Today’s post was originally published by LARB Channel Avidly.
By Evan Kindley
“Doc stroked his chin and gazed off into space for a while. ‘You know how some people say they have a ‘gut feeling’? Well, Shasta Fay, what I have is dick feelings, and my dick feeling sez—’” — Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)
“It is said that analyzing pleasure, or beauty, destroys it. That is the intention of this article.” — Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975)
The new movie by Paul Thomas Anderson is out, in most major U.S. cities anyway. It’s an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, and you should see it, unless you hate all of Anderson’s movies (some people do) or Pynchon’s books (ditto), because in various ways it represents tendencies that have long been latent in each of their work, and in American literature, film, and culture more generally. I’ve seen the film twice, and found it intensely pleasurable, but I will try to show how the nature of the pleasure it offers might not be available to everyone, and how that might be a problem. Even on its own terms, it’s not a perfect movie — it might be the most flawed film Anderson has made, though I’d give the edge to Punch Drunk Love — but, like all of his movies, it is touched with enough greatness to justify the price of admission and bear careful scrutiny. Scrutiny (and spoilers) follow.
Inherent Vice is really three movies in one, with wholly different generic duties to discharge, but they cooperate so skillfully you hardly notice. They are:
1. a letter-perfect adaptation of Pynchon’s novel, which is preoccupied (as usual) with conspiracy, exploitation, sadism, entropy, and the inevitable failure of countercultural attempts to bring about Utopia in our time
2. an homage to the broad sex comedies of the late 60s and early 70s; and,
3. a personal film about lost love, which may or may not contain an encrypted portrait of Anderson’s ex-girlfriend Fiona Apple.
What links the three movies is the theme of the objectification of women.
A lyrical, comprehensive review of the first film — the one that most critics have apparently been discussing so far — comes from Geoffrey O’Brien at the New York Review of Books blog. For O’Brien, as for many other diehard Pynchon fans, the miracle of the book’s cinematic transubstantiation is reason enough to cheer: “To say that Paul Thomas Anderson has faithfully and successfully adapted [Inherent Vice] to the screen is another way of saying that he has changed it into something entirely different,” O’Brien writes. Just to have adapted a Thomas Pynchon novel at all gives Anderson special bragging rights — the author has never before allowed one of his books to be optioned for film — and the fact that he’s ended up with an interesting and watchable movie is icing on the cake. (Others, like Anna Schectman at the Los Angeles Review of Books, are less impressed with Anderson’s adaptation skills.)
I am neither a diehard Pynchon fan nor completely immune to his charms: I loved V and The Crying of Lot 49 when I read them in college, fought my way to the end of Gravity’s Rainbow the same summer I manfully wrestled William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (what was I trying to prove?), and, to be perfectly honest, bogged down in the middle of Inherent Vice when I tried to read it on a cross-country road trip with my dad a few years ago. (I brushed up for the purpose of this review.) But there is a particular Pynchon energy that no other writer comes close to capturing, one that is intoxicating in small doses, and there is indeed a thrill of recognition in seeing it transposed reasonably accurately to the screen. The goofy character names, the stoner humor, the historical erudition, the labyrinthine plotting, the nonstop slaloming from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again — it’s all there. Pynchon fans can scarcely complain.
Anderson fans — like, I’ll admit it, me — may be somewhat more puzzled. Inherent Vice is, with the exception of Punch Drunk Love, Anderson’s only film without a central father figure; but it isn’t really, because that father figure is so clearly Thomas Pynchon, who is rumored to have a Hitchcockian cameo somewhere in the background of one of its shots and whose spirit suffuses every scene regardless. The dialogue in the film is almost all straight from Pynchon (Anderson reportedly dumped the entire text of the novel into Final Draft and then cut and rearranged it to fit). There are minor changes, and the plot has been somewhat streamlined, but overall this is about as faithful (filial, even) as adaptations get.
