Too Faithful to Succeed: On "Inherent Vice"

By Anna ShechtmanJanuary 9, 2015

Too Faithful to Succeed: On "Inherent Vice"

FIFTEEN MINUTES INTO Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, we are introduced to Aunt Reet. On the phone with the film’s protagonist, pothead P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), Aunt Reet rushes her lines, distracted by “major liquid-liner issues” and a “quarter ton of makeup” still awaiting application. One of Pynchon’s many minor characters — expendable, but so finely drawn that you want them around — Aunt Reet hovers between character and caricature: a hyper-real every-aunt. In film, Aunt Reet’s face is coated in pasty foundation that both obscures and exaggerates what looks like a five o’clock shadow. As she speaks, she uses spit and tissue to daub the liquid-liner that has somehow arrived at her cheekbones, and she carefully applies a fuchsia lipstick far outside the natural lines of her lips. Her conversation with Doc is lifted straight from Pynchon’s text, as is most of the film’s dialogue, but Aunt Reet on screen, leeching color like her lipstick, projects far beyond the lines drawn by Pynchon’s novel.

By necessity, adaptations paint outside the lines of their source material, and Anderson’s Inherent Vice would fare better if it took more Reet-like liberties. Instead, Anderson traps himself between two fidelities: fidelity to a subtle brand of seventies realism (the story is set in 1970 Los Angeles), and fidelity to Pynchon’s novel — “You don’t want to fuck with [Pynchon’s] shit if you don’t have to,” he has said. But these loyalties often function at cross-purposes: the former dictates verisimilitude, while the latter demands camp.

Pynchon’s psychedelic detective novel is campy to its core. It’s spoofy, goofy, and light: Philip Marlowe on laughing gas. Like most detective novels, it begins with an apparently innocuous request from an attractive woman, in this case Doc’s ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). Shasta reemerges from their breakup, asking Doc to look into a problem involving a wealthy, Jewish, anti-Semitic real estate developer, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), with whom she is having an affair. It’s a ludicrous thread, which, when pulled by Doc, unravels a complex web of murder, greed, conspiracy, and, because it’s the seventies, drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll.

Brimming with cultural references to 1970 LA — surf-rock bands, black nationalists, Manson conspiracy theories, experimental vegetarian cuisine — Pynchon’s novel sacrifices realism for farce and disrupts poignancy with slapstick gags. But aside from Doc’s bushy muttonchops and a handful of “groovies” and “far outs,” Anderson’s film restrains period detail, rejecting a camp seventies aesthetic for a sustained, sun-speckled haze of pot smoke, beach fog, and car smog. This restrained revival style is fast becoming an Anderson hallmark: his There Will Be Blood and The Master make similar claims to period verisimilitude, enhancing but not distracting from plot and character development. As the plot points of Inherent Vice proliferate — each more far-fetched and far-out than the last — Anderson’s camera remains intimate, seeking subtlety in a narrative cyclone.

In interviews, Anderson has said that if his characters are high, he wants his camera to be sober. But the lens in the grass-grown Inherent Vice is neutral only to the extent that the washed-out tones of seventies photos have become neutralized — and normalized — by Instagram filters and Urban Outfitters hippie-chic. We are introduced to Doc’s world through a series of overexposed close-ups in milky blues, muted reds, and crisp yellows. Close-ups carry the film: Doc, head-on with his mint-green princess phone pressed to his ear, Shasta from below gazing wistfully into the Pacific, Doc’s friend Sortilège in profile in the passenger seat of his car, reflecting into a dusty construction site. Bits of Pynchon’s slapstick enter into this Instagram-scape, but they feel misplaced: Doc’s half-assed ass-kickings from the hippie-hating LAPD are like spare banana peels slipped in to remind us that this is Funny Pynchon.

Perhaps the greatest conflict between Anderson’s two fidelities occurs with the film’s voiceover narration. Ever faithful to Pynchon’s prose, Anderson’s Inherent Vice lifts choice sections from the novel’s narrator — a type of carefree indirect discourse, studded with aimless ellipses, deadbeat em dashes, “whatevers,” and “you knows” — and places them in the mouth of the novel’s most earnest character, Sortilège, an astrologer played by the singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom. In theory, it’s a brilliant move: replacing the straight-talking male voiceover of hardboiled noir with the sincerity of wide-eyed hippiedom. In practice, Sortilège’s narration — a breathy, beachy fry — drains Inherent Vice of its acerbity, which is the source of its humor and its (admittedly light) political critique.

