Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel Inherent Vice opens with an epigraph: "Under the paving stones, the beach!" which the author designates as "Grafitto, Paris, May 1968." The sentiment is frequently credited to the philosophers and activists now called "the Situationists," and beyond the nod to a certain mode of radical thought, the quote's resonance as the novel begins is, depending on how much context you freight the quote with, both melancholy—the events of the book take place in 1970, well after the May strikes were squelched, and soon after Manson and Altamont and all that perceptually put a stake through the heart of the counterculture—and kind of wry, as the semi-lost souls who populate the book are operating in and around a California beach town inspired, it is said, by Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon reportedly lived in the late '60s and early '70s while writing Gravity's Rainbow.
Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's film of the book places the epigraph at the very very end of the movie, after the final credits unroll. It's the movie's "stinger," so to speak. I can't speak to why Anderson chose to place it at the very end, whether that means he's paying a perfunctory respect to the philosophical current it represents (I don't believe that anyway) or whether he thinks that waving the Situationist flag in any form these days is perceptually the contemporary equivalent of going and carrying pictures of Chairman Mao. But it's there. And it's not unimportant.
More prominently placed in this beautiful film (and it is beautiful, from the very beginning, when a tight shot of a serene Joanna Newsom is interrupted by what looks like a blossoming deep blue lens flare, which turns out to be a dissolve into the nocturnal weed haze inhabited by the lead character "Doc" Sportello, a Firesign Theater idea of a private dick if there ever was one) is an observation about addiction and recovery and who's running that whole show in these United States. On investigating an entity called "the Golden Fang"—an entity whose identity shifts, in absurd and absurdist degrees, through Pynchon's narrative—the paranoid (or, rather, "paranoid") Sportello hits on an idea: "It was occuring to Doc now, as he recalled what Jason Velveeta had said about vertical integration, that if the Golden Fang could get its customers strung out, why not turn around and sell them a program to help them kick? Get them coming and going, twice as much revnue and no worries about new customers—as long as American life was something to be escaped from , the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers." The second half of that passage is repeated verbatim in Newsom's voiceover, and it's crucial.
The movie walks a very particular high wire, soaking in a series of madcap-surreal hijinks in an ambling, agreeable fashion to such an extent that even viewers resistant to demanding "what's the point" might think "what's the point." Which isn't to say the humor isn't delightful. Anderson has mentioned Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker (EARLY Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker, to be sure) as a reference point, and it's there, as in the near-obscene sight of Josh Brolin relishing a chocolate-covered banana in soft focus, or the dialogue misunderstanding beginning with "Go to bed." Hints of Jerry Lewis, too, as in a wonderful shot of a line of people veering to their right while Sportello, holding up the rear, continues straight ahead. But this is a Paul Thomas Anderson movie: the fun stuff engages but holds you in suspension, waiting for the kick in the gut. Which does happen, There is, about an hour and forty-five minutes into the film, a turnabout, a scene which again reproduces the dialogue and to a certain extent the action of a scene in the novel, but shifts the emphases in a way that's pure Anderson, bringing a shocking amount of raw emotion and wrong to an exchange that the book almost throws away. The scene delivers what the film has been withholding, and this places everything that's come before in a sort of relief, and colors everything that comes after. It is, to my mind, pretty incredible. And despite the scene being "only" two people in a room, it speaks to everything the movie has on its mind. It's funny; we can talk ourselves silly about how Gone Girl may or may not have a "woman problem," but when it comes to discussing the notion of how dominant ideology in a capitalist system also determines power relations between the sexes, it's "check, please" time. I'll leave it at that for now.
In hewing close to Pynchon, Anderson finds a new freedom, or a further elasticity to the freedom he started exercisng most strenuously in Magnolia. I've seen a scene in which Sportello is surrounded by a group of nose-picking FBI agents described as "cringeworthy;" and it is, if what you demand from motion pictures is a straight line, an unwavering tone, a particular fidelity to, I don't know, EXACTLY what it is that Altman or Ashby did and you no want his One True Inheritor to keep doing, or something. Pynchon's freedom is manifested in, say, the above-quoted sentences, which contain mordant observations on this American life juxtaposed against a character named "Jason Velveeta." The whole of Gravity's Rainbow, from banana breakfast to the head of a V2 missile touching the roof of a London cinema, is a musical, for heaven's sake.
I wasn't going to write about this movie until more people were able to see it, but I wanted to get these ideas out there, as people are talking about it and are going to talk about it. I'll have more at a future date. I should extend my appreciation to the New York Film Festival for the opportunity to see the movie at such an early date (it comes to theaters on December 12). I think it's great.