Pynchon’s book is an obvious homage to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and other adepts of California noir. Like most noirs, it’s not actually a very good mystery. The classic noir actually resembles a picaresque, in which a hero confronts a series of loosely connected characters, far more closely than it does the traditional mystery story, which is meant to click shut like a japanned box and provide the reader with a cozy sense of resolution. Chandler’s narratives, as dozens of critics have noted over the years, are just one damn thing after another. (In 1948, W.H. Auden suggested that “Mr. Chandler is interested in writing, not detective stories, but serious studies of a criminal milieu, the Great Wrong Place, and his powerful but extremely depressing books should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art.”)
At first Inherent Vice feels further out than Chandler — absurd, hyper-stylized, borderline surrealist — but on a second viewing the plot actually makes perfect sense, far more than, say, The Big Sleep: one assumes that Pynchon probably sat down and worked the whole thing out ahead of time, rather than simply flinging his protagonist from sinister rendezvous to sinister rendezvous and letting atmosphere fill in the cracks. Many of the reviews of Inherent Vice have, predictably, likened it to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, an adaptation of Chandler’s 1953 novel. The comparison is understandable enough: both films are set around the same time in Los Angeles, feature a befuddled and largely passive protagonist, and have woozy, oversaturated sound mixes, not to mention the fact that Anderson and Altman enjoyed a “special relationship,” as Grantland’s John Lopez recently put it. But, to me, Inherent Vice doesn’t feel much like The Long Goodbye, which is an entertaining but also genuinely disturbing and disillusioned film. Moment to moment and scene to scene, Anderson’s movie is lighter, goofier, and more hedonistic, wringing laughs out of straight/freak social friction rather than dwelling on the more fundamental corruption of Californian (or American) society. The sparring scenes between stoner private dick Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and reactionary police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) constitute the ne plus ultra of this basic dynamic; up against considerable competition, Brolin steals the movie.
The lowbrow element of Inherent Vice is deliberate, and it is also gendered. Anderson has cited the Zucker-Abraham-Zucker team, of Airplane! and Naked Gun fame, as an influence on the film’s comedy, but to me it feels more in line with late 60s/early 70s fare like There’s a Girl in My Soup, The Owl and the Pussycat, and I Love You Alice B. Toklas (names associated with this kind of thing: Blake Edwards, Terry Southern, Goldie Hawn, Peter Sellers.) In these types of films, which used to be ubiquitous, hippie libertinism is the narrative engine: they tease their (implicitly male) viewers with the possibility that the women in them will get undressed or offer themselves up sexually. It’s this potential, far more than the desultory plots, that are meant to sustain the audience’s (and protagonist’s) attention. In this way they just ramp up (sometimes to the point of incoherence) what had been a feature of the mainstream Hollywood film all along. “The presence of a woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film,” Laura Mulvey writes in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” “yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.” This is what the women in mainstream films of the late 60s and early 70s, especially those dealing with youth culture and the hippie movement, tend to do: they freeze the flow of action, so that the narrative tension is all down to whether the chick on screen is going to get her kit off, not the higher-order demands of the story.
By contrast, when Elliott Gould’s Marlowe drops in on his free-spirited hippie neighbors in The Long Goodbye in the middle of a naked yoga session, it’s made abundantly clear that he has no real sexual interest in them. (He does want them to help find his cat.) This absence of leering is one of the most refreshing aspects of Altman’s film, and the most diametrically opposed to what Anderson does withInherent Vice. Altman and his peers in the “New Hollywood” had their own sexual hangups for sure, but to their credit they usually refused to portray hippie chicks as simpering sluts. (Well, except for De Palma.) Movies like Altman’s The Long Goodbye (released in 1973), Nashville (1975), and 3 Women (1977) proved that there was a way for Hollywood to respond to the post-Sixties counterculture, including the sexual revolution and the role that women were playing in it, that was subtler and more sophisticated: more human.
