Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” is still swirling around in the heads of many who were lucky enough to catch it Saturday night at the New York Film Festival. A loose-limbed, groovy, dazed and confused adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s stoner detective story is also a kind of poetic elegy to the 1960s counter-culture era, particularly the moment when the “peace and love” ethos curdled into paranoiac, Manson Family-esque distrust. Funny, sad, absurdist and dreamy, it’s a lot to take in and also contains one of the thorniest noir-mystery plots to ever hit the screen. Don’t worry, you won’t figure it out —and it’s not for the average civilian viewer— but that’s not the point. Sit back and just let the sun-kissed experience wash over you like a humid fever dream (read our review here).
So it more or less was Paul Thomas Anderson celebration weekend at the NYFF. The movie screened for press, for the public and PTA and some of his sprawling cast —which includes Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Katherine Waterston, Reese Witherspoon, Benicio del Toro, Jena Malone, Maya Rudolph and Martin Short— were present for Saturday night’s NYFF press conference (which you can read about here). But that’s not all. Yesterday NYFF hosted “On Cinema: Paul Thomas Anderson,” a 90 minute conversation with the filmmaker moderated by the festival’s own Kent Jones. The conversation mostly centered around clips that Anderson curated, influences on “Inherent Vice,” influences on just the filmmaker himself, and a few “you’ve gotta see these” co-signs. “Weird [influences] come from all places that help you,” he said. “You don’t know where they’re gonna come from. You pull it out of the sky trying to remember something you liked as a kid.” Here are the movies or clips Anderson showed and what he had to say about them
The 1982 TV police show spoof created by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams and Jerry Zucker and starring Leslie Nielsen would later be revived on screen as the popular “Naked Gun” franchise, using the same characters and absurdist sight-gag style. While only six episodes were ever aired by ABC, the parody cop show was hugely influential on those who saw it at the time (or who went back and found it on video after you saw the Zucker Bros. genius via the “Airplane!” series and “Top Secret!”).
In the months leading up to “Inherent Vice,” Anderson spoke about the influence of the Zucker Bros, but as one can tell from the movie, it’s less a direct influence and more of a spiritual one. Anderson’s dad used to work at ABC as a booth announcer and brought a tape of the show home for his young son to see, saying “‘you’ve gotta see this, it’s really funny.’ And it was funny immediately. It made such an impression on me. It’s hilarious, it doesn’t get any better. And recently I’ve been flashing back on it.”
Anderson said that when he would go out for smoke breaks during shooting, he would watch “Police Squad!” as something to do to bide the time. “They were brilliant guys. It was so fresh and so fucking nuts,” he said (PTA swears like a sailor). “It made me feel like: ‘Oh, you can do anything? Anything you you want? That’s ok?’ That’s a very liberating feeling.” Jones reminded Anderson that Joe Dante (“Gremlins”) directed a couple of episodes of the short-lived show, a fact the director was unaware of. He continued to “gush” about how good the show was. “Maybe it was ahead of its time for television, if you get the wrong slot, whatever it is. You just can’t survive.”
Anderson even professed his love for the “Naked Gun” films, including even the mostly critically reviled “Naked Gun 33 ⅓”. The director also described the influence of the TV show “Soap” and learning about comedy through his father.
“[‘Soap’”] was great, a little bit over my head, but I was laughing through his eyes,” he said. “I was watching him laugh and so it was like training wheels to learn and laugh at what was funny. There was a lag time for me, for sure, catching up to what he was laughing at, but he was informing what I thought was funny.
“Anything that can flash you back to when you were a kid is helpful,” Anderson said when asked about these influences on “Inherent Vice.” “Particularly when you’re starting up a new movie because amidst all the nerves and the energy and confusion of what you’re doing, [you’re] remembering, ‘why am I even here in the first place?’ Well, it’s like getting back to those original joys and feelings. They’re good to get back to… whether or not you’re going to try do that. I’m not going to try and do [‘Police Squad’], nobody can do that, but remembering that energy from being a kid, that anything is possible, remembering that you can get away with multiple things at the same time. That’s a kind of encouragement… I feel like I can use that to try and attack the story.”
Anderson played the opening moments from the show’s first episode, “A Substantial Gift,” which you can see in its entirety below. Watch for the celebrity death cameo by Lorne Greene in the opening credits, which was a gag featured in every “Police Squad!” episode.
