alike. The novel seems to say that some special form of mass insanity must be responsible for something on the magnitude of a World War. What the cause of this insanity is, exactly, is a little more elusive.

Tyrone is an American-born rocket specialist, a guidance man who frequently peeks his head up into the realm of superhero. His irresistible urge toward sex and predilection for drugs find him stumbling into situations oblivious to the big picture, though he often ends up in the right place. When a hashish pickup goes awry Tyrone raids an opera costume trunk and becomes “Rocket Man”, a stylish WWII hero if ever there was one. Tyrone is not a typical hero, just as Gravity’s Rainbow is not a typical novel. Tyrone is both Preterite and Elect. He is a Chosen One, the special subject of strange experiments in behavioral conditioning. But he always manages to stay out of the limelight, passed over at crucial times while danger misses him by a hair. In one of the more brutal scenes in the book, pair of doctors search a spa for Tyrone, who by now is dressed as a giant pig. Through a case of mistaken identity, Tyrone avoids a horrible future that would more than dampen his sex life. Both his preterition and election save him from the worst of the war.

The same goes for the novel. It is a Bible of countercultural intellectualism, an underground epic for dope smokers and mystics that by its undeniable brilliance was awarded a National Book Award. On the other hand Gravity’s Rainbow was passed over for a Pulitzer Prize despite a unilateral vote. The Pulitzer committee decided instead to hand out no prize that year, presumably because of the morally questionable material throughout the book. Despite the real horrors of WWII and the Nazi party, apparently this fiction was too much for the Pulitzer board to handle. A book like this will likely never be given the prestige it deserves because it deals with too many fringe elements in a sympathetic way. Gravity’s Rainbow blurs morality, details too much real-world corruption and power politics, discloses too much about the business of war, GE and IG Farben, looks at behavioral conditioning and fetishism, and all with strong undertones of anarchy. Books like this are almost always passed over by the Establishment.

Gravity’s Rainbow takes place in the tumultuous fallout of war, and much like the victims of a rocket strike, swirls and writhes to recover what has been destroyed. “My mother is the war,” says mathematician Roger Mexico. Drastic times call for drastic measures, and in a war like this one everyone is affected. Everyone reacts in his or her own way to the visible and invisible causes of war. Despite the chaotic and multifaceted paths taken by our heroes, the many become unified in their loves and fears, all raising a glass in song at the absurd, sublime condition of our world. Nothing is the same after the war. And those who make it through the dense prose of Gravity’s Rainbow will remember it as a benchmark novel like no other.

Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel to be read and re-read, a companion to be studied over a lifetime. Thanks to the grandness of the story, the prodigal complexion of the prose, and Pynchon’s ability to weave minute detail and lofty abstraction into the telling, Gravity’s Rainbow reveals more and more of its secrets with subsequent reads. It grows with the reader, like an old man dispensing wisdom through the years, unafraid to offend or enlighten.