It’s a little surprising, then, that Anderson, a noted partisan and inheritor of the New Hollywood, has chosen to channel the dumbest of 60s/70s Hollywood films instead. One might have expected a movie more informed, not only by Altman’s The Long Goodbye, but by something like Coppola’s The Conversation, which is certainly Pynchonian in its paranoia about surveillance and the national security state. Though Anderson can certainly do dark and violent (cf. There Will Be Blood), he doesn’t really emphasize the apocalyptic post-Manson context highlighted in Pynchon’s novel (and given its most indelible literary expression in Joan Didion’s The White Album). What apocalypticism there is in Anderson’s movie feels perfunctory: there are lines (they’re Pynchon’s) about the Manson murders, as well as to Vietnam, Nixon, Reagan, police brutality, the Black Panthers, and COINTELPRO, but none of this sticky historical stuff really gets on Doc or the various pleasure-seekers he chases around the greater Southland area. Instead, he foregrounds the period’s waning sense of “fun,” albeit with a strong suggestion that the party’s about to get seriously fucked up. He’s always been good at this; think of the various bacchanals that go pear-shaped in Boogie Nights: the OD at Jack Horner’s house party; Little Bill’s suicide at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1979; the mayhem that breaks out at Rashad Jackson’s cocaine-and-firecracker party. In Inherent Vice, as in Boogie Nights, Anderson idealizes Seventies excess, although he’s self-aware (and Scorsese-influenced) enough to moralize about it too. But it’s secondhand moralization; for that matter, it’s secondhand hedonism too. (O’Brien points out that Anderson was born in 1970, the year Inherent Vice is set; this makes it the 1989 of movies.) You had to be there; Anderson almost was.
The problem, maybe, is that he makes it look like too much fun. Drugs, of course, are a leitmotif in the film, as well as a major plot point (the “vertically integrated” Golden Fang Enterprises both smuggles heroin from Indochina and provides rehab services for those they deal to, so they can “get them coming and going”), but sex is where the film’s interest really lies. Anderson hasn’t indulged the prurient side of his genius so shamelessly sinceBoogie Nights: there is more cheesecake in Inherent Vice than they keep in the freezer at Canter’s. A parade of scantily dressed women, beginning with Katherine Waterston’s Shasta Fay Hepworth and encompassing “oriental cutie” Jade (Hong Chau), horny Mexican housekeeper Luz (Yvette Yates), posh “English daffodil” Sloane Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas), steely assistant D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), and miniskirted polyamorist Clancy Charlock (porn actress Belladonna, credited under her real name Michelle Sinclair), flirt and fuck (with) the passive Doc, just like the women in Chandler’s famously misogynistic male power fantasies. Sex suffuses almost every moment of Inherent Vice: The movie features a running joke about “pussy eating,” an extremely unsubtle (but extremely funny) chocolate-covered banana phallus, a proliferation of gratuitous ass shots, and the most calculatedly unpleasant sex scene you’re likely to see outside of a Michael Haneke or Catherine Breillat film. (I’d call this scene, with apologies to Moira Weigel, “softcore sadomodernism.”)
All of this is fun, if you’re a certain type of heterosexual male. So were the Sixties, of course.
One would like to grant Anderson, who seems like a decent guy and husband and father in addition to being a great filmmaker, the benefit of the doubt here, and assume some sort of “critique” of the male gaze (he must’ve read Mulvey at some point, right?) or the inherent viciousness of the noir genre or hippie dude hypocrisy or even Pynchon’s own paper-thin female characters; but frankly this seems like a massive stretch. The truth is, Paul Thomas Anderson has always had something of a Woman Problem. Hard Eight, his first movie, has only one female character, a hooker with a heart of gold played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Boogie Nights, his second, has many, and upon its release he was roundly praised for writing substantive, complex roles for women. But one should note, too, that almost all of those substantive, complex roles required extensive nudity, that the movie’s dramatic effect hinges upon the remarkable humanist insight that sex workers have brains and souls, that a massive portion of the film’s running time is nonetheless devoted to mocking said sex workers (male as well as female, true), and that it also contains an extremely uncharitable portrayal of, presumably, Anderson’s own mother. (Joanna Gleeson, who played the character,remembers telling Anderson during her audition that “[y]ou never have to forgive her.”) When it comes to sexual politics, Boogie Nights is, at best, a draw.
