Inherent Vice (2014); directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

inherentvice

In Joan Didion’s essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” there is a section that reminds me of the vibe that Thomas Pynchon captured in his druggy LA-noir set in 1970. Didion wandered through Haight-Ashbury in 1968, 1969, meeting people, hanging out, and in one section she describes a conversation she has with a guy named Steve:

A few days later I drop by to see Steve in his apartment. He paces nervously around the room he uses as a studio and shows me some paintings. We do not seem to be getting to the point.

“Maybe you noticed something going on at Max’s,” he says abruptly.

It seems that the girl he brought, the dark pretty one, had once been Max’s girl. She had followed him to Tangier and now to San Francisco. But Max has Sharon. “So she’s kind of staying around here,” Steve says.

Steve is troubled by a lot of things. He is twenty-three, was raised in Virginia, and has the idea that California is the beginning of the end. “I feel it’s insane,” he says, and his voice drops. “This chick tells me there’s no meaning to life but it doesn’t matter, we’ll just flow right out. There’ve been times I felt like packing up and taking off for the East Coast again, at least there I had a target. At least there you expect that it’s going to happen.” He lights a cigarette for me and his hands shake. “Here you know it’s not going to.”

I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Something. Anything.”

Something. Anything. California. The end of the road, the beginning of something else, the ocean launching itself off into the West, haunted by the Golden Fang ghost ship that is everything and nothing, something and anything.

Thomas Pynchon’s druggy paranoid laugh-out-loud-funny 1970s-California noir detective story feels damn near un-adaptable. The book is a maze of plot-threads, strange characters who float into the action, float out, and then re-appear 180 pages later. All is connected, but damned if I could explain any of it. The point is not really the solving of the case (although it is eventually solved), the point is to evoke a certain moment in time, the moment directly following Woodstock and the Manson murders, the 60s burning themselves out in assassinations and blood, leaving a wasteland of confusion and alarm behind. Drugs kept people docile and checked out, flower children turned out to be murderers, and politics took on a distinctly paranoid edge. Inherent Vice captures a time clouded by pot-mist and conspiracy. All is connected. None of it means anything. Tenderness is still possible, as is kindness, but it all feels exhausted, burnt out. The book is hilarious (one of the funniest books I’ve ever read), and the prose surges around, circular, feverish, lazy – sometimes all at the same time. The book itself feels like it is on drugs. It’s one of Pynchon’s most purely entertaining reads.

So when I heard Paul Thomas Anderson was doing Inherent Vice, I felt excited and apprehensive. If anyone could helm such a multi-tiered story, it would be him. And Doc Sportello was, within 1 or 2 pages of the book, an absolutely beloved character, and I also felt afraid/protective of the character being represented onscreen. But then I heard Doc would be played by Joaquin Phoenix, and I approved. None of this matters, since I was not in charge of the production (obvi). Whatever. I haven’t seen The Shipping News and I never will: I already know it’s not right, and it’s mis-guided and it’s horrible, based on who they chose to cast. If you love a book, you sometimes have that proprietary feeling about it.

joaquin

Halleluia, Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a big, druggy, gorgeous, hilarious dream of a movie. It is a story of tangents, of paranoia, of bad vibes and worse real estate deals, of an uneasy coalition of Jewish moguls and their Aryan Brotherhood biker bodyguards, the fear of cults, the deranged tail-end of the 60s burning itself out with little or no fanfare in the beach-y environs where the Pacific Ocean starts. Nobody is going anywhere, not even Bigfoot, the ambitious cop-slash-TV-star, played by Josh Brolin (hilarious, his head is completely square) who is frustrated by his whole life, compelled to walk on the wild side, even as he abhors all that hippie bullshit. His only comfort are his frozen chocolate-covered bananas that he slurps on at all times. It is a portrait of a society in decay, and what beautiful dreamy decay. Them’s were trippy trippy times. Or so I’ve heard.

It’s a movie to get lost in, it’s a movie that requires you to let go. The genre tropes are all there, the lonely detective, the misty-water-colored-rain-drenched memories he has of his sweet “old lady,” the wacky secondary characters, the cool as SHIT cars (this is a great gearhead movie), the secret meetings in foggy alleys, the going undercover in some weird ashram … Everyone’s on edge, Doc is hired to look into a specific case. He is then hired for another case. As he investigates, stoned the entire time, he starts to follow the threads, varying, intersecting, converging, confusing, and realizes all is connected. It is a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream. Everyone whispers about this mysterious ship called The Golden Fang. What is it? Who controls it? And … honestly … what does it have to DO with anything?

Hilarious, in its larger chaotic psychedelic weirdness, and in its smaller moments with beautifully-observed tiny bits of behavior (Doc shushing his “lawyer” as the waitress approaches the table, Doc nearly bursting into tears as he watches Bigfoot EAT a joint, too many moments to count), Inherent Vice is awesome because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and – most importantly – gets the book. It gets it HARD.

