Deciphering the Code of Cinema From the Center of Los Feliz by Peter Avellino
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Anything That You Can't Avoid
Time goes on and you don’t know what to do with it so one day you wake up and you have vivid memories of things that happened twenty years ago. But in those recollections you’re not even a kid anymore but an adult with actual bills and responsibilities. The nostalgia for yourself has already shifted. And you’re thinking of a few of those paths you never quite went down from the girl you met at a party and just assumed you’d see again but never did to that other girl who years after you last had a drink with her stumble across a photo of with her newborn baby on the internet or that girl who used to live in your building who you still half-expect to get a call from one of these days saying that she’s back. The memories all swirl together and movies are a part of that which means sometimes I find myself back during opening night of PULP FICTION at the Chinese because that seems like a pretty good place to be stuck in. But you can’t be stuck there, any more than you can go back and find one of those girls from long ago. You’re stuck now in the mysteries of now, the films of now. Plus I’m stuck in my apartment trying to figure out what to make of INHERENT VICE. This shouldn’t have been that much of a problem. Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film THE MASTER affected me and glommed onto my gut like few films have done in the past decade and I’m still hypnotically drawn to it. In comparison I am drawn to INHERENT VICE and feel like I’m finding my way in there slowly although the film’s deliberate impenetrability makes that difficult, much as it might seem like the sort of film that I can get a hold on pretty easily. But I have seen INHERENT VICE five times by now and I can say this with absolute assurance: I’m getting close to having an opinion on the thing.
You know that I’m not going to be able to summarize the plot of how in 1970 P.I. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) who lives down in Gordita Beach and how his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katharine Waterston) comes by and asks him to look into the case of her missing millionaire boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and Doc’s continuing run-ins with cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) and how all this and more seems to be connected to the enigmatic warning he receives as a P.S. on a note to “Beware the Golden Fang”. I mean, you know that, right? Not even the moderately detailed plot summary on the Wikipedia page is much help and I’m fairly sure it gets a few things wrong anyway. But I imagine the plot is meant to be only about as clear as what Doc jots down in his notepad--“Something Spanish”--so never mind. All you really need to know is that I was there at the Cinerama Dome on opening weekend to see it in 70mm. I mean, of course I was. What could Doc Sportello have seen at the Dome in 1970? Maybe PAINT YOUR WAGON, maybe DARLING LILI but it’s doubtful he would have wanted to go to either. Anyway, I saw it there just like I saw THE MASTER there in 70mm on opening weekend. Unlike THE MASTER, I didn’t go back in a trance the following day faced with an absolute need to experience it once again. This time, I felt lost even as I was exiting the theater. And not just in terms of the plot although I certainly felt that but I also felt like something wasn’t getting across as if I had to be around in 1970 for total understanding (making me recall Peter Fonda’s remembrance of the time as being a place where you ‘knew the language’ in THE LIMEY) or maybe I needed this film’s version of one of those glossaries they handed out to explain DUNE on opening night. I wasn’t sure what to think, how much this was meant to be arch, how much a satirical glance back, how much a yearning examination of why certain things were the way they were and are the way they are.
Anderson adapted the screenplay from the novel himself and I may as well fess up that the bulk of my experience with Thomas Pynchon, mostly due to pure intimidation, comes from the sight of Denise Crosby reading the Cliff’s Notes to GRAVITY’S RAINBOW in Steve DeJarnatt’s MIRACLE MILE. At the very least I can pick out a few of the presumed influences in INHERENT VICE whether THE LONG GOODBYE or NIGHT MOVES or CISCO PIKE or THE BIG LEBOWSKI or random episodes of THE ROCKFORD FILES. Someone I know on Twitter compared a lengthy section to a sequence in Billy Wilder’s BUDDY BUDDY so let’s toss that one in too while we’re at it because that makes as much sense as anything. But all that aside, it’s the issue of trying to figure out just what INHERENT VICE is beyond the surface, making it seem like a feature length equivalent of the scene where Bigfoot drags out telling Doc something almost to the point of insanity then when he finally does say what happened he adds an additional comment that causes it all to make even less sense. Mix, shake, stir, so we feel just enough disorientation of a long dialogue scene with Doc and someone else immediately followed by him returning home to a phone call from that very same person with even more information. It’s only slightly more important that Doc pieces the plot together than you or I do and he’s definitely trying.
