But with that said, I have to ask:
What makes a Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) movie a “signature” Paul Thomas Anderson (s-PTA) movie?
Well, you’re asking the wrong guy. I’m no expert on the director, but here’s what I generally like in my s-PTA (and I promise that’ll be the last abbreviation for the day) movies:
• Visual elasticity and dexterity
• Irving-esque/Dickensian scope of story
In fact, more than scope, there’s a roominess to an s-PTA movie I like, a John Irving-esque willingness to begin scenes (and indeed, entire narratives) before they should start and end them way after they should end. Let’s talk about Boogie Nights:
I could point to any number of PTA’s famous tracking shots in Boogie Nights as examples of his visual elasticity and dexterity, but let’s focus more on the thematic and storytelling roominess found in Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood and The Master. I mentioned John Irving before, and I stand by that comparison. All three movies recall Irving in how they track the course of unlikely families over many years. The familial units vary in size, complexity and closeness, but I’d say they’re all families, with patriarchs, offspring, lineages and legacies. The closest thing to a prototypical/nuclear family we get is in Boogie Nights, with Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore as the father and mother, Heather Graham as the daughter, and John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle and Mark Wahlberg as the sons. PTA appears to have had a reasonably stable family life growing up — he was distant from his mother but close to his father — but as a filmmaker and artist, he seems to be a big believer that we discover and choose our own families in adulthood. Boogie Nights is the clearest example of this, filled with misfits who fall into the gravity well of the San Fernando Valley’s adult industry and congregate around Jack Horner’s swimming pool to find solace and companionship, even if they occasionally OD and blow their own brains out.
PTA sets Boogie Nights from 1977 to 1984. The seven-year timespan isn’t as long as your usual John Irving novel, which tend to take place over 30 or more years, but given the seismic change in the adult industry that the movie covers, it feels like a much longer time. The entire world transforms around all of the main characters, who all undergo vast changes themselves. Not all of them grow up fully — Don Cheadle’s probably the closest thing to an adult we get by movie’s end — but their personal progress is impressive. As far as Diggler himself, he starts the movie in his childhood bedroom, his voice a full octave higher, and he ends it as a cleaned-up, aspiring filmmaker. We watch him grow up. That feels like Irving. (And by association Dickens, of course, though I don’t know Dickens as well. Shame on me.)
I’m not going to blow any minds by posting yet another of PTA’s long tracking shots as an example of his bravura visual style, but what the hell — here’s the pool scene. Enjoy:
And here’s what are maybe my favorite few minutes in the movie, beginning with Floyd’s (Philip Baker Hall) entrance. Check it out:
First of all, let’s hope we can all one day be worthy of the opening chords of “Driver’s Seat” to herald our entrance, and second, let's doff our hats in honor of Thomas Jane’s entrance. (No surprise that his character appears to crash into a lawn ornament upon arrival.) But I want to heap praise on a shot that comes at the one-minute mark: PTA lingers on a relatively minor character — Jessie St. Vincent, played by a virtually unrecognizable Melora Walters. Jessie gets ditched by Dirk and scans the party for someone else to hang out with. I timed the shot; it lasts 15 seconds. Fifteen seconds. That an eternity in screen time, and PTA lets his performer take as long as she needs to make one of the most important and lasting connections in the movie: her relationship with Buck Swope (Cheadle). Remember this moment, because I’ll talk about it again when I circle back around to Inherent Vice (and don’t worry, I will).
(Side question: Who has the best entrance — Floyd or Jackie Treehorn in The Big Lebowski. Trick question; they both do.)
There Will Be Blood is probably the most Irving-esque in scope of any of these movies, following hero-misanthrope Daniel Plainview from (what I guess) is his early 20s to old age. Another deeply Irving touch is the inclusion of Plainview’s son, H.W., who we follow (albeit at a far greater remove) from birth to adulthood. If Irving has been in charge of production for TWBB, he probably would’ve shifted the movie’s focus from Daniel to H.W. I’d like to see that movie, but it’s not the one for PTA to have made. Like Boogie Nights, PTA affords himself and his cast great time and room to delve into their characters. It’s easy to describe Daniel as a misanthrope, but he’s incredibly tender to his son in the opening reels, and when humiliated by Reverend Eli, he calls his son back home from boarding school. By most accounts, he appears to be a high-functioning sociopath, but there’s vestiges of empathy and decency in him. It just takes drastic measures on the order of a forced baptism to summon ‘em. Daniel also has some incredibly mixed and stunted feelings about family, given how he fluctuates between cruelty and kindness with his son, as well as the savagery with which he responds to being tricked into thinking Henry is his long-lost brother.