Just one example:

In the book, Doc is asked to investigate the whereabouts of a missing saxophone player. The sax player was part of the whole surfer-music scene and then suddenly vanished, and his now-cleaned-up-junkie wife is very anxious to find out what happened to him. This appears to have nothing to do with the OTHER case, the main case, and feels like a tangent, in other words, but it’s not a tangent at all. In trying to find the sax player, Doc attends a party at some huge house filled with rock stars, their groupies, and a British invasion pop group called Spotted Dick. It’s rumored that the sax player is there somewhere. The second Doc walks into the party, he gets a bad bad BAD vibe. Like Manson Family vibe. It’s trippy, and since Doc himself is always stoned, you’re just not sure if he’s a reliable witness to reality. But he knows what he knows: these people are into some bad shit. It’s ominous as hell.

Anderson doesn’t linger at the party as long as Pynchon does in the book, but there is a dreamy nightmarish moment when Doc looks around the mansion, seeing naked girls, and long-haired guys, making flower wreaths, and putting pizzas on the table … and this is the configuration they all end up in.

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And that right there is the brilliance of Anderson’s approach to this bizarre material.

Visually, that moment says it all, says what Pynchon took 6 pages to do (and hilariously so) in the novel. Best of all, the tone is right for the film, the tone is snarky and psychedelic, nightmarish and hallucinatory, with flashes of tenderness and caring, all of the varying parts of the scene clicking together to re-create that famous image, almost casually, and gone before it even solidified. But Doc knows what he saw, knows what he sensed.

The whole film is like that. Dazzling and funny, meandering and dark, anchored by wonderful performances from Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon. Gestures are important, shapes are important, the way bodies move through space, the way bodies connect or diverge, the shapes they make against the backdrops, or against each other … It’s a collage, fragmentary and beautiful, romantic and seedy, strange and fragile.

Wonderful acting, too, my favorite kind: performances that are solid in their details, grounded in their emotional reality, and almost schticky in their broad-ness.

It’s a hoot. For real. Didion again:

I ask what it is that is supposed to happen.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Something. Anything.”

Also:

We do not seem to be getting to the point.

Exactly.

Inherent Vice opens this Friday.

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28 Responses to Inherent Vice (2014); directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

  1. Sheila, thanks for this. I’ve honestly been on the fence about this movie. I love Pynchon, and in particular I love the weird, ominous hilarity of this novel–you’re the only other person I’ve read who admits to laughing out loud at it, which I did, too, and which I think Pynchon intends.

    But I was worried. I often find PTA to be humorless and portentous, too much in love with control and coldness, like a poor man’s autistic version of Robert Altman. (I love Altman. I like PTA when he’s trying to channel Altman, as with Punch-Drunk Love, less so when he’s flat-out copying him, as with Magnolia as a new version of Short Cuts [with more biblical nonsense & pretentious voiceover].) And, as impressive as he is, I don’t associate Joaquin Phoenix with comedic performances, which Doc needs.

    So, I wondered if the director, lead actor, and author would be a good fit here–Inherent Vice made me wish Altman were still alive to adapt it. But you’ve convinced me to give this a shot, and that PTA’s captured its vibe.

    • sheila says:

      Walter –

      I am REALLY excited to hear your thoughts!

      I laughed so loud at the book (the guy who legally changed his name to “Asymmetrical Bob”? I think I scared my neighbors) – and what is great in the adaptation and Anderson’s approach is that he keeps it loose. It’s very LOOSE – and Phoenix is loose as hell. I found him hilarious. He ends up being a perfect fit. Lots of sighing and indiscriminate sounds as he tries to put the pieces together (the sighs and sounds are funny in and of themselves – hard to describe). And there’s a kindness in his performance, too – you know how you can sense that in the book too? That this person is a good guy, essentially. Phoenix gets that. He’s super open.

      Anderson leaves the actors alone. Scenes are allowed to play out – often with two people in the frame at the same time, so you get all this fantastic behavior. Long takes. Not showy, just long.

      I think Punch Drunk Love is still my favorite Anderson – and I had serious problems with the last 25 minutes of There Will Be Blood (which I never wrote about – I kind of loved that movie, but really disliked the ending in a pretty profound way) – I also loved his early stuff. The Master is great. I guess I love his showman-ship, even though that is also the thing that can trip him up sometimes.

      But yeah: was really happy with the overall MOOD of Inherent Vice which is loose as hell. Practically screwball. Lots of visual gags. Silly. He doesn’t try to straighten it out. He leaves it a total mess.

      People I respect have disliked the film, and then there are others I also respect who adore it – so it looks like it’s gonna be a really fun discussion about it.

      Please come back to talk about it once you’ve seen it!

