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Film

Paul Thomas Anderson, Thomas Pynchon and Joaquin Phoenix walk into a bar…

Anderson and Phoenix on the set of Inherent Vice.

Anderson and Phoenix on the set of Inherent Vice.

Published in the Age on February 28, 2015.

For half an hour, Joaquin Phoenix meets every question with a bemused look and a few mumbled words. This does not exactly come as a surprise to the four film writers across the table. His legendarily awkward appearance on David Letterman’s chat show has prepared us. But that was performance art, he says, to promote a documentary. He’s not acting today.

Is he stoned? It seems unlikely, although the temptation to confuse an actor and the character he plays is always there. He no longer resembles Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello now that he has shaved off the spectacular mutton chops, but perhaps, like Thomas Pynchon’s private investigator, he has recently smoked a joint to pass the time.

When he finally strings a sentence together, it is to take issue with the way actors are obliged to explain their performances: “It’s the opposite of what we should do. I feel like I did my work and if you wanna see the movie you should watch it. I don’t want to contaminate it.”

Fair enough. Fortunately for us, and for the publicity flack from Warner Brothers, whose restless index finger taps out a constant distress signal, Phoenix does not have to handle this particular promotional chore by himself. He’s sitting next to Katherine Waterston, who plays Doc’s sweetly manipulative ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth. Josh Brolin is at the far end. And in the middle, doing all the talking, looking like he’s just woken up from a midday nap – “so necessary to the hippie lifestyle” – is director Paul Thomas Anderson.

Inherent Vice, the movie we’re here to discuss, is a rambling tale of conspiracy and paranoia set in the fictional town of Gordita Beach, California, in that sour post-Altamont, post-Woodstock, post-Manson Family moment, the literal and figurative end of the sixties, when the dope-smoking flower children have moved on to heroin, Hells Angels, black power radicals and undercover narcs are crowding the action and the counter-culture has hardened into cynicism.

As with most of Anderson’s films, it’s a slow-burner, worth watching a second time for the acting and a third time for the ravishing cinematography. It’s also another marginally successful commercial product. Ben Affleck has compared Anderson to Orson Welles, Sam Mendes calls him a genius, but he has never had a hit. There Will Be Blood is his biggest, at around $75 million. This has not gone unnoticed by the people that green light movies.

Before we get started, Anderson wants to make something clear: “I don’t know Thomas Pynchon. I don’t know who he is. I don’t know what he looks like.” Inherent Vice is the first film adaptation of one of Pynchon’s books and there has been much speculation, partly on the basis of some indiscreet remarks of Brolin’s, that the author has a cameo. Seeing as the last confirmed photograph of Pynchon was published in his high school yearbook, sixty years ago, this is a big deal.

Pynchon objects to being called a recluse. He once told CNN that the term is “a code word generated by journalists… meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters,’” and he has had some good sport with his image, appearing in the Simpsons with a paper bag over his head. When Anderson is asked whether he consulted Pynchon about the screenplay, he compares him to B. Traven, the screenwriter of Treasure of the Sierra Madre: “a shadowy figure who would come drop pages at John Huston’s desk.” I think that’s a yes.

Anderson has a “borderline pathological” obsession with Pynchon’s writing, and keeps a copy of Vineland by his bed. When rumours circulated that the author might be open to a movie version of Inherent Vice, he made enquiries. “If anyone was going to fuck it up, I would prefer that I would be the one to fuck it up,” he told Indiewire.
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There is no director better suited to the task. Both men are obsessive consumers and re-packagers of pop culture. Anderson’s movies, from Boogie Nights to The Master, via Magnolia and There Will Be Blood, offer an alternative history of California that Pynchon, a longtime resident of Manhattan Beach, surely appreciates and recognises.

“The book is never-endingly pulled in the two directions,” says Anderson. “It’s pissed off about being sad and just sad about the way things turned out, but the entire time never losing its sense of humour.” He could be describing one of his own films, which are earthed by melancholy and desperation but always find room for jokes.

In the movie, as in the novel, sundown in the Gordita Beach looks “as if the contrast knob of Creation had been messed with just enough to give everything an underglow, a luminous edge, and promise that the night was about to turn epic somehow.” Start quoting Pynchon and you soon feel hopelessly ineloquent. Stop the tape for every indelible image and Anderson’s films last all day.

Anderson writes his own scripts. Of the five Oscar nominations he has received, three are for his screenplays. There Will Be Blood was loosely based on Oil! by Upton Sinclair, but Inherent Vice is his first adaptation. “It’s pretty directly from the book,” he says. The dialogue is cut and redistributed, but rarely altered. Anderson has expanded a small part, Doc’s friend Sortilege, to create a narrator speaking in Pynchon’s voice: “Back when, she could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout. Now she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all.”

