“We are interested in the plot of a play or film because it stages a problem whose solution we expect: we are expecting the plot to be resolved. So long as it is not (and in principle it is not resolved until the end), we live in a ‘suspended’ time, the suspense found at its most intense in detective films and novels.” (1)
“ I’m not one who ever follows plots in movies, ever – I just glaze over.” (2)
“I tried to make the film feel kind of like a Neil Young song – like that melancholy of ‘Only Love Can Break Your Heart’ or ‘After the Gold Rush’. That’s an equivalent to what the book feels like to me.” (3)
“As the title track of the Doors last album, released in April 1971, […] ‘L.A. Woman’ emerged over the years, until after four decades you could turn on your car radio and find all eight minutes of it still talking, jabbering, this bum on Sunset Strip going on about a woman and the city and the night as if someone other than himself is actually listening. You can hear it there, anytime – and you can hear it playing between every other line of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 L.A. detective novel Inherent Vice…(4)
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice begins in classic private eye fashion. The year is 1970, the burnt-out end of the sixties with all the promise of the “peace and love” decade gone to ruin. In the opening scene, hippie private investigator Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) gets a visit from former girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) asking for help. You can measure the distance the genre has traversed over the decades by bringing to mind Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s (Mary Aster) waltzing into Sam Spade’s (Humphrey Bogart) office in John Huston’s 1941 The Maltese Falcon. Though Shasta Fay’s motives are obscure and she remains an elusive character throughout the film, she’s no femme fatal – she doesn’t have Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s treachery – however, she does fill the typical genre trope of luring the detective (and therefore the audience) into an adventure greater than it first appears. The context may have changed after all these years, but it still boils down to an attractive woman trying to put one over her chosen sleuth.
The film is, of course, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name. And it’s clear that Pynchon knows his way around the long history of the private eye crime genre (both in novel and film): Pynchon walks in the footsteps of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald but filtered through a distorted lens – curiously, Macdonald’s 1973 novel Sleeping Beauty, a moody story about oil, corruption and fractured families set in southern California, is an Anderson film in waiting. Doc Sportello may be a laidback stoner hippie with a hard-on (his preferred reading material is ‘Naked Teen Nymphs’ magazine), but when it counts, he retains all the moral integrity of classic P.I.’s like Philip Marlowe and Lew Archer.
As it turns out, Shasta Fay is having an affair with Los Angeles real estate entrepreneur ‘Mickey’ Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and believes that his wife and her lover are plotting to have him killed. Can Doc use his sleuthing skills to look into things, Shasta pleads? Does he have a choice? The guy’s still in love with her and has mourned her loss since she walked out on their relationship sometime back. When she first appears on screen she seems to hover uncertainly in the scene, as if a memory reclaimed, half dream, half real, perhaps just a figment of Doc’s stoner state. It’s an early clue that the ontological status of the images we see need deciphering, “reality” can’t be taken for granted. Soon after Shasta’s visit, Wolfmann disappears, supposedly kidnapped by persons unknown.
The gap between ‘ephemeral’ vision and ‘corporeal’ being is something Anderson places emphasis on throughout the film. So many of the carousel of characters first appear as “mediated” beings. For example, Doc’s nemesis, LAPD Detective Lieutenant Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), is first seen in a television ad costumed in “hippie” gear promoting the “Channel View Estates” housing development; Coy Harlington (Owen Wilson), a musician and former dope addict, now supposedly an undercover government agent, is first glimpsed in a family photo taken by his ex-junkie wife Hope (Jena Malone); Mickey Wolfmann stares out at us from a newspaper photograph before he makes his one and only appearance in corporeal form late in the film; hit man Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) first appears to us in FBI photo files. At one point Doc scribbles and emphatically underlines the words “Not hallucinating” in his notebook. It’s likely also a note addressed to the audience on Anderson’s behalf. Take note, Anderson seems to be saying, for it’s the kind of movie in which the “true” identity of people and things is constantly in flux. Vision may be suspect, but like delusional paranoia it may be just another way of glimpsing the truth.
