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.


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.


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.

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