Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Inherent Vice: Pynchon 101

This poster, aside from tweaking Leonardo DaVinci, gives an idea
of the many wonderful cameos in Inherent Vice. Martin Short
(far right) is particularly funny and strange.
After dinner last Friday, the wife and I stopped by the Redwood City 20 to see what was playing. We spontaneously decided to see Inherent Vice. I love that sort of thing-- we went in unprepared for Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film-- and it ended up being a total delight.

It's the story of "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) a hippie P.I. who is hired to find a missing girl who also happens to be his ex. thus begins Doc's strange journey through 1970 Los Angeles-- both helped and hindered by Detective "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a flat-topped, hippie-hating, brutal/delusional LA cop who also carries a SAG card (we see him as an extra in "Adam-12," in fact). On the long, winding path of investigation Doc encounters all sorts of odd and historically appropriate types: Nazi bikers, cultists, a Laurel Canyon mansion full of hippies, a hidden cabal of dentists and drugs. Lots and lots and lots of drugs. River Phoenix does an amazing job, in fact, of conveying an amazing range of stoned: mellow high, totally baked, buzzed, flying' and everything in-between.

"Doc" Sportello (River Phoenix), doing what he does
dozens of times in the film.
Compared to any other sort of film, I'd say it was not unlike The Big Lebowski- but it's a LOT more like Kiss Me Deadly, a film noir saturated in the light of Los Angeles and the darkness cast by the greedy and evil.

This is the first Thomas Pynchon book ever committed to film, and the script was apparently personally approved by Pynchon as well. Thomas Pynchon and Paul Thomas Anderson were made for each other-- their mutual approach to storytelling is spacey and convoluted yet brimming with insight. Inherent Vice perfectly embodies a lot of Pynchon's favorite motifs: Los Angeles, complex whodunits, subtle mysticism and conspiracies by shadowy, powerful organizations. The 2009 book was considered considered "Pynchon Lite," one of his most accessible novels. If this is so, than the movie version is an even better introduction to his distinctive literary style. Pynchon 101.

Thomas Pynchon, as seen on "The Simpsons." According
to Josh Brolin, the reclusive author has a cameo in
Inherent Vice. Forget it: we'll never figure it out.
Paul Thomas Anderson has developed an elliptical and indirect narrative style, especially in his later films: Inherent Vice could be described as being comprised of a series of close-ups and medium shots of Joaquin Phoenix interacting and reacting. He is an example of a filmmaker whose core relationship with cinematic storytelling has clearly evolved: his beginnings as a teller of Tarantino-like multiple-storyline widescreen films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia to a focus on nuance and dialog, as in The Master and Inherent Vice. This refocusing gives these later films a rambling feel as the plot slowly snakes from one scene to another. It take a little getting used to, but when it all clicks together it's exhilarating.

Inherent Vice is also very funny-- which is sort of unusual. P.T. Anderson doesn't really do funny: There was some situational comedy in Boogie Nights, and Punch Drunk Love was supposed to be funny (it wasn't), but this is the first time he stretches out for some Coen Brothers-style sardonic humor.

Check it out, you'll enjoy it. See it high, and you might enjoy it even more.

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