Marc Auge may be right when he argues that suspense, particularly in detective fiction, is generated by means of how we are caught up “in the rhythm of the narrative and the expectation of the dénouement” (5), but that may also hinge on the narrative’s skill in making the intrigues of the plot and its inevitable dénouement as clear as possible to the audience, if not, the suspense Auge speaks of will soon dissipate. Anderson’s film, however, may be wilfully working in a counter-intuitive way in respect to the detective genre. Where possible, the film escalates plot confusion rather than alleviating it.
Trying to get a fix on Inherent Vice’s plot development is like a dog chasing its own tail (close, but never in full reach). Try as you may, it’s hard to keep up with every breakneck introduction of a new character (there are countless), every subplot that shoots off the main plot – only to be no subplot at all – is just the main plot meandering and looping back on itself. Perhaps it’s not even a question of the film having a main plot at all, but rather, multiplying subplots that push up against each other so that you can’t separate the one from the other. Closer, then, to a series of subplots in search of a main plot. Lacunae and ellipses seem intentionally built into the narrative, either to frustrate viewers or as a warning that plot development isn’t what the viewer should be paying attention to in the first place.
J. Hoberman, in his fine review of the film, calls it “an extremely credible adaptation” of Pynchon’s novel. (6)The issue offidelity in book-to-screen adaptations has always been a vexed one, and when story, plot development or character arcs don’t quite match the source material, people are likely to use the fall back response that the film in question, nonetheless, captures the “spirit” of the book (whatever that may mean). Pynchon’s novel is essentially rhizomatic in form, constantly multiplying the story and zigzagging its way through a kaleidoscopic array of characters and incidents (far greater than the film can attempt). The majority of the novel remains on the cutting-room floor (Anderson has alluded to the screenplay being more or less a cut-and-paste job than anything). What makes it to the screen are shards of the novel, the bits cut out from the greater whole, which perhaps explains why so many edits from scene to scene seem abrupt, as if we’ve moved out of a given scene prematurely. This may partly result from the absence of traditional “filler” shots (such as establishing shots) that generally buffer the transition from one scene to a new situation. (7)Over the arch of the narrative a certain rhythmic tension arises between the mostly languid pace internal to the scenes (for the most part stationary characters in dialogue with one another) and the sudden, brisk transition cutting between the scenes.
One example of the shard like nature of scenes can best be illustrated by the use of the character Clancy Charlock (Michelle Sinclair). Doc, as usual, is doped up to the gills when Clancy makes her entrance into his office framed in an erotic low angle shot that accentuates her lower torso. It’s the kind of introductory shot to a new character that you’re meant to take note of. She wants Doc to track down the killer of her brother, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson). When she exists his office, Doc follows her out to the reception area where two beefy biker companions await her (she’s into threesomes, to Doc’s bemusement). It’s a short, sharp scene and the first and last we see of Clancy in the film. Whereas, in the novel, he accompanies Clancy and her biker friends to a location where he believes he can gleam information about her brother’s killer. Clancy is linked to one of the novel’s major subplots that takes Doc all the way to Vegas in search of clues. The Vegas subplot is where various crucial threads of the story come together. Anderson has chosen to keep the events within the confines of LA (perhaps for reasons of budget). The fate of Mickey Wolfmann’s development schemes (the novel is about real estate in the way Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is about water) and his disappearance get resolved in the Las Vegas portion of the novel, whereas Anderson re-routes that to an LA location.
From the overall Vegas mosaic in the novel, Anderson cuts away this tiny piece of Clancy visiting Doc’s office and jettisons the rest. We’re in the scene and we’re out of it, and it exists for itself with no overriding effect on the plot to follow. Once the spectator gets used to the shard-like effect of film it becomes one of the pleasures of how Anderson has organised the film. Each scene has its pleasures to be discovered in the moment and to be left behind as you move to the next scene. Plot information is of lesser importance.
In following detective plots we are suspended between what has come and anticipating what is to come, Anderson, on the other hand, wants us to soak up the moment, even at the expense of losing our hold on the plot. So perhaps we should pay heed to Anderson’s claim that he’s not much interested in the logistics of plots in movies. But where does that leave us with Inherent Vice? Well, with the sheer pleasures of mise-en-scène – the texture of light caught by Robert Elswit’s cinematography, the evocation of atmosphere and mood, the period detail, the actors doing their various shtick…and the soundtrack.