Aesthetically speaking, INHERENT VICE is absolutely its own thing leaving much unexplained down to if Joanna Newson’s enigmatic Sortilège is narrating the movie for us, if she’s narrating it for Doc as a sort of friendly angel in his own head or even if she exists at all whether she’s seen when other people are around or not. I’d be perfectly happy to have her narrate my life. Such ambiguities that might not lead to any clear-cut answer does make it feel of a piece with Anderson’s approach to THE MASTER while attempting to stay somewhat faithful to the book he’s adapting as opposed to the more freeform original screenplay of the earlier film. Both films contain lingering stretches of pure cinema combined with long scenes that focus on nothing more than the faces in the room as they talk to each other. Even the very concept of establishing shots are discarded as irrelevant with nothing more important than those massive close-ups and the mystery of what goes on behind them.
That extension of Anderson’s filmmaking style is a reminder of how his interests have moved away from the flamboyance of the endless tracking shots in BOOGIE NIGHTS and MAGNOLIA and few other directors (and DPs-- Robert Elswit is back for this one after sitting out THE MASTER) have shown such pure skill at filming those close-ups, although the preponderance of similar shots of Joaquin Phoenix in these two films suggests to me that Anderson had gotten a little too set in his ways on how to frame him about midway through this shoot and never wavered from that. When certain cinematic reveries that seem like they can only come from this director do come into play they seem to matter all the more—they’re not just showboating for the camera but recounting something that means so much more it hurts. They’re those moments that we’re reaching for in our heads trying to understand them, trying to know how we fucked things up and wishing we could get back there.
The address 4723 Sunset is given for a crucial scene which actually isn’t far from where I live and doesn’t look at all in 2015 like it does in the film’s 1970 (the scene was filmed in Pomona) but who knows if it really looked like that then anyway, just like how when you go back somewhere hoping for a sliver of times past all that really does is fuck with your head anyway. Fittingly the rain-drenched discovery of 4723 Sunset is maybe my single favorite moment from any film in 2014, more than anything in Best-Film-Of-The-Year UNDER THE SKIN, a hauntingly beautiful memory as Shasta runs through the rain while Neil Young’s “Journey Through The Past” plays and it for just a moment everything in the world is absolutely the way it should be. The moment plays as its own short film, sort of the INHERENT VICE equivalent of the “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” department store sequence in THE MASTER, but it’s also an unexpected, not totally explained memory of past love just like Freddie Quell was forced to recall, even if whatever happened between Doc Sportello and Shasta in the past was more of them drifting apart that Freddie Quell’s fleeing his love Doris Solstad in the middle of the night for reasons he didn’t understand. I’m not sure if one is necessarily more painful than the other, just as Doc and Freddie share last names that are at least vaguely similar. Does Doc care more about Shasta than Freddie Quell cares about Doris? It’s not a stretch to think that Doc is lying there thinking of Shasta at the beginning when she appears in his apartment. In Los Angeles, that’s how this sort of reappearance usually happens anyway.
But INHERENT VICE is a vibe unto itself. For me the funniest moments are so offhand that I wonder if anyone else even notices them. In spite of what was speculated leading up to release there’s really not that much LONG GOODBYE or BIG LEBOWSKI and comparisons to FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (book and/or film) have more to do with explorations of what was lost of the 60s by the time 1970 hit than anything else. The film is partly about ‘the loss of the 60s’ but goes further than that as if it possesses an awareness that something is dying and it can’t be stopped. Somehow there seems to be another Manson reference in dialogue that I hear on each new viewing, a reminder that things are only going to get worse from then on. Like CISCO PIKE, a film that has all the driving around that I only imagine happens in INHERENT VICE, everything has already come crumbling down. Much as I want there to be more reveries, I want Doc to drive past some of those billboards in ZABRISKIE POINT or MODEL SHOP. In ways that I only partly understand, more than anyone Paul Thomas Anderson’s views of California, whichever the era he’s presenting is, is a presentation of the state, that California in our mind, that feels like the California that was there decades before I showed up, or maybe makes me think of pieces that I saw when visiting long ago. Maybe Johnny Greenwood’s score helps it haunt the back regions of my memory even more than those songs do. Whatever’s in the air is tangible.
