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FILM: INHERENT VICE

If there is one thing Paul Thomas Anderson does like no one else, it’s bring me back to a time long gone, injecting me with a high dose of nostalgia, even to periods in history I actually never personally experienced. Watching Inherent Vice makes me feel like my best years were the late sixties.

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The music, the clothes and their colors, people’s mentality and the way they speak, it all feels exactly right. Sortilege’s voice has this strange fragility and angel-like emphatic tone when she tells us about Doc and Shasta, that reminds me instantly of what it feels like to see and old-love again after some time and realize how she will probably never really suite the label of “old” love. (reminds me of a line from an Admiral Freebee song) That voice, combined with the breathtaking light and incredible performances really make that opening scene a first class cinematic spectacle.  Before the end of scene one I am swept of my feet, yet in complete denial of it, just like Doc, confused and excited, pretending to want to solve a curious case as a private detective – nothing personal. And yet Inherent Vice isn’t exactly a love story either. It’s just as much a story about friendship – as between Doc and Bigfoot - or loyalty and empathy – as between Doc and Coy Harlingen. On top of all that the film is hilariously funny in a dry and cool way; the scene where bigfoot kicks down Doc’s door is of such emotional beauty – they love each other to bits! – yet so hilariously ridiculous it made me wane cry and laugh at the same time. 


Sortilege’s angel like voice,
Straight from Pychon’s pages,
The core.

 

Aside from a few of scenes - like the second one in the restaurant - it almost feels like Sortilege is actually both our narrator and Doc’s patron angel, voice of conscious or even imaginary friend. She knows what he feels and how he thinks, so she clearly is more then a normal friend, yet she really exists cause in the restaurant she is in a conversation with doc and a bunch of people, and in the final dialogue between Doc and Shasta in the car Doc talks about how he thinks that day with the Ouija board was Sortiliege setting them up. “No, she knows things Doc,… maybe about us that we don’t know”.  There certainly isn’t a trace of doubt or uncertainty in anything she says throughout the film, on or off screen.

I feel that if there is a certain symbolic relation between Sortilege and Doc in this story it must be that she represents the voice of intuition. She tells Doc to follow his intuition in the restaurant scene when suggesting to do something about his hair. A random little note to wrap up the scene in which Doc tells her how he feels after seeing Shasta again, and I feel this little sidetrack on the hair and the intuition is more then just a setup for the silly gag in the next shot where Doc’s hair is braided and covered in blue ribbons. Throughout the film there is a nice balance between Doc’s confused and seemingly messy head and sortileges clear and intuitive simplicity. In that rich first scene Doc actually subscribes to the power of intuition (an idea I feel was quite present throughout the late sixties?) when he tells Shasta: “don’t worry, thinking comes later”.

Although I didn’t get around to reading the book yet I did read that all of the Sortilege narrator lines are straight form Pynchon’s book. This must have worked as a skeleton structure for Anderson’s adaptation and I feel it must have given both him and his actors and cinematographer a great insight into how the final edit of the scenes was going to play out. Like the way Phoenix’s facial expression is the perfect translation of Sortilege’s words when she says: “back when they were together she could go weeks without anything more complicated then a pout, now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc that he couldn’t read at all”. She knows things… Like when they drives up to the rehab center Chryskylodon, and she tells Doc it actually means “animal tooth made out of gold”. The strange thing is that in the following scenes in the center she is not there anymore. Not even in the shot where Doc parks his car upon arrival. This hints at her being part imaginary anyway I feel.

Quite a lot of films I watched recently apply strong and decisive choices in pre-production to make production-and-post work match seamlessly; for example the fact that for Birdman Alejandro Iñárritu and Emmanuel Lubezki decide to work within the constrains of the one-take concept and shoot a pre-visualization for the entire film during rehearsals, locking in 99% of the staging and camera movement; or in opposite direction how for that same film Antonio Sanchez watches the film from behind his drum kit and creates a one to one reactionary interpretation of what he sees happening on the actors faces; or Damian Chazelle locking in key jazz pieces to be at the core of his film Whiplash, making it possible to shoot an insane amount of incredibly precise and effective inserts in just one day (of a 19 day record shooting time!!!) And last but not least, Nightcrawler. A film that was shot in 26 days for a budget of little over 8 million USD yet looks like those numbers must be wrong.