“How do you improvise Pynchon? It’s pretty impossible,” chips in Brolin. “You try to put yourself in the state of mind but there’s no way to follow him.” Anderson’s invitation to play flat-topped, hippie-hating detective ‘Bigfoot’ Bjornsen came with a copy of Inherent Vice and instructions to read the whole thing in a single sitting.

Anderson says he watched a lot of Police Squad! (the television show that spawned the Naked Gun movies) when he was making Inherent Vice, and the delight he takes in sight gags makes it plain. He was wary of being influenced by other stoner detective films – “no one’s ever gonna do better than The Big Lebowski, right?” – and felt no need to brush up on his Philip Marlowe. “I didn’t need to see The Long Goodbye for a four hundredth time. If anything I needed to forget it,” he says.

The movie’s sun-bleached look was inspired by finding some old, damaged film stock in his garage. Half the rushes were unusable, but the shots that survived had a faded, stonewashed quality that Anderson and his cinematographer Robert Elswit liked and strove to replicate. At the New York Film Festival, Anderson noted that the movie was being screened on 35mm film. “It’s just the vibe, the feeling,” he says. “Using that hippie language, it feels more alive to me.”

The day after the world premiere, Anderson gave an ‘On Cinema’ masterclass, playing clips from movies that inspired Inherent Vice, including North By Northwest, Jackie Brown and Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man. The most leftfield choice was Journey Through The Past, directed by one of his heroes, Neil Young, under the alias Bernard Shakey. Anderson made no claims for it being a good movie: he just dug the sunlight, filtered through the trees.

Pynchon’s book has a soundtrack, bands real and invented. Here Come The Ho-Dads, a surf rock number by the Marketts, has made Anderson’s cut, but the rest are from his own jukebox: Can, Minnie Riperton, Les Baxter, Kyu Sakamoto and Chuck Jackson. As always, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood supplies the incidental music, and as ever Anderson uses it liberally.

But it’s Young that’s the guiding spirit, in the costumes worn by Phoenix, many of them straight lifts from his After The Gold Rush-era wardrobe, and in the film’s yearning tone. Anderson says he set out “to make a movie that felt like a Neil Young song, that has that sweet sadness to it.” We hear him singing over a montage of “that day in the rain” when Doc and his ex-girlfriend were last in love.

Boogie Nights, Anderson’s second film, opens with an astonishing Steadicam shot that introduces all the major characters. For three long minutes, the camera glides around a nightclub, pivoting like a ballroom dancer. The shot announced him as a director of rare ambition and talent – he was only twenty-seven years old – and he has been living it down ever since. With each film, his tempo has slowed. There are no ostentatious moves in Inherent Vice: apart from a few brief tracking shots, the camera is still.

“If you have two good actors in the same shot you get to watch them both,” he says. “Nobody really cares about anything but the people anyway. And I have to say, when you don’t have any money, that’s when you come up with those justifications: ‘I can’t do a street shot because I don’t have the money, so why don’t I point the camera at the actors and do a close-up?’”

This approach demands a lot of his actors, and they have repaid that faith every time, whether they are part of his “little rep company” of regulars – John C. Reilly, Luis Guzman, William H. Macy, Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman – or stars in unaccustomed roles, such as Adam Sandler, Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Cruise.

It would be nice to have a picture of Thomas Pynchon here, but...

It would be nice to have a picture of Thomas Pynchon here, but…

Most of the cast of Inherent Vice are Anderson first-timers. Harpist Joanna Newsom has never appeared in a film before, but her narration, as Doc’s confidant and earth mother, is pitch perfect. Reese Witherspoon plays Doc’s deceptively uptight straight world girlfriend, Benicio del Toro makes the most of a small part as his lawyer, Owen Wilson is Owen Wilson and Martin Short hams it up as a cocaine-addled dentist.

And then there’s Phoenix, working with the director again after his spell-binding performance as tormented veteran Freddie Quell in The Master. Does it get any easier second time around? The question is addressed to the actor, but we know who’s going to answer.

“We were pretty comfortable working together on The Master,” says Anderson. “I mean, I speak for myself. I think I speak for him too… but it kind of goes out the window. You’re faced with a whole new set of problems and you might as well be starting from scratch. It’s no less confusing or scary or insecure or searching.” Anderson’s sets are known to be intense places of work, but his actors always want to come back.

Time’s up. We all stand, awkwardly at once. And then Anderson, Phoenix, Brolin and Waterston head downtown, to meet Pynchon in a speakeasy where waitresses in black silk cheongsams glide around on high heels, the regulars drink shots of hot sake chased with iced champagne, the air is dense with smoke from opium pipes, cannabis bongs and clove cigarettes, and the glassware behind the bar achieves the smudged cool glow of images on cheap black-and-white TV sets. But thankfully no-one takes a picture, so we can’t be sure it happened.

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