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Monday
Oct132014

NYFF: A Conversation About "Inherent Vice"

Hello dear readers. Your host Nathaniel here for our penultimate article on this year's New York Film Festival. I hope you've enjoyed the reviews from Glenn, Michael, Jason and me. Several people have asked why none of us reviewed Inherent Vice or if any of us had seen it. Strangely we all were there. But then no one claimed it so we've opted to have a conversation about it at least in part to figure out what held us back. Let's begin...

NATHANIEL R: It just goes to show you you never know. Alejandro G. Innaritu is one of my least favorite wildly acclaimed auteurs and Paul Thomas Anderson is one of my all time favorite wildly acclaimed auteurs. And yet here I am at the end of New York Film Festival after screenings of Birdman and Inherent Vice and guess who provided cinematic ecstacy and guess who gave a bad trip? It's Opposite World!

I reach out to you Glenn, Jason, and Michael to help me parse my feelings since you've also been devouring the NYFF. The Inherent Vice screening was a full week ago and I am no closer to writing anything about it. I keep hearing that it's a perfect stoner movie.  Do I not like it because I am not into weed (so perfectly capturing that feeling would be lost on me) or because it's simply not good: shapeless, meandering, super-indulgent, and purposefully incoherent?

[more]


MICHAEL C: To say that something is “a perfect stoner movie” is a backhanded compliment. If you have ever heard somebody high try to tell a story, you know that narrative focus isn’t a stoner’s strong suit.  Previous pot classics like The Big Lewbowski compensated for this by keeping the filmmaking sharp even as the hero struggles to untangle the convoluted plot. The Dude may be baked but the Coens are sober. PT Anderson gives the audience no such objective distance. The film puts us right into “Doc” Sportello’s pot-addled state of mind where things flow freely between reality and paranoid delusions, and the whole thing exists under several layers of woozy, sun-baked haze. It's a choice that leads to a film that is both fascinating and maddening. 

NATHANIEL: Yup, though more maddening than fascinating. Maybe I'm turned off because with each new movie P.T. Anderson seems to be on a perpetual downward slide in his ability to present female characters in a interesting way. We're a long long way from Amber Waves and Rollergirl at this point. The ladies here have nothing to do other than act as titillating sex objects without inner lives. The movie doesn't even pass the Bechdel Test despite at least four key females and it's narrated by one of the female characters but there's absolutely no sense that it's from her perspective and no scenes through which we get to know her either which makes that an inexplicably odd choice. Worst of all one woman with several lines of dialogue, the wife of Josh Brolin's "BigFoot", is actually decapitated by the framing; you never see her face! I'd consider it an amusing visual because of the content of the scene since the movie introduces a tertiary male character that way, too, but the difference is he eventually comes into view (despite being just as inconsequential to the narrative) and the men aren't all treated like whores.

MICHAEL C: I have a hard time coming down too hard on Inherent Vice for weak female characters when, to my mind, all the characters have an equally difficult time coming into focus through the thick cloud of pot smoke.  That the story is purposefully incoherent, as you put it, didn’t bother me since detective noir tradition means the nuts and bolts of who did what are supposed to take a backseat to the eccentric characters we meet along the way. What did bother me is that the characters didn’t pop the way I expect from Anderson. Say what you will about the vague storytelling of The Master, Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd were characters with a capital C. I didn’t meet anybody like that here. Detective Noir thrives on sharp character interactions and Inherent Vice creates a film in which nothing is sharp.

GLENN: I have been equating Inherent Vice with listening to a stoner tell a really complicated story while you're stone cold sober. And while stoner movies can be great when filmmakers know the limitations - I greatly admire Gregg Araki's Smiley Face and think it's hilarious without needing to be high, and thought Michael's description of the Coens' The Big Lebowski was spot on - but I get the distinct impression that everyone making this movie was in such a haze of smoke that they didn't realize they were making a movie that is 150 minutes of not a helluva lot with nothing to say about men and women, sex, crime, class - hell, even marijuana. All topics it appears to raise, but not do anything with.

