“The sixties ended the day we sold our van… December 31st, 1969″ (The Simpsons: 1998)
Every generation longs to live in a different era in the past, even if history always proves that things are far better for them in the present day. As we edge ever closer towards adulthood we find ourselves feeling nostalgic for our own childhoods, wishing we could somehow go back in time and relive it all over again, to a more innocent time when the stress of adult life wasn’t on our minds. Inherent Vice, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, and the first cinematic attempt to adapt one of Thomas Pynchon’s impenetrably dense novels to the big screen, is at its best when its characters are yearning for a distant past – all the sadder when you realise it was only a few months earlier, yet can never be relived again.
The movie is set in early 1970, with the peace-and-love of the sixties slowly giving way for a new era of war and hatred that lurks ever present in the background. This is the transitional era where the free-love of Woodstock was followed up by the infamous Altamont concert by the Rolling Stones, whilst Charles Manson (who is referenced repeatedly in Vice) misinterpreted Beatles lyrics as excuses for murder. In the film itself, these same peace and love ideals are perverted by the transition to the seventies; in one scene, a minor character informs our permanently stoned protagonist Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) that the white supremacist with a swastika tattooed on his face isn’t a Nazi, as the symbol on his face is clearly that of the ancient Hindu gods meaning “all is well”.
But before we get there, let’s try and decipher the plot. We begin at Doc’s beach house, where he is visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston), who is currently having an affair with wealthy real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). His wife and her lover want to have him committed to a mental institution, which Shasta wants Doc to prevent. The next day she too goes missing, Doc is arrested in connection with it by an LAPD detective known as Bigfoot (Josh Brolin, chewing the scenery as brilliantly as he chews every chocolate-covered banana) and every case he investigates begins to connect back up to Wolfmann in some weird way, be it getting money from a gang of Nazis or investigating the whereabouts of a seemingly dead saxophone player. The movie is the opposite of Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece Magnolia; that movie explored a group of seemingly disparate Los Angeles residents only to find out that they were all connected in some way or another. Inherent Vice isn’t “everything is connected” so much as “everything is CONNECTED?!”
This is a movie that will be defined by its narrative complexity and its surrealistic comedic moments, yet the reason I’m aching to see it again isn’t because I want to figure out the plot, but because of these quietly profound emotional scenes. Every character is yearning to be in a different time and a different place, yet it will forever remain out of their reach as the world changes without them – making Inherent Vice thematically closer to tragedy than comedy. The standout sequence is a flashback where Doc and his ex-girlfriend Shasta find out where to score dope via a Ouija board (yes, really). The run-down area of town they are led to is surprisingly drug-free, but it doesn’t matter because they’ve got each other. Seconds later we flash back to the present day (with the melancholic sound of Neil Young’s “Journey through the Past” still echoing on the soundtrack) and Doc finds this same area is now home to a towering office building. As always, the past just isn’t what it used to be.
Even more tragic is the sadness beneath Bigfoot’s character arc; although he represents an easy authority counterpoint to Doc, he too has a yearning for the past. Even though the time of the hippies has come and gone, he still sees them as standing in the way of him being fully appreciated by society, even though they are relics of the past as much as he is. If Doc is yearning for the sixties of a few months earlier, then Bigfoot is yearning for the fifties, where hard-working family men like him were the most revered group of people in America: now he is just a laughing stock in a position of authority.
Paul Thomas Anderson is my favourite director, yet as good as Inherent Vice is, I can’t help but feel like it’s a minor work in his filmography. It carries the emotional and comedic weight of his previous efforts, yet the complex narrative makes it harder to completely embrace – even if the narrative is impenetrable by design. His previous film The Master was criticised by some for not having any plot, instead focusing on character; here, there is too much plot, making the clear emotional heft underneath the narrative sometimes hard to decipher.
Of course this is a fault by design, as we are seeing a conspiracy thriller through the eyes of a permanently stoned private detective; the feeling of paranoia is there, but at times we have no idea what we should be paranoid about, a lot of the time not even the faintest idea to what it actually happening – admittedly, the natural reaction to investigating a major conspiracy theory whilst under the influence. Seeing the movie in a 35mm print as opposed to digital was not only an unexpected treat, but may also be the best way to see it; the graininess of the image makes the movie look like it was bathed in marijuana before being projected, making you feel like you should be inhaling every frame instead of watching it.
I’ve instantly declared every one of Anderson’s films masterpieces on first viewing, but I’ve fallen short of the mark here. Future viewings of Inherent Vice won’t make the narrative clearer, but it will make it more irrelevant, making it easier feel the deep emotions underneath. I connected on an emotional level with it the first time, but I suspect I may find it better on repeat viewings; there is a masterpiece in there somewhere, I just have to dig deeper to find it.