There’s a snippet of dialogue toward the end of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, his ramshackle noir about a doper private investigator named Doc Sportello, which exemplifies the appeal that the novel must have held for director Paul Thomas Anderson.
"That big disaster Sortilège is always talking about, way back when Lemuria [an Atlantis contemporary] sank into the Pacific," Doc says to one of his friends. "Some of the people who escaped then are spoze to’ve fled here for safety. Which would make California like, a ark."
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"Oh, nice refuge," his friend replies. "Nice, stable, reliable piece of real estate."
In this trippy conception of California, the Golden State is less a coherent society than a collection of weirdos. Much the same could be said about Anderson’s body of work, which catalogues the oddballs and eccentrics of America’s most unusual state. In films that take place from the late nineteenth century to just after 9/11, one could say that Anderson has created what amounts to an alternate American Century.
To get a better sense of this, it helps to view the films chronologically. Not in order of their release date, mind you, but in order of their setting. There Will Be Blood opens like a sunrise, fading in on a scrubby landscape to the sound of dissonant strings. Moments later we see our hero, the soon-to-be-self-made-millionaire Daniel Plainview, huddled over a fire like the first man on the plains. A title card informs us that it is 1898.
There Will Be Blood is the best movie that has been made about the central struggle within American culture, the endless back and forth between business and religion, between spirituality and materiality, family and lucre. Notably, as imagined by Anderson, it’s a struggle not of institutions but of individuals. By film’s end Standard Oil seems like a sane alternative to the maniacal Plainview, while the Pentecostal prophet Eli Sunday’s snake oil act ends only when he is forced to admit his fraudulence after the stock market crash of 1929.
With The Master, his character study of a cashiered World War II sailor who drinks paint thinner and the cult leader (based loosely on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard) who tries to save him, Anderson skips ahead to the postwar years. If There Will Be Blood is about the tension between business and religion, The Master is in part about their merger, about the effort to win followers, the wealthier the better. But it’s also about the appeal of institutions, of belonging. It’s about a lost man unable to find his place in the emerging order, the sort of guy who doesn’t fit in during boom times, who can’t hold down the steady nine to five.
The drifting loner with substance abuse issues fits right in with the overstuffed cast of misfits Anderson has collected for Inherent Vice, opening this weekend in Washington, D.C., and several other markets. Inherent Vice follows the travails of the aforementioned Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a PI with a proclivity for pot and pizza.
To describe the plot as confusing would be overly fair. Doc’s ex-old-lady Shasta (Katherine Waterston) shows up at his beachside shack warning that there’s a plan to kidnap her married boyfriend Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). That sets into motion a scenario involving a resurrected alto saxophonist and COINTELPRO and a heroin syndicate called the Golden Fang fronted by dentists and a loan shark and deputy DA and a cop by the name of Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who moonlights as an actor when he isn’t violating the civil rights of hippie scum.
Inherent Vice is a bizarre, almost dreamlike, movie, one that makes sense from moment to moment but falls apart the second you try to tie it all together. It is better understood not as a noirish thriller but as an examination of America on the precipice. As a standalone film, Inherent Vice is something of a wreck (albeit a beautifully acted, terrifically lensed wreck). However, as a bridge—a throughway from the squares and lost souls of The Master to the unmoored free-swingers of Boogie Nights—it makes sense.
Perhaps best understood as Anderson’s alternate history of the film industry, Boogie Nights’ tale of porn stars takes us through the Carter malaise and Reagan’s first term but flips the script: In Anderson’s telling, the late-1970s were a lighthearted, exuberant time, while the early-1980s were not morning in America but a depressing nightmare. The effects of free love and mountains of cocaine coincide with the decline in production standards of the adult film industry. It is a tragedy of life in society’s underbelly.
We then skip ahead to 1999’s Magnolia, Anderson’s audaciously interlocked tale of Los Angelenos searching for meaning. Though ambitious in scope and scale—at 188 minutes it is by far the longest of Anderson’s (notoriously longwinded) pictures—the film’s human touch is extremely strong. This is a story about fathers and sons, about feelings and fairness or the lack thereof, about folks looking for love, for something to hold on to. With a world at peace and prosperity at home and abroad, the film is a capstone to the Clinton years.
And then came 9/11. To be clear, Punch-Drunk Love, though released in 2002, was written and almost entirely shot before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The following is not an argument that Anderson shaped the film in response to that attack. But it’s worth noting just how different the film feels from anything else he’s made: This is a mannered production that ditches realism for a far more expressionistic sensibility.
Consider the opening moments. Barry (Adam Sandler) is engaged in a mundane phone conversation about a frequent flyer promotion. He hears a noise and walks out of his office and onto the sidewalk. The street is empty. The camera looks one way, then the other when, out of nowhere, a truck going full speed flips into the air. The clatter makes both Barry and the audience shudder. As it skids down the street, the senseless tragedy of the accident leaves Sandler wide-eyed and terrified, shaking his head in shock as he edges backward.
Suddenly, a van pulls up and deposits a tiny little piano on the street in front of him before speeding away. Barry is paralyzed with confusion. The camera slowly pushes in on the piano, focusing our attention on it. This non sequitur is Barry’s new reality.
Everything has changed. And the American Century had come to an end.