A. The first time I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice, I was in the middle of rereading Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49, which I hadn’t read in fifteen years. I remembered the novel’s vibe, its milieu, but not really its details.
B. I read The Crying of Lot 49 and then immediately reread it. It seemed much stronger the second time—not nearly as silly. Darker. Oedipa Maas, precursor to Doc Sportello, trying not to lose the thread as she leaves the tower for the labyrinth, rushing dizzy into the sixties.
C. Another way of saying this: Inherent Vice is sequel to The Crying of Lot 49. Any number of details substantiate this claim (and alternately unravel it, if you wish, but let’s not travel there)—we could focus on the settings, sure, or maybe the cabals lurking in the metaphorical shadows of each narrative—is The Golden Fang another iteration of The Tristero?—but let me focus on the conclusions of both novels and then discuss the conclusion of PTA’s film.
D. A favorite line from a favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49: “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself.” Paranoia as a kind of sustained hope, a way to find meaning, order, a center.
E. The final pages of The Crying of Lot 49 find Oedipa trying to make sense of the labyrinth (my emphases in bold):
For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty (as Mucho now believed) or only a power spectrum. Tremaine the Swastika Salesman’s reprieve from holocaust was either an injustice, or the absence of a wind; the bones of the GI’s at the bottom of Lake Inverarity were there either for a reason that mattered to the world, or for skin divers and cigarette smokers. Ones and zeroes. So did the couples arrange themselves. At Vesperhaven House either an accommodation reached, in some kind of dignity, with the Angel of Death, or only death and the daily, tedious preparations for it. Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.
There is either meaning, or there is not meaning.
F. This passage comes after Oedipa drinks a lot of bourbon and decides to drive “on the freeway for a while with her lights out, to see what would happen”—precursor for the final moments of the novel Inherent Vice, where Doc—alone—drives around LA in a fog both literal and metaphorical.
G. Doc is solitary but joins a convoy of other drivers whose lights create a transitory community, ad hoc, meaningful but bound to dissolve.
H. This dissolution is prefigured in a scene just a page or two before. Doc has just met with Sparky, a character from the novel’s ARPANET plot (elided from the film). Sparky: “It’s all data. Ones and zeros. All recoverable. Eternally present.” Doc’s reply—“Groovy”—indicates a soul perhaps more at peace with the undecidable than Oedipa is.
I. Or maybe Doc, six or seven years after Oedipa’s lead, has assumed the alien paranoia necessary to navigate America. Maybe.
J. Paranoia: Paranoia, again, as the means to make the chaotic cohere.
K. The most frequent negative criticism that I’ve heard about Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice: The film is incoherent. (Let Dana Stevens’ review at Slate stand as a representative example).
L. I don’t think that this criticism is particularly strong—the film coheres thematically around paranoia, and can be succinctly summarized in its own terms:
M. No but hey that’s some fuzzy precis there, bro, thou protest–What’s the film about, man?
N. Let’s let the novel answer:
Sauncho was giving a kind of courtroom summary, as if he’d just been handling a case. “…yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire…”
Land, hope, possibility. The old good vs. evil deal.
O. You said you’d talk about the film’s conclusion, man.
P. Okay, so there are a couple of differences between the conclusions of the novel and the film. PTA makes his film cohere around the Coy narrative—this ends up being Doc’s good deed, his major success. While the same is true in the book, Anderson’s film is more sentimental in its treatment of the Coy/Hope/Amethyst narrative, more affecting—and more hopeful—than Pynchon’s novel.
Q. (Parenthetically: Owen Wilson was great as Coy. Still, I like to imagine a world where frequent PTA collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman didn’t die of a heroin overdose but lived to play Coy Harlingen, who also didn’t die of a heroin overdose).
R. Another tonal difference between film and novel is PTA’s treatment of the Bigfoot/Doc relationship, which again is perhaps more sentimental in the film—certainly in the final scene between the two, when it becomes clear that, despite what he says, Doc is, in a sense, Bigfoot’s partner. His brother’s keeper.
S. The most significant difference though in the conclusion of the film is its insertion of Shasta into the final scene. Again, there’s a touch here of PTA’s sentimentality (I use the term admiringly, to be clear); of the resolution that, y’know, resolves, that points toward reconciliation, hope, love, forgiveness, gratitude. (This is the ending of Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, The Master…). Doc has a final partner in Shasta Fay, a warm body to traverse the fog with. But is it all in his head? Just his imagination? Is Shasta Fey Hepworth really there? Am I being paranoid?
T. The last few seconds of the film are a simple aesthetic marvel. Shasta, the film’s feminine trace, flipping from Flatlander back to hippie chick, from zero to one, lays in a languid haze against Doc’s shoulder, the car encased in night noir fog. Doc seems steady yet unnerved, stolidly paranoid. In the last few seconds, an intense light shines on his face, seems to break through Johnny Greenwood’s woozy dark ominous score.
U. What does Doc see?
His expression: The edge of a smirk? Is there a moment of insight here?
V. And then Chuck Jackson’s “Any Day Now” comes crashing into the audio with a martial pep that contrasts Greenwood’s somber score and the visual cut to black. The tune’s intro keyboard riff moves from a zany romp to a minor key depression in the span of a few seconds, and Johnson plaintively sings: “Any day now / I will hear you say, ‘Goodbye, my love’ /And you’ll be on your way /Then my wild beautiful bird, you will have flown, oh / Any day now I’ll be all alone.” Is this what Doc sees? That Shasta will fly?
W. So I suppose Inherent Vice is a film about looking: Looking into, over, about; looking under:
X. I wrote this riff for myself. I wrote it in the hope of pinning down the conjunctions and disjunctions between these narratives that have been rattling around in my silly skull. But all it’s done is made me more confused.