Are you going to see ‘Inherent Vice,’ the brilliant but perplexing film from Paul Thomas Anderson? This cheat sheet may come in handy as a first step.
Paul Thomas Anderson, in contrast to Quentin Tarantino, is not a cinephile who wears it on his sleeve. His secret stash is hidden somewhere more personal, like the waistband of his underwear.
Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, is a comic noir set in 1970s Los Angeles at a time when the free love movement was beginning to fray. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2007 novel of the same name, it also borrows heavily from a slew of films from the 1960s counterculture, including tangled mysteries, disjointed comedies, and other, even stranger and more unsettling journeys of discovery.
Regardless of whether or not you intend to see Inherent Vice (or have already seen it), you’ll need all of the assistance you can get. This is a deeply confusing film to watch, which is exactly how it should be considering Anderson’s subject is deep confusion. To put it another way: The early 1970s in the United States were marred by riots, murderous cults, high-profile overdoses and backroom deals. While reading Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, I was struck by how much “bad craziness” washed up on the beach.
So when Doc Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix’s pot-smoking private investigator, is unable to unravel a complex case in which multiple conspiracies intertwine, it’s not due to a lack of ability; rather, it’s a reflection of the general mood in the country. The strange happenings in Wes Anderson’s film may be easier to navigate if you’re willing to spend some time with the outcasts, babes and bozos below. No, not because it contains the answer to Doc’s problem; rather, it does so because its complete absence of one begins to make some sort of groggy sense.
1. The Long Goodbye
Anderson is a huge fan of Robert Altman’s work. When he made Boogie Nights and Magnolia, he was taking inspiration from Robert Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts.
When it comes to looking forward to the future, Anderson has looked back at the past: specifically, to Robert Altman’s disorienting 1973 remake of the classic Raymond Chandler novel, in which Elliot Gould’s disheveled LA private eye Philip Marlow, who was the inspiration for Doc’s character, is consumed by an unknown mystery.
It’s unlikely that Pynchon’s original novel was heavily influenced by Altman’s film, but given his reticent nature, it makes sense that Anderson would be the ideal director to adapt it. Both begin with a mysterious “institute” up the coast and a vanished rich man with young trophy wives from England. As a physical location as well as a mental state, the beach is important because sounds can be washed away by the tide or lost in the swell.
2. The Big Lebowski
However, Joel and Ethan Coen’s classic Los Angeles stoner mystery from the late 1990s – which was in its own way a loping riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s film – was the preeminent work of this generation. Jeff Bridges plays amiable slacker Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, who is hired by his rich namesake to help him find his missing young trophy wife. It’s a clever inversion of the Chandler plot that goes pretty much everywhere and comes to a complete halt.
A lot like Inherent Vice, the film is set in the early 1990s, around the time of the US conflict with Saddam Hussein and the Eye-raqis; however, the war is in Iraq rather than Vietnam (Sam Elliott’s enigmatic cowboy narrator places it in the early 1990s, “just about the time of our conflict with Sadd’m and the Eye-raqis”). His unbalanced Vietnam veteran buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) represents what happened next, as he is unwavering in his belief in his own superior judgment despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
3. Sympathy for the Devil
To top it all off, I’ll take a big drag. In London’s Olympic Studios in the summer of 1968, Jean-Luc Godard captured the Rolling Stones as they worked on a track that would go on to become one of their most recognizable hits. As a result of widespread anti-capitalist demonstrations in France, the Cannes Film Festival was canceled, and Godard flew directly from there to Paris.
This was a revolutionary time for cinema, and Godard was in complete control of the picture. He inserted abstract skits inspired by the brewing unrest in between the Stones’ candid footage: a couple show Black Power activists speaking, waving guns, and slaughtering white women in a New York junk yard, while the longest takes place in a comic book and porn shop, whose hip owner recite Hitler’s Mein Kampf to Maoist prisoners and makes his customers give Nazi salutes.
Godard’s cracked mosaic is nearly impenetrable at times; it reduces Inherent Vice to the status of a Bergerac episode. There’s no other film on this list, however, that more effectively captures the tense atmosphere of the time. Godard used the slogan “Under the [paving] stones, the beach!” from the French protests to title the film’s upbeat final section. As it happens, those words appear at the end of Inherent Vice’s credits as well.
4. Night Moves
Meet Harry Moseby, a fellow Los Angeles private eye who is living life on the edge. A non-hero rather than an anti-hero, he can’t even comprehend his own failing marriage, let alone his cases, as played by Gene Hackman in Arthur Penn’s 1975 noir thriller.
Delly Iverson (Melanie Griffith), the film’s flirtatious teenage runaway, is played by Japonica Fenway, the actress who played Inherent Vice’s Japonica Fenway (Sasha Pieterse). There’s no separating Doc from Moseby when it comes to being men out of time. There are men of the Sixties and Thirties, and there are men of the Thirties and Forty-First Century.