In a press conference at the New York Film Festival Anderson actually says that he has always felt the use of voice-over narration as a sign of weakness, a proof of the director’s lack of skill to tell the story through characters and images. For this film he reconsidered it since it was used in the book. Sortilege is played by Joanna Newsom (mainly known as a musician and vocalist) and Anderson confesses he had always loved the way she talked. He gradually made her role as a gal-pall/narrator more substantial as he felt it worked very well. 

Old love,
This doesn’t mean
we’re back together,
Of course not.

 

 Although I didn’t really experience it that way the first time I watched the film, on a second viewing I realized we barely ever get to see Shasta, yet we are constantly hoping she will be around the next corner – at least I was. The first wide shot of Shasta when Doc looks over and sees her standing in his living room doorpost, wearing a beautiful orange dress, wrapped in beautiful warm light, surrounded by the blue dim light of the first minutes of darkness on a warm summer evening is clearly meant to be a stunning picture. It looks like a painting by Edward Hopper, and it stayed with me for the rest of the film. I think this scene and this shot in particular was intentionally made to look this beautiful to get us to feel what Doc feels. For the 100 following minutes Shasta is mentioned in almost every substantial scene, but she doesn’t really appear again until she does in the exact same way as in the opening scene; she sneaks up on a once again reclining Doc, looking her normal self again.

Anderson has a way with sex scenes as no other director has; the scene that follows this second home visit instantly reminded me of a scene in The Master where Lancaster Dodd and his wife Peggy are in their bedroom, and she is telling him to stop experimenting with sexual inhibitions. While she tells him what he can and what he can’t do, she gives him a hand job. Shasta in this scene walks up naked and sits down next to Doc, telling him about what a bad person she has been. As she puts herself across his lap, she provokes him into spanking her, and Doc looses control. Both are sex scenes but these scenes are about a lot more than just the sexual deeds shown in them. There is an element of power and dominion in them.  In both cases I felt almost embarrassed for being there, for having intruded on a very raw and private weird moment that I didn’t really understand, nor did they – the men involved - seem to know what exactly was going on. They are moments where a collision of emotions, confusion and lust seem to take over the scene and all they can do is submit to it. The women are in complete control and are using a dangerous cocktail of lust and emotion to dominate the scenes.

After this intense visit Shasta is gone again. Only to reappear after Doc has closed the mysterious case he was tangled up in – for which he pulls a Houdini on the bad guys with nothing less but a piece of a metal name plate engraved with the magical words: Shasta Fey Hepworth. Their third and last scene, also the last scene in the film, remains a real mystery to me. Where are they? My best guess is a car wash. My worst fear however is that it is meant to look like they are actually driving…. But it is clearly shot in a stationary car. Yet the light changing on Doc’s face is matched with the backlight turning up and him looking in his back mirror, suggesting that it is supposed to be a driving car, with a car moving behind them. I’m not at all sold on that effect. They talk about how that night feels like the night Sortilege’s Ouija board promised them a place to score dope, but they didn’t find it and ended up spending the evening out in the rain talking and laughing. Shasta concludes that it wasn’t Sortilege setting them up, but that night was a result of her knowing things about them, things that they don’t know about themselves. Vague. Then Doc repeats the line Shasta said right after the intense sex scene: “This doesn’t mean that we are back together”, she answers as he did before: “Of course not”. 

I find this last scene by far the weakest of the three scenes with Shasta and almost feel it lets itself and the film down. It is a pretty vague and unsophisticated scene compared to the previous two. Maybe it is even the weakest in the entire film.      

True friendship:
Listen, Sorry about last night,
You? Why should you be sorry?
… Weird.

