The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Inherent Vice

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article Nearly every review of Inherent Vice has made much of its status as the first direct cinematic adaptation of a Pynchon novel (Alex Ross Perry’s excellent Impolex is highly indebted to Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s more of a playful riff than a faithful translation, using a number of the book’s key images, plot strands, and thematic threads as a foundation upon which a distinct and singular narrative is built), and many argue that it provides a shining example of why this is the case. To some, Anderson has done little other than map the novel to the screen, and, in the process, stripped away the many intertextual associations, complex descriptions, and head-spinning run-on sentences that make Pynchon’s writing unique: in reducing the novel to narrative and dialogue, Anderson has softened its subversive edge, transforming it into an example of the very variety of noir Pynchon was aiming to pastiche. The same people tend to argue that Anderson’s camera doesn’t add to the writing, merely literalize it. An article in the New Yorker by Richard Brody (for the record, a critic I admire a lot), exemplifies this attitude, writing that “Anderson’s reverence for the book confines the movie between its covers” and his adaptation “maps the book onto the screen by way of a cinematic approximation that seems to bypass the camera”. While I can see the validity of this opinion, I think that it stems from a misjudgment of Anderson’s approach, which, unusually, doesn’t aim to find a filmic analogue to Pynchon’s prose but to filter the author’s established style through his own: an act of intertextual layering and refraction that’s distinctly Pynchonesque.

Inherent Vice has been rightfully labelled Pynchon’s most accessible novel; its plot is linear, it never crosses the line into outright surrealism, the malevolent and counter-cultural forces it details are easily identifiable to a mainstream audience. It’s also one of his breeziest and funniest, doubling down on the lame puns, tossed-off innuendos, movie allusions, hallucinogenic drug trips and interspersed song lyrics while cutting back on the embedded timelines, multi-character perspectives, and lengthy excursions into oblique areas of astrophysics and semiology scholarship. Set in California at the tail end of the 1960s, Pynchon pits a handful of garishly cartoonish hippie-dreamers against a vast landscape of squares marked by cynical apathy and opportunism; the earnest - though naïve - idealism of the former group forming a marked contrast to the oppressive superficiality of the latter. As usual with Pynchon, these squares are linked to the rise of surveillance, cultural hegemony, abstract economics, fascism, pornography, advertising, and the mass media, which transforms the narrative into a microcosm of cultural changes undergone by America over the latter half of the 20th century. Though Pynchon tends to place very specific, strongly defined periods under the microscope, his treatment of them allows them to speak strongly beyond the delineated time and place.

<i>There Will Be Blood</i>
There Will Be Blood
If those last few sentences sound like they could also be applied to Anderson’s recent output, that’s because they could. Both There Will Be Blood and The Master place a turning point in the history of American capitalism as their focal point. In both, a cartoony capitalist (Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd) is positioned in an antagonistic relationship with a cartoony free-spirit (Eli Sunday, Freddie Quell). The free-spirit is painted as being antiquated within an environment rapidly being transformed by the abstract forces of corporatization and consumerism (the small town of Little Boston sees its community increasingly fragmented by the structural changes brought about by Plainview’s oil wells, shifting power away from the Church, traditionally the unifying foci and primary guiding force of such areas; Quell’s aloofness is exacerbated by the world of middle-class consumer culture created and maintained by the fruits of the very war that caused him psychological damage). Both trace the rise of the capitalist concurrent with the free-spirit being either destroyed by the system (Eli) or being subjugated to it (the ending of The Master implies that Freddy will happily enter the institution of suburban family life he originally disdained). In both, this outcome is the end result of a long and complex process of indoctrination (Plainview has to string Eli along with faux-politeness and false promises in order to convince him to sign away his land; Dodd has to break down Freddie’s mind and re-build it from the ground up, a process that largely involves the re-rooting of his libidinal drives towards adherence to The Cause).

In Inherent Vice, we see a similar dynamic, but sketched in different terms. This is shortly following the Mason Family killings, which immediately shed heightened suspicion on the whole array of under-the-radar, zeitgeist-opposing subcultures. Perceived no longer as amiable nuisances and instead potential society-shaking threats, the staid establishment devote unprecedented energy and resources to having them dismantled. As with Anderson, Pynchon’s approach to characterization is organized along binary oppositions: he sets out a clear opposition between those who have allegiance to the capitalist and authoritarian state (law enforcement, big business, real estate developers) and those who stand in opposition to the same (hippies, astrologers, the Black Panthers).