    • sheila says:

      // I often find PTA to be humorless and portentous, //

      That was my problem with the final act of There Will Be Blood. Thought it was an enormous mis-fire on all counts – and thought PTA was too intimidated by/in love with his lead actor to help DDL control that final act. Thought that scene in the bowling alley played like one of those rehearsals when the actors feel like they are on FIRE with their character and the director is able to say, “Uhm, yeah, can we tone it down a notch?”That’s what the director is there for. I thought he was swept away by what DDL was doing – and I realize I’m in the minority and a lot of people thought DDL was brilliant in that last scene with the whole “milkshake” thing – I thought it was terrible, and that it was, frankly, very bad acting. And it’s rare that DDL EVER looks bad – and that’s on PTA.

      Portentous is the word for it. Straining for seriousness when it’s really not necessary or right.

      But Inherent Vice is goofy and dreamy. The spirit of the book is there. But I will be interested to hear your take.

  2. Awesome. We’ll talk. The movie doesn’t open here in Athens for another couple of weeks, so it’ll be after Christmas.

    I had pretty much the same reaction to that last reel of There Will Be Blood that you did. I think DDL has become so sainted at this point–and he deserves some of the hosannas, sure–that directors are unwilling to, um, give him direction. With DDL, I had the same problem with parts of Lincoln (which I more-or-less loved) and Gangs of New York, that he was so deified that filmmakers were afraid to rein in his worst impulses, even when those directors (Spielberg, Scorsese) are legends themselves. I think you’re right that it’s on PTA to do quality control here, b/c DDL is clearly brilliant.

    None of this is intended to slag PTA, exactly. We’re not on the same wavelength, which isn’t his fault (he is who he is; I am who I am). I don’t genuflect toward him as much as other critics but I do love Punch-Drunk Love (my favorite, too), and am impressed that he coaxed out Adam Sandler’s best performance ever.

    • sheila says:

      Cosign, in re: DDL. There Will Be Blood was so strong (in my opinion), so bold (that’s one of the main things I love about PTA – the bold-ness – it may mean he’s hit or miss but I prefer that to a safer more conservative attitude) – and although it’s probably bad form of me I had this whole other ending in my head that was subtler, way nastier, and more in line with the rest of the film. That final scene just felt really really off – like by that point everyone was too exhausted to keep their heads/wits about them. DDL seemed tapped out – and so he was winding himself up with the milkshake monologue – mistaking being loud for being effective.

      I think the “tapped out” quality was really the truth of where that character was at – and I really felt DDL strain in that scene. It didn’t ruin the movie for me or anything, but I remember thinking – say wha??

      What did you think of The Master?

      I loved it, especially the visuals.

      Anyway, look forward to discussing it more, once others have seen it.

  3. Rory says:

    I am intrigued about what your ending would have been to There Will Be Blood, Sheila – “subtler, way nastier, and more in line with the rest of the film,” is too bold a statement to keep schtum about. Hey, even Roger Ebert throws down the gauntlet in his review: “Those who hate the ending, and there may be many, might be asked to dictate a different one.”

    I can’t deny that when I first watched TWBB the ending felt off – suddenly we had leapt forward several years…it all felt so…abrupt. But then I got to thinking that what we were watching was the trajectory of a man’s life. Where we left off, so it would be, nasty and bitter even years down the line. The man’s a monster.

    I quite enjoyed this essay – Know Your Ending: There Will Be Blood – which works backwards and suggest that everything springs from Daniel’s last line, “I’m finished.”

    • sheila says:

      and ha, forgot that Roger Ebert said that in his review. Funny!! Good memory.

      Thanks for the other link, too – I will definitely read.

      I just re-watched There Will Be Blood recently, so it’s fresh in my mind, obviously. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts, Rory!

  4. sheila says:

    Rory – sorry, your comment got stuck in moderation because of the links.

    Thanks for the comment and for challenging me to elaborate! :)

    Here was my deal with that relationship which was obviously key to the whole movie: Daniel looked at that preacher and saw himself, or a dark mirror of himself. He knew he himself was, on some level, a master con-man – using his “son” as a way to get people on board – lying about his background – but I think he also believed that what he was doing was right. People usually do, even monsters (and I agree, he was a monster – he reminded me of The Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien – have you read it??)

    So. But he got away with it – because he was successful – and because he killed people who may have revealed the truth (his long-lost brother, etc.)

    The relationship with the preacher was so destabilizing because the preacher could potentially be in his way – and ALSO since he saw himself in the preacher, he saw that the preacher was full of shit, just like he was. He KNEW it, and it rankled. He wanted to unmask this man, he wanted to destroy him – destroy his faith in himself.

    So it would gnaw at him, endlessly – he would ruminate over it – especially since the preacher got him to go on his knees before the congregation and beg for forgiveness for abandoning his son. That moment would never be okay with Daniel, he would never ever forgive. And he would wait, endlessly, he would bide his time until he could get back at the preacher.

    All of that was great. I thought that was set up gorgeously throughout the film and was its real engine.