“Journey Through the Past”
Next up, Anderson showed a clip from “Journey Through the Past,” Neil Young’s directorial debut under the pseudonym of Bernard Shakey. “They’re not going to be all that fucking weird,” Anderson cracked about the “Journey Through The Past” scene. “I hadn’t really thought that one through.” The 1972 experimental film is a combination of random, art film-like sequences, coupled with some concert and backstage footage. The clip that Anderson played was a simple one: Neil Young and his girlfriend stopping by a brook, smoking a J, eating strawberries and drinking Apple juice while occasionally looking at the camera in an odd way. The influence first and foremost was the sun-dappled back-lighting, a look that informs much of “Inherent Vice.”
“There’s obviously some references to Neil Young and the way it looks and feels throughout the whole movie,” Anderson said. “But this scene in particular feels like my idea of heaven on a Saturday afternoon. Like cruising around with your girl, parking your jalopy with a babbling brook nearby, taking a joint out, eating some strawberries. I don’t know how it can get any better.”
Anderson also noted a scene from “Inherent Vice” that didn’t make the movie where the asshole cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) and stoner detective Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) discuss the Manson Family and how it “fucked everything up” for the hippie generation. “It used to be like, ‘oh, look how cute they are,’” Anderson said. “They’re kind of like monkeys in the zoo. The husband is carrying the baby and the mom is paying for the groceries. It’s like they were cute caged animals and Manson came along and suddenly it was, ‘stay away! They might mass murder all of us!’ So there was that shift.”
And Anderson said the “Journey Through the Past” clip with Young occasionally looking at the camera reminded him of that same sentiment. “It’s like they were zoo creatures, it’s almost a nature film.” About Young, Anderson said “he’s been a hero of mine forever and he can do no wrong.” The clip Anderson showed is the first clip below. Unfortunately, it looks completely terrible and colorless compared to what was shown onscreen —which resembled a warm and hazy artifact lifted out of the 1970s with beautiful green and gold tones.
“Repo Man”/Director Alex Cox/DP Robby Mueller
Next up was a clip from “Repo Man,” Alex Cox’s 1984 cult film about a young punk who stumbles onto a strange netherworld after he steals a car. But Anderson wasn’t so much interested in the science-fiction or comedy elements of the film as he was in depicting disenfranchised youth living in the the wasteland of the San Fernando Valley and raised by aging hippies who had lost touch with reality. “I recognize this world,” he said. “That living room was something I saw all the time. It was very familiar. I saw tons of burned out hippie parents and kids like this, with flat-tops and the shirt tied around their waist in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. [They were] kind of punk rock and kinda not, aimless and the product of hippie parents that weren’t paying attention. That’s one element of this movie that ties into ‘Inherent Vice.’ ”
The director also described the film as “focused, it’s funny, it’s outlandish,” and said it was “talky” in a way that never felt like a stage production since it was always moving. “Quentin [Tarantino] I’m sure loved this movie. We’ve never talked about it, but there’s Quentin fingerprints all over the way these characters talk to each other.”
Anderson sang the praises of director Alex Cox. “He’s amazing. If you know him, great. If you don’t, find out about him. Go find everything he’s done, even up until recently. He is amazing and he always has been and as far as I’m concerned he’s under-appreciated. You can’t talk about Alex Cox enough. He’s a hero. He was ahead of his time.”
“Repo Man” was shot by the great Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller, known for working with Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. “I’m always trying to get night exteriors to look the way Robby Müller shot them,” Anderson expalined. “I can never do it. I never know how he did it. It doesn’t look like there’s any lights on, it looks like how it really looks and back then —there’s gotta be a million lights on. I don’t know how he did it; it’s like a magic trick. As long as I keep [making films], I’ll try and get night exteriors to look like Müller. He was a master at it and night exteriors can be really difficult. It can look overlit, too stylized, too dark, whatever. Müller knew how to do it, like a chef with a secret sauce.”
Here’s the exact “Repo Man” clip Anderson screened.
“North By Northwest”
For Anderson, Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense classic is a reminder how plot doesn’t always matter in a mystery movie if you have other elements at the forefront. The clip features Cary Grant right after he’s purposefully caught by the cops, but then handed over to spies trying to kill him at the airport. And Anderson reminded the audience that what came next was an 8-minute scene of exposition that Hitchcock dealt with in an intriguing way.
“The exposition is mercifully drowned out by the sound of an airplane. It’s a great way to deal with exposition that no one cares about,” he laughed (likewise, “Inherent Vice” has a lot of dialogue plot points that in many ways don’t really matter). “It’s so brilliant; no one cares about this, just put in the airplane noise. Oh, man, what a movie.”