But Anderson isn’t willing to sacrifice all of Pynchon’s acid for Sortilège’s acid trip. Instead, he gives her many of Pynchon’s best one-liners. When we meet detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), for example, Sortilège describes his “flattop of Flintstones proportions” and the “shit evil twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violations.’” Funny Pynchon. Dust clears to reveal Brolin (and his flattop), but this simultaneous show-and-tell does not make for better storytelling. Rather, it reminds us that these characters were born on the page, not on the screen. It foregrounds how the film’s hair, makeup, and wardrobe departments have turned Bjornsen into Brolin, and not the other way around.

The greatest problem wrought by Anderson’s two fidelities — to period realism and to Pynchon’s text — is less where the two conflict than where they align: in a murky condescending nostalgia for that time when Americans thought that sex might set them free. When Doc visits a surf-rock house party, a place with “what you’d call an atmosphere,” the camera scans the Hollywood mansion, finding mod rockers mixing with teenyboppers and beach bums smoking with skinheads. Or were they undercover cops? Paranoia breaks through the good vibes:

Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?

These are damning lines. Pynchon’s omniscient narrator offers them with the hindsight of history. In the film, Sortilège says them with the foresight of astrological prophesy: like Atlantis or Lemuria, countercultural California will soon become a paradise lost, subsumed by police repression and corporate co-optation. But Pynchon is quick to backtrack in his text. He reveals the lines to be Doc’s internal monologue, diffusing their damnation in a cloud of pot paranoia: Will the world go to shit? “‘Gee,’ [Doc] said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno …’” Anderson, however, lets the lines hover over his film, leaving us to decide whether Inherent Vice’s romantic cinematography and groovy soundtrack do more than fulfill Sortilège’s prophecy: reclaiming and re-gramming free love for profit.

If fidelity is Anderson’s stumbling block, it poses an equally precarious foundation for criticism. Film scholars have been asking for a moratorium on “fidelity discourse” around adaptations for more than 50 years. Questions like “Is the film true to the spirit of the book?” “Does it butcher the novel?” “Does it bring it to life?” have been called pedestrian or boring at best. At worst, they are seen to muddy the waters of medium specificity (for modernists) and to establish false hierarchies between fundamentally intertextual media (for postmodernists). But “fidelity discourse” is the discourse of Anderson’s Inherent Vice. His source material is unavoidable from the film’s opening credits, which poach their neon-light font from the cover of Pynchon’s paperback. In September, well before the film’s release, The New York Times ran an article in search of Pynchon’s alleged cameo in the film. The article’s author speculated, with the help of Joaquin Phoenix, that Pynchon had been heavily involved in the film’s screenplay, approving changes and helping to condense three scenes into one. Anderson has suggested that this is the first screenplay that he has co-authored: Pynchon is not just his muse, but also his partner in crime fiction.

In 1948, André Bazin deemed Balzac the “least cinematic of all novelists,” citing the “never-ending” failed adaptations of La Comédie Humaine as his evidence. There’s an aura surrounding Inherent Vice (concocted no doubt by the film’s marketers) that Balzac’s title now belongs to Pynchon — and that Anderson’s adaptation, in honoring the author, has achieved the nearly impossible. But one skim through Pynchon’s novel proves otherwise. It’s the cinema that makes this book, which is as mediated by Raymond Chandler as it is by Howard Hawks and Robert Altman, not to mention John Garfield, Bugs Bunny, W. C. Fields, and the number of other tele-cinematic stars that constellate Doc’s universe. Crime-fighting potheads from The Dude to the dweebs of Pineapple Express are nothing new to the movies. Indeed, to be faithful to Pynchon is to privilege intertextuality and intermediality as much as character and plot development.

It’s his bloat of pop allusions — some real, many fantastically invented — that makes Pynchon’s relatively small genre fiction feel big: like a vacuum cleaner taken to Doc’s space, sucking up the bits of cultural ephemera stuck between his cushions. Anderson’s pursuit of fidelity to an original text in this media dump is a fool’s errand, a buzzkill, and not so faithful after all.


Anna Shechtman is a student in Yale's dual Ph.D. program in English Literature and Film and Media Studies.

LARB Contributor

Anna Shechtman is the film editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. A PhD Candidate in English Literature and Film & Media Studies at Yale University, she also writes crossword puzzles for The New Yorker and The New York Times.


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