I hate criticizing movies for being too complex to follow, but I was lost by the opening scene and it just gets worse. I didn't understand many of Anderson's storytelling decisions - the Joanna Newsom narration is particularly baffling - and the film came off as messy whereas his other films felt so focused on the end game even in spite of their fantastical whims and occasional hysteria. I get what he was going for, but it feels like a lot of work for very little payoff. There's next to no dramatic arc whatsoever (except for the Owen Wilson character), and many of it's best moments felt like sidetracked vignettes on the fringe.

NATHANIEL: You've both described the feel and the lack of Character or Story so perfectly. You know what it reminded me of after the fact? Something that I just couldn't name or shake at first and then I had my a-ha moment. It reminded me of a visual version of the audio commentary on Boogie Nights. Boogie Nights is one of the greatest movies of all time and I was  so disappointed with the commentary track when the special edition came out a super long time ago because it seemed like Anderson and his actors just hanging around cracking each other up and only occasionally talking about the movie, or remembering that film buffs would be listening along at home because they, you know, love the movie. So maybe include us and play for us or to us rather than with and for yourselves? 

Despite my dislike of the movie, I cherish nearly everything Josh Brolin in it.

Motto pankēki!" 

Were there any moments or characters you loved like that despite not thinking the movie worked?

JASON: There are a lot of reasons that I wish I too could take Anderson to task. I miss the dude who made Boogie Nights and Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love (especially PDL, that's my personal favorite) too - the characters that pop off the screen, the show-offy camera-work, the wunderkind pizazz. For another I think that the only proper response to somebody saying that "You need to see it a second time to understand it" is a slap across their face with a single glove and a pistol duel at dawn - a movie's got to earn that right up front, on a one-to-one basis, and if it doesn't, it don't.

And yet... I really would like to watch Inherent Vice a second time.

I was stand-offish with it for awhile but around the mid-point we really warmed to each other, and by the time it was done I was digging its spaced-age vibe, its oddly cool refusal to play by any rules save its own while simultaneously riffing on every Noir staple under the baked golden Californian sun. These characters have stuck to me by skittering away sideways from sticking - take Shasta Fay, the anti femme fatale who sets the mystery in motion and then promptly disappears... just cuz. Not to get spoilery but when she swims back into view through the story's own self-perpetuated fog, that scene... that scene! God that relationship and its byzantine unspoken oddness - it's fascinating to me for what it isn't, I guess, and for what they only sorta let us see it is. These people are little mysteries to themselves, and don't really seem to know why they're even doing what they're doing. 

Calling the movie's vibe "stoned" is easy but I think it's reductive; I think it's more just about an inability of expression - Doc, for all of Joaquin's grimy amiableness, can't seem to express what he's doing or why; we don't realize what his goals are until they've half-tumbled past, and he and Shasta Fay certainly can't seem to get a handle on their thing even as it's defining their every graceless swerve. I can see all of this being a frustrating experience for a viewer but at the same time, it gets to the heart of something kinda incandescent too.

GLENN: I don't necessarily blame the film entirely for being confusing. Maybe those who've read the Pynchon novel will understand it better, or maybe those who have a particular reverence for this era will find the experience more rewarding than I. Perhaps the most disappointing thing about it is that I am not particularly inspired to watch it again. It doesn't even feel like a failure in the ways that we can inspect it and study it and see what went wrong. I have no doubt that Inherent Vice is exactly the movie Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to make, it was just sadly not the film I wanted to watch. What that says about me, I'm not sure, but it's a personal reaction to a property that is impossible to ignore. I can admire it in many ways formally, but as an experience of sitting in a darkened theatre I did not enjoy it.

MICHAEL: I’m glad you framed the question in terms of moments, since that gives me an opportunity to praise the film. I found Vice beguiling on a moment-to-moment basis. It totally earns a second viewing from me, as Jason perfectly phrased it. (the “It require a second viewing!” cop out irks the hell out of me too, though) 

I think my top twenty favorite moments from the film would all involve Joaquin Phoenix’s brilliantly entertaining performance, which I flat-out loved even if I never totally get a grip on the character. Doc Sportello’s ineptitude as a P.I. was endlessly amusing and the running joke about the uselessness of his note taking skills made me guffaw every time. Elsewhere, Phoenix’s scramble to escape from handcuffs is so madly frenetic that it managed to redeem the whole “killer leaves the hero alone to give him time to escape” cliché. Plus, Doc has a spellbinding flashback involving Shasta, a Ouija board, and a rainstorm that is worth sitting through any amount of woozy, meandering to arrive at. 

