Grain

Inherent-Vice

Pting. Vessooey. Wooch.

I never saw THE MASTER on the big screen. I missed the 70mm screenings in Dublin by days, and the big print never made it to Edinburgh. Apparently the London cinema that had first dibs on it had booked their best projectionist to handle it, but decided to save a little money by letting a less experienced employee take care of the press screening. He wrecked the print.

Bliffle. Wazzmap. Trintrintrittock.

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And I wasn’t completely sure I was going to bother with seeing INHERENT VICE in 35mm — Fiona, influenced by bad reviews, wasn’t interested, and a few friends reported disappointment and bafflement. I let the Cameo screenings slide by. But, on a whim, I popped along to Filmhouse 3 after work yesterday — and I really, really liked it. But it’s put me in quite a strange frame of mind. Vuvuvungle. Ilm. Fffffiip.

Another thing that had put me off slightly is that I had read the book, and found it extremely slight by Pynchon standard. Not just thin physically — The Crying of Lot 49 is also slender — but conceptually. It seemed filmable, but a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stature, should have selected a LESS filmable book and then grappled with its challenges/impossibilities.

I mean, we’d already had Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which maybe didn’t overtly male Philip Marlowe a stoner, but by casting Elliott Gould at least implied as much. And then THE BIG LEBOWSKI made it literal. Pynchon’s “Doc” Sportello seemed doubly redundant, and more so as a movie character. Trahumph. Crrrrk.

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Since seeing the movie, I have a Tourettes-like urge to make silly noises, rather in the manner of Jerry Lewis in WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? when he can’t handle rejection. Vooolf.

Burke Stodger, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Sauncho Smilax… Wrrrab. Sporf. Maybe it’s the onslaught of Pynchonian names, even more overpowering on the screen, where an actor has to actually introduce himself as Dr. Threeply. Giddiness sets in. Watching lots of drugs being consumed doesn’t usually produce any vicarious effect in me except perhaps boredom, though the fast cutting in the brownies scene in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS did make me feel kind of sick. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, watched on a single glass of wine, did produce some kind of elation, and I kind of caught Brad Pitt’s mania from TWELVE MONKEYS. Preet. Prott. Hespelafigo.

Luckily there was nobody at the bus-stop after the film so I could Vrrroop and Pleck and Spraddlekoffup to my heart’s content.

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I will discipline myself. No more eruptions. Anderson’s film is flawed — I don’t mean that it’s impossible to follow — I actually understood most of it better than I understand THE BIG SLEEP, and I suspect a repeat viewing would clear up the remaining mysteries (which are not insignificant: what the hell was Bigfoot Bjornsen trying to achieve with the stolen drugs?). But there are plainly too many two-hander scenes in which Joaquin Phoenix (very funny) sits down with an informant and gets told some more plot. In one lengthy exchange over a canister of nitrous oxide (which literally induces laughter here, something I understand to be pharmacologically inaccurate), Anderson serves up the exposition in a pair of closeups against featureless white walls in a tiny cubicle, until I felt suffocated of all visual stimulation (kind of like the incomprehensibly long two profile shots outside the church in KILL BILL: death by understimulation). But those white walls showed up the grain nicely.

I wasn’t sure how nostalgic I felt about celluloid. When the censor’s certificate came on at the start, scratched to buggery and out of focus, I thought, “Oh, I haven’t been missing THIS.” But that dancing pointillist patina… a film that so successfully evokes its period would be impossible on digital, even with all the colour manipulation available. This experience is akin to time-travel.

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Oh yes, the movie’s flaws. It’s overlong and overshoots its climax by what feels like twenty minutes. But it has Owen Wilson, the heart of the movie. (The melancholy of the first scene, with the protean Katherine Waterston — one of a regiment of scratchy-voiced chicks rocking the natural look — sets up the undercurrent of sadness that Pynchon gets at in his prose sometimes but never in the actual SCENES of the novel, so it’s a brilliant piece of adaptation to me). It has Martin Short, channelling Burgess Meredith at his most Creep Factor 11, filtered through a layer of Phil Spector. Genius. I mean, NOBODY does Burgess Meredith. Short has a history of crystallizing the madness of whatever film he’s in, presenting it in a purer, more intoxicating form (MARS ATTACKS!). Josh Brolin, presenting the Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Whiteman (to quote the Robert Crumb cartoon: “I must retain this rigid position or all is lost!”) Benicio Del Toro, underselling his quirkiness, which makes it even more striking. Some guys I don’t know so well are astounding: Jeannie Berlin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jefferson Mays. And, in the “Where you been?” category, Eric Roberts and Martin Donovan.