 

The scenes with Bigfoot made me laugh the most. The first time we see him he is on the tube, in an advert for a real-estate project, dressed like a hippy with a big Afro, and he talks hipster talk. Then we get to know him through Sortileges formal introduction and we realize he is pretty much the exact opposite of that person. Yet beneath his hippy hating mad dog mask actually lays a deep affection for Doc. The other way around, I suspect Doc also feels for his bully copper friend, at times I feel he even looks up to him in a real big-brotherly way. Their first scene together in the police station is hilarious and instantly gives away how there is a lot more to the two than meets the eye. Their ‘history’ is referred to a number of times both by his Aunt Reet – over the phone – as well as Sauncho his lawyer - who comes to the rescue in this first scene at the ‘glass house’ - but it never really gets explained. Maybe the book sheds more light on it.

The story arch of Doc and Bigfoot is the least dynamic of the three relations I picked out to discuss here. Their relationship is what it is when the film starts and will probably be that way forever and ever. Nothing really changes between them throughout the film, because it is perfect the way it is. Despite this lack of transition or real story between them I could watch them forever.

Especially their last scene together is a piece of cinema that will stick with me for a very long time. Only in analyzing it did I realize they are actually never in frame together, yet you can feel the atmosphere in the room; the way its filled with unspoken and confused emotions, the way bigfoot wants to express these but has no clue as to how to do this.

Throughout the filming of Inherent Vice they did a lot of improvising and took things to a very over the top level, I read. In the edit there are at least 3 moments where those absurd try-outs made the cut; 1) In the glass house Sauncho repeats his line twice in a very silly and almost skipping-record way; “clients pay me for work Doc. Clients pay me for work Doc”. 2) When Doc gets presented a picture of Coy Harlingen’s child he screams it out for a second and then pretends nothing happened – very weird. 3) But by far the weirdest of them all is the moment Doc and Bigfoot deliver the same lines simultaneously at the end of their final scene: “Listen, sorry about last night. You? Why should you be sorry? … Weird”. Very weird indeed, but it adds brilliantly to this strange mystic vibe between the two ‘frenemies’.

Loyalty and doing the right thing:
You’re a dangerous Hombre.

 

The Coy Harlingen story line is not a big thing until Doc decides to have the aftermath of the entire Mickey Wolfman mess result in Coy’s return to his family. I felt that really said a lot about Doc. He barely met this man, but felt he had to do the right thing, even though he could have used the situation for a lot more lucrative schemes. The two of them seem to be on a similar wavelength as well, and feel like very similar characters; slow and a bit messy, yet well connected and very smart at the end of the day; good-karma-guys.

While putting this essay together a couple of big questions came up: How do I experience films? How do they make me feel? Should it be effortless, or is cinematic art something that takes an investigating and pensive eye? What is my eye focusing on when I watch a film?

I realized that I actually very rarely think of how a film makes me feel. I analyze it, often from the perspective of a cinematographer as well as to which extent I feel I can, A, believe the story, or B, find it interesting. Last week I was lucky enough to be able to attend a 35mm screening of Lars Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. It made me realize that there is a type of cinema that knocks you of your feet and leaves no chance for analytical thinking or critical distancing. Just like after watching Dancer in the Dark I felt like crawling out of a car crash after Breaking The Waves. I couldn’t move, couldn’t talk, and felt emotionally paralyzed by it. The world stopped spinning for a while afterwards.

It re-opened my train of thought on transcendental cinema. In the final scene when Jan runs on deck of the boat from which he has just departed with his deceased wife, and clocks are sounding over an open sea I felt I did not only get a glimpse of the transcendental, it might even have shifted my entire view on religion, god and love. It is so powerful and so effortless to watch, it made me feel that if there is anything like transcendental style in cinema, it probably wouldn’t require such intense abstract thinking as Schrader and Bresson were requiring. Yet Inherent Vice is a film that gets better with every viewing (like all P.T.A. films) so I can’t say all cinema should be effortless and raw like Von Trier’s heroin trilogy. I do feel that both this essay as well as my experience with Breaking the Waves has thought me to be more aware of the nuanced emotional discourse a film as an artistic piece can have. I think asking yourself the question of how a scene or a character or a plot point makes you feel is a very powerful tool in learning film language.