Inherent Vice

As a long time Thomas Pynchon fan and a long time Paul Thomas Anderson fan, I was quite excited at the prospect of Anderson, of The Master and There Will Be Blood fame, directing a film version of Pynchon’s 2009 Inherent Vice. Of all of Pynchon’s books, Inherent Vice might very well be his most accessible and, therefore, a good candidate for a film adaptation.

Most of the reviews I’ve read have pointed to Inherent Vice as the first of Pynchon’s books to be adapted, but this is not entirely correct. I’m surprised that more film critics and/or Pynchon fans are not familiar with Alex Ross Perry’s Impolex, especially now that Perry’s witty Listen Up Philip has been getting some attention. Impolex, which I saw at the 2009 Las Vegas Film Festival, is a low budget riff on Gravity’s Rainbow. Yes, it is not explicitly an adaptation but that Gravity’s Rainbow is its source material is quite obvious, given its title, the names of its characters, the octopus and the search for rockets during World War II.

Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice

One of the first “pics of the day” I ever posted.

Of all of Pynchon’s work, Inherent Vice probably falls somewhere in the middle for me. I had mixed feelings when I first read it but when I re-read it more recently in anticipation of the movie, I thought more highly of it.

Set in California in 1970, Inherent Vice tells the complex tale of the stoner private eye, Doc Sportello (brilliantly brought to life by Joaquin Phoenix), who stumbles into a labyrinthine mystery after an ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), comes to him asking for help. Involved with Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), a married real estate mogul, Shasta finds herself immersed in a plot hatched by his wife to commit Wolfmann to a mental institution. Soon after, one of Wolfmann’s bodyguards ends up dead and things get murkier from there.

The novel is heavily inspired by pulp and noir fiction. Influences range from The Big Sleep with its unsolvable conundrum to Robert Altman’s trippy 1973 version of The Long Goodbye. Sportello is equal parts Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe (primarily Elliott Gould’s) and Jeffrey Lebowski. Paul Thomas Anderson’s version certainly captures the mood of the novel.

My first reaction after seeing the film was that, as a more or less fan of the novel, I loved it, but as a movie fan, I felt it was too long. Anderson’s version is exceedingly faithful to the novel and that is both good and bad. The film clocks in at nearly 2 1/2 hours and would have benefited from some creative streamlining.

Although I enjoyed seeing a majority of the novel depicted on screen, I felt that, to the uninitiated, many of those scenes would feel haphazard, lacking the proper context. This is the end of the 60’s and liberal hippiedom is in the process of being co-opted by The Man. Inherent Vice is not only set in 1970’s California but also in Ronald Reagan’s California and hints at things to come. It’s important to note that the action of Inherent Vice nestles in between the present of Pynchon’s California-set novel Vineland, namely 1984, the year when Reagan won his presidential reelection and the flashback sections set in the 1960’s.

The most notable sequence absent from the movie is Sportello’s jaunt to Las Vegas. As someone who lived in Vegas for four years, I was a little disappointed that that material didn’t make the cut, but it is, admittedly, a side adventure and an easy sequence to omit.

As faithful as Anderson’s movie is, there are a couple of troublesome changes, which relate to Anderson’s attitude toward the Shasta character and, perhaps, to his approach to the female characters in general.

The first is a scene toward the end of the film when Shasta revisits Doc. In both the film and the book, Shasta strips and lays across Doc’s lap. The dialog in the film is pretty much lifted word for word from the novel. In both, Shasta entices Doc to smack her on the ass. In the book, the scene ends when Shasta makes them both climax with her hands; however, in the film, after Doc hits her, he pushes her over and penetrates her. In the book, Shasta is clearly the agent of what happens but Anderson changes her to a victim, albeit a seemingly willing one.

The other change also occurs near the end of the film when Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), via her voice over, explains the term “inherent vice.” In the book, Doc’s lawyer Sauncho explains that, in regards to marine insurance, inherent vice is “what you can’t avoid…stuff marine policies don’t like to cover. Usually applies to cargo–like eggs break–but sometimes it’s also the vessel carrying it.” Sortilège explains it in similar terms but ultimately relates it to Doc’s “ex-old ladies,” primarily Shasta, indicating there are unavoidable defects with them.

Given how faithful Anderson otherwise is to the source material, it is odd and problematic that these were the changes he decided on and these alterations give an inaccurate impression of how Pynchon approaches female characters.

As is the case with 99% of film adaptations, the book is a richer and more interesting experience. Anderson’s film is entertaining and worth watching, especially for the performances. Josh Brolin convincingly inhabits the role of Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Martin Short is gleefully over the top as the drugged out dentist, Rudy Blatnoyd. And the addition of Newsom’s authoritative voice as the narrator was a great addition.

Pynchon’s books have the reputation of being difficult and hopefully this film will entice more people to give his works a chance.

More Formulating

I posted a list of my blog posts for 2014 and have to admit being a little disappointed about how infrequent my entries were and the lack of variety among them. I have nothing against the posts themselves, but I certainly fell into a “I read this and I watched that” routine. I would like to write more diversely in 2015, in keeping with the spirit of the quote from the diaries of Anaïs Nin that inspired the title of this blog. I came across this quote second-hand from Brassai’s book, Henry Miller: The Paris Years:

“In Miller’s mind…to commit the events of one day, or even one hour, to paper takes days if not weeks. Anaïs would therefore never catch up with events, and her Diary would never be truly current. Moreover, all she was doing by trying was postponing the exhilaration of life, the moments in whose heat you would never think of writing. The pulse of life makes any formulation impossible…All the diary can reflect are life’s stagnant period, what Andre Breton called the ‘empty moments’ of existence. Anaïs wouldn’t always avoid throwing herself into the current of life. She too would directly confront the dilemma of whether to live or to write. She herself says as much in her Diary: ‘The river of life divides into two branches: being and formulating.’”

I’m doing plenty of Being but I tend to not do much Formulating, at least not here. I always intend to blog more but have slipped into some lazy habits. I’m hoping to work on that in 2015. I really enjoy looking back at my Pics of the Day and know I would benefit from more thoughtful posts. I’m not necessarily going to commit at this point to anything too specific as I certainly want to give myself flexibility as the year progresses, but there are some themes that I have been on my mind that I might want to pursue here.

I have had some writing success over the past couple of years. I had 3 short stories published: Six Minutes at Ayris Magazine, The Vacation Fight at Compose and The Day When JoAnna Cowley, Without Warning, Quits Her Job at The Casserole. I also have another story forthcoming at Contraposition. In addition, I self-published my novella, King’s Long Search. I am in a good position to try and build on those successes and would like to write more about my writing process and goals here.

Along similar lines, I would like to write more about creativity in general. In addition to writing, I have taken up photography and have started learning how to draw as well as trying to learn more about tools like Photoshop and Illustrator. I am fairly convinced that this desire to be more creative is somehow part of my midlife crisis, which ties into another thought I’ve had about potential posts.

I am soon to turn 47, which is crazily close to 50. I need to start getting my head around what this means, if it means anything at all. I’ve seen a lot in those years and perhaps need to start reflecting more about things I’ve done and things that have happened in the world. See aforementioned midlife crisis.

Again, I’m not making any promises that these are the things I’ll be writing about this year, but they are a few things that have been on my mind. My general goal is to just write here more often about more things than books I’ve read and movies I’ve seen. I still plan on those things, as well as posting the occasional pic of the day, but I want Being and Formulating to be a busier, more diverse place.