“I never remember plots in movies,” Anderson admitted. “I remember how they make me feel, and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen, but my brain can never connect the dots of how things go together.”
So what’s important here? “Cary Grant, that’s what it really comes down to,” Anderson said. “If you shot a movie with your phone and Cary Grant was in it, it would probably still be pretty good. So all that stuff about what you shoot on? Put Cary Grant in it.”
A partial clip is on YouTube, and below, when the cops reroute Grant to the airport.
“That is some seriously good shit,” Anderson said of the
“Jackie Brown” clip he screened, a simple scene between Pam Grier and Robert Forster talking at a breakfast table. “That’s a watermark in my mind. It makes me want to cry, it’s beautiful— from everybody, what Quentin wrote, to Sally Menke, his late great editor. She was one of the best. The single shots back and forth, [which] shouldn’t work, but she does it with grace every time. Everyone is taken care of, it doesn’t feel over-cutty, the little punctuations that he does with the coffee cups: [it’s] beautiful.”
PTA also gushed about the simplicity and nuance of the scene. “When you see these two people of a certain age and up front and out in the open to have a movie that’s so cool and so breezy about middle age,” he explained. “These people feel the clock ticking and to have that dialogue so beautifully written and so perfectly acted, with such grace, delicacy and sweetness…”
“I consider Quentin a peer,” Anderson said, “But that is a watermark on how to shoot a scene and take care of a scene with delicacy and compassion. That slow zoom-in… beautiful film, beautifully done.”
The next two clips Anderson screened weren’t influences on his latest movie, but instead just cinematic things he simply wanted to share.
Emily Kai Bock
A Montreal-based music video filmmaker known for directing startling videos for Arcade Fire (“Afterlife“), Sebastien Schuller (“Nightlife“), and Grizzly Bear (“Yet Again“), Anderson showed her “Oblivion” video for Grimes, which was shot in Montreal at Olympic Stadium and at McGill University’s Molson Stadium. Low-budget and shot on the fly, Anderson said the energy of the clip was infectious.
“That gets me going,” Anderson said enthusiastically. “It’s fucking great. It just saw it. It made me hyper, it made me want to dance around the room. I just want to bounce off the walls.”
And while Bock is working with great musical artists, Anderson noted that when you have visuals that take it to another level, that’s when you know you have something really remarkable. “Everything clicks,” he said. “It’s spooky too. It makes you pumped and it has this really great energy, but this energy that starts to get a little bit crazy and feverish and you see some of the faces she got. These frat guys bouncing around and they seem all too real and all too date-rapey. And there’s that danger lurking underneath it. But on top of it, it just makes me want to dance.”
Anderson sung Kai Bock’s praises. “She’s great, she finds beautiful/ugly locations, that’s a good way to describe it. She’s just doing really great work right now and I’ve been digging it, so I thought it was good to throw in here. She’s out there doing something good.”
Kai Bock has also directed a documentary short on NYC’s underground rap scene, a doc feature on an experimental band Tonstartssbandht and is currently working on her first narrative short. She’s been percolating in the music video scene, but PTA’s endorsement is a big co-sign. Here’s the video and check out more on her Vimeo Channel.
“The Bitter Tea of General Yen”
This 1933 pre-code film by Frank Capra was not much of an “Inherent Vice” influence, but Anderson screened it as a way to remind the audience there’s always something to discover (plus it’s a rare example of Capra expressionism that’s quite different from the sentimental works he was known for). Or as Peter Bogdanovich once said, “There are no old movies, there are just movies I’ve seen and movies I haven’t.” Anderson said he was just hipped to “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” just a few months ago, which stars Barbara Stanwyck as an American missionary in Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War, and Danish actor Nils Ather as the creepy Chinese dictator who falls in love with her.
“I would start with Barbara Stanwyck. She’s the sexiest woman I’ve ever seen in my life. Stunning actress.” he said. “But if there is a reason for film lighting to be something that is an art form that we continue to do, that we struggle for: look at that film! Look at those sets!”
The “yellowface” of the movie, a Danish actor playing a Chinese character, is something that Anderson said adds another extra layer of creepiness to it all. “If you need a Chinese actor, hire a white actor.. from Sweden!,” he chuckled. “And it was very common. And I have to say in some way he’s even creepier; this character who is this facist evil dictator gets super creepy when he’s piled beneath layers of make-up. And it really works weirdly enough. It makes it more theatrical, obviously, but it makes it this kind of Frankenstein character.”
Here’s the exact clip that Anderson screened.
“Inherent Vice” opens on December 12th.