Pynchon’s novel is weighed down with pop culture references, and though less so with Anderson’s film, they’re both works of pop art. And what’s particularly referenced is pop music, those of real bands of the era and those invented by Pynchon.If your ears are open to hearing it, the novel has it’s own running soundtrack. In adapting the novel, Anderson is attuned to the book’s soundscape more so than to its plot, and what he hears translates into Neil Young – his lonesome, yearning songs about love gained or lost. In preparation for the Doc character, Anderson mentions in interviews giving Joaquin Phoenix “a bunch of Neil Young stuff” to listen to. (8)If your interest is the Doc/Shasta love story, or failed love story, then Young’s songs work well to capture Doc’s underlying melancholic mindset. However, if you’re attuned to the bigger social canvas painted by Pynchon’s novel you may hear something else. As did Greil Marcus, who heard The Doors song “L.A Woman” behind “every other line” of the novel, and for good reason: the song paints its own social canvas of LA in the early seventies; the paranoia, the strange, sinister vibes on the street. The song is literally a description of the post-Charles Mason psychic breakdown of LA.
It’s uncanny how many of The Doors’ songs resonate with Pynchon’s narrative. Take ‘The Crystal Ship’ (a song about acid) and the mysterious schooner Golden Fang (in both novel and film) that ships heroin in from the Golden Triangle in Asia. Or, ‘The Changeling’ (about metamorphosis) and track the character morphing in Inherent Vice, particularly that of the Owen Wilson character, who is given a new identity for every scene, or, Shasta changing from hippie chick to high class mistress – identity is hardly a stable entity in that world. Or take ‘Strange Days’ (about paranoia and hallucination), or ‘You’re Lost Little Girl’ (about the loss of cultural orientation). Not surprising really, for The Doors’ songs (for better or worse) documented the very zeitgeist that Pynchon’s novel shares. The novel goes so far as to name-check the title of the band’s ‘People Are Strange (When You’re a Stranger)’.
No Doors song features on the film’s soundtrack, and I don’t think it’s through neglect. Anderson has one of the finest ears for matching up songs and images of any of his contemporaries. Rather, The Doorsare musically too heavy, too much on the mark, too full of mythology. And as he has stated, “I didn’t want to just do a ‘Best of 1970’ ”.(9) In other words, music of the era that was too recognisable, too expected. Yet The Doors absence gives a clue to the tone that Anderson was after for his film: a blend of comedy, cartoonness and pastiche. The closest the soundtrack gets to the sound of The Doorsis ‘Spooks’ by Radiohead, otherwise it’s oddball selections like The Marketts’ ‘Here Come the Ho-Dads’, Les Baxter’s ‘Simba’ and Kyu Sakamoto’s ‘Sukiyaki’, not exactly era-defining songs.
Inherent Vice feels like a transition film in Anderson’s career to date, a divertissement, something made for the sheer fun and hell of it. Which is not to say that it shouldn’t be taken seriously. However, after the back-to-back epic gravitas of There Will Be Blood (20o7) and The Master (2012), it can’t help but feel lighter in its intention and outcome. Not a bad thing in itself, but whether he continues in this vein we’ll have to wait and see.
1. Marc Auge, The Future, London: Verso, 2014, p. 5 (italics in original)
2. Paul Thomas Anderson in interview with Jonathan Romney in ‘It’s Funny. Why Are You Sad’, Sight & Sound (25:2 February 2015) p. 22
4. Greil Marcus, The Doors: A Lifetime of Listening to Five Mean Years, London: Faber and Faber, 2011, p. 9
5. Marc Auge, The Future, London: Verso, 2014, p. 7
6. J. Hoberman, ‘Splendour in the Grass’, Artforum (53:5 January 2015) p. 63
7. “ I came up in an era where, if you’re making a period film, you’re obligated to have an unmotivated crane shot in the street – a mass of cars, a mass of billboards. What a waste of money, time and feet of film”. Paul Thomas Anderson in interview with Jonathan Romney, op.cit, p. 23
9. ibid, p. 9