Tag Archives: Thomas Pynchon

Book v. Big Screen: “Inherent Vice”

24 Jan
Paul Thomas Anderson's January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s January 9, 2015 adaptation stars a billion jillion famous people.

When the creator of brilliant films takes on the adaptation of a renowned author of modern classics, you go big or go home. You could end up with a critical bomb like The Hobbit installations (go ahead and fight me, but I said it!) or a masterpiece like There Will Be Blood. I think I need to rewatch Paul Thomas Anderson’s most recent cinematographic adventure three or four more times to really decide on which end of the scale Inherent Vice lands. The film, which was released widely to theaters on January 12, is visually stunning and accompanied by one of the better film scores I have heard in some years, but when I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel by the same name, I knew this would be a nearly impossible book to successfully adapt to the big screen. My initial reaction is that Anderson’s attempt, while valiant, fell short of the mark.

Larry “Doc” Sportello is more than a pothead. He’s an enthusiast, a connoisseur, a meta-hippie. That’s just his day job. Doc is sometimes a private detective, and when his ex-old lady Shasta shows up on his doorstep one hazy night going on about a conspiracy to kidnap her new millionaire boyfriend, Doc is helpless to avoid being pulled into a mess. And the mess that real estate moguls, cults, Asian mobs, and drugged-up dentists cause in 1970’s Los Angeles is too much for most to handle. Doc follows Shasta’s trail through the upper echelons of L.A. to the seedy depths where neo-Nazi biker gangs and crew-cut FBI agents like to roam.

Joaquin Phoenix's depiction of hapless Larry "Doc" Sportello is spot on.

Joaquin Phoenix’s depiction of hapless Larry “Doc” Sportello is spot on.

The ensuing drama is a series of long, panning, slow-motion shots of said real estate moguls, neo-Nazi bikers, et. al. in a beautiful side-scrolling painting of a an era. The film wouldn’t be complete or nearly as beautiful, though, without it’s corresponding soundtrack, created by none other than Paul Thomas Anderson’s favorite musical boy genius Jonny Greenwood. The guitarist for famed rock band Radiohead also composed scores for Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and The Master. The two now exist on a spectral plane of their own, like a secret club where only the critically acclaimed and artistically progressive get to go. I expect we’ll see more of their collaborations in the future.

Immerse yourself in the master mood-setter’s musical prowess here: Jonny Greenwood’s immaculate score

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Jonny Greenwood and his absolute musical score genius are two of the top reasons to watch Paul Thomas Anderson films.

I won’t lie, though; despite its beautiful visuals and score, Inherent Vice was a difficult movie to fully enjoy. The several outright humorous moments, often featuring Josh Brolin’s tightly wound Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, added a wonderful lightness to what would otherwise be a depressing story of corruption and futility. But even I, having read the book quite recently, felt the strain of keeping up with a convoluted plot and unfamiliar verbiage. Those who didn’t read the book first, and I imagine there are many who haven’t, will probably need to lean on the occasional, disembodied narration like a hand rail. It guides viewers through important back story and the jumbled cerebral exercises of Doc’s hazy mind. With the narration, Anderson treads the fine line of telling too little and telling too much. For once, I think a movie could use more narration rather than less, and I’m not just saying this because I enjoy the sound of Joanna Newsom’s voice (talking, not singing so much), but a lot of valuable information is omitted or gets lost. By the second or third re-watch, though, I may change my mind. You will have to decide for yourself and come tell me what you think.

Book or Big Screen: I try to be political about these discussions, but some things are just better left to 369 pages of terse prose. Between the confusing plot and the endless period references, the book–and the slower pace of entertainment consumption of the written word–suits the theme and plot better than the film. While the film is easy on the eyes and ears, Inherent Vice the book takes the cake on this one.

Readers, Beware: You may need to dig into the novel for about one hundred pages before you start swinging with the groovy cats of Los Angeles’ hippie-covered beaches, but once you get there, it’s a beautiful place. Pynchon is magical, hilarious, and driven all at the same time. That being said, Pynchon’s method of setting the mood is by bombarding you with slang and pop-culture references, all of which sometimes takes precedence over plot and character development. The movie has it easy: a few well-placed vintage product placement and an accurate costume designer do all the work.

Viewers, Beware: The film version of Inherent Vice is a wild ride, and if the deep layers and plot twists don’t muddle your mind, then the unfamiliar slang, barely audible conspiratorial whispers, and drug-addled slurs will. Had I not read the book first, I imagined I would have been utterly lost ten minutes in. The only saving grace was Joanna Newsom’s soothing narration, which for the most part, smoothed out the wrinkles.

 

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On Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice”

11 Apr
Surfers, reefer, kidnappings, Sunset Boulevard--all the stereotypes you ever associated with L.A. in the '70s is true, and it's all crammed into Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice.