Magnolia is, by an enormous margin, Anderson’s most female-friendly film: besides providing excellent showcases for Julianne Moore, Melinda Dillon, April Grace, Cleo King, and Melora Walters, the nonstop emotional breakdowns that begin about an hour in (and don’t let up for a solid hour after that) can be seen as a sort of apotheosis of the classic “weepie” melodrama, a genre that has traditionally been associated with women. After Magnolia, it was not unreasonable to expect that Anderson would go on to be the next Douglas Sirk or George Cukor, an exceptional “women’s director.” But that’s not what happened. Punch Drunk Love seemed refreshingly sweet and quirky when it was first released in 2002, but it now plays like a portrait of repressed male rage that, were it not constrained by a patently implausible romantic comedy plot, could easily explode into an Elliot Rodger-style melee. There Will Be Blood, too, is about masculine anger — and has no female leads at all. In The Master, the largest female part, which isn’t even that large, is Amy Adams as Peggy Dodd, an unholy cross between Moore’s alluring, maternal Amber Waves and Gleeson’s crazy, vindictive Mom.
Which brings us back around to Inherent Vice, and to the third movie it comprises, the sweetest and most personal. As it happens, the scene in which the title phrase is explained constitutes one of Anderson’s few significant departures from the book. Here’s how it occurs in the final chapter of Pynchon’s novel, at a point when the mystery plot has pretty much given up the ghost and Doc has realized he not only doesn’t know who but “what … he [was] working for anymore”:
It was as if whatever had happened had reached some kind of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn’t have to be. Built into the act of return was this glittering mosaic of doubt. Something like what Sauncho’s colleagues in marine insurance liked to call inherent vice.
“Is that like original sin?” Doc wondered.
“It’s what you can’t avoid,” Sauncho said, “stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo — like eggs break — but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it.”
In its original context, this is yet another clever metaphor for social and personal disintegration, a theme Pynchon has been working at least since his short story “Entropy,” first published in 1960; and, despite furnishing the title of the book the reader has almost finished, it feels like a bit of a toss-off. In the movie, it’s a lot more effective. Anderson moves the speech to the middle of the film; Shasta uses the phrase to Doc in a post-coital moment, and Anderson shifts the explanation into a much more lyrical key by having Joanna Newsom’s Sortilège (the movie’s narrator and Greek chorus) intone over a gorgeous, string-laden shot of the reunited lovers strolling along the beach: Inherent vice, in a marine insurance policy, is anything that you can’t avoid. Eggs break. Chocolate melts. Glass shatters. And Doc wondered what that meant when it applied to old ex-ladies.
In Anderson’s version, Pynchon’s multivalent metaphor becomes much more straightforward: “inherent vice” is a figure not for the decline of hippie idealism or “original sin” or novelistic narrative, but, simply and movingly, for a doomed relationship. In place of Pynchon’s fatalistic fable, we have an amour fou.
In the press he’s done so far for Inherent Vice, Anderson, who is habitually circumspect about his private life, has mostly talked about his devotion to Pynchon. Yet there are some indications of his emotional stake in the project as well. “That thing with Shasta of lost love,” he tells the novelist Steve Erickson in an interview for Los Angeles magazine published this month, with the girl who got away, where it didn’t work out and then she shows up at your doorstep and you would run to the ends of the earth for her against all better judgments and against everybody’s good advice—”Stop! Don’t do it!” but you wouldn’t listen—that was a central thread in Inherent Vice that was easy for me to connect to.
But this “central thread” is barely there in the book, or at any rate it’s nowhere near as prominent as it is in the film. Shasta, like every other female character in Pynchon, is pretty much a sexy cipher: “that old well-known hardon Shasta was always good for sooner or later” is about as tender as it gets. In the movie, the “lost love” angle is considerably emphasized: compare the movie’s hopeful last shot of the reunited couple who may or may not be back together (Doc’s dazed grin reminiscent of Melora Walters’ sudden smile at the end of Magnolia) with the downbeat tone of Pynchon’s closing paragraph, which finds Doc driving through fog on the Santa Monica Freeway, waiting “for a restless blonde in a Stingray to stop and offer him a ride.”
