Paul Thomas Anderson has been a director to watch, one of the true giants of the modern American cinema, for almost 20 years now. After hitting the big time with 1997’s Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia, two films that, while his most popular, are also his most conventional, he plunged without preamble into a new form of filmmaking in 2002 with Punch Drunk Love. Emphasizing long takes, unexplained silences punctuated by sudden bursts of energy, minimizing dialogue (which was so much a part of Magnolia) and reaching for a more artistic and abstracted form of cinema, this led him to great success with There Will Be Blood in 2007. And of course he gave his old friend Philip Seymour Hoffman a wonderful star turn in his acclaimed 2011 masterpiece The Master. Inherent Vice, his latest film, is his funniest and most accessible since Boogie Nights, but it retains all the lessons and techniques he’s been developing as a filmmaker since. It’s a strong entry into the catalog of an American master.
Part of the notoriety of this film is that it’s an adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same title. Pynchon is the Stanley Kubrick of novelists: never seen in public since the 1950s, releasing masterful novels every few years as if dispatches from an alien world and still active into his late 70s. Anderson is one of the few people who has developed a personal relationship with Pynchon, although he is ferociously protective of his idol’s privacy when speaking in public. No doubt many have tried to adapt his genre-defying, deeply recursive prose to the screen, but Anderson here finds an artistic soul mate. With his love for rock music, drugs and most of all California – the one recurring character in all of Anderson’s films – these two were made to work together.
Inherent Vice is essentially a classic Private Eye movie, except set in the hippie era and steeped in its politics. It’s equal parts satire and thriller, with a healthy dose of self conscious artistry. The only films to which it even compares are The Big Lebowski and Chinatown, such is its incisive, knowing sense of parody. Joaquin Phoenix plays, “Doc”, a slightly befuddled, slightly innocent but highly intelligent PI, working out of a small apartment on the beach in LA. His days are spent rolling joints, listening to Neil Young, and enjoying pizza and beer with his hippie friends. (Food is a major player in this film. There is a prevalent oral fixation in all senses of the word, in fact.) In the great film noir tradition, Doc’s journey into the strange underworld of law, politics, drug cartels, hippie cults, Vietnam, wealth, class, the music industry, the CIA, Richard Nixon and everything in between by a woman, his ex girlfriend Shasta. The very first scene is a knowing parody of the first scene of your typical PI story: the woman from the past calls on the PI to investigate the disappearance of her new patron. Except in this case, Doc is snoozing on the couch in his beach house rather than behind a wooden desk. And rather than stockings and heels, this femme fatale sports a mini-skirt, love beads and sun-bleached hair. Doc takes the bait, and the job.
Doc is a wonderfully shambolic character, again in the noir tradition, smarter than he looks, and certainly a lot more educated than he appears. Although he sports huge Neil Young sideburns, Doc also isn’t above wearing a suit and tie when the job calls for it, and his relationship with local cop “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin – disappearing into another role) is closer to siblings than enemies. One of his closest friends, in the Hunter S. Thompson tradition, is a smiling counterculturally-sensitive lawyer, who helps him but never asks for a fee. That this lawyer is played by Benicio del Toro, more or less straight-ahead, makes the satire even more rich.
Just as in Chinatown, the plot revolves around a real estate mogul, Mikey Wolfman, who has recently become part of the drug scene, taking far too much peyote and LSD and in the end allowing himself to be co-opted by one of those ubiquitous early 1970s hippie cults. The cult itself seems to have ties to the government, the local police and a strange organization, its name only whispered in fog-drenched Chinatown alleys, “The Golden Fang”. Del Toro’s character, who happens to be specifically a marine lawyer, is following the trail of a mysterious a three-masted ship, also called The Golden Fang. Later, Doc visits a gold-encrusted office tower of Dentists (one of which gives Martin Short his funniest role in years), called… you guessed it… the “golden fang”.
I’m certainly leaving out a lot of plot information in the interest of spoilers, but also to make the point that these films thrive on their byzantine, impenetrable plots. Part of the fun is trying to remain one step ahead of the characters in this sort of movie, particularly the sometimes hapless but no less determined Doc. But Pynchon, through Anderson, has another agenda, and in this film, the author himself stays one step ahead of everyone. The story isn’t specifically about events in any case. The final scene is about as inconclusive an ending ever committed to the screen – almost a throwaway. This kind of film, or story in general, uses its plot to create situations, to make points, to engage the characters, but it’s not “about” what happens.
Where this film really succeeds is in evoking that strange, culturally-mutating world of 1970. We could start with the sex: it isn’t every film where an entire scene is devoted to watching Josh Brolin deep-throat a chocolate covered banana. And that’s exactly what happens, as Joaquin Phoenix watches, confused and uncomfortable. (Doc does a lot confused and uncomfortable watching in this film – someone will write their PhD thesis on how this relates to scopophilia, voyeurism, the language of dreams, sexual identity and who knows what else. The point is, the material is there.) Bigfoot, the aggressively straight cop with his crew-cut hair, is often seen munching those phallic bananas. And that’s not all: several scenes involve him chowing down while Doc looks on, sending messages about male power, but also insecurity.
When Doc is arrested by Bigfoot, his first impulse as the beatings come is to assume a fetal position and grab his crotch. In this modern age of police misconduct, Anderson is showing us an earlier age, when blue-collar cops relished the opportunity to beat the crap out of white-collar kids for being politically and socially “off-message”.
Police brutality and abuses of power were one of the rallying cries of the sixties counterculture, and protests and government scandal and corruption seemed to make up 90% of the evening news. Hippies like Doc felt as if they literally had to fight for their right to party, or at least their right to be free to party. But this film doesn’t shy away from showing us where the hippie dream was starting to go badly wrong. This is 1970 after all, and, for example, in one long tracking shot through a hippie party, we can see how the whole culture was getting more “branded”, more rigid and less alive. Rather than protesting or spreading the word or helping the poor, these people were now strung out on drugs like heroin, watching a skinny British musician noodle on a Farfisa organ for four hours. Perhaps even more insidious, by now the authorities were learning how to package, manufacture and infiltrate the counter culture. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being followed,” was a saying of the times.
At the end of the film, we’re left with an indelible sense of having “been there”. Many period films don’t achieve that, and some don’t try, but here it seemed really like spending 3 hours in 1970. For us in the modern age, to remember a time when most communication went over the phone or through the mail, and putting on a suit and combing your hair could fool someone at a bank, is a rather interesting, and illuminating experience. It definitely made me want to pull out some Neil Young records and shut off the computers. And that’s only one of its many riches.
Anderson is still at the head table of modern American filmmakers, and this is one of his best.