« The Resistance to American Sniper | Main | Emergency Rooms and Cutting Rooms: What's Wrong with The Fighter »

Mindless Pleasures

By Ben Kessler

No one sings in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new movie Inherent Vice, the first film adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel. This is quite strange, considering that of all Pynchon’s quirks, his characters’ tendency to burst into song Hollywood musical-style would appear to be among the most welcoming to the general audience, the most “filmable.” And it’s especially strange coming from Anderson, who 16 years ago padded his film Magnolia, already overstuffed, with an unfortunate, outta-nowhere singalong sequence set to Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” (memorable for all the wrong reasons). So it’s not that P.T. Anderson, probably Hollywood’s most celebrated writer-director under 50, has anything against diegetic singing per se. He just doesn’t think it has any place in his Pynchon movie. Yet Inherent Vice is praised as an uncommonly “close” literary adaptation.

As Kevin Lincoln of New York Magazine’s Vulture blog put it: “Pynchon’s subject, and therefore Anderson’s, in Inherent Vice is the sheer extent to which we are powerless and ignorant in a world that could destroy us at any second, and, if we’re being honest, probably is [sic]. It’s nihilism, countered by faith in a sort of benign pleasure: love, booze, and easy drugs—the promise of the ’60s, a promise unfulfilled, even crushed.”

Lincoln is likely recalling here that Gravity’s Rainbow’s reported working title was Mindless Pleasures. And if Lincoln is right, Pynchon was wrong to change it. It seems to me, though, that Mindless Pleasures was an ironic title, a cute irony (‘cause Pynchon’s actually very smart, see?) that would have drowned in the novel’s grave irony. Gravity’s Rainbow’s humor is deeper than black; it’s desolate. The book ends with a movie-theaterful of people following the bouncing ball as they’re about to be blown to smithereens…by a Nazi rocket, not an impersonal “world.” “Faith in a sort of benign pleasure”? More like giving the lie to the whole idea of benign pleasure as an ultimate aspiration, much less “the promise of the ‘60s.”

Anderson’s perspective in Inherent Vice is his own, not Pynchon’s, and totally consistent with the rest of his work. His status in Hollywood makes sense, as he is, in a way, the emblematic popular filmmaker of the post-cinema period. It’s worth noting that his father, Ernie Anderson, was a well-known TV comedian who, in later life, was under exclusive contract to ABC as a voice-over artist. Anderson Sr., during his ABC days, was credited with reinventing the network’s on-air promos. I think these facts help reveal where P.T. Anderson’s coming from: He’s a Gen-Xer whose native cultural element is TV (he’s done segments for Saturday Night Live and is married to a former SNL cast member, Maya Rudolph) and for whom movies are exotic, exciting, a little weird, not to mention an irresistible gateway to various kinds of cultural cachet. His filmmaking has verve but is bereft of any sense of the scale of human action. (The lesson he keeps failing to learn from his avowed primary inspiration Robert Altman, whose protagonists never acted like protagonists.) Everything arrives on screen already buffed to a high sheen of significance, because Anderson uses TV tactics to sell us cinema. His comedy has no earned reference to either sincerity or seriousness, which means his straight-faced films are always verging on comedy. The macho-awkward confrontations of Punch-Drunk Love are essentially similar to Daniel Day-Lewis’s psycho-tantrums in There Will Be Blood. And the rain of frogs that concludes Magnolia has as little spiritual feeling as Day-Lewis pegging bowling balls at Paul Dano and shouting “I am the Third Revelation!” at the end of TWBB. It is only Anderson’s command of the zeitgeist—his tele-facility—that prevents audiences from spotting his tells.

But Anderson’s lack of a sense of proportion makes him singularly ill-suited to do a Pynchon adaptation. Far from a reliable interpreter, he’s a pure example of what Pynchon warned about in book after book: His nihilism is inadvertent, born of an insufficiently recognized moral confusion–the bad part of postmodernism. In Inherent Vice, set in L.A. in 1970, Anderson models his style on European art films of the period, out of pure perversity, not because the thematic or plot content in his long talky two-shots bears any resemblance to The Mother and the Whore or Celine and Julie Go Boating. More than anything, it’s a chance for Anderson to see what he can get away with. The wall-to-wall pot-smoking in this film really is in the spirit of blogger Kevin Lincoln: It evokes today’s environment of semi-legal marijuana use rather than the desperate pleasures of the decayed hippie counterculture. Gone is the scene from the novel where hero Doc Sportello proffers pot to his parents, on one condition: “Not when you’re babysitting, okay?”

Not that Inherent Vice is a perfect book. It’s full of sensory and sociological details the reader can connect to form an idea of a particular time and place, but its characters stick out a bit too self-consciously in the scheme. I can’t help but think that by 1970, Pynchon must have been fully suspended in the life-intensive process of writing Gravity’s Rainbow, likely having little time or occasion to fraternize with the “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” types that populate the much-later novel. In writing Inherent Vice, he does the best he can with the memories and feelings nearest to hand. In the film, Anderson does even these modest (by Pynchon’s standards) achievements a disservice by assigning Sportello’s ruminations from the novel to a superfluous narratrix (played by Joanna Newsom). He lays waste to the book’s delicate material when he pries Pynchon apart from the protagonist who served as a vessel for his feelings. Similarly, Anderson is deaf to the impulse that makes Pynchon sing out through his characters over and over: The drive to communicate who one is is a bet against nihilism.

Contact Ben Kessler at Kessler_b@yahoo.com. His Twitter handle is @koolfresh

From February, 2015

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Mindless Pleasures:

» vitamin c serum from vitamin c serum
go here for the greatest what is the best thing to do for a dry face info available [Read More]

Tracked on June 14, 2015 05:30 PM

» Dealing W Depressed Partner from Dealing W Depressed Partner
... - To illustrate, many depressed individuals to relax and fill your sails. There are many different angry sad depressed quotes that could be lonely and depressing. Often people tha... Continue reading &am... [Read More]

Tracked on September 22, 2015 03:57 AM