Woolfmann is one of Pynchon’s capitalist puppetmaster figures. He exists abstractly, his presence looming over everything that happens though he only appears in one brief, oblique scene. Evidence of him can be seen everywhere - his lackeys, his ads, his properties - but for the most part, he can only be interacted with indirectly, which lends him the impression of being simultaneously omnipresent and elusive. An owner of extreme wealth, power, land, which gives him power over media, technology, and crime syndicates that renders him both inapproachable and indestructible to the common man, he’s a clear stand-in for the economic one percent. Doc Sportello embodies a low-key, everyman decency that isn’t quite heroic, but when placed in this context, surrounded by figures who privilege pragmatics over ideals and remain casually indifferent to the issues of others, he emerges as the most noble character. The aforementioned characteristics aren’t only exhibited by the villains, but also by the majority of side characters, who have apathetically taken them on in order to thrive within the structures of late capitalism.

The American government co-opts everything created by the counterculture into a tool of indoctrination - the aesthetics of rock music are imitated by major studios, the pleasures of illegal drugs become pharmaceuticals, hippie paraphernalia is mass produced and stripped of ideological context - thereby neutralizing the threats of these rebels. This government then employs rampart consumerism as a means of deadening the minds of the populace, directing their attention away from significant social matters and into superficial materialist pursuits.

The structure of post-war American noir is a natural fit for Pynchon’s sensibilities: a lone-wolf underdog working alone in a city fraught with corruption, usually coming across a grander conspiracy when he tries to solve a single crime; finding out that a number of apparently disparate events are interconnected and tied to a much grander, systematic wrong-doing. Thomas Pynchon takes the latent paranoia underlining the mystery genre and amplifies it to absurdist metaphysical extremes. The detective book usually works by setting up an incidating crime, having the detective investigate suspects, then using this information to piece together a coherent solution. This is linear and ends neatly, with the disrupted community being restored to its former glory, which is an idyllic thing. It also emphasises the power of human rationality in conquering the irrational crime. The detective takes these shards of fragmented information and constructs a concrete narrative out of it, as the reader is encouraged to do.

Reading a Pynchon novel can be a weird experience, because each one packs in so many plot strands, side characters, bizarre twists, and shadowy conspiracies that the narrative becomes abstracted, rendering its exact mechanisms hazy and the outcome insignificant. In many of his books, the protagonist sets about an apparently simple quest for knowledge, then becomes increasingly convinced that every element of their environment is interconnected in some way. Their quest for knowledge, as a result, soon becomes obsessive. The increasingly complex attempt to connect the dots and discover the true inner-workings that govern their lives drives them to insanity, and they’re ultimately left with a decision to delve entirely into insular madness or resign themselves to never uncovering these systematic secrets.

His stories therefore become less about the ostensible mysteries that drive them than the human need to detect itself. The thing is this need rubs against a corporate-capitalist system that benefits from keeping itself citizens in a state of relative ignorance for its own protection, subordinate to the whims of a small handful of people who own a vastly disproportionate amount of power and wealth. Any attempt to make sense of these systems is idealistic, and often the clues and connections the characters create are unconvincing. Pynchon therefore explores our desire to structure our experiences in linear, pre-determined packages in order to lend comfortable meaning to our lives while at the same time frustrating this desire at every opportunity.

Baudrillard argues that in the current climate, we constantly feel a sense of obscure nostalgia because we’re usually surrounded by signifiers of other cultures and time periods. These signifiers, created and perpetuated by the forces of mass media, are therefore divorced from their referents, with the fictitious indicators of the past taking precedence in the mind of the individual over actual history. In Pynchon, the city is overwhelmed with information, filled with a myriad of signs that no longer point to a concrete reality but instead serve as a self-contained system in themselves. It’s within this hyper-reality that the characters lose themselves, and Pynchon’s prose itself constructs an elaborately inclusive discourse, taking in and combining so many different kinds of writing styles. The multitude of signifiers cause the characters to get confused as to what is real and what is fictitious, leading them on elaborate quests to sift through these signs in order to reconnect with the actual, which may not even exist. Though constructed as mysteries, Pynchon renders the solution irrelevant, leaving the sensation that there’s no longer any sense that reality itself can be fully understood. It’s significant that the Charles Manson murders are a touchstone, here as they were brought about purely by the madness of the perpetrator, with no traditional motives to explain the acts, which frustrates the desire of conventional murder mysteries to impose order as a way of making sense of tragic and seemingly chaotic events, and hence conquering them. That act now seems facile.

