Inherent Vice and edging into the fitful light of our attention
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If there’s anything about Paul Thomas Anderson’s polarising new film, Inherent Vice, that most seem to agree on, it’s that it’s incomprehensible; everybody’s decrying the lack of narrative coherence. For detractors, this makes for ideal ammunition for tearing at its lengthiness, zaniness and apparent weightlessness. For ardent admirers (among which I can unabashedly be counted), it’s a jumping off point for a fresh take on the literary-film adaptation, a case study where being beside the point might just be the point. If the great mistake of translation from novel to movie is the sin of omission of plots and characters, then what happens when these material expectations we grasp on to – the inherent vices of a cumulative cinemagoing experience, I suppose – are removed from the equation opens up the possibility for a rich discussion about what it is, that feeling, that is left.
Anderson’s films have never really been interested in the churning mechanism of story, preferring instead to set in place a few pieces that facilitate the interrogation of the intense frailty of his characters, and the time and the place within which they exist. This makes for a wonderful meshing of sensibilities between he and Thomas Pynchon, whose fictional 1970s Californian beach setting for Inherent Vice must surely resonate deeply with the Anderson’s earliest personal experiences. When the film opens with Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Doc’ Sportello awakening from a nap, awash with those vivid blues to the pained whispers of his long lost ex-Old Lady Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson), there is a deliberate ambiguity to the scene calling to mind Christopher Nolan’s popular reminder that within dreams, we are never really conscious of how we get someplace. The movie means to start in a space of disorientation and only hopes to resolve at a place that is marginally less so.
Never an “easy” author to read, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is colorful, funny and, on the surface at least, a more easily digestible introduction to his prose; it’s no coincidence that this is the first filmic adaptation of any of his works. But it’s entirely unfocussed on conventional narrative, employing a dense myriad of subplots to allow Doc to encounter and engage with characters that are sketches of personality that cohere, if only for a moment, into these several archetypal characters of the time. Pynchon’s technique lies not in the way he devises events to come together to form a meaning — but in the way he works his passages between events. Where other writers might simply describe the transition from scene to scene, Pynchon packs each sentence with ideas and sentiments about both the specific moment and the greater Moment. Each builds a prevailing sense of an era lost, every paragraph potentially enough in itself to summarise the plight of its characters, the whole of the book, and even encompass the age entire, as in this excerpt from near the end of the novel:
Shasta wandered slowly down to the beach and through the wet sand, her nape in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of. Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on to the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.
The writing is beautiful, and quietly affecting. Double entendres as simple as “back-turning”, references to “fool’s attempts”, the hammering but barely visible imagery of the surf, and phrases like “falling into the dark (to) be lost forever” allow us, subtly but overwhelmingly, to glean the final feeling of Pynchon’s story, which in spite of its labyrinthine plotting is at its heart a lament on the cultural values of the 60s passing. But it can also be read as a coincident indictment of how the 1970s state of confused identity and growing paranoia, embodied in the works of the New Hollywood like The French Connection, The Conversation and Taxi Driver, might be borne out of the very unbridled freedom and ultimate directionless-ness of this immediate past.
For an auteur whose only previous adaptation was a barely drawn out of the first thirty pages of an obscure book from the turn of the century, Anderson clearly pays proper deference to the wonder and elegiac poetry embedded within Pynchon’s words themselves here. He listens. In a celebrated tweak from the novel, Anderson elevates Sortilége (Joanna Newsom) from a sidebar character in the book to the film’s wry, perceptive narrator – seemingly just to allow himself an outlet for transcribing particularly powerful sections of Pynchon’s wordplay verbatim to the film. In perhaps to most obvious example of this, Sortilége at once captures the seeds of corruption infiltrating those classic events of hippie counterculture, only to punctuate this with an internal monologue that sums up Doc’s knowing impassivity to what’s happening:
Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in and freak-in; here, up north, back east, wherever; some dark crews had been busy all along reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from the epic to the everyday? all they could sweep up for the ancient forces of greed and fear?
“Gee,” he thought, “I don’t know.”
Anderson repays the gesture, too, in one particular sequence that is the favourite of many, but which lasts barely a minute on-screen. A postcard from Shasta sends Doc’s thoughts back to a time where nobody could score, where he, Shasta and Sortilége were gathered in each other’s company on the verge of nervous breakdown, and the only way to find some grass was obviously to dig out an old Ouija board and let the spirits guide them to the next joint. Cut to Doc and Shasta sprinting through the torrential rain to the Ouija board’s business address, only to find it closed next to an abandoned lot; then a closer shot of the two laughing it all off in the shelter of the shop’s entryway, content with each other, in the glow of the nearby neon and on one (the drier) side of the hammering rain. Cut back to the present day, now sunlight, Doc approaches that same building, whose neighbouring empty lot is now occupied by the preposterous postmodern architecture of what we can only assume is the headquarters of the nefarious Golden Fang.
This sequence, set to Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past”, is a simple but remarkable example of all the powers of cinema: the visuals themselves, the soundtrack, the device of the flashback and the repetition of camera movements all combining to affect us with that nostalgia-laden pain of simpler times now progressing. Sortilége is surprised that Shasta would, “in the space of a postcard,” pick that one moment to encapsulate all of the moments she and Doc had together, but Anderson is similarly concise and specific in his conveyance of the changing mood and demeanour of America. It’s incredibly sad, but by the end of the picture, he posits that if one corruptible, thought-dead jazz sax musician can be rescued from his plight as an informer and restored to any semblance of family life in these bizarre present times, that’s a start worth smiling about.
We can only say, then, that Anderson and Pynchon are acutely attuned. Each a hugely singular artist in and of himself, director and writer here find an uncommon synchronicity and shared sensibility. If Walter Benjamin described the task of the translator as “finding the particular intention toward the target language which produces in that language an echo of the original,” I would suggest Anderson has absolutely clarified and emphasised Pynchon’s particular intention: more than the dialogues, characters and plots, it’s the overarching feeling contained in the book that resurfaces so luminously in the film. In this regard Inherent Vice is a landmark adaptation — more than simply because Pynchon doesn’t often allow his books to be adapted and Anderson rarely adapts books. Anderson has had a knack of ending his stories with powerful confrontation/ denouement sequences between his main characters: most recently with Dodd and Quell’s final interaction at The Cause’s offshore base in The Master and, hilariously here, Doc and Lt. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) in a door-smashing, weed-chewing, surreal morning after the drop-off scene. The contrasting emotional impact of each of these is a nice way to reflect upon what Inherent Vice is for Anderson compared to his previous work: two voices simultaneously speaking, instead of that one-way serenade.