Posted on Friday, December 5th, 2014 by Russ Fischer
Inherent Vice, the new film from Paul Thomas Anderson, isn’t just an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. It is part of a specific tradition of movies that pry into the gaps between visions of American culture, especially as seen on the streets of Los Angeles locations. Paul Thomas Anderson has talked about one or two specifically as Inherent Vice influences, and beyond those few titles is an expansive set of movies in which characters who are all but lost as mainstream culture and power swirl around them.
These are films that line up with the spirit of Inherent Vice. Sometimes it’s just in the case of one sequence, or one shade of the movie. But put all these films together and you have a weekend worth of movies that will prepare you for the desultory, city-spanning story of Doc Sportello. No spoilers for PTA’s movie are here as we talk about the films that link up with it in this particular cinematic tradition, but when you do see Inherent Vice after seeing these you’ll immediately see how they all fit together.
We’re going to start with a few easy picks. These are films you’ve probably seen, and also a couple that Anderson has explicitly mentioned in conjunction with the film. The first is a good indicator of some of the film’s tone, but the two that follow it are more important when it comes to communicating the feeling of Inherent Vice. While the bulk of this list features movies shot on location in and around Los Angeles, let’s start with one that doesn’t bother much with LA…
9. Top Secret! (1984, Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker)
Inherent Vice author Thomas Pynchon has an outsized reputation as a literary luminary and his novels have an equally imposing reputation for being challenging to get through. Yet Pynchon is also a guy with a nutty, even lowbrow sense of humor — he just writes his goofball jokes in a more intricate manner than most anyone else. (He uses ten pages of Gravity’s Rainbow just to set up a pretty ridiculous pun, for example.) In that way, he and Paul Thomas Anderson are fairly similar, as Inherent Vice makes abundantly clear.
Anderson talked about having Top Secret in mind when writing the film, and the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker follow-up to Police Squad! and Airplane! — in which Val Kilmer plays an Elvis Presley type who becomes involved in cold war intrigue during a trip to Berlin — has comic setups that would be right at home in Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow. On film, Anderson doesn’t pitch the humor of Inherent Vice to the cartoonish extreme of the ZAZ team, but the awareness of the absurd is always lurking nearby. And Top Secret’s occasional musical numbers aren’t far at all from Pynchon’s characters’ tendency to break out in song.
8. The Big Lebowski (1998, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
For most modern audiences brought up on movies released after the ’80s, the Coen Bros.’ wild yarn is going to be the most obvious point of comparison for Inherent Vice. Not that they’re all that similar in tone, but the Lebowkski script has a sense of wordplay and a fondness for the absurd that marks it, at the very least, as a spiritual associate of both Pynchon and Anderson. Furthermore, the Coens drew from many of the same films which, I would guess are imprinted on Anderson’s thoughts and process.
As Joaquin Phoenix’s character “Doc” Sportello meanders through the Los Angeles area trying to solve multiple missing persons cases while also keeping himself alive, it is impossible not to think of the structure of Lebowski. As Germain insisted in his review of Inherent Vice, the plot isn’t the point of the film at all, and the sooner you internalize that idea, the more tuned-in you’ll be.
7. The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks)
The first of two Philip Marlowe films that play heavily on Inherent Vice, this is also the first link in a chain of movies that runs through this whole list. From here we get to The Long Goodbye, and then to The Big Lebowski. (More on that in a minute.) Anderson has mentioned The Big Sleep specifically as a film that made him realize he could cast aside the importance of plot altogether. “I saw The Big Sleep and I couldn’t follow any of it,” Anderson said at the NYFF, “but it didn’t matter because I just wanted to see what was going to happen next. That was a good model to go on.”
Indeed, like Inherent Vice, The Big Sleep is confusing, even confounding; it’s a film that was re-cut and re-shot and still makes damn little sense. Yet it is still great, in part because the Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall pairing is impossible to deny. This isn’t a redundant pick. If The Big Lebowski is the primer course in conditioning audiences out of the habit of clinging white-knuckled to plot, sense, and structure, The Big Sleep is the grad-level class. Sit back and it offer up unusual characters, situations and experiences.
(The DVD release of The Big Sleep features the re-cut 1947 re-release version, which is a bit more linear and slightly more able to conform to expectations of storytelling clarity.)
On the next page we’ll move on to a set of films that came to mind while I watched Inherent Vice as good touchstones for PTA’s new movie. And we’ll talk about The Long Goodbye, an important link in that Philip Marlowe chain.