Anderson’s adaptation foregrounds its status as a mediated appropriation of the early 70s rather than aiming for transparency; not only does it imitate the styles of the period using modern technologies, it engages with the period primarily through representations that are themselves fictitious. The influx of different images and interpretations of the past has resulted in the loss of the actual, and the process of representing it is now an act of reconfiguration. Inherent Vice is thus a clear synthesis of a bunch of different styles of pulp. Its aesthetic is indebted equally to 60s films as to representations of the 60s taken from a historical vantage point (The Long goodbye), and it’s only reference points are other films. The net result is something of a cinematic echo chamber, where every image points to a bunch of other images but to nothing outside of the medium, an act of re-arranging pre-existing parts rather than a direct translation. What is highlighted is cinema’s tendency to recycle itself constantly, reviving and remixing old genres and refracting their codes through the lens of contemporary beliefs. Anderson’s worn his influences on his sleeve since the beginning of his career, but here this tendency serves a clear thematic purpose. Pynchon’s novel is a pastiche of Chandler, himself a pastiche of Hammett, and the film is largely refracting Altman’s The Long Goodbye, itself a pastiche of Chandler. Just as Pynchon’s prose seems to absorb a whole history of genre fiction and then re-appropriate its iconography, so too those Anderson’s images constantly pay homage to prior cinematic images in order to create a dense intertextual web.

This lack of a unified style unmoors the film, deliberately denying it a sense of traditional cohesiveness. The aesthetic, like the plot, is removed from a sense of linearity and wholeness. Meaning isn’t just denied, it’s hyper-created, which results in stasis, as a vast number of mysteries are created to which clear solutions are never offered, creating, instead, a slew of fractured elements. Similarly, Anderson’s film continuously fails to cohere into a unified style, jarringly switching between tones, visual schemes, and colour pallets from scene to scene, and sometimes from shot to shot. Pynchon himself has always been concerned with the ways in which TV and cinema hyper-mediates the world while tending to pass itself off as a transparent view, and therefore becomes the primary means by which the average citizen engages with the world. Anderson therefore simultaneously highlights the role that popular filmmaking plays in making sense of national history and encourages us to distrust any kind of structure that claims to entirely shape reality in a coherent way - whether the tidiness of narrative or cinematic style itself.

Pynchon’s mysteries multiply and expand outwards, with one apparent solution being replaced by another different one, which now appears to be the main truth. This, of course, mirrors the way in which information is transmitted in the post-industrial age, as an exponentially exploding series of competing theories. This piling up of solutions is therefore self-cancelling. What’s created is a complex intertextual web, whereby an internal system of signs is created which reflect off each other and begin to lose all claim to representing reality. The third person narrator takes in the perspectives of all the characters and even the landscape itself, blurring these external psychologies with his own to the extent that they become difficult to differentiate. Every element of this world is interconnected, subjectivities (including nonhuman ones) roll into and inform one another, constantly shifting between perspectives. Because every consciousness if connected through narratology, the idea of subjectivity as a specific, individual concept is undercut, destabilizing the convention of a unified narrative style weaved by an omniscient narrator, individualist consciousness breaks down and each character is portrayed as being, in large part, a product of their environment and time. To complicate this further and even more greatly undermine traditional ideas of self-hood, Pynchon also has the characters exchange direct quotes and catchphrases frequently (“what’s up, doc?”), and are sometimes described purely in terms of what pop culture they’re reminiscent of (“John Wayne walk, flattop of Flintstones proportions”). Anderson’s approach re-creates these layering techniques on a formal level, quoting and re-purposing shots from other filmmakers, having narration collapse into dialogue, and molding performances that self-consciously recall iconic film character as well as calling attention to the public personas of the actors.

For example, Phoenix’s performance blends his public persona (oddball, incredibly dedicated artist from a countercultural background), old school noir heroes (Bogart), revisionist noir heroes (Gould, Bridges), while simultaneously being informed by a modern school of acting typically alien to both these types, rooted in psychological realism that expresses a credible interiority via small gestures. Yet this mannerist acting style forms an odd mesh with many of the performances around him, which are largely classical and tightly coiled, which are marked by incredible control and theatricality. It adds up to a complex intertextual stew where public and private, inner and outer, classical and modern inform and melt into one another. And the concept of authorship is concentrated, as Pynchon is refracted through Anderson and every actor giving their own spin on a character; they’re all given equal weight as authors.

