Nine Movies That Will Prepare You For 'Inherent Vice'

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.

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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.

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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 ViceThe 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.)

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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.

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Now that we've got a couple of admitted Inherent Vice influences out of the way, let's get into some deeper stuff. Next up is a film shot mostly in Austin, TX but animated, with the help of some Anaheim exteriors, to look like a daylight future noir version of Southern California, a oft-overlooked California murder mystery that should be a classic, and one of the landmark films of the late '60s, in which a Malibu community becomes the site of an almost-rebirth.

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6. A Scanner Darkly (2006, Richard Linklater)

An earlier version of Inherent Vice might have starred Robert Downey, Jr., and Downey's performance as James Barris in Richard Linklater's film is akin to a bizarre combination of characters from Pynchon's story — Sportello, Bigfoot, and Adrian Prussia all rolled into one. There's also the drug angle, with a couple specific scenes from A Scanner Darkly seemingly linked directly to sequences in Anderson's movie, and the vision of Southern California as an uneasy plate of oil and water, hippie and authoritarian societies swirling together and slipping against one another, but never truly mixing.

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5. Cutter's Way (1981, Ivan Passer)

Imagine a Raymond Chandler story written after watching Withnail and I, starring Tom Waits, and you're in the ballpark for this almost-noir that perpetually falls through the cracks. Cutter's Way (at one point called Cutter and Bone, after the novel on which it is based) may be an early '80s movie, but it feels like a lost New Hollywood effort that never managed to crawl out of a studio in the early '70s. John Heard hits the screen like an image of Tom Waits, and digs into a big, chewy, performance as the broken Cutter. Jeff Bridges is disaffected, gorgeous, and quietly excellent as his friend Bone; together they make up two halves of one personality. With a truly terrific Lisa Eichhorn playing Cutter's wife Mo, they are drawn into a problematic murder/mystery plot.

That mystery is, admittedly, more central to the film than in many of the other films on this list. Cutter's Way really succeeds, however, because of the way that the interaction between Bridges and Heard forms one composite identity, and the fact that the film is set in a rich vision of Southern California (Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, primarily) in which the end of the '70s has given way to a new decade where the problems of the ten years prior have festered under the skin of progress.

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4. Seconds (1966, John Frankenheimer)

A banker — a full-on establishment dude — is caught up in the Kafka-esque dissolution of the American Dream when he is given a chance to rebuild his life and identity from the ground up. Most of Seconds is well outside the aesthetic sensibility of Inherent Vice, but as the third part of what has been called John Frankenheimer's "paranoia trilogy" (along with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May) this film explores the rift between culture and counterculture, and between the lives that are built for us and those we build for ourselves.

Seconds came to mind for me during Inherent Vice, too, because of a single throwaway line. (No spoiler here.) One character makes a comment about a home lighting scheme having been designed by Jimmy Wong Howe — that's the cinematographer who shot almost 150 movies from the '20s through the '70s. Seconds is one of his later efforts, one of the films most closely tied to his name, and also among the films most likely to be on the mind of characters in PTA's movie. And now you can laugh knowingly at what a friend correctly called "a knowing smirk of a joke" in Inherent Vice.

(Among the other elements that are part of the rich context of Seconds, Howe's use of the Snorricam — the POV rig that connects a camera to an actor — was a significant influence on the way Requiem for a Dream was shot, by the way.)

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On the final page we'll devote space to one film that is fairly new to distribution, and which everyone who likes movies should see, along with one of the strangest movie shot in Los Angeles in the '60s, and Robert Altman's essential revival of Philip Marlowe.

Continue Reading Nine Movies That Will Prepare You for 'Inherent Vice' >>

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If I was going to recommend just three movies to prep anyone for Inherent Vice, it would be the trio that follows: the most European vision of Los Angeles ever committed to film; the prime link between the detective noir of the '40s and the off-beat detective movies of today; and a documentary that is as idiosyncratic as the hero of a Thomas Pynchon.

3. Zabriskie Point (1970, Michelangelo Antonioni)

The loose story of two disaffected and generally privileged kids whose paths cross deep in the desert outside Los Angeles, Zabriskie Point is an unusually compelling mess of a film. The weirdest film on this list by a wide margin, Antonioni's 1970 release took years to make and was a disaster when it first hit theaters, but seen now it stands alone as a film with a singular perspective on Los Angeles in the late '60s.

Zabriskie Point is famous for its love scene, in which the coupling of the two almost-lead characters out in the desert — a coupling which probably happens, but might not quite happen, like a few other key things in the film — is blown out via cinematic imagination into a vision of a landscape full of writhing, dusty bodies. But the truly striking moments are when the camera captures people lost among a different landscape of corporate structures and ads, embellished with mechanized, alienating sounds that pass for music. It's kind of beautiful, in a frightening way. A corporate pitch for the same sort of land development deal that acts as a plot backdrop for Inherent Vice eliminates people from the picture altogether in an ad campaign that looks like footage from a nuclear bomb test. Where Inherent Vice feels like a curious dream, Zabriskie Point is the low murmuring buzz of a late '60s Los Angeles nightmare.

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2. The Long Goodbye (1973, Robert Altman)

The middle link in a chain that runs from The Big Sleep to The Big Lebowski, Robert Altman's version of Philip Marlowe stars Elliot Gould as the gumshoe, who wakes up late one night as if he crashed out in the '40s and slept for thirty years. This Marlowe is a very particular character, disconnected from everything around him and yet strangely attuned to the rhythms and customs of the Los Angeles in which he wakes. There is, of course, a missing person plot, and the question of a murder, but Marlowe is much more fixated on the peculiarities of his cat. The animal becomes one of the film's chief symbols, establishing a concept that the Coen Brothers would riff on years later for Inside Llewyn Davis, just as they pick up some of Altman's tonal cues for Lebowski.

As far as Inherent Vice goes, how does The Long Goodbye play in? They could be siblings. Cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond achieved a specific look for Altman's movie by "flashing" the film (briefly exposing the negative to light, effectively adding haze and reducing contrast), and the light captured by Robert Elswit for Paul Thomas Anderson's movie has a similar feel. More importantly, the two films have a kinship of spirit, from the ways in which both Marlowe and Sportello move through sections of society, to the clashes between the men and various forms of authority, whether official or not.

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1. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003, Thom Andersen)

This detailed, rambling, and excessive documentary about Los Angeles as it appears on film and in television is literally essential viewing for anyone able to watch it right now. (After years as a mostly underground artifact, it is now streaming on Netflix, and also available on DVD and Blu, so that's pretty much everyone.) 

Writer/director Thom Andersen (voiced by gravel-voiced narrator Encke King) is cantankerous, bitter, contemplative, and inquisitive. He spends three hours detailing many visions of Los Angeles, comparing film with actual history and in the process revealing quite a lot about aspects of the city that are by now long gone. Some of his ideas are flat-out wrong, I think — I can't jive with his reading of the use of modernist architecture — but I don't see his shaky status as an authoritarian to be any particular problem.

Los Angeles Plays Itself attempts to aggregate dozens of portrayals of the city in order to get at something like an objective truth about Los Angeles, but in the process builds its own highly subjective view of the place. That, in a way, reflects the structure of Inherent Vice, where the quest for "answers" leads to no sort of comprehensive understanding.

While this doc was created after almost every other film on this list, its particular nature makes it like a sort of time-traveling ur-text for the Los Angeles noir. Appropriately for the idea of characters who never quite connect with what they seek, however, it's an explanatory text that will only leave you with more questions.