Tuesday 25 November 2014

Inherent Vice and my failings
as a human being

It seems futile to describe my feelings about Inherent Vice. Although I'm fairly certain I watched it, I feel like I didn't see it. At least, I didn't see the film that most other people who've watched it have seen. You only need to do a brief Twitter search of the film's title to see that it's already enormously popular, and a convincing enough majority of critics are hailing it as yet another masterpiece in the already masterpiece-heavy canon of its director, Paul Thomas Anderson. Well that's great; good on him. If you're a PTA person, go and watch Inherent Vice when it comes out at the end of January, as if you needed an idiot like me to tell you that. Personally, I found it to be one of the most difficult, dull and miserable experiences I've ever had watching a film, and I've seen Roger Moore's Fire, Ice & Dynamite.

Let me be clear: I'm not saying it's a terrible film, and - although I seem to be in a tiny minority - I'm fully aware I'm not alone with my foul opinion. I don't want to be that insufferable twerp who tries to make a name for himself by giving a one-star review to something he alone didn't like or understand, just so people will take notice and commend him for his bravery in refusing to bow to popular opinion. The sheer tidal wave of positivity for Inherent Vice is proof that it has worth, so who am I to ignore that? I'm far more interested in trying to get to the bottom of my intensely negative psychological reaction to the film, simply because I don't understand why I would feel this way.
Inherent Vice is a crime comedy drama based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, which I obviously haven't read otherwise I might have made more sense of the film. It stars Joaquin Phoenix as sleazy stoner PI Doc Sportello, and a huge ensemble cast who, as far as I can tell, are all very good in their respective roles. But I'd struggle to summarise the plot, because I found it utterly baffling. Sportello is hired by an ex-girlfriend to help stop a plan by her new lover's wife to have him committed to an insane asylum, and that's as far as I got. Approximately seventy thousand more characters get involved and I had literally no idea how they were related to each other, what they were up to or why I should care.

Now I'm not entirely dense; I realise this is kind of the point. The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep, two films for which I have a lot of affection and which crop up in innumerable Inherent Vice reviews, are similarly labyrinthine. The trippy nature of Anderson's film is so deeply ingrained that it's obviously intended that you're never quite sure what you're seeing isn't a figment of Doc's weed-addled imagination. Fine. But somewhere along the line, character empathy turned to alienation: long takes filled with people mumbling dialogue that washed right over me recreated the experience of being stoned only insofar as it was like being in a room full of enormously boring assholes talking inconsequential shit for hours on end. Forgive me, but that's not my idea of entertainment.

The obvious explanation for my antipathy is that Paul Thomas Anderson just doesn't do it for me: I liked Punch Drunk Love a lot, but Boogie Nights and Magnolia left little impact on me, while I have nothing positive to say about There Will Be Blood or The Master, two films which almost everyone else I know believe to be among mankind's greatest artistic achievements. I haven't seen Anderson's debut, Hard Eight, and nor am I in any rush to. But my reaction to PTA's last three films isn't just a dislike of a particular style, it's a total inability to fathom what the majority of like-minded people find so appealing, and that's just not my usual state of mind. Am I not clever enough? Am I too old? Too mainstream? I don't think so, but maybe I'm not the best judge.

What I am is suspicious: I get a distinct whiff of emperor's new clothes about Paul Thomas Anderson in some circles. That's not to belittle or denigrate those who are genuinely passionate about his work: I respect your opinion and am, in some small way, quite jealous. But I'm sure there are more like me out there who won't admit it. I saw Inherent Vice at one of two sold-out preview screenings at London's Prince Charles Cinema which were introduced by Anderson himself, and the gales of laughter which greeted early scenes suggested to me that there were several audience members desperately trying to tell PTA that they got it, they were down with it, as if he was going to take them back to his hotel and hold a thank you party in their honour. I can't understand why anybody would act that way, but then I can't understand why people eat mussels either, yet it definitely happens. I've seen it. It's disgusting.
I'd never refer to myself as A Film Critic - at best I'd describe myself as Someone Who Writes About Films - and that's clearly for the best. But as Someone Who Writes About Films and who wants to be good at it, it seems important to me to understand exactly what it is that makes a film good or bad beyond the vague boundaries of personal opinion. And, at the risk of disappearing right up my own arsehole, I think this is at the heart of my PTA problem. I can't understand why I don't get on with him and I feel like Someone Who Writes About Films really should have a firm grasp on that. So maybe it's this dent in my self-confidence that's caused me to have this reaction to Inherent Vice and to ramble on about it for over a thousand words; if that's the case and you've read this far, I can only apologise that the conclusion involves my bruised ego.