    This only worked so well because of Paul Dano’s incredible performance – he, too, could not bear to “lose” – Daniel rejecting his offer to bless the well …. that would be a moment that would rankle, that he could never ever let go – and he, too, bided his time, waiting, watching, until he could get Daniel back. Which he did, with the baptism scene. Both men want to win, both men know that the other sees them in a way that is not flattering to their sense of self, their vanity. It RANKLES to know that there is someone “out there” who has your number, who never bought your pack of bull shit, who see you.

    These two guys were locked in mortal combat – for YEARS.

    SO. All of that was fantastic.

    I felt, in that last scene, that the climax really came when Daniel asked the preacher to say “I am a false prophet.” and the preacher actually complied. THAT was the moment, the REAL moment – not everything that came after, the spluttering monologue about the milkshake, and then killing him, was … forced, imposed, I felt everyone flailing to make the moment “bigger,” more scary – when it was scary enough with that exchange about “I am a false prophet.”

    The REAL devastation (and triumph, too) came when Daniel asked the preacher to declare “I am a false prophet” – which would literally be the worst possible thing you could ask such a man to say – a TRUE prophet would die before he would say such a thing. True prophets died all the time declaring their faith, standing by their faith. They would never betray their deepest held beliefs.

    But when Paul Dano actually agrees – actually complies – he reveals that his faith really was a shallow thing. He is revealed.

    I felt it was absolutely devastating. A moment of triumph for Daniel, and a moment where – one of those moments where you can see a man completely un-masked, stripped of … his entire identity. That was what Daniel was after – just ADMIT you’re a con-man like me, just say the words, say the words …

    So when he does, I felt that if Daniel Plainview had left it at that – had left the preacher sitting there, in the knowledge that he was willing to say those terrible words, that he had betrayed his God, his faith, his convictions – for momentary gratification – now THAT is monstrous on Daniel’s part. Far more monstrous than killing him. Because I think the preacher would have ended up killing himself soon afterwards. He would not have been able to live with what he had done. Daniel Plainview has destroyed his life. In that moment, Daniel won. Won HARD.

    It would be a terrible victory – but for Daniel that would be the only kind.

    And then leave the room, leaving the shattered man behind. The preacher wouldn’t have lasted long after that. We could then see him put a bullet through his brain. And Daniel smiling when he read the news.

    Terrible and ugly. And more in line with the huge battle of wills that had gone on for the whole film.

    My two (or three) cents.

  5. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Actually, your description of the milieu evokes Altman’s Marlow movie, set in the LA version of that lost world.

  6. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Oh… for what it’s worth, I had the same feeling about Shipping News, but did see the film, and liked it.

    • sheila says:

      I have heard similar things from others – but I love Quoyle so much, one of my favorite characters from literature in the last 20 years – and Kevin Spacey? I just can’t do it!

  7. sheila says:

    Oh, and I will say this about Inherent Vice which I didn’t mention above:

    It was so damn good to see Eric Roberts again. Small role. He was terrific.

  8. Dg says:

    Totally wondering now if The seminal 1972 album “Something/Anything? ” by Todd Rundgren was influenced by Joan Didion. Hmmm.

  9. Rory says:

    Thank you, Sheila. That was very interesting. (I can’t take the credit for remembering what Roger Ebert said in his review – it was a happy fluke…)

    It was a terrible victory for Daniel to get Eli to declare he was a false prophet and that God is a superstition, but I feel quite sure that for Daniel that would not be the only kind. It was not enough. He wanted to kill him. In his mind Eli shouldn’t even have been born. What does he call him…”an afterbirth”? He ridicules him, humiliates him, knocks him down – there is a moment – and then he clubs him to death.

    “I’m finished.”

    What detracts slightly from the last two minutes is the ludicrous pantomime antics of these two characters – Daniel hurling bowling balls, Eli skipping around and shrieking. There must have been a reason for it to be filmed in this way – perhaps just to illustrate the madness of it all? I don’t know. Perhaps it grates because in the whole scheme of things, what with the title There Will Be Blood and the portentous nature of all that has gone before, the ending came as a bit of a letdown. When the blood came…that was it?

    Somebody has very helpfully put the last fourteen minutes on youtube.

    I appreciate you discussing this, Sheila. Sorry to have distracted from Inherent Vice.

    • sheila says:

      Rory – no need to apologize, it is a fascinating discussion.

      I am sure you’re right – that the madness of those final moments was there for a reason, and also ends up showing Daniel’s ultimate pettiness, and small-ness, despite all his riches and all his successes. (The scene with his son in that final section was devastating. The man could not lose and so he was willing to destroy the one person he loved in order to win. Sad.)

      It just didn’t work for me – so I’ll have to leave it at that. I felt DDL straining – and like I said upthread that usually happens during rehearsals, when an actor is trying to find his way in the role – and that whole milkshake-monologue felt like a rehearsal. A sort of flailing-about trying to get TO the moment … these things happen in rehearsal, that’s what rehearsals are for – but PTA obviously felt differently and put it in the film.