I was also enraptured by a beauty of a long take where Owen Wilson delivers a lengthy monologue in one long, uncut push in. I expect my appreciation of that scene to grow when I eventually decipher what the hell it is they’re talking about.

NATHANIEL: Hearing you all recite these moments makes me think the movie will have a long shelf life, and not just because it's a P.T. Anderson film and the celebrated auteurs bring even their weakest films into immortality by their name up top. I think since the birth of home viewing, movies that play well in tiny fragments are often considered to be better than they actually are if people aren't really looking at the whole film. Or aren't recalling it. 

I just hope this isn't a new direction for P.T. Anderson. This is a few minutes longer than The Master and only a few minutes shorter than Boogie Nights but it's got so much less to say than either of them (or isn't considered with saying it in an intelligible way) and, most disappointingly, despite a huge ensemble a dearth of three dimensional characters that you can imagine existing outside the movie.

I'll grant it the occasional laugh, especially the note-taking you mention, Michael. I actually relate! Doc's notes are *just* like my scribblings at critics screenings and even during this very movie. Scribblings which I promptly ignore post-screening never using them when I write my reviews.

Inherent Vice doesn't open until December 12th in limited release and wide on January 9th so readers have a long time to read the novel beforehand to help decipher the baked movie.

 

 

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Reader Comments (19)

Nathaniel will like a Paul Thomas Anderson movie again when it centers around a female protagonist. He has yet to do so but he will inevitably. Someone somewhere will suggest he build a movie around a woman or women since I am sure he'll want to write another role for Maya Rudolph and possibly and hopefully newly Academy Award winning Julianne Moore.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

As a PTA devotee, I read this book a few months ago in anticipation and can confirm that it was quite confusing and I was completely lost through long stretches of it. The ensemble seemed like a big selling point when I first heard of the movie, especially considering PTA was so great leading the ensembles of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, but the book also revolves almost entirely around Doc with only Bigfoot getting more than a couple key scenes. I'm still very excited to see the film since it's PTA and it seems like a fun time even though I already anticipate leaving the theater having no idea what the story was.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdoughyjunn

This conversation makes me all the more curious to see the film! I wouldn't say I have a "reverence for the era," but it resonates deeply with me. However, I won't read the novel first because a) no film ever lives up to a freshly read text for me, and b) I have to admit that Pynchon has always been a hard read—unless I'm stoned.

I'm wondering: How would those of you who have seen Inherent Vice compare it to I'm Not There or any of the Charlie Kaufman projects (like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation or Synecdoche, New York)?

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Boogie Nights was the last PT Anderson film I enjoyed (I appreciate There will be Blood). I hated Magnolia and The Master, truly, deeply, hated them and this sounds like more of the same. It's as if PT is masturbating all over the screen, but he is the only one getting any pleasure out of it. There is obvious craft to his films, but all that talent is self serving. I fear I will have to watch this one at some point.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

/3rtful -- please. i'm not that easy. If Doc Sportello had been a woman in this movie it still would have been mostly the same movie (i.e. not a good one)

doughyjunn -- yes, i feel PTA has lost his touch for ensembles. His films are almost always about one man now (or two in the case of The Master) where Magnolia and Boogie Nights are both rich with possibilities for audience "ins" and people to care about. This disappoints me not just because i love rich ensembles but because it makes his movies to much like other people's movies. There aren't that many filmmakers who are hugely adept with teeming ensembles and he seemed like he'd be one of them - particularly since Altman was his idol.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I read the novel recently and I can understand the mixed reviews of the film.

I didn't really 'get' the novel's humour a lot of the time, but it was batshit crazy and clever and weird and funny and I'm willing to read it again.

The plot starts out as if it's important but is deliberately convoluted and ends up being beside-the-point. You just have to let it go, go with the craziness and let the weirdness wash over you.

