Friday, December 19, 2014

Inherent Vice

I get into being afraid of Thomas Pynchon in the review, and it's an honest fear; Gravity's Rainbow wasn't necessarily the book that made me decide I was better off with stuff that just presented what was going on in clear language that required relatively little decoding, at least when I was twenty. I guess these days, I tend to prefer having someone like Paul Thomas Anderson do that decoding for me.

That said, I do remember one scene, where the hero finds himself sampling various types of utterly revolting British candy, as being one of the funniest things I have ever read, which threw me, and a look at the description makes me curious to give it another look, especially after seeing this one. Maybe it's funnier now that I know more.

The thing that got me into the Brattle that night - aside from "hey, this looks like a good movie" - was noting that the screening was in 35mm. Paul Thomas Anderson hasn't been making as much noise about film this year as in 2012, when The Master was shot on 65mm and released in 70mm, but the might in part be because Christopher Nolan sucked a lot of that particular air out of the room with Interstellar. Of course, both times I saw that movie, Inherent Vice was one of the previews that played, and that preview was very clearly on film, leading to a bit of hope that the film itself wouldplay that way. Still, best to be sure and not miss any opportunity.

Watching it that way, though, one is reminded how digital production and projection has in many ways started warping our view of what a movie should look like (or, if that's too loaded, what it looks like by default). People who know cameras, lenses, and film better than me can describe what Anderson and Robert Elswit are doing here from a technical standpoint, but I could not help but notice that the sharp, clearly defined edges we see more often than not today weren't there; more than grain, there was haze, and bits out of focus, and a glow around light sources. Our brains like those edges, which is why televisions in electronics stores often have the sharpness turned way up and films were often processed with "edge enhancement" before being recorded to DVD; we equate it with clarity, and after seeing most released movies that way, it takes a little time to readjust to something like Inherent Vice, which doesn't look quite as great as Interstellar but still looks like a film, one straight out of its early-1970s period.

I suspect that when the film reaches wide release in January, the Coolidge and Somerville will get 35mm prints, but it will certainly be worth checking. Ned made a big enough deal about it at the Brattle screening (implying that Warner Brothers was trying to accomodate those who asked for prints) to make me somewhat hopeful, but it will certainly be worth checking when it does come out.

Inherent Vice

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 December 2014 at the Brattle Theatre (preview, 35mm)

Thomas Pynchon kicked my butt in both classes where I had to read one of his books twenty years ago, and the film adaptation of Inherent Vice seemed like it was going to be the same sort of experience - I felt like I had lost the plot about two minutes into a 148-minute movie, which shouldn't even be possible. Of course, sometimes the plot matters much less than the telling, and the telling of this story is exceptional.

That story starts with dope-addled hippie private eye Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) getting a visit from old girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), warning that her new, married boyfriend, real-estate developer Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts) is about to be caught up in a scheme to put him in a mental institution. Meanwhile, another potential client wants him to approach an old cellmate, both Shasta and Wolfman disappear, a widow (Jena Malone) wants him to investigate the possibility that her husband (Owen Wilson) isn't dead, and when Doc stumbles onto that guy, he wants him to look in on her. Doc also stumbles onto a murder, which means Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a cop who moonlights as an actor, is on his back. All things considered, Doc is starting to wonder if all these cases are really connected or if his brain is just fried.

Given that Doc's not actually the narrator, it would probably be unfair to label him an unreliable one. Still, as the audience tends to follow Doc almost exclusively, the film would be missing something important if it did not portray a certain amount of disorientation and fuzziness of mind that comes as a result of drug use - although it would likely be equally dishonest to make the audience feel impaired. That's the impressive line screenwriter/director Paul Thomas Anderson walks throughout the movie; he gets even a more modern, jaded viewer to connect with the hippie sentiment circa 1970, when it may have felt, in certain circles, like this sort of acceptance of pharmaceuticals as a part to calm, pleasure, or even enlightenment seemed to be poised to break into the mainstream, although a look around the margins at the inflexible police and very businesslike Golden Fang group shows what that sort of idealism is leaving out.

Full review at EFC.

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