I’ve only seen The Master the one time in the theater, but I’d further contend that like Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, The Master constructs a family of sorts, but unlike Blood, which focuses on the patriarch of the clan, Master shifts its focus to the anti-Dirk Diggler of the PTA universe, Freddie Quell, a borderline-impotent sad-sack who doesn’t lose his virginity until the movie’s final moments, when he’s finally divested himself of cult leader Lancaster Dodd’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman, RIP) influence. But like Dirk, Freddie is a man-child in search of a family; he just happens to find one that’s hell-and-wrong bad for his sense of self. (In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that Jack Horner’s family is somehow an outright “good” one, only that it’s a good one for Dirk. Dirk found his vocation, his calling and his people. That ain’t a bad hat-trick.)
Once again, I submit that The Master is an s-PTA movie in terms of thematic and visual scope, and like both movies, it features sweeping vistas, spectacular tracking shots, and some incredible depth of frame. (If memory serves, the opening reels feature several shots that peer deep into cavernous spaces as empty as Freddie’s belfry. One shot that looks down into the innards of his battleship lingers with me.)
And like its s-PTA brethren, The Master affords its actors incredible time to live and breathe and develop both their roles and their scenes. (Again, remember this point, because I’ll come back to it hard when I get to Inherent Vice.) In the case of The Master, PTA’s patience as a director works especially well for his fictionalized portrayal of a treatment from the Church of Scientology known as “auditing.” Check it out:
(Full disclosure: I’m flat-out skipping Punch-Drunk Love, which is awesome, and Hard Eight, which I haven’t seen, and Magnolia, because this review is already running long, but for the record, I’d also call Magnolia an s-PTA movie, although it doesn't have quite the same sense of scope as the others.)
Moving on: There’s a shot relatively late in The Master that visually captures the feeling I get when I watch an s-PTA movie: Freddie Quell stealing Dodd’s motorbike on what appears to be the “playa,” the Black Rock Desert of Burning Man fame:
It’s not just that Freddie boosts the bike and rides off into the distance, exploring yet another deep-focus frontier created by PTA; no, it’s the game of “pick a point” they’re playing that inspires me so. It inspires a sense of childlike joy in me; the idea of picking a point on the horizon and then actually being able to reach it. PTA reaches many such points in his own movies. Dirk Diggler becomes the star he dreams of in Nights. Daniel Plainview becomes a multi-millionaire — and humiliates his competitors — in Blood. (At the same time, kind old H.W. starts his own business and learns to his relief that he’s not his father’s son in Blood.) And Freddie Quell finally comes to know the affection of a woman in Master.
PTA makes me feel like anything is possible, emotionally and visually, when I go to the movies, and somehow, that feeling is lacking for me in Inherent Vice. It’s not completely AWOL, but I don’t find it in as great an abundance as I do his “signature” movies. I guess Inherent Vice feels most like Magnolia in terms of structure and spirit, but if both of those movies are mansions, the rooms in Magnolia are bigger, roomier, and doorless — you can only get around the rooms in the Magnolia mansion via an intricate network of secret passages. If Inherent Vice is a beautifully crafted bohemian mansion perched in the Hollywood Hills, an s-PTA movie is a Winchester Mystery House.
So let’s talk about Inherent Vice. It’s a hell of a movie, so what’s my problem? Well, I made the earlier comparison to Jackie Brown, and I think it’s an apt one. Bearing in mind that I’ve not read Pynchon’s novel, I’ll say that it echoes the structure — or labyrinthine lack therof — of a Raymond Chandler novel. As such, it’s built on a superstructure of short (by PTA standards) scenes that feature the lead detective interrogating or otherwise interacting with one character at a time. And that’s fine. That’s what classic gumshoe stories are, after all, and as a big fan of those kinds of books, I’m not complaining. But all the same, the episodic structure makes the movie feel hemmed in, limited in scope. Like many detective yarns, it takes place over a fairly condensed period of time — maybe two or three days? — and involves a cast of disparate eccentrics, as opposed to the more tight-knit families in Nights, Blood and Master.
