Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top. Bacon. Scones, butter, cream, jam. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea…. And some sausages.
—- Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread
One of the ideas that I had when we decided to Cut the Cord (eliminate cable television) is to rent movies from the library. Free and easy. Our library has a huge selection of DVDs – movies on the ground floor and instructional/educational on the third. I see people, especially families with children, checking out monstrous piles of DVDs – I don’t know how they can watch that many in the seven day allotted period. I used to check out movies, but haven’t in a decade or so.
I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen Phantom Thread yet – a variety of reasons, mostly related to sloth in its various forms. It’s been a year. But as I was at the library on the last day of 2018, returning a stack of books, I looked along the long rows of DVD offerings (shocked at how many I had already seen) until I chose Phantom Thread. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. It was in the running for a number of Oscars – and I don’t give a shit.
I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. His work is a gift to the world.
Phantom Thread was reviewed better than his last full film, Inherent Vice. However, I loved Inherent Vice – of course, if you didn’t like it, or you think it was a piece of crap… I won’t argue with you. Paul Thomas Anderson does not know who I am – I have never met him and never will, but somehow he made a film, Inherent Vice, for me individually. If he scanned my dusty noggin and extracted whatever is in there and then made a movie that would resonate… it would be Inherent Vice. Well, actually it would be Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s impossible to put that on celluloid or nitrate or bits-n-bytes. Inherent Vice is as close as you can get in the real world.
So, I pulled out the DVD player, blew off the thick layer of dust and plopped the library disc in. It took some playing with the various remotes but I managed to get it to play in surprisingly good quality. Excellent film – really needs to be seen twice because, like all truly good films, the first time through you sit there going “What the fuck is this?” Once you realize it’s a twisted rom-com you can enjoy the belly laughs.
I’ll let you enjoy the humor of a persnickety and slightly effeminate dress designer of a main character with mommy issues and surrounded by women (customers, seamstresses, and his sister) lugging the name Reynolds Woodcock around London. Chekhov’s gun makes an early appearance in a book about mushrooms. And the surface beauty masks the perverse melodrama simmering underneath.
So now – a trip back to the library and the return chute and another walk along the DVD aisle. I can’t plan ahead because the films churn quite a bit. Old-School baby!
“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
So, last September I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon because… well, because it is Thomas Pynchon – but more specifically because I had read that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) was making a film based on the book and I wanted to experience the text first.
Pynchon has occupied a great many of my thoughts and a large part of my time ever since I first picked up a paperback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the KU Bookstore in 1976 or so (I was not able to finish it for a quarter century – not until a summary, an online page by page annotation, and wiki helped me keep the characters straight). I have read most of the rest of his oeuvre (still have an unopened copy of Bleeding Edge on my bookshelf) and am most assuredly a fan.
Up until I read Inherent Vice I considered Pynchon’s fiction to be unfilmable. After reading it, I agreed with PTA in that Inherent Vice was only almost unfilmable. He had tried to adapt Vineland into a movie, but realized that was impossible.
Because of business and inattention to the Internet, I missed the Dallas showings of the film in December, but finally a wider release was in the offing. My son and his friends saw it over the initial weekend, but I wasn’t able to fit the time in so I decided to go after work.
On Monday I logged into the Alamo Drafthouse website (it’s only a stone’s throw from my house and my work) and bought a ticket for that evening. I was tired and it was bitter cold and I knew that if I didn’t buy it ahead of time I would wimp out after work and go home and sleep.
If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson you will be disappointed. This isn’t a PTA movie; it is a Pynchon movie. PTA’s movies can be weird (Frogs!?) but this one is WEIRD. What makes it crazy making if you don’t know what to expect is that he sets the stage with so many familiar tropes and then abandons them without a moment’s hesitation or regret. From the trailer you might think that it is a detective story – about a search for a missing billionaire and the detective’s old girlfriend – hoary old familiar plot devices -, but from the book I knew that this is a feint – that nothing is going to be explained, nothing is going to make sense, and the mystery will fade away rather than be resolved. What the hell exactly is The Golden Fang anyways?
You might also think that this is going to be a druggie comedy in the style of The Big Lebowski. There are elements of that – but the comedy is overshadowed by Pynchon’s signature paranoia and despair.
But, that said – I thought it was great. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.
Despite the ending being changed and large sections of the novel excised (you have to do this to get a tolerable running time) it is amazingly faithful to the book – for good and bad.
What was crazy for me is the way the characters speak. I have been reading Pynchon for so long I am very familiar with the unique language a Pynchonian character uses – his cadence, style, and subject matter. I have been reading these letters on the page and hearing them in my head for decades.
Now, to hear these words coming out of another human being’s mouth was astounding. I could only shake my head at this ephemeral world of imagination now come to life on the silver screen.
“What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
I have always had an odd and powerful relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. I have spent a good portion of my life with his work in my hands. It started with Gravity’s Rainbow – which took me twenty five years to read… and I consider it to be my favorite novel. Even though I first tried to read it in college I was not able to get through the massive tome until the advent of the internet. I had to follow along with a chapter by chapter summary and a hypertext compendium of characters and information to keep from getting lost.
Then, over the years, there was the almost equally massive V – then the short and bitter Crying of Lot 49. Time marched on to the West-Coast based Vineland and by the time Mason & Dixon arrived I was writing online and chronicled the devouring of this text as I went along.
