The Muralist Vision Of Paul Thomas Anderson: Inherent Vice And The Cinematic Traditions of Los Angeles


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Inherent Vice didn’t make it far in the 2015 Oscars race, having gained only two very minor nominations (of course, as every member of the film community acknowledges, it’s an honour just to be nominated although you’re more likely to get laid or have the late night scribbles on the back of a Polo Lounge napkin green-lit by a major studio if you get one of the little golden guys. But that’s another thing. Entirely.).

Josh Brolin did tie for Best Supporting Actor (with Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher) at the prestigious Central Ohio Film Critics’ Association awards. So someone from the production does have a trophy to show for all their hard work, even if they only get to gaze upon its luminous presence every other week and maybe a little longer when Ruffalo is off doing Avengers sequels.

I should stop right here for a quick admission: I’m a big fan of director Paul Thomas Anderson. If ever there’s a theme park ride based on a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I’ll be first in line. Especially if it’s Boogie Nights and roller skates are involved. But that’s another thing. Entirely

Until now, my favourite Anderson outing was There Will Be Blood (2007), a movie that was just so impressive on first viewing and gets better as time goes on. Granted, I’d never been much of a Daniel Day-Lewis fan (although he was one of best things about Gangs Of New York, another favourite). However, it was Day-Lewis’ titanic performance in There Will Be Blood that nudged him several points higher in my estimations.

Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin
Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin

Ditto for Joaquin Phoenix. Maybe it’s just a latent animosity that stems from having a name that’s so needlessly difficult to pronounce (what happened to the good old days when actors would go out of their way to create audience-friendly names? Whether they were born with something puzzlingly unusual – we’re looking at you, Marion Morrison – or just plain vanilla, they could be transformed into a Rip Torn or Tab Hunter?).

No, Joaquin doesn’t so much trip off the tongue than plummet screaming to the ground (note to self: it appears to be pronounced WAW – KEEM but please correct me if I’m wrong). As for his acting chops, I’ve never quite understood the adoration.

In Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phoenix is a revelation. He’s so comprehensively immersed in the character that it’ll be difficult to believe him in anything else. That, my friends, is what acting is all about.

I generally don’t write about current release cinema. I leave that to the bulk of the blogging universe. But when it comes to Inherent Vice, a movie I know will stay with me a long time, I’ll make an exception. It helps that it encompasses two of my favourite things – detective stories and the history of Los Angeles.

Katherine Waterston and a fetching 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz
Katherine Waterston and a fetching 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz

Phoenix plays Larry “Doc” Sportello, an idealistic hippie stoner who, inexplicably, holds a private detective license. He lives in a scummy apartment in an equally scummy LA beachside community. Most importantly, deep down inside, Sportello is nothing more and nothing less than a reincarnated Philip Marlow.

Like Marlowe, he’s a hopeless (and occasionally helpless) romantic, a tilter at windmills, a champion of lost causes. The story begins when his lost love, Shasta, she of the long limbs and evocatively Southern Californian name, reappears with a plea to help her current lover, a wealthy married real estate mogul.

The time is 1970. The Summer of Love got the ultimate Dear John letter with Manson and Altamont the year before. Optimism and the hope for a better world has faded like reefer smoke on a Santa Ana. It’s a new decade and, despite the best efforts of Sportello and his ilk, big changes are in store.

On the mean streets that Sportello wanders, he must dodge skateboarders, neo-Nazis, an angry sociopathic cop who may or may not be his best friend, and Shasta, who maintains a vice-like grip on his heart. The cases he pursues fold back on themselves like Escher staircases. He’s beaten regularly, never paid, hardly accorded thanks. But he continues doing what he does because it’s all he knows. And the world, or at least Los Angeles, is a slightly better place because of it.

Jack Nicholson in Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in Chinatown

The mystery of Shasta’s missing boyfriend isn’t that important and logic really plays no part. It’s the figures in the landscape, the people he encounters along the way. It’s what they bring to him rather than how he addresses their problems.

Inherent Vice is another section of a much larger canvas slowing being assembled by Paul Thomas Anderson. From Boogie Nights and Magnolia, to Punch Drunk Love (2002) and on to There Will Be Blood (drawn from Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel, Oil!, and loosely based on oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, who dotted the landscape of early 20th century LA with thousands of oil derricks), Anderson’s larger intentions seem to lie in creating a grand narrative of Los Angeles, its life and times, on par with a Diego Rivera mural.

