14 January 2015

First Impressions: Inherent Vice

In a legal sense, as defined by the film itself, "inherent vice" is the propensity of an item to break down during some kind of transportation. In the eyes of insurance, chocolate will melt on a hot voyage, or glass will break, or whatever. In Paul Thomas Anderson's sense of the word, the meaning of "inherent vice" can mean a lot of things - most probably the inherent doom within people. Everyone has some defect that will cause them to break or become dangerous to themselves or others, not necessarily in a violent sense, but in a "that chick is damaged goods" sort of sense. Signing off on the first ever adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, P.T. Anderson, who has almost single-handedly supplied all of my favorite movies of the past fifteen years, offers this look into the lives of a handful of 1970s Californians. SPOILERS abound from here on out, so congrats if you've already seen this.
I am now actually in love with Katherine Waterston.

It is most important to note, however, that Inherent Vice (2014) doesn't take place in the 1970s, it takes place in 1970. Vice is more Boogie Nights (1997) than There Will Be Blood (2007), at least in terms of its goofiness (no, it's actually far goofier), but that year is no accident. Boogie Nights also transcended a decade, depicting the fallout of a shifting industry and way of life from the late 70s into the early 80s. With it increased jadedness, anger, and materialism to name a few of the shifting tragedies that befall the characters as victims of the times changing.

1970 is also a crucial year in Inherent Vice. There's usually a lot of bleed over with any decade, but the 60s and all it stood for really ended in 1969. For a while the year seemed great for the hippie nation that we now associate with the decade. Nixon began issuing proclamations of withdrawing troops from Vietnam and the Woodstock music festival was this enormous culmination of the peace and love lifestyle. Then the Zodiac Killer and Charlie Manson went and killed a ton of people, causing everyone to suddenly fear the homicidal hippie.

This really just have the squares plenty of ammo to recoil the national populace back away from the radical left. Suddenly 1969 was the nadir, not the beginning of the revolution. The Beatles broke up and although the world had changed, the hippies were on their way of dying out. Like Lebowski says in The Big Lebowski (1998) - "The bums lost!"

I Lebowski because my mind was constantly racing towards it. Not only is Vice similar with its political themes (although Lebowski is set in 1991 - making Jeff Bridges' claims to the hippie ideal all the more outdated, in 1970 we very much get to see more of the process), but its plot also strikes similar themes. The kidnapping / extortion plot from Lebowski that weaves in jealous family members, manipulative nihilist failures, and porn moguls in Southern California doesn't really matter at all. The Dude himself barely understands what's going on, and we aren't really supposed to, either. It's not important. Donnie, played by Steve Buscemi is subtly the heart of that movie, and the events that happen to him and the Dude and Walter's reaction are what's actually important.

Vice is very much in that same vein. Shasta Fey Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) sets in motion this grand elaborate plot which spins out of control, tending to madden the audience as well as Joaquin Phoenix's Doc Sportello. The film does an insane job of continually adding important characters deep into the narrative, or mentioning characters early on by name, only to have them appear much later. The only advantage is Pynchon's incredible aptitude for name-creation, which allows the extreme plethora of characters to stick out in your mind. That way, when they talk about Bigfoot in the first scene and you meet him ten minutes later, you know exactly who it is. Same with Puck Beaverton or Mickey Wolfmann. I didn't even have to look these up! I would have called him "Eric Roberts" in any other film review.
You also can't find a bad picture of Joaquin from this movie.

None of this, however, matters. The film loses steam in its most uncomfortable part, when Shasta shows up at Doc's house, innocuously saying that she's been upstate visiting family (a dubious lie, actually. Probably.) Was the whole film up to that point a wild goose chase? A complete waste of time? You start to measure Doc's accomplishments at that point and become frustrated. There's then a sex scene that grinds the film to a halt with its aggressiveness in a hitherto mild romp. I'm still pondering what that whole thing was. Comments would be appreciated. I suppose it's just inherent vice. Doc should know that this girl isn't insurable. And she should know the same about him. In this sense, it's the beating heart of the movie.

I do like to think, though, that this film has another heart, just like Lebowski. It's Owen Wilson's character, Coy. Just like Donnie, nothing else really matters but his story. All the confuddling plot is just extraneous fun. After Doc goes through his doomed journey to find someone who wasn't missing (and another who didn't want to be found), he realises he can still do some good by uniting Coy with his lady, who thinks he's dead, Hope Harlington (Jena Malone). It's a simple but honorable thing - bringing back a good soul to a deserving family, perhaps the only one in the film.

Coy also presents this interesting straddle of that hippies vs. squares battle. His profession is with the Man, but he is superficially part of the counterculture. His heart, though, belongs to neither; he's just a dude who wants to be back with his family and regrets his decision to get involved so deeply in either side of the culture war. It's ultimately a statement that our true hearts probably lie in the middle, instead of on either political or cultural side of the rift. Not only that, but it's a fine meeting of the two most fucked-up noses in Hollywood.

