What do WE want from cinema: Inherent Vice

I had a really unique movie going experience last week. At 9:20pm on a Tuesday night, I trekked alone to Cineplex Odeon Varsity Theatres at 55 Bloor Street, Toronto, for a VIP screening of Inherent Vice (2015). Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, adapted by Thomas Pynchon's novel, this is by far one of the most interesting films I have got to see this year.

Before I go into my analysis, though, I came across this intriguing and perfectly applicable article from the website Hope in Film: The Five Crucial Things We Want From Movies. Written by Ted Hope, this article suggests the following list.

  1. Take me somewhere I have never been
  2. Make me feel
  3. Help me understand this issue / world a little better
  4. Deliver fun and surprises
  5. A transformative experience

With this as our backbone, let us now take a look at Inherent Vice through these five filters / criteria.

  1. Inherent Vice takes place in south California during the transition between the 60s and 70s. On the outset, this town seems to have three kinds of people: hippies, gangsters, and law-enforcers. However, by mid movie, the types have become so muddled that by the end each character is neither him nor herself and are a mish-mash of everyone. A bit like The Beatles song I am the Walrus "I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together." Yet no one in the film is together. Relationships are never whole, and people are as much present off screen as they are on screen, making the loose episodic plot structure more hippie-ish, if you will. 
  2. WOW. How did I feel? Where do I begin? First, let's talk about the voiceover narration. Can we even call it ironic? It is a bit Godardian in the best way, calling attention to the story's realities as unrealities. The pumping action of private investigator Doc Sportello is highly undercut by the mellow female voice, taking your heartbeat down four notches into a normal rhythmic speed. She calls attention to the fading past, the psychedelic 60s slowly evaporating. All that California was is embodied in Doc. And he is hated every moment for it. He is the dinosaur of the south. A T-rex hunting for the truth of the golden fang. What feelings can we say the film conveys? There is this uncomfortable sense of unknowingness - a paranoia that slowly seeps into your bones and makes you fidget in your seat. There is repetition, creating a cyclical feeling that adds to the claustrophobic environment. If you were asked to loosely sketch Doc's world, could you do it? Do we know where all the puzzle pieces fit? I felt hazie leaving the theatre, as if a smokey cloud had settled around me head. A sudden second-high. There was also humour - in an unchecked and unbalanced way. We laughed without restraint but not because we were set up to laugh or forced to. It felt more real somehow.
  3. I had not read Thomas Pynchon's novel before watching the film in theatre, and believe this might have filled in any loose gaps my brain is still trying to solve. I do not know much about the early 70s to justify the films explanation. Yet, taking it for what it is and disregarding (momentarily) its time in history, what did I take away? What statement is the film making - and even if it is NOT making a statement, that is in itself a statement - and how is it resolved? I think Doc justifies his good character at the end. He is able to reunite a family together and saves a father (Owen Wilson) from being further involved in a network of cocaine dealers. Sure the family is unromantic in the best way - and the parents are the least prototypic of their kind - but there is a sense of charm seeing the two hug at the end. The set, setting, costumes, and soundtrack created a quintessential aura, what I would think would be an accurate 70s mise-en-scene for this film. 
  4. The greatest surprise was the dialogue. The dialogue between characters differs greatly: legal and proper jargon from his girlfriend downtown (Reese Witherspoon), the slow drawl of his drug friend pretending to be dead (Owen Wilson), and the strange and often perverted comments from Lieutenant Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). Actions often contradict the characters verbal intent. Bigfoot angrily refers to Doc as the hippie, yet storms his house at the end of the film and eats a lot of weed sitting out on the table. Deputy Penny Kimball, a serious woman of the law, is caught smoking weed with Doc and having a jolly good time. The humour is dry and the banter delivered in a hyper serious manner to the point of being at the cusp of hilarious: "woohoo, look at the greedy little hippie." "Bring a  bar of soap and you can clean my feet tonight." "Ew. I can bring you pizza though." "There is a swastika symbol on that man's face." "No there isn't. That is an ancient Hindu symbol meaning ALL IS WELL." Do these characters know they are funny or do they take themselves seriously? 
  5. Transformative: Ted suggests that this can be for either the viewers or the characters on screen. Still unsure as to how Doc is feeling - probably rather groovy for saving the day (?) - I definitely felt transformed. My opinion about romance, life, beach-house living, the 70s, and the radical 60s has definitely been intensified and caught my interest. This film told the story in a whole new way. The experience was unique and something I am sure to never feel again. Even when I go see the film for a second time, I am sure to feel slightly different. I think in an era when originality is rare and films have become almost colloquial communication tools, it is definitely hard to find that new angle. As my favourite dead poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, commented on in his poem "Kubla Khan," the public will scorn this type of artistic creation. They will stomp and spit and refuse entry into their narrow perspective. Bret Easton Ellis shares this perspective in his article Novelist and Screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis Talks Paul Anderson's Inherent Vice.

"Anderson’s epic vision of Southern California in movie after movie is one of modern cinema’s key accomplishments — the scope is a marvel. But the audience for Inherent Vice is not going to be rapturously discussing it this Christmas — the harsh words I heard behind me as I left the screening last week have been echoed all over the place when I ask people who have seen it what they thought, and the pre-release take-down of it around L.A. is surprising to me [...]" - Bret Easton Ellis

I understand where this assumption is coming from and find it so sad. I suppose everyone is entitled to their opinions - and there are always going to be those films that are landmarks and only become so in a new generation of understanding - and hopefully open-mindedness. I say HOORAH for Anderson and all the performances in the film. A job well done. A film highly original and intriguing. Thank you for making my Tuesday night so groovy!

- Jenn