      // When the blood came…that was it? //

      Yes, I think that may be part of it. The whole film felt so ominous – the score!! Those dying swooning swooping chords – those freaked me OUT. And for me the portentous-ness was psychological in nature – rather than physical. It was practically a spiritual battle going on between those two men – both card-carrying narcissists, sociopaths, whatever you want to call them. And the worst thing that could happen to EITHER of those individuals was not death in a bowling alley (ha) – but to be revealed, un-masked.

      The preacher had unmasked Daniel in the baptism scene. When Daniel unmasks the preacher – or had the preacher unmask himself (which is even worse) – that, for me, was the blood spilt.

      ANYWAY. The movie is what it is – and I love it, mostly.

      Yes: that wordless opening!! My GOD, how bold!

      When you eventually see Inherent Vice, Rory, would love to hear your thoughts on it!

  10. Rory says:

    Sorry…I must just add…

    From the opening moments of that final encounter, it spells doom. “Your home is a miracle. It is beautiful. God bless it.”

    We have just watched two-and-a-half hours of it being anything but a miracle. From the wordless opening fifteen minutes where Daniel falls down a mine-shaft in his pursuit of silver, he has grafted and clawed his wealth via any means possible. God had nothing to do with it. He did it all himself. He was God. He did bless that home. He sprinkled it with Eli’s blood.

    The wordless prologue, and wordy epilogue. Interesting bookends.

  11. Was kinda gobsmacked by INHERENT VICE, which I saw over the weekend and will probably see again soon, because it’s like reading Pynchon–I didn’t get it all in the first take, will probably never get it all, but it’s a hilarious, weird, and justifiably paranoid world to get lost in, and that I loved inhabiting. And I really felt like I was inhabiting it, that I was entering into a world that would keep going and keep churning even after I left it, and was doing so before I entered.

    By streamlining the novel, PTA’s choices even helped clarify some of Pynchon’s plot strands. Most of it eventually makes sense, in a way that’s not necessarily true of the novel, and Doc turns out to be a good detective. Given that he’s perpetually high, he manages to find Mickey Wolffman, free Coy Harlingen, and [mostly] figure out what the deal is with Channel View Estates. He connects the dots, in ways that other characters don’t–he just doesn’t like what he sees.

    One thing that PTA & Joaquin Phoenix (Jesus, he’s so good, and so funny) clarify is how SAD Doc Sportello is. He’s hitting the joints (and the laughing gas, and the coke…) so hard because he’s in genuine mourning–over the end of him and Shasta Fay, over the end of the 1960s, over the state of California. Pynchon’s prose doesn’t make it as clear that Doc’s in palpable, real, aching grief–and PTA clarifies that. (Even when Doc smiles, he looks almost in tears. Again, what a performance.) In that sense, I think PTA actually improves on the novel’s characterization.

    Sheila, what did you think about the relatively happy Hollywood ending? [SPOILER ALERT] In the movie, it’s clearer that Doc & Shasta Fay get back together, and the Golden Fang ship gets caught by the feds. The Doc/Shasta Fay “relationship” ain’t as clear by the end of Pynchon’s novel, and we’re never truly sure what the Golden Fang is by novel’s end, and it sure as hell ain’t been caught. The free-floating menace persists in the novel–as I think Pynchon is saying it does in real life–and I felt like PTA wrapped it up too neatly and nicely. That doesn’t spoil the mood or the movie, by any means, but I felt like it was a slight cop-out that went against Pynchon’s intent. The ending of the novel is so woozy, dreamlike, and perfect in its sad ambiguity that it probably couldn’t be recreated onscreen–Doc’s driving alone in that final sequence–but it seemed like PTA consciously went against its grain, in a way that’s a little cheap. Or am I missing something?

    • sheila says:

      Walter! Hello! So awesome to read your reaction!

      // By streamlining the novel, PTA’s choices even helped clarify some of Pynchon’s plot strands. //

      I totally agree.

      I LOVED Joaquin’s performance. Those little sounds he makes before speaking – a kind of high-pitched moan, or a little verbalized sigh – you know what I’m talking about? It felt so real – not a “tic” or anything annoying like that. But Doc kind of … swimming around in his own pot-haze of thoughts … having to pick and choose what he wanted to come out of his mouth.

      His sadness was extraordinary. The tears that filled his eyes in that invented scene at the end with Bigfoot – fantastic. I still don’t know what it means, but I adore thinking about it.

      Okay, so I’ve seen it twice now so I have some thoughts on the ending. One of the things I thrilled to in the movie was the sense of true longing that Doc had for Shasta – that I agree was not as present in the novel. (That flashback scene! Just perfect – nostalgic and yet not sentimental. Specific as hell.) But that final scene, of the two of them driving off …

      What I picked up on in my second time viewing was the undercurrent of unease in that final moment – the headlights in the rear-view mirror suddenly illuminating his face – and his paranoid quick glances up at the mirror – he still thinks he’s being followed. Maybe he is being followed. The truly through-the-looking-glass paranoia of the 1970s starting. I don’t know – it felt less sentimental the second time I saw it. The camera moves in on him, cutting her out of the frame, and those headlights keep illuminating his face, and his eyes, staring back there … not happy eyes, but haunted eyes.