You see this time and again. Reese Witherspoon's DA Penny Kimball couldn't represent the Establishment more in professional mannerisms or public disdain for Doc, but behind closed doors she's just as freaky as Sportello. She's an actual human being, with different desires and faces she needs to put on, that's why. Bigfoot has a similar revelation near the end, when he consumes a rather large amount of marijuana in front of the tear-faced Doc, possibly showing his solidarity to Doc the man the only way he knows how, even if he is ideologically opposed to the culture that Doc represents.

Doc himself weaves in between this line as is necessary. As a PI he specialises in deception, donning formal suits and combed hair when he needs to infiltrate the Establishment and literally letting his hair fro out when he's rapping with the brothers. Joaquin captures this perfectly, and although he's not totally transformed as he is in The Master (2012), this is still probably the funniest he's ever been, with comic chops and timing that are perfect, especially considering he's in nearly every scene. But there are all these symbolic moments of his transition, like taking his shoes off at the Chryskylodon Institute when he tries to sneak around to bring Wolfmann back into the loving arms of generosity and hippie love.

Feet are everywhere in this film, actually. There's a big divide whenever Doc has shoes on to try to pretend to be a square while he's in bare feet or Birkenstocks when he's content to be his hippie self. The bare feet are the key to the hippie lifestyle. They're natural, innocent, and freeing. Doc tries to get Penny over to "wash his feet," which appalls her, but still provides this bridge. Shasta gives Doc a virtual footjob after she liberates herself from Wolfmann's stringent dress code as she talks about the control he had over her and how she had to get away to get back to who she really is. Finally, Bigfoot himself - that name should have shown who his allegiance is with from the start of the film! He's literally the biggest foot in the movie - the hardcore Square Hero who breaks down and becomes his natural self by the film's end.

This whole film is about finding yourself in a time where all these lines were drawn, which is difficult, because no one in this film is strictly part of either the Establishment or the Counter-culture. Arguably the entire film concerns Shasta discovering her own identity, although most of it is off-camera. Her shifting personality is the reason for her break-up with Doc and when she aligns back to her most natural state (exhibited by the Ouija scene, then of course, the postcard, which pulls her back), she finds herself back in Doc's arms. Even though that doesn't mean they're back together.

There's so much else going on in this movie. It's no accident that the Chryskylodon Institute members are dressed like Klan Members and have ties to the Federal Government, Neo-Nazis, and Racist plots to "get a white man back running Vegas." It's the kind of thing Anderson dabbled on with The Master, and this film doesn't get into the cult-like New Age Terror like that flick hinted at, but it's all along the periphery. Again, none of this is the point of the film, but it paints this picture of a fractured nation that reflects the suspicious self-discovery many of the characters experience.
I forgot this also had the best
set of posters of the year.

I'm still thinking about the fangs, too. They never even really resolve Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd's gold fang-related murder, possibly because it just doesn't matter at all. It's part of the unwinding conspiracy that doesn't really exist. Anderson is again pointing us away from these distractions to the plots that really matter - reuniting Coy with Hope and reuniting Doc with Shasta. There's almost this embedding going on: you constantly think this is one sort of movie, but then it spins in a very foreign direction. If you think about it from everything you first experience, you'll end up disappointed. There's a constant re-evaluation of the stakes, events, and characters that's fairly brilliant.

It's worth noting at some point that the rest of the cast is also incredible. Maya Rudolph, Martin Short, and Benicio del Toro hang around the edges of everyone else in addition to relative newcomers like Michael "Omar" Williams"and Hong Chau that deliver in strong roles. Katherine "Son of Sam" Waterston also gives an incredibly staying performance for relatively minor screen time. And Joaquin's sideburns. Holy shit does he sell those.

I haven't thought enough about the direction, yet. I really liked the way that Anderson crafted most of the scenes, showing us bits and pieces of the world, flexing in different shades of reality (or was Bigfoot really an actor? I forget now. I need to re-watch this damn thing), and this sort of impossible introduction to some characters (tell me from a cinematic emotion standpoint Sloane Wolfmann's intro doesn't remind you of Jackie Treehorn). I'm not sure he holds all of threads together as well as he should, but maybe he shouldn't - every theme is as clear as day regardless of plot.

One last thing - both the Soundtrack and the Score composed by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood are amazing. 2014 was the most epic year for movie soundtracks ever, by the way. I mean, this year rivaled great 90s Soundtracks like Space Jam (1996), Titanic (1997), and Godzilla (1998). Neil Young and Can may be the biggest names, but I can't stop listening to Minne Riperton, Kyu Sakamoto, or Les Baxter now. It's a dream.

So I dug this a lot. I dig it more after trying to reason out a lot of it for this essay, actually. There is a lot going on here and you can spin a lot of things from this flick. I'd be curious what anyone else got out of it - particularly those who side more with the squares than the hippies. See ya dude.

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