Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Inherent Vice: My take on the book behind the upcoming movie starring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc


I'm a Los Angeleno. I've been around this sprawl of a town ever since moving here with my family in October of 1968. With the exception of the fictional beach town of Gordita Beach ('little fat one' en español) situated somewhere between Playa Del Rey and Palos Verdes on the southern coast of California, the places in Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice are my places. From the long-gone Zucky's in Santa Monica where I drank many a post-midnight cup of coffee, to the stately homes of Hancock Park, the beachfront apartment buildings climbing the hillsides of Manhattan Beach where all the 'stewardii' lived to the oil rigs studding the landscape off La Cienega, I've been there, done that. All of which made reading Pynchon's 2009 novel (soon to be a movie starring Joaquin Phoenix) set in the year 1970 and situated in all the places I knew and loved and, sometimes hated, a bit of a trip ... down memory lane. 



To be honest reading Pynchon was a bit of a trip in that sense as well, with Doc Sportello lighting up so frequently I almost felt it was bad form not to join him! Pynchon's portrayal of the period is pretty much how it was back then unless you were 'straight' which had little to do with your sexuality and everything to do with how cool or uncool you were regarding the smoking of grass. And to a lesser degree dropping acid or doing shrooms. Even people who were supposed to be straight turned out to be not so much, like the preacher's son who was the youth pastor at our church. My BFF and I went down to meet him at Venice Beach after church one Sunday afternoon and found him high, bare chested and barefoot, dancing in the sand, promising to turn us on. The scene would have fit right in with the rest of the pages of Inherent Vice, with all the long-hairs, bare-foot hippies, drums, guitars, toking up and moving wildly with the crowd to the music while the scents of patchouli oil and pot mixed with suntan oil and ocean spray. We loved it.


Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix)

That's the personal lens that colored my reading of Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon's spoofy detective story about Doc Sportello, a stoner private eye on the hunt for his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth. Reading it stoned though, would not be advisable. What begins with Shasta showing up on Doc's doorstep, concerned that the wife of her current gazillionaire boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann, is trying to set him up, goes on something of a magical mystery tour when she goes missing. Doc, intent on making sure that Shasta is okay, soon lands in a world of trouble of his own when he's found looking like a very suspicious character at the center of a crime scene. Among the boat load of other characters we meet as Sportello tries to get to the bottom of things are a lot of shady types that none of us (not me, not Doc, and probably not you) know who to believe or who to trust. 



Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro) Doc (Joaquin Phoenix)

Shaggy-haired, huaraches-wearing Doc follows one lead after another as he bounces from one source to another, meeting up with ex-cons, massage parlor cuties, helpful stewardii, gurus, dope dealers, right wing Detective Bigfoot, Sauncho Smilax (his hooked-on-TV lawyer), Penny (the Deputy D.A. Doc has on again-off again casual sex with), Coy Harlingen (a missing heroin addict presumed dead), his wife Hope, Sloane (Wolfmann's 'society-page superstar wife), Dr. Blatnoyd (a bizarre dentist),FBI agents Flatweed and Borderline, Denis,(Doc's occasional side-kick and Doc's rather lovable parents, Leo and Elmina. In one of the few almost mushy moments from the book, they phone Doc, who they still call by his given name Larry. Ostensibly they want to talk about family matters but really what they want to do is to score some marijuana. He can get it for them wholesale:
"Sure. Just do me a favor you guys?"
Elmina reached down the miles of phone line to take his cheek in a pinch and wobble it back and forth once or twice. "Best of the bunch! Anything, Larry."
"Not when you're baby-sitting, okay?"
Which for me was Pynchon's way of saying that Doc, despite his own eternal haze (I imagine him a bit like Pigpen, but instead of being followed by a cloud of dust and dirt, he's followed by air heavy with the fragrance of dope) isn't really the hippie freak that LAPD detective Christian BIGFOOT Bjornsen, the thorn in Doc's side and vice versa, likes to label him. 