That said, let’s talk about what I adore about Inherent Vice: its densely inter-latticing plot and theme, rich-toned presentation, and (most important) its individually roomy scenes. Let’s go point by point:
Densely inter-latticing plot and theme
PTA’s movie has drawn comparisons to another extended Chandler homage, The Big Lebowski, although PTA’s movie is much, much harder to follow than the Coen brothers’. That’s been the cause of some legitimatecriticism of the movie (I suppose), though for me, I tried to focus less on what was happening and more on what I was feeling, and my feelings included a lot of pleasure, a lot of warmth, and a lot of sympathy for the lead character’s plight, which (in contrast with the plot) was deceptively simple:
He was trying to get back with his girl. That’s it.
Seriously, that was it. In the opening scene, Shasta gives Doc his first of many jobs he’ll work over the course of the narrative, and then she vanishes for a long time. Over the course of all his cases, Doc tries to find — and reconnect — with her again. He’s got a void in his life, and she’s the one who fills it.
That void extends to virtually everyone he meets, no doubt a product of their time and place. Master media critic Matt Zoller Seitz expertly describes the backdrop for Inherent Vice in his review over at RogerEbert.com:
“It's set in Los Angeles circa 1970, after Tet and Altamont and Manson so many other time-and-place names that viewers of a certain age will recognize as markers of the point where '60s Utopianism morphed into '70s numbness. In his gonzo epic “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Hunter S. Thompson referred to the Summer of Love in 1967 as, in retrospect, the point where the great wave of the counterculture “broke and finally rolled back.’”
It’s no surprise that the central story engine for Pynchon’s novel is a crime syndicate that sells drugs (which fill a hole), as well as a host of remedies and solutions for the side- and after-effects of drug use, including dentistry (for junkies who lose teeth from shooting up), as well as access to a chi-chi rehab clinic staffed by guards who dress like Jesus and carry submachine guns. Pynchon depicts an empty feedback loop of stimulus and jonesing, showing us all of the places (and the lengths) we go to in order to make the pain go away. Doc’s our guide on this tour, and as he takes on more and more jobs, he finds that each one is connected to the other. In fact, a completely different job (I think?) eventually leads him to the solution for the initial job that Shasta gave him. The movie’s a moebius-strip-flowchart, with Shasta as its center, its vortex.
But again, at its heart, this is a literary adaptation, and as such it feels a little less like a PTA movie and more like its source material. In this analysis of a scene for the New York Times, PTA notes that this is a more “straightforward” movie. I agree.
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With regards to narrative density, the closest experience I’ve had to watching Inherent Vice was reading the John LeCarre novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which follows a group of intelligence analysts as they try to roust out a mole. The novel hits the reader with pages and pages seemingly irrelevant information about a dozen different intelligence operations, but LeCarre gives his readers one vital clue — he opens the novel on one apparently unrelated character, a former spook, now injured and enduring a forced retirement. As you read through those reams of data, his name pops up from time to time, signaling that the surrounding information is important to remember. I lost the thread pretty early on in Inherent Vice — surprisingly quick, even for a goofball like me — but as I watched, I paid attention to how often Shasta came up. She was my lifeline, just as she was for Doc.
This is just a fancypants way of praising Inherent Vice’s period design. It’s a perfect depiction of the early 70s — or so I’ve heard. I didn’t live through those years. Bear witness to the trailer:
Side note: I also really, really liked the use of voice-over. It’s a common device for noir films, but PTA turns it on its head by deploying his voice-over in a very Terence Malick way. Joanna Newsom plays an unseen character called Sortilège, whose lines are far less about simple exposition (though there is some of that) and far more about simply being another beautiful instrument in PTA’s cinematic orchestra.
Individually roomy scenes
Remember that long take of Melora Walters in Boogie Nights? Well, I’m coming back to it. Although Inherent Vice doesn’t feel like an s-PTA movie to me, PTA smuggles in some of his virtuoso long takes in just about every scene. PTA packs Inherent Vice with more leisurely, talky “two shots” than any movie this side of a Mamet adaptation. (I wish I could share one here, but they’re not online yet.) It’s in these scenes that PTA can be the most himself within the confines of Pynchon’s riff on gumshoe fiction. Like I said, Inherent Vice isn’t a Winchester Mystery House. The layout of this house is a pretty standard one, but it’s got great charm. It’s a circular layout, with beautiful, vast, high-ceilinged rooms that lead from one to the other. You’ll do two laps around the first floor before you realize it, and you won’t mind you did.