From my old blog – The Daily Epiphany
Daily Epiphany -Friday, March 19, 1999
Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs
May 2, 1997. A little less than two years ago. That’s the exact day that Mason & Dixon arrived from Amazon (an online journal is useful for finding useless factoids like that).
Over those two years I have, sometimes dutifully, more often sporadically, with plenty of vacations and sabbaticals, slogged through the pages. I was well known to be seen carrying that book around, it’s cover handmade by me from the red white and blue Tyvek wrapper it arrived in. “Aren’t you finished yet?” asked on many occasions.
That didn’t bother me. After all, it took me twenty five years to read Gravity’s Rainbow. In some ways, Mason & Dixon, though shorter and less complex, was even more difficult. The weird faux colonial Olde English and bizarre capitalization and punctuation added an Extra Dimension of Difficulty to the usual Pynchonian Puzzlements.
So slowly I kept at it. Week by week the irregular, oval coffee-stain on the pager-edges moved, slice by imperceptible slice, from my right hand to my left.
Tonight, I finished it.
I bent the cover back and slid the crude Tyvek cover off and dropped it into the trash. It was replaced with the original two-layer cover, preserved from the travails of two years of pawing, stored safely in a dresser drawer.
In order to make room in my bookcase for the Pynchon, I had to pull something out. So, now, it’s Infinite Jest. It’s only 1,079 pages long. Print looks a little small. I even have a bookmark for it. I bought the book used and it contains a loose snapshot of some scrubby looking guy posing by a motorcycle. I have, of course, absolutely no idea who this is. That’ll do.
The thickness and size seemed familiar so, on a whim, I pulled that Tyvek bookcover out of the basket, turned the cover around.
It fit exactly.
A few years later, I tackled Against the Day, then fell off the Pynchon wagon (for no real reason except maybe the intrusion of real life) until now.
Now, I decided to read Inherent Vice – Pynchon’s noirish dark psychedelic detective crime novel.
“Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll, although in which order these are to be deployed must depend on conditions specific to the moment.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
“It had been dark at the beach for hours, he hadn’t been smoking much and it wasn’t headlights – but before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, in to shore and safety.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Oh, and not just any movie, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
Imagine that, Paul Thomas Anderson filming a Pynchon novel. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.
Modern technology has advanced now to the point I could sit in my reading chair with the book in one hand and a tablet in the other, with web pages queued up to alphabetical and page-by-page summaries to help me with the complex plot and kaleidoscope of characters.
This is arguably his most accessible novel, if for no other reason it has a familiar setting and is woven upon a loom of an established detective genre. It is the only thing I’ve read by Pynchon that I would say is remotely filmable – though just barely.
It still has the Pynchonian style of paranoia, subtle complexity, and, especially, a huge cast of odd characters with odder names. I enjoyed the book immensely. It is, without a doubt, the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.
Now I am psyched for the film. Only a few days before the premiere. This will be the second beloved book (after Cloud Atlas) committed to celluloid (actually its digital equivalent) by a stylish director in the last two years. I loved Cloud Atlas (both the book and the film) though it predictably bombed at the box office.
I suspect a similar fate for Inherent Vice – I can’t imagine the ordinary teenage-minded moviegoer enjoying the complex interplay of humor and horror that the Pynchonian Universe produces splashed across the silver screen. But I will be there, staring up as if it were meant for me alone.
“You need to find true love, Doc.”
Actually, he thought, I’ll settle for finding my way through this. His fingers, with a mind of their own, began to creep toward the plastic hedge. Maybe if he searched through it long enough, late enough into the night, he’d find something that might help — some tiny forgotten scrap of his life he didn’t even know was missing, something that would make all the difference now.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Looking at the IMDB page – it sure looks weird, seeing all those big time (and not so much) stars arranged against those wonderfully outlandish Thomas Pynchon character names.
Reese Witherspoon … Penny
Jena Malone … Hope Harlingen
Joaquin Phoenix … Doc Sportello
Josh Brolin … Bigfoot Bjornsen
Sasha Pieterse … Japonica Fenway
Owen Wilson … Coy Harlingen
Benicio Del Toro … Sauncho Smilax
Michael K. Williams … Tariq Khalil
Eric Roberts … Mickey Wolfmann
Maya Rudolph … Petunia Leeway
Martin Short … Dr. Blatnoyd
Sam Jaeger … Agent Flatweed
Katherine Waterston … Shasta Fay Hepworth
Martin Donovan … Crocker Fenway
Timothy Simons … Agent Borderline
Yvette Yates … Luz
Serena Scott Thomas … Sloane Wolfmann
Keith Jardine … Puck Beaverton
Elaine Tan … Xandra
Madison Leisle … Goldfang
Steven Wiig … Portola Barkeep
Jeannie Berlin … Aunt Reet
Christopher Allen Nelson … Glenn Charlock
Hong Chau … Jade
Jefferson Mays … Dr. Threeply
Peter McRobbie … Adrian Prussia
Samantha Lemole … Gold Fang Mom
Toyia Brown … Harmony
Diana Elizabeth Torres … Lourdes
Sophia Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Andrew Simpson … Riggs Warbling
Victoria Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Martin Dew … Dr. Tubeside
Michael Cotter … Rhus Farthington
Taylor Bonin … Ensenada Slim
Laura Kranz … Chryskylodon Patient
“Later they went outside, where a light rain was blowing in, mixed with salt spray feathering off the surf. Shasta wandered slowly down to the beach and through the wet sand, her nape in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of. Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice