Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Paul Thomas Anderson | Inherent Vice

film soir
by Douglas Messerli

Paul Thomas Anderson (screenplay, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, and director) Inherent Vice / 2014

It’s the 1970s in the Golden State, Gordito Beach (read Manhattan Beach or any of the other numerous beach communities that trail down the Pacific coast just south of Los Angeles), when the hippies had not yet abandoned the sunlit glow at the end of the American trail to the West; here are the last remnants, we might argue, of the two and one-half centuries of manifest destiny: a faded vision of house, car, and family, which had become transfixed in the golden afternoon light as a tiny depilated pad replete with man, music, pot, chick and maybe, with a little luck, a decaying jalopy hidden away in a local garage. If everything was a bit diminished, it was still “groovy” and, after a couple of deep-drawn puffs or—if it was your thing—a few snorts of coke it was maybe even a bit transcendent! 

While I was still entrapped within the marble halls inside the D.C. beltway beside the blue-suited, sinning spies serving up secrets to Nixon the cracked-up crook, and soon after, alongside the white-robed Sunday school saints of Jimmy Carter’s spiritual entourage, before being frozen-out by the black de-draped brigades of buffalos of the Regan rich, the good people of what I then called my home city, were enjoying one long final sweet binge of no regrets, stuffing their bodily appendages with sexual aides (real and manufactured) and salving their mental cravings with drugs (real and manufactured) at the far end of the American Dream.

     This is the territory of Thomas Pynchon in fiction and director Paul Thomas Anderson in film, somewhat blindingly colliding in Anderson’s cinematic adaptation of Inherent Vice. Larry “Doc” Sportello (near-perfectly portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix), sporting a pair of mutton chops that threaten to trample his face, sits, smoking a joint, in his man-cave alone, a little high and, quite clearly, a little sad after having lost—as our not-so-trusty narrator Sortilége (named after, presumably, the disgusting mix of Canadian whisky and maple syrup gulped down in Montreal or the practice of reading the roll of dice as a divination of the will of the Gods) has reported—his beloved Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Her sudden re-appearance in his hut is not something he is not sure is really happening, and, in fact, even as viewers of the event, we can never be certain that the beautiful Shasta is real. For the story’s sake she serves simply as the real or manufactured excuse to send Doc, who works as a kind of confessor-psychiatrist-gumshoe in a nearby clinic, on a series of more than slightly surreal and sometimes even hallucinogenic adventures that transform even the most fervent of faithful followers of human trust into outright paranoids. 
     Seems that since Shasta split, she got involved with a slick but sleazy property-developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), whose English-accented wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) and her always-in-the-buff boyfriend have other plans for him involving his disappearance and death. Will Doc be so good as to find him please? 
    If this sounds a bit familiar, it is, of course, right out of the Hollywood film noirs such as The Long Goodbye and The Big Sleep, and like them, Inherent Vice takes its audience on a long series of increasingly complex events that quickly relieve it from ratiocination. Strange things happen, again and again. Another would-be client asks Doc to check out a former prison cell-mate who’s now working as a body guard, along with an entire bike gang of Nazi Aryans, for Wolfmann. Checking out one of Wolfmann’s new construction sites, Doc comes upon the Chick Planet massage parlor, where stroking specialist Jade (Hong Chau) is all-too-ready to preview the girls’ special offers; but before he can even get an eye full, Doc wakes up with a hard-hit-to-the-head hangover and the dead corpse of Wolfmann’s body guard laid out beside him.


     Enter police detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjørnoson (Josh Brolin), with a flat-top as ferocious as Doc’s sideburns, ready to pin the “murder” on his nemesis-friend, Sportello. The police always play a kind of mirror-image role to the hero gumshoe in film noir works, bollixing up everything in their attempts to get to motives quick and pin “it” (real or manufactured) on the first suspect they come across. But Pynchon’s-Anderson’s film is not quite as much a noir, representing a world hidden in dark shadows and motives, as it is a soir, a world of the California evening light where the sun sometimes gets in your eyes, and what you think you see is the glimmer of something else. Mirror images get inverted, twisted all out of proportion, are lost in the haze of foggy memory and perception. If “Bigfoot” is another version of Doc, he is a perverted medicine man, a being so locked in the conformity of job and family that he makes Doc Sportello look like an innocent piker.

