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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Both Kinds of Movie: Robert Altman’s Nashville


In the 70s, before the accountants took over Hollywood and the merits of a film came to be judged largely by its opening weekend gross, there occurred a vivid flowering of cinematic creativity.  Scorsese, Coppola, Peckinpah and more rode the monster surf of the American New Wave but none were more audacious than Robert Altman.

After honing his craft as a documentarian, short film maker and director of television shows, he burst onto the scene in 1970 with the vibrantly shambolic MASH. The green light glowed above subsequent projects and there followed such critically-acclaimed, though less successful, films as McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), The Long Goodbye (1973), Thieves Like Us (1974) and California Split (1974).

By mid-way through the decade, Altman had cemented a reputation both as a visionary film stylist and a perfectionist who would not be cowed by studios or producing partners. Yet scripts continued to flow his way. In 1975, he was approached to direct a film about the country music industry, intended as the debut vehicle of Welsh singer, Tom Jones. Altman, in his characteristic go-to-hell manner, kept the city and dumped the script and star.

The result was Nashville, undoubtedly Altman’s masterpiece, a bold and enterprising delight that just gets better with each viewing. Richly detailed, the foundation was a screenplay by fledgling writer Joan Tewkesbury, responsible for Thieves Like Us. Altman had sent Tewkesbury off to Nashville to scout out suitable storylines. In collaboration with Altman, the resulting script juggled 24 main characters, weaving the entertainment industry and a growing preoccupation with celebrity into the souring of a nation’s spirit by Vietnam and Watergate.

Altman traditionally drew upon a group of regular players for his films and many were earmarked for Nashville. Some early casting selections, however, didn’t play out. Louise Fletcher was the original choice to play Linnea Reese, conservative housewife and mother of two deaf children; Fletcher’s parents were deaf and she had grown up using sign language, experience that Altman incorporated into the final script.

When Fletcher dropped out to play Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (for which she won an Academy Award), she was replaced by Lily Tomlin. Haven Hamilton, vanguard of Nashville’s country music royalty, was earmarked for Robert Duvall; Henry Gibson, like Lily Tomlin, better known as a comedian on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In, took the role and made it his own, down to a hairpiece that seems fashioned from a slumbering Ewok.

Gary Busey was an early casting choice for Tom, the priapic and emotionally distant folk singer which was eventually played by Keith Carradine. Bernadette Peters and Bette Midler both turned down the role of blowsy country music wannabe Albuquerque.

Altman allowed his actors to comprehensively inhabit their characters without censure. Considering a script more of a blueprint than gospel, he requested they improvise their own dialogue as well as write their own songs. His trust was usually well placed.

Jan Stuart, author of The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece (Simon & Schuster, 2000), told of an actor asking Altman whether he’d be in a close-up or a two-shot. “What makes you think you’re on camera at all? Altman replied. “When I say “Action”, just live your life. I’ll either see you or I won’t.”

Henry Gibson takes the Ewok for a walk

Some, like Gibson, stayed in character for the entire two month shoot. And a lot of the most memorable moments came not from Altman regulars but newcomers such as neophyte Ronee Blakely, portraying fragile country singer Barbara Jean, based on Loretta Lynn. Blakely wrote four of her own songs as well as the complex rambling monologue for her tragic on-stage emotional breakdown.

The women have the best roles in this film, facilitated by Tewkesbury’s script and Altman’s relish of female points of view. The result is a range of fascinating moral ambiguities; we may not agree with the choices made by many of the characters but we are constantly enthralled and care about them all the same.

Nashville plays towards a final major set piece organised around a political rally. We never see the candidate but, just as it seems the plot will culminate in a political assassination, it all gets turned on its head and one of the performers becomes the target of the opportunistic killer. In this, Altman was far ahead of his time in predicting celebrity assassinations; the quiet, owlish loner who wields the gun bears a disquietening resemblance to Mark David Chapman who, five years after Nashville’s release, would gun down John Lennon.

Another of Altman’s daring experiments was in the area of sound recording, creatively blending several conversations at once to propel plot and character development. Altman used technician Jim Webb, who had learned his craft on music documentaries such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1971) and later worked with Altman on Thieves Like Us.

Webb hooked radio microphones to each of the major players in a scene and recorded their dialogue onto individual sound tracks via an eight-track system. Altman could then mix the sound to his exacting standards during the editing process. The disappointment was that, given this revolutionary process, Nashville didn’t get an Oscar nomination in the sound category.

At the end of the two-month shoot, Altman had more than 200,000 feet of film, coming in at about 16 hours of footage. When it seemed that one movie wouldn’t be big enough for his vision, he briefly toyed the idea with creating two films, Nashville Red and Nashville Blue. This didn’t get beyond the planning stage, nor did a television mini-series utilising the extra footage. Decades later, a sequel to Nashville, reprising many of the major characters, was also stillborn.

As it was, the final cut of Nashville ran 2 hours and 40 minutes. Although the critics once again loved it (Pauline Kael of The New Yorker previewed a rough cut in a lengthy review that ran three months before the premiere, calling it “a radical, evolutionary leap” and “the ultimate Altman movie”), it made just $US7 million at the American box office (on a $US2.2 million budget). It wasn’t babka but it also wasn’t the return to financial form that had been predicted.

Altman would spend the next 15 years wandering the cinematic wastelands with ever-decreasing budgets and success until the career-replenishing double-whammy of The Player and Short Cuts in the early 90s.

Nashville, however, remains his great classic, a movie that repays every favour it asks of an audience and is as fresh and inventive as it appeared 35 years ago.

Words © David Latta