I caught the first screening of Inherent Vice on its release. Midday. Screen one at Leicester’s Phoenix Cinema. There were three walkouts, one disinterested couple, and me.
Apparently, this isn’t a unique occurrence. There are reports of mass walkouts all across the country, people unable (or unwilling) to sit through what equates to two-and-a-half hours of incomprehensible ‘plot’, wanting and waiting instead for the conventional ride that the film trailer promised, but when it becomes clear that this isn’t going to happen, they mumble and scoff as they head for the exit.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that I am an avid fan of both Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon. I knew what was coming. To this day, even having read the novel twice and seen the movie once, I still don’t really know what the hell it’s all “about”, but quite frankly, I don’t care. What I wanted, and what I got, was a two-and-a-half-hour immersion into the atmosphere of Gordita Beach and the world of Doc Sportello, with the imagery on screen reeking of Patchouli oil and the plot as messed up and hazy as the inside of a dope-head’s imagination.
But these other people – these walk-outers – if all they had to go on was the trailer for the film, they seem to have been sold a ‘pup’, expecting one thing and given something altogether different.
The trailer begins with a pulsating soundtrack and a voiceover that suggests some neo-noir pastiche at least, which then merges into a comedy, with Doc Sportello’s stoned-ass making one think wistfully to those pre-There Will Be Blood (2007) days of Boogie Nights (1997) and Magnolia (1999)…but, if one looks closely at the trailer, past the fast cuts, pacy music, funny quotes, and the hint of a bloody climatic shoot-out, well, it’s just as insanely incoherent as the totality of the film to a great extent. What the trailer can’t do, but what the film does do, is faithfully adapt Pynchon’s novel (and prose) to the screen; watching Inherent Vice felt exactly how it did to read it. It’s unfathomable, impenetrable at times, crazy and sprawling, but infused with a nostalgia for a time that once was but which quickly faded.
The soundtrack avoids any clichéd attempt to play as many of the ‘big’ songs of the era, as one could quite easily do – Pynchon himself references endless hits from this period. Anderson’s selections include Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ from their album Ege Bamyasi (1972), Neil Young’s ‘Journey Through the Past’ from the album of the same name, again released in 1972, Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Les Fleurs’ from Come to My Garden (1970), and The Marketts’ ‘Here Comes the Ho-Dads’ (1963). More impressive, however, is the score by the now regular Anderson collaborator, Johnny Greenwood, who provides some eerie and paranoid compositions, exemplified by the piece ‘The Golden Fang’. What the sum total of this soundtrack amounts to is one nightmarish experience of the ‘come-down’ that was early 1970s America and the suspicious atmosphere of the Nixon presidency. Greenwood’s score evokes by-gone film noir, but also echoes the soundtracks by David Shire and Michael Small to films such as Klute (1971) and All the Presidents Men (1976); this sentiment in fact pervades the entirety of Inherent Vice, recalling as it does those mid-period 1970s films of conspiracy and mistrust like The Conversation (1973) and The Long Goodbye (1973).
But the pleasures of these extra-textual references may be lost (no, they will be lost) if one is not able to get past the perplexing narrative, lost in a complex cast of characters and mumbled conversations about someone called Mickey Wolfmann and something about a Golden Fang. The use of mumbled dialogue is taken to a new extreme during a scene between Joaquin Phoenix and Owen Wilson and can test the patience of even the hardiest of Anderson-fans – I recall not what the two said because I couldn’t make out a word of their exchange.
And this brings me back to the issue of the walkouts in cinemas up and down the country – just why is it that so many people feel compelled to perform this act of passive protest, reaching a point mid-film where they stand and leave, having paid an average ticket price of £6.54? Could it be that, in the age of the super-hero film, we have been spoiled, our attention spans wrecked, in need of constant ‘thrills’ and ‘explosions’? Or maybe, just maybe, I am in a minority who liked the film because they daren’t admit that it wasn’t really any good, a cult fan of Pynchon and Anderson not wanting to accept the truth that the film just might stink, like all those Bob Dylan fans (me included) who insist that his new releases are just as good, if not greater, than his mid-sixties mastery.
Whatever the reasons, it would seem that the taste for a ‘slow’ cinema may have become, if it wasn’t already, a niche activity, confined to devout cinephiles and obsessives; and wouldn’t that be tragic because Hollywood will no doubt pour money into the over-bloated budgets of yet more bland super-hero fare.
So I implore you, sit through Inherent Vice not just for your own good, but for the future of Hollywood and who knows, maybe a new era like that of the 1970s could happen again.