I'll continue to watch Paul Thomas Anderson's films because a) he's clearly an important director and b) I really, really want to like them, but I now dread the day I see the next one, because I'm sure I'll go through all this again. Inherent Vice, for me, was an hour of confusion followed by an hour and a half of mental torture, and I must be some kind of masochist for willingly putting myself through that again. But I'd rather see something and hate it than not see it at all if it's met with widespread approval, because if there's one thing I can't bear it's an uninformed opinion. And if there's another thing I can't bear it's missing out on something everyone else is on about. You might think that's pathetic, but in the words of a wise old sage, that's just, like, your opinion, man.


  1. Nice piece, enjoyed the read. A counter-counter intuitive critique? :)

  2. An excellent desription of being in the middle of a crowded room but entirely alone. While I enjoy PTA, there is an almost tribal loyalty to his work that goes beyond reasonable consideration into mean-spirited posturing that, as you said, at times reeks of inauthenticity.

  3. I do like his appreciation of good facial hair though.

  4. Inherent Vice movie is the best movie which is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who is great and famous director. This movie is a great combo of Comedy | Crime | Drama and recently i saw this movie and it has great story and its amazing...

  5. This article absolutely nails it. You are not alone, and you are spot on when you say that its important to understand what makes a good film beyond one's personal opinion. If personal opinion is all there is, then there is no reason to critique films. It becomes just another avenue for on-line dating or the equivalent of writing "I like cheese" on social media.

    Let me suggest why you have a problem with Paul Thomas Anderson, even if you can't articulate it exactly:

    He ultimately has nothing to say other than the fact that he wants to be considered a great director. Before the generation the grew up on home video and film schools, directors had to pull their inspirations from sources outside of other films. The end result was a more creative and boundary-pushing creative process in the actual filmmaking. Now what we are seeing is a xerox of a xerox, with Boogie Nights ripping off Goodfellas, and Magnolia ripping off Short Cuts.

    Previously, important directors had interesting things to say, and thus felt the need to create films about them. Paul Thomas Anderson, on the other hand, feels the need to create important films, thus he strives to come up with interesting things to say. There's a huge difference between the two concepts. One puts the cart before the horse, with the end result being that Anderson's films seem forced, overblown and ultimately derivative. He doesn't have anything interesting say. He just borrows "important" broad themes and uses them as tropes. As if this guy really has meaningful insights into oil, greed, cults, relationships or the late-60s?? Please...

    Because his primary goal is be considered a great director, rather than have any interesting stories to tell, his characters seem paper-thin and are forced to recite hackneyed dialogue that spells out their feelings without an ounce of nuance or an ability to show it through action. ("I have so much love to give! I just don't know where to put it!" or "I have a competition in me." or any of the unnecessary voice-over in Inherent Vice.)

    I also find that he often lets his actors overact. At heart, I think he actually is starstruck by actors, but is able to hide this by virtue of the fact that he is able to employ them.

    With Inherent Vice, he has now explicitly gone on record in interviews stating that he doesn't care about plot at all, but simply wants to focus on actors that make him feel a certain way. That's actually been obvious throughout his entire work.

    Again - ultimately he isn't interested in any idea beyond the idea of filmmaking itself. I think that's why he appeals to so many young film school students today. It validates their sense that its ok to make films just for the sake of itself, without the need for reason or cultural statement beyond the process they enjoy. Hence the obsessions with long tracking shots or fancy camera that have no relation to message its trying to convey. These students take comfort in the fact that if people can praise something so random, aimless and two-dimensional as 'Inherent Vice', then they have a shot of being praised themselves after jotting down a few wacky concepts and paper-thin characters after downing a six-pack in their college dorms.

    That's my honest take.

    You will find that PTA fans are among the most rabid and hostile towards anyone who puts forth a dissenting opinion. That is only further proof of their own insecurity about his talents. The Emperor really has no clothes here.