      Of what has been lost? Of his idealism crushed? Fear of the future? I don’t know, but I felt the ending much more wary than I did in the first viewing.

      I’d be interested to hear what you think about that.

    • sheila says:

      // Pynchon’s prose doesn’t make it as clear that Doc’s in palpable, real, aching grief–and PTA clarifies that. (Even when Doc smiles, he looks almost in tears. Again, what a performance.) In that sense, I think PTA actually improves on the novel’s characterization. //

      I love this. Yes!

  12. // (That flashback scene! Just perfect – nostalgic and yet not sentimental. Specific as hell.)//

    That flashback–and the fact that Shasta Fay is cluing Doc in on where he needs to go next–is perfect, maybe my favorite moment in the film. When Doc returns to that address, and discovers that it’s been razed to become the Golden Fang headquarters, it’s so deflating–a spot-on understanding of the way Pynchon shows how the idealism of the 1960s has curdled into a corporate, soulless present. It’s beautiful and haunting. It’s also just a great moment of what actual love feels like in the moment, how it’s so intimate that only Doc could have interpreted that postcard correctly. That’s something between him and Shasta Fay.

    PTA’s good in general here on conveying the nuances of relationships–each one feels earned, and specific to the two characters. What did you think of Doc and Bigfoot? To me, it starts off funny but ends up incredibly moving. Despite all the surface-level bluster and antagonism, they respect and (I think) even like each other. It’s as if their fashions, their codes on “how a man must behave,” get in the way of their developing an honest-to-God friendship, and that’s really sad. Pynchon gets at that, too, how these surfaces we construct keep us from connecting with each other. He does that slyly, showing how a white prider (Glenn) and a black nationalist (Tariq–and it’s always nice to see Michael K. Williams in a role, no matter how brief) can find common ground, once prison (ironically) strips them of the surface-level bullshit of the “real” world. The costumes we wear keep us separate from others–and Doc’s ALWAYS putting on another costume, just as Bigfoot’s always ACTING out a role (sometimes on TV).

    We’ve talked some about Doc and Shasta Fay but in some ways the more interesting romance is between Doc and Penny. They’re attracted to each other, and again they might like/love each other if they could get rid of these codes about “what a hippie is supposed to be” or “what a corporate official is supposed to be.” Because they can’t/won’t shed those costumes, they can’t trust each other. But, Sheila, do you think Doc trusts ANYONE? I don’t think he does, and that makes him really tragic to me. Trust and affection are eroded qualities in this film’s world. As beautiful as the movie is, it feels (intentionally) as bleak and dully painful as a hangover.

    • sheila says:

      Walter – I love the Doc/Penny relationship! Once they are in his apartment, they’re equals, they’re friends-with-benefits, they like and respect each other. But yeah, out in the world there’s all this performative stuff going on – it’s unavoidable.

      I agree that that flashback scene was what love really feels like. It could have been so sappy, right? So … blech. But it was tender and poignant. A real heart-crack. The heart of the movie.

      I love your thoughts on Doc and Bigfoot! I definitely think there’s a like-like thing going on there – or maybe Doc senses that Bigfoot very well might swing that way – and while he doesn’t, not really, it softens him towards Bigfoot. It’s such an interesting relationship! “He was not my brother … but I was his keeper.” Something like that? That moment killed me. Both actors just NAILED that … and even with Bigfoot beating the shit out of Doc … Doc didn’t really hold it against him. He had this vast feeling of gentleness towards Bigfoot somehow … I don’t know, I’m still thinking about it, I really like thinking about it. Brolin was amazing. There was such a FACE on that guy, such a persona – and what would it be like to craft such a persona, with the flat-top, and the ham-hock hands and the posture – and then have someone like Doc look at you with gentleness, humor, and in that last scene tears in his eyes? Doc SEES Bigfoot.

      I don’t think I’m making that up.

      But I’m still not sure.

  13. I think the actors must have had a ball making this movie. PTA gives them a lot of room to develop character, and their costuming helps a lot, too. Speaking of actors I love, I forgot to mention one of my favorite movie-watching experiences of the last few months. When I saw INHERENT VICE at the theater, we hear Owen Wilson’s voice before he see him (beyond the snapshot photo of him that his estranged wife shows Doc), because he emerges from the shadows of a back alley when he meets Doc. Anyway, there’s so much going on in the movie that I think the audience had kinda forgotten Wilson was in this. As soon as we heard his voice, everyone in the movie theater cheered.

    Because Owen Wilson always makes a movie better.