Inherent Vice’s semi-psychic narratrice, Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), claims that “the long, sad history of Los Angeles land use” is the story of the city: small, organically formed communities displaced by big business, which requires the space for further suburban sprawl.
I couldn’t help but think of Jack Nicholson’s LA private eye JJ Gittes poking around the Oak Pass Reservoir in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and wondering why all that water doesn’t seem to be doing much good for the surrounding soil as Doc drives out to Channel View Estates, the housing development Mickey Wolfmann was working on before he vanished.
Los Angeles is propelled forward by unseen forces in both Anderson’s and Polanski’s films. As a backdrop to a more widespread moral drought, Chinatown uses the city’s so-called water wars of the 1930s, while Inherent Vice has the Golden Fang, a syndicate or perhaps a cartel that appears to have a finger in every pie before the pastry has even risen. More than money is on the line here; history is on the line as well.
“What’s the point?” When Gittes notices something strange, he calls the city’s water department chief, Noah Cross, and asks what’s going on. “Can you eat any better than you do now?” Is there anything you could get that you don’t already have?”
“Mr. Gittes, the future is bright!” Cross growls, as if the solution were obvious even to him. “What’s next?”
6. Top Secret!
Despite its cleverness, Inherent Vice is perfectly content with being laughably stupid. Anderson compared Pynchon’s densely funny prose to the films of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, which cram more jarring non sequiturs and visual gags into every scene than most comedies manage in 90 minutes, in an interview that ran before the film premiered at the New York Film Festival last year.
Airplane!, the trio’s zingy debut film, is still their most lauded work, but Anderson’s film has more in common with their surreal follow-up from 1984, Top Secret!, which envisioned what a grave Second World War spy thriller would look like if it were also an Elvis Presley film.
The special effects, such as the underwater bar fight and the book shop scene shot backwards, are what really get you hooting. Rather, the film’s appeal lies in its nonstop dose of low-brow humor. Exchanging of the views such as “Is this a potato farm?” and other similar inquiries It’s as if the words “Yes, I’m Albert Potato” didn’t even register. It has a texture that is more like a hallucination than a film.
7. The Master (and There Will Be Blood)
Think of Anderson’s most recent three films as a loose trilogy about the making of 20th-century America, as seen and colored by cinema. Anderson’s films are a loose trilogy. A stark, scorched, oil-prospecting western about the accumulation of power in a desolate desert, There Will Be Blood was his John Ford piece, and it was a masterpiece. A melodrama about the formation of a Scientology-like sect following World War II, The Master, followed, shot like a Douglas Sirk love story.
A perfectly Sirkian unhappy couple is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in the latter film’s hero and disciple. In the role of the Master, Hoffman played it big and booming like Orson Welles, while Phoenix played it more like Marlon Brando, sly and mumbling, and circling the film like a hungry fox. One filmic order gives way to the next in the performances, which feel like they’re from two different eras. The Master, like Inherent Vice, is perched precariously on the edge of greatness.
8. Zabriskie Point
Once again, the case remains unsolved, a young woman is on the run, and a new housing development sprouts up in the middle of the pristine desert. With its bright, billboard-lined streets and dreamlike dust-scapes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s bittersweet 1970 head-trip could almost be Inherent Vice’s prequel.
Student protester Mark Frechette, who isn’t an actor, steals a light aircraft and flees into the middle of nowhere after being wrongly accused of shooting a police officer. A young property firm employee from the Sunny Dunes estate is on the move for her own reasons when Daria Halprin’s pretty, naive character spots him and dive-bombs her car.
After he’s arrived, the two of them walk around the desolate landscape together. Politics and nature are discussed as well as the necessity of resisting the new order. A sandstorm occurs as they make out, and the ground bursts open around them. But it’s just a figment of your imagination, and it won’t last. This may have been Doc’s perspective on the world prior to the paranoia setting in.
9. Fritz the Cat
If Inherent Vice had a cartoon interlude, Ralph Bakshi would be the artist you wanted to draw it. Adapted from a Robert Crumb comic strip, the American animator’s first feature film from 1972 depicts the counterculture at its most extreme point.
Pigs dressed as police officers break up an orgy in a city squat. The US Air Force uses a napalm strike to put out a race riot sparked by Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck’s drug binge. Fritz the Cat is a thrashing carnival satire that thrashes at both order and anarchy, and nothing comes out of it well.
10. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
During the 1970s LA hippie scene, the members of a young girl band find fame, fortune and heartbreak in Russ Meyer’s stoned sex caper.
As psychedelic as it gets, it’s also as campy as you’d expect from a film like this. However, there’s an undercurrent of “bad craziness” to it that Thompson had noted in the air. As seen from the inside, this is the end of the counterculture era: sleazy, self-satirical, and falling apart. It’d be perfect for Doc Sportello.