"CONGRATULATIONS, HIPPIE SCUM" Bigfoot greeted Doc in his all-too-familiar 30-weight voice, "and welcome to a world of inconvenience. Yes, this time it appears you have finally managed to stumble into something too real and deep to hallucinate your worthless hippie ass out of."
Nope, he's not the depraved doper he might appear to be. Not just that anyway. Doc, much like his cinematic semi-incarnation the Dude, is at heart a good guy. While he's a wise ass with a smart mouth, he also has what he himself calls a doper's brain, which makes him one mellow dude. Mellow and immune to the betrayals of the people he associates with. When Penny, the Deputy DA he sleeps with from time to time sets him up for a chat with some FBI agents, Doc takes it philosophically, displaying his trademark sardonic sense of humor.
"Well bummer and so forth, wish I could help, but that Khalil guy didn't even leave me a phone number, you know how irresponsible they can get." Doc stood, put out his cigarette in the rest of his FBI coffee. "Tell Penny how groovy it was of her to set up this little get together, oh, and hey - can I be frank for a minute?"
"Of course," said Agents Flatweed and Borderline.
Snapping his fingers, Doc sang himself out the door with four bars of "Fly Me to the Moon," more or less on pitch, and added. "I know that the Director has a thing about spade penises, and I sure hope you find Mickey before all that cell block stuff starts happening." 

I adored Doc and mostly liked what is one of Pynchon's shorter and more accessible novels. At only 369 pages it's much briefer and much easier to understand than Gravity's Rainbow. Having said that, there are times Pynchon's flights of fancy did send me on a wrong turn off a freeway offramp landing me out in the weeds, wondering where I lost my way, and whether what I must have missed, mattered all that much. 

I don't know that it does. While I can't relate back to you every nuance of the plot and the solving of the crime, the Inherent Vice is more about a time, and place, a story of the way we were, the politics of the man VS the people, the powerful VS the have-nots.
In that way, as much as an old Los Angeleno like me reveled in the nostalgia Inherent Vice offers, what Pynchon has to say about Los Angeles in 1970 feels fresh, funny and relevant to today's world.

Besides the colorful cast of characters, and the places you'll go, the music Pynchon includes throughout makes for quite a lengthy playlist. Beginning with the description of Shasta wearing a Country Joe and the Fish T-shirt on page one, most of the references are torn from the old record collections of all my boomer buddies. (Actually I wrote a bit of memoir last spring in which Country Joe and the Fish figures fairly prominently

In an earlier post I shared the playlist that the author provided Amazon.com but I like this one from an Inherent Vice Wikki better. Not only are the page numbers provided, you can actually listen to the songs referenced. I wondered in that same post which of these songs if any, might make it into Jonny Greenwood's score. Greenwood is the composer hired by director Paul Thomas Anderson to deliver the soundtrack; we'll have to see how much he relies on the music of our lives vs original pieces. I'm not sure what to expect, but either way, I'm jazzed. 

MY RATING: As you know I don't give out stars, how about 3 out of 4 Gold Fangs? If you've read the book, you dig the reference.

In addition to Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello, the colorful cast of characters is being replicated on film by Katherine Waterston (Shasta), Reese Witherspoon (Penny), Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Benicio del Toro (Sauncho Smilax), Owen Wilson (Coy Harlingen), Jena Malone (Hope Harlingen), Martin Short (Dr. Blatnoyd), Maya Rudolph (Petunia, the receptionist he quasi-shares), Michael K. Williams (Tariq - an ex-con who wants Doc to find another ex-con who owes him money) and the mysterious Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Sometime sidekick Denis is played by an actor who is new to me, Jordan Christian Hearn so it's very possible the part is quite a bit smaller than what Pynchon gives us in the novel. Then again, who knows how true to the meandering novel the movie will be anyway. Here's what Josh Brolin (Bigfoot Bjornsen) said about that!
I just did a movie for P T Anderson that I didn’t understand. The writing of Thomas Pynchon is so Shakespearean. It was crazy, chaotic but really, really gratifying. We took it I think in a direction that the book doesn’t necessarily go, hoping it will work.
The movie isn't slated to open in theaters until January 9, 2015 but those of you in the New York area can see it sooner. Inherent Vice will debut as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival on October 4th. The festival runs September 26th - October 12th.

While there's no trailer yet, director Paul Thomas Anderson must have shared some clips with the organizers; watch the New York Film Festival's trailer closely and you'll see Joaquin Phoenix as Doc lighting up, and a bit later in a very fast bit, getting knocked down by a couple of cops. Lots of good movies coming our way!














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