Surfers, reefer, kidnappings, Sunset Boulevard–all the stereotypes you ever associated with L.A. in the ’70s is true, and it’s all crammed into Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice.

I’ve been in a Pynchony mood recently. Last fall, I read Thomas Pynchon’s most recent release, Bleeding Edge [2013], which pairs nicely with Inherent Vice [2009]. Both novels follow unlikely gumshoe heroes through the deadly, labyrinthine plots of the uber wealthy–Bleeding Edge‘s Maxine Tornow hoofing it in New York City in 2011, and Inherent Vice‘s Doc Sportello hitting waves in 1970s West L.A. Where Maxine hits the firewalls of new tech, Doc hits roaches and fights off hallucinations. Pynchon’s soft spot for unconventional detective stories may seem like a weakness as a writer to some readers, but I enjoyed Inherent Vice despite its ring of familiarity because of the intelligent, entertaining dissection of culture that I have come to expect from this author.

Private investigator Doc Sportello solves petty thefts and matrimonials out of a junky office on the beach, usually while high on dope and surf music, but when his ex-old-lady appeals to him about a plot to kidnap her wealthy new land developer boyfriend, Doc must spur himself out of his comfortable fog and into a deadly world of dirty cops and dirtier real estate moguls. The drug-infused hippie era setting gives this traditional noir plot a radical trip, and clearly Pynchon is in his element  considering the endless pop culture references that give Inherent Vice its unique flavor. You also can’t miss Pynchon’s usual host of crazy characters with Dickensian names like Agents Borderline and Flatweed, a couple of gay NeoNazis who belt out show tunes at every chance, sainted surfers, computer nerds engaging in barely legal nascent hacking, and no end to the hippie drug addicts, covered in snow or haloed in a purple haze.

It's time to get super trippy. Honestly, though, reading this book gave me druggy dreams. I'm not kidding.

It’s time to get super trippy. Honestly, though, reading this book gave me druggy dreams. I’m not kidding.

The beauty of Pynchon’s writing is its versatility. Inherent Vice is one of those novels that can easily fit in a number of genres: mystery, satire, “literary” capital “L” Literature. You don’t need three quarters of literary theory to enjoy Pynchon’s novels, but if you accidentally signed up for those courses to meet some arbitrary standard of major requirements, then you’ll accidentally find a lot more depth to Pynchon and Doc and Agent Flatweed than you may have bargained for. As Doc bumbles through turn after turn in this maze of a plot, Pynchon sheds light on the extreme disparity between the upper crust and the beach bums–the ones with immense power and those without. We learn that, no matter how powerful someone is, there is always someone or some nameless, shadowy, yacht-sailing, suit-wearing organization higher up the food chain.

If there’s one thing you need to take from this review, it’s this: Paul Thomas “I Drink Your Milkshake” Anderson is captaining the film adaptation, set to release this December, and on board is a stellar cast. Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, and Joaquin Phoenix are top-billed, and you all need to be as excited as I am.

Update: My review on how the film stands up to the book is now available. Let me know what you thought of PTA’s ambitious adaptation!

Joaquin Phoenix is a true natural at acting the drug-addled pseudo-hero. He's in character, like, all the time.

Joaquin Phoenix is a true natural at acting the drug-addled pseudo-hero. He’s in character, like, all the time.

Read it if … you love the ’70s, with all its psychedelic drugs, dirty real estate moguls, and smoke-filled mob bars. Inherent Vice fits the bill and then some. Obviously, most Pynchon fans will have already read this, but if you’re a budding groupie, pick this up for a groovy time.

Don’t read it if … you’re some kind of mystery fiend and don’t know how to take a joke. Pynchon loves to play and loves to laugh. His stoner PI protagonist Doc Sportello is everything but a serious crime-solver. This novel borders on Pink Panther levels of silliness, albeit with a much darker, much more American sense of mysterious doom.

This book is like … other books by Pynchon, really, specifically Bleeding Edge, which was published late last year, or Hugh Laurie’s fun foray into literature, The Gun Seller. Both Pynchon and Laurie combine  seedy, entertaining mystery plots with ironic humor that shows they refuse to take themselves seriously. Too often I read books that would have you wallow in depression rather than laugh, or sacrifice compelling content for a few cheap guffaws.

The secretive Thomas Pynchon has become a curiosity everyone. We only have his quirky novels by which to know him. And The Simpsons.

The secretive Thomas Pynchon has become a curiosity everyone. We only have his quirky novels by which to know him. And The Simpsons.

On Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”

2 Oct
Even though I had lukewarm feelings about Bleeding Edge, I would still recommend reading it. Check it out from your library. Hard core Pynchon fans, I know you've already bought your copy.