A distrust of corporate-capitalist systems fuels Inherent Vice’s plot, though Pynchon is also empathetic enough to stress the attraction of buying into these systems. This is evidenced by the many anecdotal sub-plots in the narrative’s margins, such as that of former heroin addict Hope Harlingen, whose substance abuse resulted in the destruction of her teeth as well as the implied disfigurement of her daughter. In response to these crises, she cleaned up her act and now works as a counsellor specializing in getting young people off drugs. Though her cookie-cutter, white-finished suburban track home may appear nightmarish, Pynchon stresses that the way these impersonal systems encourage others to buy into them is by making them feel abject and irregular, and offering easy material comfort. Shasta Fay, who functions as the film’s primary structuring absence, has split from Doc in order to become Woolfmann’s mistress, privileging his wealthy, secure lifestyle over the wild uncertainty she felt with Doc.

Pointedly, this binary opposition is largely rendered in spatial terms. The hippies occupy an increasingly marginalized series of spatially specific bars, apartments, and diners, while the standardized and interchangeable Channel View Estates take over the area. Areas of spatial specificity and the communal and historical associations are increasingly sacrificed for conventional, cookie-cutter estates, represented in the film by a number of suburban tracts filled with nuclear families, kept in line largely by media-aided fear of the marginalized. This creation of an interconnected, web-like network of middle class neighbourhoods and dematerialized business complexes literally push minorities to the side, making them the discarded discharge of these new plans profitable for the U.S economy as a whole. This is the foundation of a late-capitalist landscape, governed by corporations rather than communities.

Pynchon also sees the influx of television as a way of spreading late capitalism and cultural homogeny, fostering individual isolation within the nuclear family itself, encouraging apathy, and numbing the senses, not to mention pumping houses with advertisements even more aggressively, further instilling consumerist desires. These products will naturally be mass produced (they need to be tied to large corporations in order to even buy air time), breaking down communities on both a macro and major level. Individuals are categorized into target markets by advertising. Late capitalism needs consumers to actively give themselves over to its pleasures in order to grow, it needs to attack individuals on a deep, mental level. It sucks in individuals by encouraging them to trade their substantial independence for superficial pleasures, lulling them into comfortable apathy, and distracting their minds with trivialities that numbs their ability for critical - and potentially subversive - thought. This is why counter-cultural bric-a-brac is co-opted and usurped, it makes the transition easier for the hippies, and some might now even realized it’s happened.

Woolfmann is kidnapped (supposedly by The Golden Fang) and brainwashed as a reaction to his burgeoning countercultural leanings. He, all of a sudden, has a spiritual epiphany and aims to helm a housing project in the desert that would be non-privatized, providing free accommodation to those in need. Woolfmann’s (and Doc’s dream) is impossible, as the Fang are too powerful for even him to overthrow, particularly as everybody around them has little interest, due to their own apathy. The Golden Fang, with the powers of the state at their disposal, can easily locate and dispose of any potential threat.

Many point to the pervading sense of paranoia and corporate distrust that runs throughout Pynchon’s work as evidence that he himself is a conspiracy theorist, but I don’t think he takes any of the conspiracies he throws out seriously enough for this to be substantiated; for example Doc’s suspicions about what form The Golden Fang actually takes is constantly shifting, appearing, at various points, as a team of dentists, a band of sailors, a gang of mobster neo-Nazis, and at certain points even appears to be supernatural, and each iteration is portrayed as equally ridiculous. Rather, his interest is in the mind-set that births conspiracy theories. It’s left pointedly ambiguous as to whether the Golden Fang is real or not, because the many things it’s alleged to perpetrate certainly are - the name itself brings to mind the parasitic nature of post-industrial economy. The organization itself could just as easily be merely Doc’s way of organizing information, to lend a sense of purpose to all the bad things happening in this place. His investigation, even if the Fang is fictional, has purpose, as it gives him a greater awareness of the forces crushing his dream, which he’s initially only able to register in vague terms.

As many critics have pointed out, in Pynchon’s recent work there’s elements a disarming sentimentality that counteracts that all-encompassing cynicism of his earlier stuff. In this case, Doc ultimately gives up on trying to overthrow or even understand the system and settles, instead, for accomplishing the smaller personal triumph of re-uniting Harligen with his estranged family. It’s an ending oddly downbeat and hopeful at once, as it suggests that the forces of totalitarianism and authoritarianism can only be resisted for so long, yet Doc’s ability to carry out an entirely selfless act within an environment characterized by self-interest is redemptive, allowing him to escape from his cycle of obsession. This ending renders the idea of a concrete narrative solution insignificant, suggesting that this taking on of responsibility is more important as a whole.

This Alternate Take was published on June 13, 2015.

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