    I totally think Doc SEES Bigfoot at the end. I can’t tell if Bigfoot sees Doc in that way, but it’s telling that whenever Bigfoot’s in an emotional crisis, who does he call on the phone? Doc. (That scene of Bigfoot’s son pouring the man scotch as he mumbles on to Doc is priceless; the later scene where Bigfoot’s wife RIPS UP Doc–basically accusing him of being the cause of Bigfoot’s therapy bills–is also priceless.) I think what Doc says is “Are you OK, brother?” Bigfoot: “I’m not your brother.” Doc: “But you could sure use a keeper.” I’m not remembering it exactly but you’re so right about the poignancy of that, how loving Doc is to this guy that–let’s remember–has beat the shit out of him on more than one occasion.

    • sheila says:

      Walter – I love that story about the audience cheering for Owen Wilson!

      I ADORED – like I almost can’t even deal with it – the scene at the party where Owen W and Doc talk in that kitchen area – entirely in whispers. It’s all one shot, if I recall correctly – no cut-aways or inserts. And it’s a long scene, with a LOT of text. Owen is basically whispering – for real – Doc is a little bit louder – but all of the behavior, and the paranoia (which seems entirely justified) – and the humor – that of course then leads into that Last Supper moment.

      I haven’t seen it enough to really formulate my thoughts, but that scene with the two of them in the frame, whispering for what felt like 10 minutes, is a favorite.

      And yes: I agree that PTA gave the actors a ton of wiggle-room. The movie feels quite loose – but not in an annoying “let’s find the moment and wing it” way. It’s just that everyone is slightly cuckoo, on drugs, desperately sad, looking for escape, whatever … and the acting style really reflects that.

      Like Joanna Newsom. I have a huge crush on her performance.

      Nobody is mannered, or show -offy, even the really broad performances.

      Nobody here is reaching for an Oscar. It all feels really loose and lived-in.

  14. Lyrie says:

    I haven’t read the book, and I went to see the movie without knowing anything except what the Joaquin Phoenix was in it, and that it – probably – took place in the seventies. I don’t read reviews before seeing a movie, and sometimes I like to go completely blind. I was not disappointed !

    I love that we enter the story without knowing who does what. We have to guess. It felt like arriving in a conversation that began without me. It forces you to immediately submit to the story.

    Who knew Phoenix could be so funny ? (I didn’t.) I laughed so much. Some stuff were so stupid ! Like the goodbye with a finger to the FBI, to which the two agents reply by a perfectly synchronized similar gesture ! Doc staring at Bigfoot eating his banana in the car – I lost it. And « Does he eat pussy ? » Just… the repetition of « eating pussy » Ha ha ha !

    I’m used to not understanding anything – I’m not the brightest porch on the block, but I don’t care, the plots are not what interests me most anyway. But I felt even more confused than usual. I knew it for sure it was complicated when my husband told me HE didn’t understand either – that guy could watch a baby panda die without feeling a thing, but he sure GETS the plots. It reassured me : it was – really – OK if I didn’t understand a thing. Doc staring at his very shitty map on his whiteboard confirmed it was not just me.

    I LOVED the relationship with Bigfoot. I’m so glad to see I wasn’t the only one. Oh, Bigfoot ! So funny, such a tragic character. I thought maybe the two of them had been friends when they were younger, and during the scene in the japonese restaurant I even thought they looked at each other like some brothers do. The kind of person you resent but can’t help but love. That tear when Bigfoot eats the joint (WTF, man?)… Amazing. I didn’t know what to make of it, but I was fascinated. I was laughing, Doc was crying, it all felt so strange. Was I high ?

    They were so many great scenes, a lot of them without any cuts, giving so much room to the actors – like the scene in the fog, the first time Doc meets the saxophone player, I think. Ending with just Doc in the frame, turning his back to the camera. Soooo strange. I felt soooo stoned. That was great. I thought « there’s no way Sheila didn’t love that ».

    I really loved Doc. He’s such a nice, gentle guy. I need to see this movie again.

    • sheila says:

      Lyrie – Ha! Love that you saw it and love that you went into it pretty much cold. I almost envy that experience!

      I loved how funny Phoenix was, too! (My favorite moment is when he shushes Benicio del Toro at the table as the waitress approaches. He looks so insane, he’s all hunched over, his eyes are a-gleam with paranoid fantasies about the Golden Fang … and “sh – sh- sh – she’s coming back to the table!”)

      // that guy could watch a baby panda die without feeling a thing //

      hahahahahahaha

      Oh, Lordy.

      Yeah, I loved how the point is not to understand everything – or even connect the dots – the dots are certainly there to be connected but once you connect those dots, things are even MORE confusing. Which (for me) is a perfect metaphor for the mind of 1970s conspiracy theorist. It was actually a relief to let go of the “plot” and just soak up the vibe and the humor and the performances and all the visual jokes – not to mention all the cool cars. I drooled over the cars, yearning gearhead that I am. And the soundtrack! From CAN to Sam Cooke. Brill.

