The first thing you see is a title card:
Gordita Beach, California
The first thing you hear is the narration. Joanna Newsom. Her voice, known by fans as the vocalist of twisting, wordy folk lyrics stocked deep with fantastical allegory, is gravelly and knowing. She’s going to ferry us through this twisting, wordy story, and she might even be the key to unlocking it all.
The first thing you feel is overwhelmed. Shasta Fey Hepworth, accompanied by a new outfit from the “straight world” and a whiff of regret, drops by the bungalow of one Larry “Doc” Sportello, who is, of course, high as fuck. She has a lot of problems, primarily the boyfriend of the wife of the man she’s been seeing on the side and the wife of the man she’s been seeing on the side pulling her into a type of con wherein the man she’s been seeing on the side is taken against his will and put into a type of asylum for maybe crazy people (but mostly hippies) so they can abscond with all his fortune. Sound cumbersome? It is, both for the audience, and for those caught in the middle of this web of double-crossing, bribe-taking, cannabis-fueled shenanigans like Shasta. She’s scared and tired and homeless and has no one else to come to except Doc, who might just be the one who delivers her from all her straight-world pain or he might try to smoke all his own pain away instead. Time will tell.
Featuring prominently in almost every review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2014 adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is a description of the main storyline, wherein said reviewer calls it “confusing” and, depending on whether they enjoyed the film or not, classifies this as either “the entire point”, “devastatingly complex”, or perhaps some combination of both. This is true. It’s all true. It is the point. In adapting Pynchon’s plot beat for beat, and frequently lines of dialogue word for word, Anderson very directly transfers the author’s original hazy, wandering, confusing world from page to screen. Unlike the director’s previous film, 2012’s The Master, where the characters around Joaquin Phoenix’s leading man are obscuring their intents quite purposefully, here it is Doc himself who obscures the world around him through pot-addled curiosity.
Importantly, this Pynchon adaptation unlocks the emotional core that always plants itself, at some level, as the foundation of Anderson’s films. It takes but a Wikipedia understanding of the one-time wunderkind to learn his favorite themes and motifs, as well as a few of his influences, from Howard Hawks to, of course, Robert Altman. But while the deeply rooted issues of family and paternal relationships are explored rather blatantly in 1999’s Magnolia (and much less shallow in something like There Will Be Blood), what Anderson does in Inherent Vice is perhaps more impressive, or at least something new for the 45-year-old auteur. In centering around Doc, an adult with little actual family (and not even much by way of a surrogate one a la Boogie Nights), what the film does is capture a national mood, a cultural sadness, an atmosphere of dawning melancholy. Certainly this originated with the text, with Pynchon, and is channeled in a way not too distant from Anderson’s previous films. But here it’s more focused and more purposeful than the grand questions thrown on screen in Anderson’s disparate The Master. Mind you, “focused” and “purposeful” are not words that have been utilized often with regards to Inherent Vice.
Gordita Beach may be made up, but the state of the west coast counterculture was not. Among the various moments of slapstick in the film (say, Martin Short running out of a frame with his pants falling off) are comedic sequences that play on another level as covert commentary. When a car carrying Doc, his friend Denis, and two other acquaintances is pulled over by the cops and told that they’re being inspected because “every gathering of three or more civilians is now defined as a cult”, Denis’ panicked response is, naturally, “Charlie Manson again?” While we’re left thinking about the absurdity of the officer’s statement, it’s easy to overlook the panic and disbelief in Denis’ voice. In real life, the Tate/LaBianca murders happened in August 1969, putting both Hollywood and a hippie community as a whole on edge. It’s played for a laugh (and it is, indeed, funny), but behind the shaky gun held by the approaching officer and the shriek that comes from Denis lies a burgeoning saga of mutual discontent and fear.
It’s usually inadvisable to write about a movie a year after its initial release. In this modern box-office driven climate where the the first weekend alone can elevate a film into the pantheon of blockbusters or damn them into far-reaching obscurity, trying to discuss fare from last December is like reminiscing about last year’s NFL Pro Bowl. A year is long enough for a film to lose much of its cultural cachet, lest we get caught napping when we could be discussing plot details of whatever’s coming out next. In another way, a year is just too short a period of time to gain the perspective needed for a real, comprehensive post-mortem. To fully realize the impact a film has on the filmography of an individual director or actor can take years or decades, not to mention trying to get a sense of standing it may have in the history of film. So why am I talking about Inherent Vice now?
