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On Paul Thomas Anderson’s INHERENT VICE: Between the Pavement and the Beach Lies the Shadow

On Paul Thomas Anderson's INHERENT VICE: Between the Pavement and the Beach Lies the Shadow

Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), the hero of Inherent Vice,
is a hippie but not a radical. He just wants to get stoned, laid and
left alone. However, his job as a private eye, as well as his
involvement with some women he’s dated, involves him in 1970s politics. I expected Paul Thomas Anderson’s film, adapted
by the director from Thomas Pynchon’s most accessible novel, to be a
stoner goof, and I wondered if it would have any more present-day relevance
than Cheech & Chong’s Up In Smoke, even if it comes from a
far more literate sensibility. On the other hand, even stoner goofs play
to a political climate in which four U.S. states have legalized
marijuana.  There’s more than a little melancholy beneath Doc’s
euphoria, brought out by Phoenix’s performance. The cultural idealism
around drugs was running low by the time Inherent Vice is set,
and it’s largely dead now. Those who advocate legalizing marijuana argue that
it’s a healthier alternative to alcohol, with fewer social costs, not
that a cultural revolution would come about if beer drinkers switched to
vaporizing kush. 
Like most of Pynchon’s work, Inherent Vice is soaked in conspiracy theories. This isn’t new for him: The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow
pioneered countercultural paranoia when the counterculture was still
fresh. Pynchon’s fascination seemed skeptical yet open-minded. In the
late ‘60s and early ‘70s, conspiracy theories were mostly the property
of leftists. Now, some individuals argue that Barack Obama isn’t really a U.S.
citizen, venting thinly concealed racism. I’m sure Pynchon would hate to
think he helped pave the way for birthers and truthers. For example, the website vigilantcitizen.com,
which mostly analyzes music videos for their supposed hidden messages,
seems to simultaneously come from a far-left and far-right position: it
vociferously attacks the CIA, yet almost all the singers and rappers it
denounces as Illuminati pawns are black and/or female. Thom Andersen
was right to point out the conservative potential of conspiracy theories
in Los Angeles Plays Itself, yet conspiracies do happen, as in
COINTELPRO, the FBI’s secret plot to undermine radical American politics
in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Inherent Vice refers to it by name, and alludes to other programs as well. 
Oddly,
Josh Brolin, who plays straight-laced, flat-topped cop “Bigfoot”
Bjornsen, has more chemistry with Phoenix than any of the women in the
cast. This may be due to the nature of his character: picture Jack Webb
gone to seed, clearly envious of hippies’ freedom even as he verbally
bashes them. (In one of the film’s more bizarre scenes, he finally tries
pot.) In
a weirdly homoerotic touch, he’s often seen with a chocolate banana in
his mouth. The film is extremely well-cast. Even small roles are played
by actors like Michael Kenneth Williams and Martin Donovan. Yet it has a
tendency to relegate women to the level of sex objects. In handing the voice-over to
indie folk singer Joanna Newsom, Anderson seems aware of this problem,
but she sounds like an archetypal “hippie chick”—one imagines Joni
Mitchell fulfilling a similar role in an early ‘70s Robert Altman film. 
The
few times Anderson uses master shots, he gets some beautiful, painterly
vistas of the Southern California landscape. But he seems to shy away
from them in favor of a tighter style, favoring close-ups, putting the
focus on performance. The acting holds up, but the writing doesn’t
translate from novel to screen, even though much of it is taken directly
from Pynchon. Pynchon’s deliberate use of dated slang dampens the script’s wit—in fact, much of the film’s humor feels more theoretical than real. A
key passage about the co-opting of the counterculture is thrown away as
voice-over during a party scene at a rock band’s house. Even though Inherent Vice
is Pynchon’s simplest novel, the problems of Anderson’s screenplay
suggest the dangers of adapting such a complicated writer. The film
plays like a stoner’s version of Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, with a coherent narrative getting lost in clouds of pot smoke. To some extent, that’s the point—Inherent Vice’s characters have only one foot in reality. But it doesn’t make for articulate filmmaking. 

In
the film’s press kit, Anderson asks, “Do we still have that sense of a
lost American promise that can be reclaimed?” For all its attempts at
humor and its characters’ hedonism, Inherent Vice is pretty
bummed-out: critic Howard Hampton described it as mapping “the
Manson-Nixon line.” However, I think New German Cinema and the ‘70s
films of Jean Eustache and Jacques Rivette did a better job of exploring
the hopes and failures of the counterculture. Part of the problem may
be that Anderson was born in 1970 and is depicting the dreams of his
parents’ generation. Films like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Third Generation, Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating
offered reports from the front. From the perspective of 2014, it’s easy
to say that the hippies lost or, at best, some of their values won in a
roundabout way decades later, as the sexual revolution led to same-sex
marriage. To return to the Situationist slogan “(Under the pavement, the
beach!”) used as the epigraph to Pynchon’s novel, the distance between
the pavement and the beach seems further and further away.  Making a
movie that simulates the experience of watching film noir on pot
brownies seems somewhat beside the point, even if it has its pleasures.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

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