     If Doc has lost “the perfect hippie chick,” “Bigfoot”—whose patrol partner has been murdered—has lost the lover of his closeted world. Throughout these on-screen adventures, as both detective and cop twist and turn, almost in a helix pattern, around one another, the policeman sucks on chocolate-covered bananas—his version of sexual satisfaction—while consuming vast amounts of his favorite drug—scotch, poured out in high-ball glasses by his young son. While Doc replaces his sexual longings for Shasta with “Bigfoot’s” colleague, deputy attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon)—a woman wrapped up in high-detail bureaucratic research who occasionally is willing to search out the laid-back world of Doc where she can safely unwrap—“Bigfoot” gets his kicks by applying his foot along with every other part of his fit yet slightly flabby flesh to the contours of possible criminals, particularly Doc. The policeman’s wife apparently has to schedule her sexual events. Accordingly, the two, Doc and “Bigfoot” almost roll through the numerous and turns of this film’s plot like a dueling queer duo, Doc slightly floating with Bigfoot pummeling him back to earth, just behind.

     It wouldn’t do much good to describe their flat-footed adventures, because, although bad things happen everywhere they go, nothing is truly resolved and no definitive answers are proffered as to whom is responsible for the evils they encounter. A dreadful organization, the Golden Fang, is surely behind it, but does it represent an organization of drug smugglers hanging out aboard a boat, a cartel of dentists such as Dr. Blatnoyd (Martin Short) who operate medically on ex-heroin addicts and sexually on young teenagers such as Japonica Fenway  (Sasha Pieterse), daughter of a noted Republican conservative, or is it centered in a nearby Ojai drug rehabilitation center which cures drug addicts by re-habituating them into religious cults?  Why are the CIA investigators Doc encounters living in the Spa, and why is Wolfman trapped there as a patient? Are Shasta and Wolfman actually aboard the boat? Was Dr. Blatnoyd killed by a fang-shaped device made of gold? Why have the villains hired an innocent former drug addict-saxophonist, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), to spy within hippie-like communes and protest at politically rightist events? And why is Bigfoot, always just a few steps behind Doc’s trail, determined to incriminate and possibly get the innocent gumshoe killed by filling up his car trunk with several bales of heroin?
    All we can really determine is that in this Pynchon-Anderson fiction nearly everyone is up to no good. And whatever the Golden Fang group is doing, it represents the death of the hazy golden world in which Doc and others like him exist. Clearly the viper of reality has turned on the foggy-minded golden children of the sun to puncture their bliss and kill them with its poisonous bite.
    Finally, we fear that in this sun-soaked film soir world, where nothing can be clearly seen, there is no possible meaning. While we may have enjoyed the adventures played out before us, we finally must ask, where does it lead? The film (and fiction with it) leaves us in a befogged condition not unlike that which Doc endures daily. Is this world a real place? In other words, does the fiction-film really matter?
     Despite his confused detection, the non-revelatory, goofy clues he notes to himself (words like “drugs,” “prison,” “something Spanish”) Doc does successfully negotiate with the class-conscious rightist Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan) in order to free the indentured spy Harlingen, returning him home to his heroin-recovered wife and formerly drug-damaged child. And, by film’s end, Shasta returns to Doc. Even “Bigfoot” makes a final, forceful visit asserting his bond with the gumshore by breaking down the front door and ingesting a plate full of raw hash as if to say, “I’m like you kid!” If Doc is no hero, not even a potential survivor—we know that his and Shasta’s time has come to end, that their lives due to “inherent vice” (not representing any evil act they have committed, but through the very nature of their bodily frailty, the fact that they are human beings destined to wear out and die) will soon be over like the decade they represented—he remains at work’s end a true American innocent. They may be, as Graham Greene and others have argued, the worst kind of human being. After all, he has just killed the villain Adrian Prussia and his confederates! But from our cultural perspective, he remains a man of conscience, a confused but good man, a kind of holy fool who, for a few fleeting moments, aspires to a role that suggests a savior, a kind of Christ. Like many figures of his generation, now long disappeared, Doc believes in two simple things, pleasure and love. Too bad the corrupt world around him had to get in his way.   

Los Angeles, December 23, 2014

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