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Of Dope and Desire

Kristin Grogan

Inherent Vice
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
USA, 2014

There are few cultural marriages more attractive than the union of Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon. On the one hand is the filmmaker who brought us the drug-fuelled escapades of the “Golden Age of Porn” in Boogie Nights (1997) and the magisterial account of the rapacious hunger for capital and the power of evangelical religion in There Will Be Blood (2007); on the other, the notoriously reclusive writer whose novels catapult their readers through the frenetic energy and terrible decay of the United States, fusing sex, violence, drugs, paranoia, and capitalist excess on the page. With Inherent Vice we see the creative energies of both occupying the same space. Such a meeting of minds is the stuff of dreams.

Anderson’s Inherent Vice is the first time Pynchon has been adapted for the screen, and the first attempt to find a cinematic language adequate to the experience of a Pynchon novel. It is not hard to see why Inherent Vice, published in 2009, was the book chosen to make the leap to the big screen. Any other novel would present an even greater challenge: can we imagine a film that could follow Gravity’s Rainbow from start to end, through all its fits and turns? Inherent Vice is a relatively short book and, for all of its wild leaps, has threads of plot, even if those threads are never woven into a coherent tapestry. Nevertheless, translating any Pynchon novel—any phrase, any chapter—from page to screen is no mean feat, and perhaps of all the directors working today, Anderson is best up to the task.

Set in 1970 in Gordita Beach, L.A., Inherent Vice begins as Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), the ex-girlfriend of perpetually doped-up hippie and private-eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), reappears in Doc’s life to warn him of a plot to kidnap her big-shot property developer lover, Micky Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The film follows Doc as he tries to solve an ultimately impossible case. Anderson presides over an impressive ensemble cast, and throughout the film Doc is pursued by his comic foil, Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), entangled with the good-girl-gone-bad Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), is legally represented by Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benicio Del Toro), and attempts to reunite the ex-junkie saxophonist Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson) with his family, while a drug cartel—effectively a corporation—named “The Golden Fang” leers and looms. The whole thing is narrated, seductively but unreliably, by stargazing flower child Sortilège (Joanna Newsom).

It is strange that a film that feeds off such feverish energy, that moves with such extraordinary speed from scene to scene, from character to character, from silly clue to silly clue, can impart such a sense of exhaustion. In an early scene, Sortilège describes how Doc would imagine Shasta’s response to questions about her new relationship with Wolfmann. “I love him, what else?” she would have said, “with the unspoken footnote that the word was way too overused these days.” Inherent Vice articulates this moment of depletion through overuse—the exhaustion of a particular moment in the USA’s cultural history, the comedown after the 1960s, when the spectres of Charles Manson and Richard Nixon are always lurking close by. The film’s length and its knotty, spiralling structure contribute to this exhaustion. So too does its lack of establishing shots and claustrophobic reliance on close-ups of Doc’s face: we spend two and a half hours in a paranoid, idiosyncratic mind, a world where characters repeat the clichés of the hardboiled crime genre, endlessly recycling Chandler and Altman, but always under their breath in tired, slurred, and barely comprehensible tones.

One of Pynchon’s signature stylistic moves is to switch suddenly between modes: to puncture his immense, billowing sentences with lyrical interludes which act as tender rejoinders to all that accumulated historical and political mass. Anderson renders that perfectly, with a brief analeptic glimpse into a happier past, in which Doc and Shasta follow a Ouija board’s directions to an address where they might find some dope. They do not score, but they do frolic in the rain and we are rewarded with the emotional sincerity we feel we deserve; the scene satisfies, in Pynchon’s words, “those of us still attached to the thick and sorrowful catalogues of human desire.”

But that is the past, and the present is much bleaker and crueller; and besides the film cannot—or will not—sustain that sort of sweetness. The counterpart to that rain-soaked search for dope is another encounter between Doc and Shasta, a sudden and violent outburst of sexual energy that marks a serious change of pace and tone from the rest of the film. Shasta, having mysteriously departed, returns to Doc’s apartment and drapes her naked body over his clothed one, which he accepts as an invitation for a spanking. It is a much sadder scene than in the novel; where Pynchon has Shasta ask Doc: “Word’s around that you have this thing about Manson chicks?” Anderson renders this as the more desperate “What sort of girl do you want, Doc?” Anderson serves us a femme fatale who seems to crave punishment above all, while all of Doc’s desperation and desire are released in that one confused, violent, and horribly sad outburst. Here, the film edges closest to discarding its pretence of fun and frenzy and approaches something genuinely unspeakable. But it soon slips back into the same unsatisfying lethargy, as Shasta reminds Doc that “this doesn’t mean we’re back together.”

For all of this, the film is full of joys. Much of Pynchon’s comic genius is left intact, mostly courtesy of the film’s peripheral characters. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen provides a great deal of humour, when he is fellating frozen bananas or ordering pancakes in Japanese, as does Jade (Hong Chau) who works at the Chick Planet massage parlour. The score by Jonny Greenwood means the film can never stray too far from melancholy. It is also ravishingly beautiful (Anderson shot it on 35mm, not digital) from the first shot of Doc bathed in blue light, through to the scene in which Doc liberates Coy and the shot is momentarily obscured entirely by afternoon sunlight. For two and a half hours we find ourselves in a dreamy world of Californian sunshine, here plunged into blue tones, there warmed by an orange glow.

Depending on whom you speak to, Inherent Vice was awaited with keen expectation, fear of disappointment, and apprehension. Fans of both director and novelist might expect to be disappointed—but they should not be, or at least not too badly. For Pynchon and Anderson make a power couple to be reckoned with. Both are attuned, much more than most, to the fundamental inadequacies and contradictions of the system we have today (“Let’s not forget late fuckin’ capitalism”, Pynchon reminded us in Bleeding Edge). The 1970s that Anderson creates are rarely glossy or cheesy, and many scenes look barely indistinguishable from today. The sense is that very little has really changed. If anything, capital has only tightened its grip, things have only gotten worse; American life is still “something to be escaped from.” The film does look for redemption, not to be found in the doomed and depleted love between Shasta and Doc, but in a reunited family. Whether that redemption will actually come still remains to be seen.

Kristin Grogan is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labor and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.