“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” Hunter S. Thompson used that Samuel Johnson observation as the epigraph for his 1971 Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, and one of the many things Thompson achieved in that ruthless work was in revealing the pain that even good men are capable of inflicting once they’ve made beasts of themselves. It’s not for nothing that Terry Gilliam, adapting that book into a film in 1998, made Chapter Eight of Part Two of that book, in which Thompson and his “attorney” terrorize a diner waitress, into the most nakedly exposed raw nerve of the story (Ellen Barkin is exceptionally jarring in the waitress role). In his extremely appropriate adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson makes some very distinct shifts of stress to, among other things, bring an almost Gravity’s Rainbow level of despair and pessimism to bear on what is, I reckon, the coziest finale of a Pynchon book to date. And, as in Gilliam’s adaptation of Thompson, the shift into a darker tone finds its footing in a scene of unpleasant interaction between man and woman.
Or at least that’s how I see it. Funny how reasonable people can differ, and as we move forward be warned, I’ll be getting into a little detail about the plotting and scenes of Anderson’s movie. Here’s my friend Manohla Dargis’ description of the scene I have in mind, from her New York Times review of the movie: “a strip scene that’s straight from the book and is at once bleak—the woman disrobing confesses to selling herself out—and a fantasy of female erotic power. It’s a beautifully staged and played interlude, but also the one time when Mr. Anderson is himself seduced by an illusion. It harshed my mellow.” I see the bleakness of the scene to be sure; indeed, I think the bleakness is entirely the point. As for whether or not it’s a fantasy of female erotic power, while I don’t want to overshare, I don’t find the exchange as it’s depicted under the circumstances to be entirely far-fetched. (Although I’ve seen even more affronted reactions to it in social media, including one person who comes close to suggesting that Anderson’s treatment of actress Katherine Waterson in the scene skirts sexual assault.) As for Manohla’s observation with respect to her mellow, I think the whole point of the scene is to harsh, if not entirely deprive you, of your mellow. It’s the emotional fulcrum of the whole movie, and in a way an apologia (in the classical sense) for Joaquin Pheonix’s Phoenix's completely uningratiating performance in a role that one might have assumed was MEANT to be a likable one (like Jeff Lebowski, “Doc” Sportello is intended in certain respects as a cannabis-infused spiritual heir to Philip Marlowe). Especially after the film’s rainy-day flashback that gorgeously sentimentalizes the Doc-Shasta romance, the curdled eroticism of the strip scene shows the two characters in a thoroughly broken context, communicating through various languages of power that they never wanted to learn or maybe even acknowledge in the first place. Not only does it shockingly put the movie on a new track, it also recontextualizes a lot of the seemingly aimless goofiness that went on previously. What ruined these former flower children? Late capitalism, lack of faith, the Golden Fang? Whatever the root cause (and the movie doesn’t put a finger on it) the rot has set in, and that’s why Anderson rejigger’s Pynchon’s ending. The book’s final note is one of warm affection between Doc and Coy Harlingen, and Anderson stages their exchange in person rather than over the phone, showing Doc at a remove from the family life Harlingen is now getting a second chance at; the movie then continues with a grotesquely comic but also shudderingly poignant scene cementing Doc’s relationship as not-so-secret-sharer with fascist cop Bigfoot (Josh Brolin). This hearkens back, in a way, to the Freddie Quell/Lancaster Dodd dynamic in The Master, which is a topic for another time, perhaps. I'm suggesting a rich web of emotional and cultural association, and it's this web that makes Inherent Vice so outstanding and haunting, and one reason why (spoiler alert) it’s my top film of the year.