Anderson’s Inherent Vice can be viewed, then, as a movie about “the girl who got away” — which, as my fellow vulgar biographical critics will attest, can only be Fiona Apple, with whom he was shacked up from 1997 to 2000. (I’m not going to pretend not to know about this aspect of the filmmaker’s biography: The Anderson-Apple relationship functions as a sort of nostalgic touchstone for pop culture fans of a certain generation; it even earned its own recap on Grantland.) Waterston’s Shasta slightly resembles Apple: they’re similarly waifish, innocent, mysterious, troubled, inscrutable. (A description from the novel that Anderson imports verbatim describes Shasta as “laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on [Doc] that he couldn’t read at all,” and Waterston, like Apple, is indeed skilled at the mixing of face ingredients.) Though her backstory, as per Pynchon, is lightly sketched, she fits right in to the Anderson tradition of lost girls, from Rollergirl to Melora Walters’ Claudia Gator (reportedly also based on Apple). Richard Brody goes too far when he calls her “a protean character, smart and manipulative and only as dependent as she wants to be,” but it’s true that she takes on an importance that isn’t really there in the novel, where she serves mostly to kick off the proceedings.
The sense that Anderson’s Inherent Vice, for all its Pynchonian intricacy and incident, is really about “lost love” is underscored by the song he chooses for the closing credits, Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now (My Wild, Beautiful Bird)” — Burt Bacharach’s long and winding melody, and Bob Hilliard’s yearning lyric:
Any day now I will hear you say
“Goodbye my love,” and you’ll be on your way
Then my wild beautiful bird
You will have flown
Any day now, I’ll be all alone
In this way, Inherent Vice can be seen as a kind of reverse Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie (and thus, a neat reversal of Punch Drunk Love, a classic of the MPDG canon): if a wild, beautiful bird can swoop in out of nowhere and change or save your life, then she can just as easily fly away and unchange it, too. Eggs break, chocolate melts, birds fly, and all of this applies to ex-old-ladies in a sad but predictable way.
I find this ending very affecting. When I figured out how to watch the movie this way — as a story about star-crossed lovers, informed by Anderson’s relationship with Apple — it clicked for me, and helped me overcome my ambivalence about the source material and welcome Inherent Vice into the Anderson canon with open arms. But isn’t this “one that got away” sentimentalism, in its way, as objectifying as seeing all women as sexually available? One is monogamous, the other promiscuous, but both are fundamentally about men, and what women can do for or to them. There are a lot of illusions that Inherent Vice doesn’t seem ready to let go of, and this one — the belief in the power of women to redeem or validate men — is perhaps both the most beautiful and the most pernicious. Anderson doesn’t seem to realize that the macho posturing of “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (who, like the silent father inBoogie Nights, is dominated by his shrewish wife) and the passive hippie romanticism of Doc Sportello aren’t really so far apart, are really in fact part of a single skein of American patriarchy — or maybe he does realize it, but can’t imagine any alternative. Instead he goes on idealizing his flawed father figures, the bad dads and horny devils you can’t help but love.
Just like Pynchon, Anderson tips his hat to a cultural revolution that never happened, or that happened and then was repressed. “Was it possible,” Doc wonders, in high-paranoid style, “that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?” But despite their staunch opposition to the “forces of greed and fear,” neither man is tough enough on the well-known failures of the revolution itself, on the failure of these so-called utopians to treat women as human beings; even Altman saw through their bullshit more clearly. Despite the old-timey Situationist slogan Anderson places at the end of his film, and Pynchon at the beginning of his novel — “Under the paving-stones, the beach!” — neither are really interested in a revolution of everyday life, at least when it comes to their sex lives; and we still need one.