This spaced-out Rockford Files won’t appeal to everybody. As I watched, I was wondering if my mum would like it. She enjoyed THE BIG LEBOWSKI… But this is more intense, peculiar, and dysfunctional. But it also has more of a purpose. Anderson, unlike Altman or the Coens, finds Sportello’s moral code admirable, I think. And the film’s elegiac quality, creeping up on you unexpectedly, is something far out of the register of its predecessors. Pynchon’s best bit in the book is the foreshadowing of the internet — it’s when the whole enterprise belatedly acquires some gravitas and atmosphere. Anderson deletes it entirely — but he captures the gravitas, and enhances the atmosphere.

Zzzzzzeeb! Hataracack.

 

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25 Responses to “Grain”

  1. Oh yes, we agree 100% on this (except for the jumpy certificate at the beginning – I felt physically happy, seeing it all scratched up, thinking of the old Bolex or whatever they use at the Irish Office of Film Certification having to be cranked up for ONE LAST JOB…)

    I brought a viewing companion to this who is entirely ignorant of the work of Paul Thomas Anderson (she considers American cinema bankrupt and pointless). Imagine this being your introduction to the PTA oeuvre, with all the steals from Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker racked up alongside the misty elegaic 70s vibe….

  2. I should have mentioned that the projection was flawless after the censor card, apart from one of those odd reel changes where it’s like a four-frame dissolve — a door seemed to open in Phoenix’s left cheek.

    Inherent Vice, with its nostalgic recreation of a past cinematic era and an older genre, might actually be the epitome of bankrupt and pointless. But I wouldn’t let that stop me loving it.

  3. Didn’t work for me at all. But then neither did “The Big Lebowski.” This style of stoner doesn’t compute for me — whereas Elliot Gould in “The Long Goodbye” is My Man all the way.

    Paul Thomas Anderson is a good “idea” of a director, but not a good director per se. “The Will Be Blood” had Daniel Day Lewis to hold it together. That’s beyond Leaf Phoenix’s exceedingly slim range.

    Martin Short appears to be in another movie. But it’s not one care for very much either.

    Eons I I thought Losey would be the ideal director for a film of Pynchon’s “V”

    Oh well.

  4. I loved it, and I’m not really a PTA fan. For me, it completely reproduced the sensation of smoking a big fat joint and then watching a private eye movie on TV while all the time suspecting the movie isn’t as interesting as you think it is, and that you’re only finding it fascinating because you’re stoned out of your gourd.

    I’m not really a Phoenix fan either, but I found him hilarious – and also surprisingly subtle. Another actor would probably have overdone his reaction shots. Katherine Waterston (whom I’ve apparently seen in several other films without really registering her presence) was terrific. I haven’t read Pynchon, but the names reminded me of eearly Cronenberg.

    And I loved the sex scene, which was horny and dirty in a way that reminds you how sexy sex used to be in the 1970s, even though it was often politically incorrect as well. Now it’s as though you have to get into training, wear all the right things, and be properly posed and choreographed – and not just in the movies. Like a lot of other things, sex has become all packaging and presentation. The worst thing in the world, it seems, is to be thought sexually undesirable, so people are continually broadcasting PR versions of their sexual activity to bolster their self-esteem.

    Anyway, I find Phoenix physically quite creepy, and in Inherent Vice he’s almost certainly smelly as well. But he’s also quite sexy in an earthy, honest way that I haven’t seen in an actor for AGES.

  5. From his first few films, I thought Anderson was a gifted pastiche artist (Hard Eight being the most promising, as the simplest). But the bits of story he doesn’t do, which seemed like laspes in Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are taking over to the point where he’s becomes something much more elusive and allusive and mysterious. Is there actually anything underneath the razzle-dazzle? I don’t know, but I’m facinated by his refusal to say.

    Disagree on Phoenix’s range — I find it hard to believe this is the same actor from Her.

    I’ve heard people say they don’t like Lebowski because they don’t enjoy stoner conversations irl. Neither do I, but that never seemed important. I like them because they’re entertainingly stupid conversations.

  6. Stoner conversations irl can be great fun if you’re stoned. Same as drunk conversations. It’s only when you’re the designated driver for the evening that you realise how tiresome they really are.

