Paul Thomas Anderson's new film Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon's novel of the same name, will debut at the New York Film Festival this October. The film is Anderson's second literary adaptation, having morphed Upton Sinclair's novel Oil! into the eerie-Americana spectacular There Will be Blood.
Like directors Pier Paolo Pasolini (Oedipus Rex, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) and Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Shining) before him, Anderson seems to be influenced as much by books as by films, usually credited as both writer and director. But where as Pasolini and Kubrick were inspired by stories set in diverse times and places, Anderson is containing his films — adaptations and original screenplays alike — to 20th century California.
Anderson was born in Los Angeles and has lived there for most of his life. His recurring interest in California's history and geography suggests an almost ethnographic fascination with the local stories of his homestate, stories whose protagonists are often inspired by real life figures: Dirk Diggler from The Dirk Diggler Story and Boogie Nights was modeled after Porn Valley superstar John C. Holmes; The Master's Lancaster Dodd was inspired by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard; and There Will be Blood's Daniel Plainview is based on Oil!'s James Arnold Ross but also influenced by California oil tycoons Edward L. Doheny and Harry Ford Sinclair. Why then is Anderson creating fictional worlds based on fact?
In a 1967 edition of Art News, poet and critic John Ashbery reviewed a show by sculptor Joseph Cornell at New York's Guggenheim Museum. Ashbery writes:
Looking at one of his "hotel" boxes one can almost feel the chilly breeze off the Channel at Dieppe or some other outmoded, out-of-season French resort. But this is the secret of his eloquence: He does not recreate the country itself but the impression we have of it before going there.
Anderson is doing something similar with his films. Rather than wanting to tell biographical stories, his writing is propelled by the retrospective themes that emerge from these stories. In other words, he is not interested in the thing itself, but the idea of the thing. Much of Anderson's success has been a product of his intuitive talent for latching onto themes that extend out of their historical context and into contemporary America: sex in Boogie Nights, oil in There Will be Blood, religion in The Master and murder in Inherent Vice.
Pynchon's novel is set in 1970s California against the backdrop of the Manson Family trial. This brutal and twisted tragedy forms a hazy atmosphere around the plot, and this is perhaps one of the reasons that Anderson chose to adapt the novel. America has a long history of debased murder stories, and in light of the numerous gun-related tragedies that have occurred over the past decades, Anderson has once again chosen to explore a disturbingly pervasive American theme.
Inherent Vice features Joaquin Phoenix (from The Master) in the lead role of Larry “Doc” Sportello, and Jonny Greenwood (from There Will be Blood and The Master) will once again provide an original score. In Anderson's universe, ideas, themes, settings, sounds, images and faces comprise a swirling constellation of elements that tend to return or are returned to. It is as if Anderson is writing some offshoot version of history, a history aestheticized, sounded, politicized and moralized, but above all consistently obsessed with the American Dream. And what better place to explore the dream than California?
In 2009, Penguin released a promotional video for Inherent Vice, with Pynchon himself narrating as Sportello. At the end of the video, Pynchon/Sportello half-heartedly attempts to sell the book and meta-commentates surprise and possible dissatisfaction at the high price of the novel. Is Anderson perhaps doing something similar? Slyly commenting on the film industry not by making films about films but by intentionally working towards a kind of film rejecting genres, stars for the sake of stars and profit-motivated productions in favor of a return to an auteurist exploration of place and time? Radically reexamining what is expected of a director and of a writer by investigating what isolation in a region, in a mesh of images and faces and sounds can create?
Natalia Panzer is a poet, translator and aspiring critic based out of Portland, Oregon. She is currently working on a triptych about food, food culture and the service industry, and a book of experimental criticism titled Natalia, Texas.
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