Film Noir Parody, Hippie-Style
The essence of film noir is summed up by Jean Gabin’s ex-soldier in Marcel Carné’s Quai des brumes when, following a conversation about the foggy climate, he lashes out at the PTSD-induced “psychological fog” that clouds his mind. This conflation of meteorology and psychology points to what Carné’s picture (which is a work of poetic realism rather than strictly film noir, but the former movement is widely regarded as prefiguring the latter) and its film noir successors are all about: externalizing internal angst by inscribing the existential struggles of its characters in dreary climate patterns and deep, late-night shadows. We see this tendency transferred to a contemporary setting in the more recent “neo-noir” films, as embodied by the filmography of David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, et al. Like their predecessors, these films saturate themselves with visual murkiness as a means to locate its spiritual equivalent in both the characters and the times during which these movies were released.
Inherent Vice, the latest project by Paul Thomas Anderson and a send-up to the film noir attitude, contains lots of fog, except this fogginess is neither of the weather nor of the mind, at least not in the abstract sense. Physiology is the word of the day, and the haze comes from drugs – weed, mostly, but cocaine and PCP make memorable appearances as well. Instead of postwar disillusionment or postmodern alienation, we get blissful, 1970s hippiedom in sun-soaked LA. For our hero, we expect hardboiled but are instead served scrambled eggs in the form of Larry “Doc” Sportello, played by a frazzle-haired, marijuana-puffing Joaquin Phoenix who’s miles away from the urbane pimp in The Immigrant. Bedecked in sandals, straw hat, and beach shirt, Doc wanders the city’s increasingly strange, increasingly Coen-esque locales, and we are unsure what’s real and what’s simply a stoner’s reverie. He has detective work to complete – his ex-girlfriend has enlisted him to investigate a thorny situation involving an attempt by the wife of the man she’s sleeping with to swindle the man out of his money – but soon the case gets surreally, dare I say psychedelically, out of control, both for Doc and for us. Plot points appear to link together by free association, revelations seem to materialize by coincidence, and everything is amazingly hard to follow. Virtually every new witness Doc encounters wants to hire him for their own agendas, and soon he has upwards of five cases under his belt. We can’t keep track of them, and it seems neither can he.
Yes, Inherent Vice is a mess, but it’s a mess by choice – central among the movie’s jabs at film noir is the way it takes the trope of the unreliable narrator to the extreme. To begin with, the person whose voiceover guides us through the story wasn’t actually present at the events depicted in the film. This suggests that someone, probably Doc, recounted the events to her – the problem is, Doc is too stoned most of the time to be totally aware of what is happening to him, let alone accurately share his experiences with the narrator so that she could relay the information to us. Taking all this into account, the resulting movie is understandably haphazard. At one point, the voiceover describes a nighttime event, except the scene before us is occurring in broad daylight. Is the camera objective and the subjective voiceover simply the result of the drug-addled Doc feeding confused information to the narrator? Or does the camera reproduce Doc’s subjectivity, whereas the voiceover is an accurate account of the events? If the latter were the case, then who is this narrator, and how does she know what happened in so much detail? I believe the first scenario to be true, but I couldn’t say for certain. To watch Inherent Vice is to be alternatively dazzled and frustrated by the movie’s lack of intelligibility. At its best, the film is a comic masterpiece of indirection that finds uproarious humor in its rejection of narrative coherence. When the appeal of the scatterbrained-ness wears thin, however, the film has a numbing effect, as if you yourself have been sedated by Doc’s stash of grass – you’re not quite bored, but you aren’t quite “with it” either.
Traditional noir narratives are dark, world weary, complex but streamlined. The screenplay of Anderson’s new film, adapted from the novel by Thomas Pynchon, is bright, giddily out-of-touch with real-world crime, complex to a fault, and splashily disorganized. Through inverting and overextending the iconic elements of film noir, Anderson both subverts and pays homage to the genre’s traditions, and it is by keeping this interpretation in mind that I was able to make some sense of Inherent Vice. Otherwise, I would have found the film a disappointing addition to Anderson’s filmography – it’s not stylistically dissimilar to his other movies and yet feels less ambitious, less inspired in its absurdity and vulgarity than, say, Magnolia or There Will be Blood. Even now a slight disappointment remains, but it’s tempered by the knowledge that this auteur-visionary knows what he’s doing. Just look at the character of Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a man whose outlandish bravado parodies the hypermasculine posturing characteristic of film noir’s hardboiled men. Not only that, but his exaggerated love of phallic popsicles, on top of being a crude attempt by the film at raunchy humor, further breaks down the masculine facade by associating the manly man with repressed psychosexual anxieties. As played by Josh Brolin, Bigfoot is a loaded character-caricature, one only a director of Anderson’s caliber could have brought to proper life.