      // Bigfoot such a tragic character //

      I know!! Brolin nailed it – and Phoenix nailed his reaction to it. If you only felt those guys were sneering adversaries, it wouldn’t have worked. You have to feel that … they kind of love each other. They are soul mates, even. Weird. Unexplainable. And impossible for either of them to put into words – although Doc TRIES to in that crazy scene when Bigfoot kicks down his door and eats his weed. hahahaha

      I love Doc, too. He loved Shasta. He misses her. He misses the idealism and fun of that time. He is afraid for her.

      That flashback killed me. I can’t stop thinking about it. The two of them running on the sidewalk in the cold blue light, in the rain, barefoot, and then laughing in that doorway. To Neil Young.

      Too beautiful for words!!

  15. Todd Restler says:

    I knew I’d hit a nerve!

    I think this movie must have been a very different experience for those that read and “got” the book, as you did Sheila. I think you at least had an idea what you were in for, and how to approach this material.

    For myself, all I knew was that it was a PTA movie (one of my favorite all-time directors), featuring a cast that I love, and had loosely been compared to The Big Lebowski, one of my favorite movies. And, yes, I had heard that the plot was confusing, even impenetrable. But this was a movie that I wanted to love, in fact I EXPECTED to love.

    I was determined to just “soak” the movie in, and not be too concerned if I couldn’t follow everything. The problem is that I couldn’t help myself. I WANTED to follow things. So after the first scene, I rewound it and watched it again. Still lost, I watched it a 3rd time, then said screw it, this is no way to watch a movie so I let the rest of the movie play. And while I found certain scenes and moments either funny or sad or entertaining, for me the movie completely lacked what I would call “story momentum”.

    I had no idea in any given scene who a certain character was, why they were in the scene, what they wanted, what Doc wanted, what they were talking about, or why, or where, or who, or wait a minute wasn’t that the guy from 6 scenes ago, and what did he just say, and ARGGGH!!!

    I realize that I may be wrong, that the plot may in fact be clear, we even have a narrator telling us at every moment what we think we need to know. For ME, though, I was lost.

    It’s not always important to follow the plot of a movie. Sometimes that’s the point. Jacob’s Ladder is one of my favorite films, and the whole point of the film is trying to figure out what the fuck is going on.

    On a completely different type of movie, I loved Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation this summer. And I probably can’t describe the plot. I’ve heard of a double agent or a triple agent, that female character in that movie was like a 27th agent. But at least in each scene or sequence there was a clearly established goal of trying to rescue that guy, or steal that item, or escape from this trap, so at any moment you knew what the stakes were.

    Inherent Vice is actually worth studying because it breaks pretty much every rule we have all learned about drama or storytelling. How we need characters with clear goals. How one scene should flow to the next. How each scene needs conflict. Etc, Etc. Of course bending or even breaking these rules of storytelling can be thrilling. That’s what can separate the good art from the great art. And this may be great art, I don’t know.

    I’m wondering if I read the book if the plot would have made more sense. A character might appear, I may remember from the book how they fit into the story, and all is well.

    My total inability to follow the story in the movie was one of my problems. The other problem I had, and this may be more my problem than the movie’s, was the wild, jarring tonal shifts. One minute it’s a comedy. The next a drama. The next a farce. The next a detective story. I struggle sometimes with movies that are this “all over the place”. Am I supposed to be taking this story seriously? Tough to do when in parts it feels like I’m watching AIRPLANE!.

    Finally, I’ll compare this movie to Lebowski, and why it doesn’t work for me while Lebowski did. I’ll call it the Rule of Sobchek.

    Passive protagonists, like the Dude, or Doc, are a general screenwriting no-no. It’s just not usually as interesting to watch stuff sort of just happen to a character, as opposed to the character making things happen. Again, there are many great exceptions that break this rule. After Hours comes to mind.

    In Lebowski, The Dude basically wants to stay home and smoke pot. It’s WALTER who talks him into visiting the “Big” Lebowski to get a new rug, it’s WALTER who plans and throws the “ringer”, it’s WALTER who suggests they visit Larry the car thief. Pretty much nothing in the movie would have happened without Walter’s prompting. John Goodman was a force of nature in that movie, creating the energy that offset Dude’s inertia. When he is not on screen the movie is still good, but it’s only great because of Walter. Shomer Shabbas.

    I guess what I’m saying is that Inherent Vice to me is like Lebowski without Walter, which would just be the Dude mumbling and stumbling around his own pot haze. Which is a lot more fun to do than watch.

    Having said all of this, there were stretches or moments that I loved. When Doc is crossing the street and the cop body checks him to the ground. When that kid (no idea who he was) tells Doc “no problem” he can handle a stick shift, and then shows up with the steering wheel. Every single all too brief second of Martin Short’s performance.

    I can tell this may be one of those movies that I grow to like a bit more each time I see it, until eventually I am explaining why it’s a misunderstood masterpiece. I have some movies like that. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Inside LLewyn Davis. But I watched the whole thing twice now, and even though I really, really want to love this movie, I’m just not there yet.

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