Even though I had lukewarm feelings about Bleeding Edge, I would still recommend reading it. Check it out from your library. Hard core Pynchon fans, I know you’ve already bought your copy. (Photo from NYTimes)

On September 17, I rushed to grab Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, but I needed two full weeks to finish it. Maybe blame it on the fact that I started a new video game, but I will honestly say that this newest novel by one of the most acclaimed living writers in our country didn’t grip my attention the way I thought it would. Bleeding Edge is a story of mystery and intrigue surrounding tech startups in New York City during the summer and fall of 2001. Yes, it’s a 9/11 book.

These days, I give props to any author with the steely enough loins to tackle the subject of 9/11, and in this case I think Pynchon does a fairly decent job of it. The reason why is Pynchon’s myriad of Pynchonesque characters: Horst, the ex-husband obsessed with biopics; Driscoll, the Zuma-drinking programmer and Jennifer Anniston look-alike; Reg, the documentary filmmaker who captures the wrong thing at the wrong time; Igor, the former Spetsnav operative with a heart and an obsession with quality ice cream; March, the left wing prophet/oracle; Mr. Ice, the mostly evil startup-exec-turned-billionaire; a host of questionable venture capitalists; and, of course, Maxine herself, the fast-talking, criminal-but-moral, Jewish fraud investigator. Although, maybe Pynchon goes a little over the top with his characterizations …

Because

Because I just wanted Maxi to start saying, “yada yada,” since I imagined all the characters in this book being portrayed by the cast of “Seinfeld.”

Or, better yet,

Or, better yet, Maxi is played by 1968 Barbara Streisand singing the new hit number “Don’t Sting Me with Your FIM-92 Stinger, Mr. Windust.”

Maxine Loeffler is on the case of Gabriel Ice and his powerhouse company “hashslingrz.” What starts out as a regular fraud case turns into a sketchy game of cat and mouse in the underbelly of New York City’s Silicon Alley, where Russian gangsters, billionaire goons, nameless agency assassins, and nerds of the new millennium are just of a few of Maxi’s problems. (Thankfully, Maxine’s quasi-ex-husband and two sons conveniently disappear to the Midwest for half the book, leaving our heroine free to indulge in the dangerous, sexualized activiities of a single, childless maiden warrior. [Yes, that’s a technical genre of woman.])

This is the kind of plot I go for: I want a kick-ass protagonist with a darker side, some scum-of-the-earth villain I won’t mind hating, sidekicks to root for, and a couple of big guns here and there. But, unfortunately for me, Bleeding Edge seems to be about venture capitalism. Oh, and bludgeoning the reader with pop culture references trying to instill that heart pang of nostalgia. “Pre-9/11 New York. This is what it was like, remember, kids? The good old days.” Only New York has always been and will always be kind of a foreign country for me. I grew up in Eastern Oregon where I woke up smelling processed potatoes and cow dung, where our idea of fun was a trip to the Wal-Mart Supercenter or aiming for gopher heads on the driving range. New York is a city that has its own culture, separate from the rest of America, because it’s hyper-American, and because of that, I can’t feel nostalgic for Pynchon’s New York. And because I can’t feel nostalgic, I can’t appreciate the bludgeoning.

New York was and is a city of legend. Even after visiting it, I could only think, "This is how I knew it must be."

New York was and is a city of legend. Even after visiting it, I could only think, “This is how I knew it must be.” And here’s Bleednig Edge: more New Yorker than a Woody Allen movie. Maybe.

As Maxine follows a trail through hashslingrz–involving Canadian hackers, Italian mobsters, a whole lot of WASPs, and plenty more colorful characters–she comes closer to what looks like government conspiracy. The company’s financial lines seem to be pointing toward the Mideast, and the CEO’s bulldozing ways don’t exactly improve the startup’s image any. Some of Maxine’s wanderings take her into Deep Web, a place more harrowing and creepy than the seedier sides of New York she visits. All this is leading up that ticking time bomb we know is there. Summer winds down for Maxine, and it’s nerve wracking as reader knowing what’s going to happen next.

This is a day that will haunt all Americans alive during that time.

This is a day that will haunt all Americans alive during that time, but Pynchon’s characters are less haunted than slowly deteriorating.

Pynchon’s treatment of September 11 was different than what I’m used to. This wasn’t Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, pummeling the reader with image of the tower, and the death, and symbols of chaos over and over again (“Pow! Right in the kisser!”). Pynchon’s September 11 itself is the long, harsh deterioration of reality into the absurd. Maxine notices the world changing afterwards. America tries to grow up, but instead its adults become childish and its children take the world in their hands. The Internet loses its grip on virtual reality. Maxine’s kids’ English teacher bans fiction. Pynchon tries to display the massive shift in culture, in our lives, that happened almost immediately after 9/11, but I’m not sure he succeeds. His post-9/11 world simultaneously drags on and isn’t complete enough. The final chapters of Bleeding Edge left me straining for more, like when someone turns away from you just as he was finishing his sentence. Bleeding Edge isn’t an easy book to read. I wouldn’t suggest it for your beach vacation. But I’m just the kind of person who will read Thomas Pynchon as long as he keeps writing.