  7. I’m a bit discombobulated by that still at the top of the page, by the way. Have those knickers been drawn on? Not saying by you, but maybe by the publicists. They certainly don’t look real.

  8. Well he’s fine in “Her” because he basically reads the lines without doing anything. Here he’s required to grimace constantly.

  9. There you go, then, he has at least two modes: grimace on or grimace off. Akin to Walter Brennan’s “teeth in or teeth out”.

  10. I think they are airbrushed knickers, yes.

  11. I thought I saw quite a lot of calibration in the grimacing. As stated earlier, I’m not a Phoenix fan, so not trying to stick up for him particularly. But not nearly as broad a stoner as, for example, Bridges in Lebowski. And I think he manages to suggest Sportello’s Marlowe-esque sensibility without having to hammer it home.

  12. I found both Boogie Nights and Magnolia far more gripping than they would have been if they’d been mere pastiche, their content engaging and moving me far more than the content of the work whose style they stole. PTA’s later experiments in adaptation and finding his own style leave me almost totally cold – they are on so many levels absolutely disasters of story-telling, and this doesn’t really sound any different.

  13. Well, it has more of a through-line, and I would argue that as pure plot mechanics it winds up in a somewhat satusfying place, even if the details seem a little fuzzy. Very different from There Will Be Blood’s shrug of a punchline. I think you ought to try it — it’s different.

  14. Oh I like that “shrug” better than anything else in PTA.

    He’s not interested in “story-telling” per se. Only the momentary jolts (or “shrugs”) to be gleaned from it — like the above still of Leaf with some girl’s bikinied ass in his face as he nods out.

  15. Some girl’s AIRBRUSHED bikinied ass.

    I laughed my ass off at TWBB’s ending, and then couldn’t decide if it was in any way a satsfactory pay-off. And I get that a lot with PTA, and it intrigues me.

  16. I should definitely try it. I guess I found the shrugs so off-putting because when PTA cared, he REALLY cared.

  17. I think he’s sincerely affectionate towards his main character here, and the stuff with Owen Wilson et famille is emotional. You might find you like this one.

  18. John Seal Says:

    Kenneth Williams is in it? Carry On Paul Thomas Anderson!!

  19. PTA is one of the few modern filmmakers whose movies are relaxed enough to accommodate a Kenneth Williams performance without rupturing. Would that it were possible.

  20. He’s got Martin Short as a Kenneth Williams stand-in of sorts.

  21. It’s true! “Stop messin’ abaht!”

  22. The projectionist ruined the 70mm print of The Master? Oh dear god. The Arclight Cinerama screened it here for a week. Gorgeous. A film that actually enthralled me from start to finish but, oddly, a film I have little interest in seeing again.

  23. I finally saw it on DVD and thought it visually stunning — a really unusual way of suggesting period via colour, not in an obvious manner — and the performances are electrifying.

    Yeah, would I watch it again? Yes, if it shows up in 70mm…

  24. Well, I found it utterly sublime – hysterically funny in almost every scene and constantly surprising in small ways, almost never big ones, and quite moving in not just the Owen Wilson subplot and the last scene with Brolin, but also in the sincerity of Doc’s heartache that would emerge through his addled, fuck-it-all stoner armor whenever the subject of Waterston’s character came up. The shaggy-dog quality of it, the meandering wander through a time and place and atmosphere, was entirely a feature and not a bug.

    And of course, even liking the film somewhat less than I, you describe its qualities so much more eloquently. Bravo as usual.

    I find PTA’s last three films all of a piece, and each of them almost as great as any American film I’ve seen this century so far (I was mixed on him before – BOOGIE NIGHTS yay, MAGNOLIA and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE ehh so so). He seemed to suddenly become a different filmmaker with TWBB. Three in a row makes him a damned genius in my mind, and I was utterly mystified by the lukewarm reaction to INHERENT VICE.

    (Obligatory Pynchon credentials: I’ve only read LOT 49, which is odd, since I consider it one of the greatest English-language novels I’ve encountered and have read it twice. I think I’m intimidated by his bigger novels. Oh, and also I tried to read V. sometime in the late ’90s and happened to hit the graphic, pages-long nose-job scene while eating lunch and never picked it up again, apparently saddled with a Pavlovian aversion. If VICE is lighter Pynchon, maybe I’ll read that and use it to bootstrap myself up to the likes of GRAVITY’S RAINBOW.)

    Somewhere out there, someone must have done a video parody of “Michael Mann’s INHERENT MIAMI VICE.”

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