In doing so, he’s contributing to a much grander artistic tradition; Hollywood (and, by association, LA) and the film industry grew up together. They are intertwined by far more than just geographic proximity. Inherent Vice (and, to varying degrees, There Will Be Blood, Magnolia and Boogie Nights), stands alongside the very best depictions of the city – LA Confidential (1997), Day Of the Locust (1975), Chinatown (1974), Robert Altman’s unconventional interpretation of The Long Goodbye (1973), and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

With Inherent Vice, the traditional narrative stream is both enlivened and complicated by two factors, the most obvious being its LA noir overtones. The next is that it’s based on a Thomas Pynchon novel.

Russel Crowe (left) and Guy Pierce (centre) in LA Confidential
Russel Crowe  and Guy Pierce in LA Confidential

I have no idea of the source material and would barely know where to find Pynchon in a bookstore if I didn’t have a few rather obvious clues to work with. I’m not a literature kind of guy, preferring genre anytime. It’s a survival thing. I’ve already died once and have no intention of being bored to death so, when that trusty reference resource, Wikipedia, says that Pynchon is noted “for his dense and complex novels”, I’m already reaching for the nitroglycerin tablets. Just in case.

On the other hand, I’ve been told Pynchon (note to self: PIN – CHIN) delights in inside jokes, popular music references, sex, drugs, and freaks, all thrown against the wall like a monkey with a handful of shit. Some sticks, some doesn’t. He’s beginning to sound like my kinda guy.

Then, invariably, someone, somewhere, compares Pynchon with James Joyce and I recall the fateful words of Admiral Ackbar: “It’s a trap!” So I’m back to square one, literature-wise. I’ll just have to be content with Pynchon on film. This may well be the perfect example of not wanting to read the book in case it spoils the movie.

I’ll admit Inherent Vice has its challenges. It pays not to anticipate too eagerly a conventional three-act format, no neatly-wrapped mystery with the guilty party named, shamed and brought to justice before the closing credits. Rather, the mystery lies in the journey (and in Sportello himself, in a Carlos Castaneda kinda way). It’s the story of Los Angeles as much as the temporary travails of the characters who bump around on the screen.

Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye
Elliott Gould as Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye

The exceptional supporting cast is a joy in itself. Josh Brolin in a man-mountain police detective with anger management issues who alternates between Portello’s worst enemy and saviour.

Special mention to Katherine Waterston as Shasta, Portello’s Guinevere in a black Cadillac Biarritz convertible. This is very much her breakthrough role; up till now, the acting accolades in her family have been heaped on her father, Sam, better recognised these days for his 16-season run as ADA (and later DA) Jack McCoy on television’s Law & Order (although also fondly remembered as Nick Carraway opposite Robert Redford in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby).

Like Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson also has an appreciation for in-jokes and musical references. In a scene featuring his real-life wife, Maya Rudolph, the soundtrack swells with the coloratura soprano of Minnie Riperton on Les Fleurs (Google is your friend. I’m not here to provide all the answers.)

Is Inherent Vice a genuine masterpiece or a “coulda been, shoulda been” of the sort I generally love? Only time will tell. In the meantime, repeated viewings uncover details you may not have noticed before (much like a prog rock gem will still offer up undiscovered facets decades after it was first relegated to the remainder bin).

In all, it’s fair to say that Inherent Vice is a worthy addition to Paul Thomas Anderson’s evolving cinematic mural. And, at least to me, it’s as enthralling and intricate as Chinatown or The Long Goodbye.

Words © David Latta

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The Collector’s Life: The Mexican Spitfire – Lupe Velez and Hollywood’s Ultimate Indignity


Lupe in East Is West (1930)
Lupe in East Is West (1930)

 

Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.

Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.

And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.

I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931
Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.

It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.

Larry Edmunds was always good for movie stills, even if they were modern restrikes. Later, on eBay, I would uncover a couple of reputable sellers of wonderful vintage photos at ridiculously good prices (see my earlier blog –  https://davidlatta.org/2013/09/19/the-collectors-life-lester-glassner-and-the-nobility-of-the-continuum/ ).

Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)
With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.

Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).

While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.

East Is West (1930)
East Is West (1930)

From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.

It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.

However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.

Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)
With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.

Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.

What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).

In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s own collection