Monday, June 08, 2015

Inherent Vice

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice was easily one of my favorite books from recent years. It was great to see him working again in the detective genre and putting forth a funny, (relatively) accessible story without sacrificing the dense, tangled socio-cultural commentary that makes him great. The thought of a P.T. Anderson film adaptation of the allegedly unfilmable Pynchon was one of those little nerd-convergences the filled my heart with both joy and the vague fear that PTA would somehow screw it up.

I finally got around to seeing the film version last night (about six months behind the pop culture cutting edge as per usual) and it most definitely was not screwed up. The film adaptation is an impressive merging of two artistic visions, and if nothing else, a triumph of condensation. The film inevitably has to scrap a bunch of characters and subplots, but in 2.5 hours it hits most of high points and, most importantly, nails the tone.

Joaquin Phoenix was terrific and basically carried the movie. Brolin and Reese were both pretty funny, and and unlike a lot of people I thought Owen Wilson actually wasn't that bad. I mean he's got the stoned surf dude thing down pat. The plot streamline means that a lot of great minor characters only get a few scenes, like Michael K. Williams and Benicio del Toro (also, man, Martin Donovan got old.)

On the big picture, I mostly agree with this Stephen Maher review in Jacobin, which locates the film as part 3 of PTA's ongoing interrogation of 20th century America, following There Will Be Blood and The Master. The theme here is the swift ending of Sixties idealism following Manson and Altamont, and the co-optation of the counter culture by neoliberalism. Maher also highlights why the Big Lebowski comparisons miss something important:
"As opposed to an Odyssey-style film of the kind the Coen brothers endlessly remake, in which the main character has to go on some quest to transform himself in order to accommodate the “home” he returns to at the end of the journey, this film focuses on how the world is changing, imposing on everyone the need to become something new — though they know not what. The bottom line is that there is no home, and Doc cannot simply return to his life as a stronger and wiser man (as in The Big Lebowski, among countless others)."
For me the film seemed harsher than the book in its portrayal of this reaction. Perhaps some of the parts that got left out were some of Pynchon's subtle invocations of community, the way people still supported each other despite the circling paranoia. This is clearest in the how the film and the book treat the final scene:
At the end of the film, Doc and Shasta literally appear to drive into an abyss: they are apparently in a car, but outside the window all we see is homogenous darkness — no scenery, other cars, etc. — while Shasta mentions how it feels like “the whole world is underwater and we are the only ones left.” Even Sortilege’s narration has disappeared.
It's a cool scene, but worth noting that Pynchon's take on it is vastly different. In the book Doc is driving alone (it's less clear if he gets back with Shasta), but falls in with a caravan of other drivers banding together for safety as they make their way home through the fog. "It was one of the few things he'd ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free." Far from the romantic couple being the only ones left, it's an almost subliminal vision of community, battered by the neoliberal riptide, but still existing somehow. It's a lovely scene, reminiscent of a few passages of Gravity's Rainbow, and maybe even Steinbeck's Cannery Row (another odd collection of beach bums led by another 'Doc').

Anyway, here's my goodreads review of the book (written pre-movie):
Loved it. Inherent Vice is Thomas Pynchon at his most "groovy" and accessible. He has dialed back the abstract philosophizing and limited his obscure cultural references to pop songs and films, and the result is a hilariously readable shaggy-dog LA crime story. In some circles silly-Pynchon is inherently less important or prestigious than serious-Pynchon, but I don't buy it. There is actually a lot of emotional and political weight behind this story, which only rises to the surface in the book's final chapters.

A companion piece to Pynchon's other "accessible" California novel The Crying of Lot 49, this one is also a warped take on the traditional mystery novel. Lot 49 was set at the beginning of the 1960s and directly inverted the form of the genre -- starting out in the clear certainty of mid-century American normality and adding sex, drugs, coincidences, conspiracies and paranoia with each chapter until by the end the protagonist is cut loose from everything she can trust. By contrast, Inherent Vice is about the closing of the 60s and the last gasps of that strand of idealism. The story involves hippie pothead PI Doc Sportello, investigating the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend's billionaire lover. In the grand tradition of Chinatown, he digs up an ugly conspiracy that involves drug smuggling and the LAPD, prison gangs and right-wing politicians.

The other touchstone here is naturally The Big Lebowski. You can draw a lot of parallels between Sportello and The Dude. There are a lot of drug and stoner jokes here, most of them pretty funny. Many of the other Pynchon hallmarks are found too, like the bizarre names and goofy song lyrics, but unlike a lot of his other novels, the dialogue and character building are put in the foreground. (At times he even reads a bit like Elmore Leonard.) This time around he doesn't subvert the detective noir genre so much as revel in it, adding characters, plot twists and double crosses right and left.

Ultimately it becomes clear what he's getting at and it stands as his clearest statement of solidarity with the freaks and weirdos who build "temporary communes" to stand against the machinery of death and to "help each other home through the fog." As one minor character puts it, "what I am is, is like a small-diameter pearl of the Orient rolling around on the floor of late capitalism-- lowlifes of all income levels may step on me now and then but if they do it'll be them who slip and fall and on a good day break their ass, while the ol' pearl herself just goes a-rollin' on.”