March 2015

Arts & Letters

California dreaming

By Luke Davies
Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Inherent Vice’

Thomas Pynchon is the granddaddy of a realm of American letters wherein state and corporate power are largely interchangeable and the world functions as a carnival of paranoia. In Inherent Vice, his seventh novel, published in 2009, he tried out something new: a rollicking, gentle humour tinges the paranoia with something resembling nostalgia.

Doc Sportello is a bumbling detective, not so much “on the trail” as trying to find one, in a tangle of interconnected plot strands about missing property developers, corruption in high places, international drug rings, infidelities, kidnappings, deceptions and betrayals. Sorting through this world would be complex enough even without the copious amounts of weed Doc smokes. One imagines Pynchon would be pleased with the Amazon reviewer who wrote, “Hopefully I will go back and finish at another time. It is all over the place and I feel like I’m stoned trying to read it LOL.”

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation (in national release 12 March), his seventh feature, feels like a reasonably faithful reworking of the source material. We’re still in early-’70s Los Angeles, we’re still bouncing around in a shaggy-dog tale with a plot that may or may not bear up to close scrutiny, and we still experience the supposed innocence of a long-ago era coming up against an apparatus of power that is malign, if at times broadly drawn and comically hokey. It is a distinctly literary film, and quite delightfully wordy. There’s a voice-over, slabs of which are taken directly from the novel; the trick seems to be to let them wash over you, rather than parse them.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc as a gumshoe always one step behind reality, and the present, and coherent thought. (Gumshoe might not be the right word, since Doc is mostly barefoot or in sandals.) It’s a warm, funny portrayal: Phoenix, a troubled sociopath as Freddie Quell in Anderson’s most recent film, The Master (2012), here plays Doc with vulnerability and goodwill, and the character is deeply likeable, for all his infuriating ineptness. He means well, and he means to be a good detective. In fact, he’s the world’s worst PI, scribbling incoherent and irrelevant phrases in shaky handwriting in his notebook, walking into traps, and happily being led up garden paths.

Imagine Doc as Columbo, the detective Peter Falk played in the eponymous TV show, if Columbo smoked so much pot that he simply couldn’t make sense of all the clues he gathered. With Doc, we know we’ll never get that denouement Columbo always delivered, where all the plot intricacies are laid out for us and order is restored. Life, rather, is a fog, and whether you experience it as pleasant or not, bearable or not, will depend on your capacity to enjoy it as a hallucination.

That said, there is a plot, and it certainly goes somewhere. It’s just that much of the pleasure in the film lies in the texture, tone and setting: magic realism in a mythic ’70s California. Anderson is not just a good filmmaker but an actual artist. Every frame appears deeply thought through, and every scene feels electric, playing as a marvel of dramatic possibility. Doc’s psyche may be a fog, but the film itself has a precision and a deftness that make it a joy to inhabit.

There are obvious reference points and affectionate allusions: Robert Altman’s rambling take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1973), in which Elliott Gould carries the torch of befuddlement, and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), in which Jeff Bridges wanders confused through the hilarious proceedings. Perhaps the most obvious is Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), which so overtly portrays Los Angeles as an amoral vortex of greed, treachery and opportunism. The difference might be that, morally speaking, no one comes out of Chinatown alive, whereas we feel that Doc, beyond Inherent Vice, will remain on speaking terms with decency and kindness.

Anderson is clearly also paying homage to the entire milieu of sun-blasted, ambling Southern Californian cinema from the early ’70s – those ramshackle meditations moving through the urban decay of Venice Beach, the seediness of Hollywood, the barren development tracts deep in the Valley – from B-movies such as BL Norton’s Cisco Pike (1972), in which Kris Kristofferson plays the fading rock-star drug dealer protagonist, to classics such as Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970), in which Jack Nicholson is the lost but proudly defiant outsider. Inherent Vice is distinctly a Paul Thomas Anderson film, but feels like a loving salute, too, to these films and a time when studios were less insistent on blasting the idiosyncracy off films and filling them with pointless bombast.

Katherine Waterston is Doc’s hippy ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth, who has got herself into some kind of pickle regarding her sugar daddy, a “gentleman of the straightworld persuasion”. Her appearance sets events in motion. On the surface she seems gangly and easy-going; in fact, she’s troubled, desperate, psychically adrift. In a remarkable, uncomfortable, off-kilter sex scene with Doc, she seems to journey a very long way, from raw vulnerability to seduction to control, to a ritualised submission. The transformations are seamless and heart-wrenching. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Shasta Fay’s seduction speech would risk caricature, would merely present another woman as the object of the male gaze, but Anderson’s great skill is to let his characters breathe, as he delineates their damaged humanity.

Josh Brolin delivers a wonderful performance as Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, an uptight, hippy-hating detective embroiled in the proceedings, whose special dislike is Doc Sportello. Reese Witherspoon is good as a steely district attorney who nurses a disdain for Doc at the same time as she runs a casual affair with him. Martin Short, Owen Wilson and Benicio del Toro all shine in smaller roles. Eric Roberts emerges from his time in the boondocks (and Celebrity Rehab) to give a fine, odd cameo as the missing property developer.

Everyone is mad, with the possible exception of Doc, the only character who seems quite sincere. Through his characters, each one so richly drawn, Anderson has crafted in Inherent Vice a beautifully irreverent rumination on the madness of America, viewed through the high comedy of paranoia. It is rich in its craziness, but so tightly controlled that subsequent viewings become more rewarding than the first. (We may see it slowly become beloved, and cultish, like The Big Lebowski.)

Still, a certain melancholy infuses proceedings. The brilliant voice-over – Anderson puts the narration in the hands of a minor character, Sortilège (the singer Joanna Newsom) – speaks elegiacally of “the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable”. Forms of numbing seem the way to cope in a jaded world. “As long as American life was something to be escaped from,” Sortilège informs us elsewhere, in something resembling an actual commentary on the plot, “the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers.”

Doc is not a customer – not of the cartel’s kind of drugs – but the scene in which he finds himself sitting with 200 kilograms of pure heroin that is not his, and with which he should certainly not be sitting, is priceless. Like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, Doc is an innocent in a Machiavellian world, but his innocence, and his angelic cluelessness, become a force for good. Magic can happen at the oddest and most unexpected moments.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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