Judging by the book, this film will probably take a while to find its audience. Will be interesting to see how it does with critics and the Academy.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

All Pynchon novels have purposely impoossible to follow/completely mindfuck/batshit crazy/incoherent yet somehow hypnotic plots. And Inherent Vice is not really the exception.

Admittedly, it's more straightforward and easier to follow than something like "V" or (from what I'm told) "Gravity's Rainbow" and you can kinda sorta make out an overarching plot. But the plot is really beside the point. The fun is in the insane inventiveness, the prose, the vibe, the comedy.

I didn't read this discussion too closely because I still want to know as little about the movie as possible but it sounds like PTA may have stuck pretty closely to the Pynchon ethos.

I'm convinced that there's a great movie to be done in the Pynchon style, though I'm not too sure that PTA is the candidate for that. He already struggled to make a coherent point and got very lost (and often static) with a pretty straightforward premise in The Master.

And even though I looove There Will Be Blood for its excesses and visual panache.. on a basic level, as a piece of storytelling, it's an absolute mess. If I read that script, I would assume the movie would simply amount to a disjointed load of wank.

All the same I'm still looking forward to seeing Inherent Vice, albeit a lot less now that I've read PTA doesn't do well by his female characters.

Speaking of The Big Lebowski however, I would love to see the Coens take on Pynchon.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I highly doubt the Academy are gonna respond to it, except perhaps a technical thing here or there (or even a screenplay one if there branch are particularly impressed).

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

My takeaway is Nathaniel mentioning that he loved Birdman when he normally doesn't care for Innaritu. Can't wait for that one, and I'm in the same boat. PT Anderson certainly had brilliant characters in Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Punch Drunk Love, but his masterpiece in my book is There Will Be Blood. Not sure he'll ever get close to that again.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

I too love (and I mean love) Boogie Nights, Punch Drunk Love and especially Magnolia, but I don't even know that I even care to see this in the theater, not at this busy movie-going time of year, Everything I've read about it disinterests me, and I thought the trailer was very forced. Joaquin seemed so miscast.

I'm not surprised to hear that the female characters are such non-entities in this one, since they've been vanishing in PTA's films since Punch Drunk Love. Laura Dern had nothing to do in The Master, and Amy Adams did what she could with an underwritten character. It's very sad. The Wrap had an excellent longer piece on this, which of course was roundly attacked on the net.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

To be fair The Master is completely awful with no point or plot. How could this be worse?

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdan

It interesting how people keep saying how excited they were when he left the Boogie Nights and Magnolia days behind. Nobody seemed to realize that's when he was making his best films.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentermike

"Nobody seemed to realize that's when he was making his best films."

In your opinion. Hardly factual truth.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I feel someone should speak up for Peggy Dodd, so without getting into a lengthy post (which I warn you, I will totally write if forced) I will simply say that there is a big difference between an underwritten character and a character who doesn't talk a lot, and in my view Amy Adams character in The Master falls into the second category.

October 14, 2014 | Registered CommenterMichael C.

Michael C.: Exactly. Rosamund Pike in The World's End is definition underwritten. Now, was Amy Adams the best choice for a character who spoke that little? That's probably a more accurate and harder to answer question.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

mike -- i dont know why anybody was happy for him to move away from that. perplexing to me. I mean Magnolia had some issues but nobody else was making films like that

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I love The Master, and Joaquin deserved to win the Oscar over Day-Lewis!
I have such a high expectation for Inherent Vice...

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

For Paul, being the ensemble guy is restrictive.

October 15, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I saw this at NYFF as well. I agree with the sentiment that the whole "you need to see it again" is a cop out...but only if someone is saying to you I totally got the film you need to see it again. In this case I actually want to see it again, I don't need some pretenious well read scholar to tell me to cuz I didn't get it..I want to see it again many times, to unpack the nuance, and in the end maybe its not there, but watching it and enjoying so much of it and being frustrating by so much of it just makes me want to dive back in

overall my feeling was despite being a hilarious ride (parts anyway) there was nothing to ground Doc... incromprehensible/meaningless plots can work but in my mind you need to know your main characters motivation. I mean think about it the dude just wanted his rug back, what did Doc want? i don't have a clue

October 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharles

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