One actual location we do get is the exterior of Parker Center which is currently empty and may not be long for this world, which feels pertinent to everything else the film wants to say, about what the ultimate goal of the people in charge really is, the ultimate goal of the massive conglomerate all-reaching Golden Fang in its pursuit of vertical integration combining the drug addicts and the recovery and the real estate thanks to what Reagan has already done and will continue to do. To keep the rich further apart from all the others who have to pay them rent and make sure that Mickey Wolfmann, who for reasons of his own suddenly wants people to be able to live ‘for free’, comes back into the fold falls back in line with all that. A key figure behind it all works at the law firm of Voorhees-Krueger which says something about their ultimate real estate goals for the city, an approach which continues to this day and something that Doc Sportello certainly can’t do anything about. The endless explosion at the end of ZABRISKIE POINT happens offscreen here. It has to. Unlike everyone else in Doc’s world Bigfoot is stuck in between, the middle class Joe who doesn’t fit in with either side, much as he may want to, and there won’t be any place for him in that future. He doesn’t know who he is, only that he doesn’t belong to any of that. “What a wonderful world this would be,” goes the line in the famous song during an exchange near the end as Doc removes himself from this once and for all. As lighthearted as the moment is, it feels like a dirge for what can’t be stopped. “You’re doing good, Doc,” Sortilège encouragingly tells him at one point. But there’s only so much he can ever do. Just like Freddie Quell had to in the end, there’s nothing Doc can do about any of it beyond to just keep moving forward, whether Shasta’s back together with him or not, staying observant of what’s on all sides, maybe because that’s all anyone ever can do.
Joaquin Phoenix makes Doc Sportello half ahead of everyone, half behind everyone but mostly in his own head as the character tries to follow along with whoever else he’s in the scene with. It’s a performance made up of those small, unexpected actions and goes perfectly with the film. The gears in the characters head click away as they’re meant to so he can figure things out but in a way that only makes sense to himself, never knowing if even the people closest to him will reveal everything. Josh Brolin takes every moment where Bigfoot has to face off with Sportello and dives in fearlessly, every gesture revealing something about Bigfoot’s desperate squareness, his haircut irrevocably altering the shape of his head as well as his own personality, how what’s going on is making less and less sense but he can’t tell anyone. I’m still unconvinced on Brolin’s final moments which don’t quite land for me but that’s minor—as bigfoot he’s a desperate force of nature and we can feel how he’s close to cracking eventually. Everything done by the name actors during the long stretches of endless exposition don’t always play beyond the droning although even what doesn’t work is sometimes unexpected--Owen Wilson’s several extended scenes are mostly played in a hypnosis-inducing whisper and yet the way Wilson inserts a few carefully odd bits of syntax into his phrasings always gets me to follow along a little further.
Katherine Waterston as Shasta provides the uncertain grace the film needs, visions of all that is good even if we can tell there’s much more going on under the surface while there isn’t a single phrasing or glance that Joanna Newsom makes as Sortilège that doesn’t make me want her around more. Just let her the way draws out saying, “Doper’s ESP” remain in my head for now and all time. And there’s the delights of the actors who glide in briefly, sometimes for just one scene—Serena Scott Thomas as Mrs. Wolfmann, Jeannie Berlin as Aunt Reet, Hong Chau as Jade, Michelle Sinclair as Clancy Charlock (her final moment is one of my favorite of the film, one of those moments of dialogue, music and silent reflection that works beautifully), Sasha Pieterse as Japonica Fenway, Martin Short as Rudy Blatnoyd, D.D.S. and maybe most unforgettably Eric Roberts as Mickey Wolfmann who with just a few lines offers a tragedy to this fallen figure who doesn’t seem to know why he’s done what he has, only that he’s not allowed to do it anymore. As a key figure beyond it all Martin Donovan is pure ice, a bland Noah Cross who doesn’t need to be a villain. He doesn’t need to care that much. The likes of Doc Sportello are never going to be enough to interest him for very long anyway.
Even Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies are memories now, at least for me. There was a near-riot that occurred on opening weekend of BOOGIE NIGHTS at the now-gone Hollywood Galaxy when the film broke midway, jeopardizing going next door to the Chinese afterwards to catch DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. And then I blinked my eyes to suddenly find myself here writing about this new film. I’m feeling right on the verge of saying I love INHERENT VICE but it may take at least one more viewing to know for sure. Maybe two. I may need to write a whole other piece on it. For now, it stays just as alive in my head as those memories of unavoidable melancholy that I can’t shake no matter how late it is and what I need to dig out of the film to love it may still be buried a little further down (“Does it ever end? Of course it does,” to steal a line from Sortilège). Sometimes when you love something it’s tough to know right away. I may change my mind about all this within five minutes and I’ll be able to declare just how close it ranks to the likes of BOOGIE NIGHTS and THE MASTER. My mind may never change. For now, this is me. But there’s never anything as inevitable as change.