A year is long enough for me to write this piece, or to put it more precisely, a year is long enough for me to have the proper perspective and context to have the ability to write this essay. Last December, in preparation for Inherent Vice and a PTA retrospective that would become my first long-form analytical essay, I trucked through all six of his previous features, from Hard Eight to The Master. Importantly, I started with Hard Eight, not Sydney, as it is otherwise known: I had no prior experience with Anderson’s films besides a casual viewing of There Will Be Blood sometime in college, and certainly no sense of Anderson’s wunderkind origins. This was, to me, representative of my relationship to the world I was trying to stake my claim in, this world of cinephiles, writers, critics, and academics. Becoming a “completionist” of a respected modern auteur in order to write a retrospective was a very emblematic “first step” in the journey.
How the journey has changed and developed. A year is long enough to re-read this retrospective and honestly assess what it actually is: the developmental “before” essay to this one, which I rebuff calling the “after” (“progress”, perhaps?). A broad and occasionally insightful piece, what I see now is an attempt to obfuscate a real voice, replacing it instead with a book report style of writing, pinpointing themes and motifs to connect across Anderson’s films rather than enjoying what’s truly remarkable about the medium: that we can all have our favorites and our own reasons for those favorites, and all you really have to do is explain why in the best way you can.
Anderson’s movies have always had a remarkable sense of place and time, and although some can span the upwards of a decade, each character, each scene, each line of dialogue is directly rooted to where and when it happens. Never has this been as true as Inherent Vice, where Doc spends his day-to-day (and really every waking minute) pining for a different present, as though his search for Shasta is both for the girl he maybe loved as well as for the months and years they spent together. Many films hold this sense of place and time for cinephiles, such as (depending on your age) Star Wars, Fight Club, and (I suspect many people reading this) Pulp Fiction.
I’ll add Inherent Vice as my contribution to that ill-defined list. As these things sometimes go, my first viewing of the film wasn’t a watershed moment—Criterion-clutching angels didn’t descend from the theater rafters, opening a whole new dimension to the silver screen. Rather, the film has bridged the gap from my early ramblings to my now better formed opinions of how to operate as a writer, and larger, as a cinephile. That first bit of cinephilia can be a bit overwhelming, but also perhaps a bit easier to follow-for much of it, you’re told what’s good (French New Wave, 2001: A Space Odyssey, anything with subtitles) and what’s not (Adam Sandler, Gigli, Adam Sandler), and it’s easy to see what the larger media often calls the “groupthink” of film criticism.
But this is only the first chapter, the unofficial “film school” we watch our way through. There are lists and canons galore, all of which can help you choose your top four LetterboxD favorites, perhaps a few that truly, deeply speak to you, as well as the token black-and-white film to make you look like you know what you’re talking about. In that first phase, I notice it’s easier to write from the brain rather than the heart, amalgamating a mix of formal critique and storyline nitpicking to construct a review that’s hard to rebuff. This is the antithesis of, say, a Pauline Kael review, but it’s safe and probably the place many of us start.
After that, the water gets muddier and the landscape more uncertain. We don’t all hate Aloha? We haven’t all seen The Rules of the Game? We don’t all love Paul Thomas Anderson? Especially this time of year, top 10 lists can sometimes start looking very similar across channels, which can leave a fearful newcomer wondering what they missed out on when they didn’t like The Wolf of Wall Street or The Immigrant. When you judge from your brain and your gut, it’s easier to fall in or out with films which are otherwise consensus opinions, breaking your own way through the noise of internet journalism. Like anything else, this increased awareness of the field of movies (which is only growing larger, it seems) is an opportunity to champion those films which are less appreciated or less accessible.
The second stage of cinephilia is more fulfilling, but we all are operating in a type of fog, driving along like everyone else, trying to find the next movie that will make you want to take that exit. Maybe it’s the maligned biopic that you think employs a far more rigorous formal approach than most of your colleagues, or the confusing Pynchon adaptation most people agree has more style than substance. Eventually you realize, no one is going to tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel, rather you have to figure that out on your own. Then try to find a way to explain it to the world.
Doc fell into a car convoy, moving slowly, single lane through the fog. He figured if he missed the Gordita Beach exit, he’d take the first one whose sign he could read and work his way back on surface streets. He knew that at Rosecrans, the freeway began to dogleg east, and at some point, Hawthorne Boulevard or Artesia, he’d lose the fog, unless it was spreading tonight, and settled in region wide… Maybe then it would stay this way for days, maybe he’d have to just keep driving, down past Long Beach, down through Orange County, and San Diego and across a border where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody. Then again, he might run out of gas before that happened, and have to leave the caravan, and pull over on the shoulder, and wait. For whatever would happen. For a forgotten joint to materialize in his pocket. For the CHP to come by and choose not to hassle him. For a restless blonde in a Stingray to stop and offer him a ride. For the fog to burn off, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.