'Inherent Vice' Director, Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin Discuss Translating Complex Pynchon Novel to Big Screen

By Lowman, Rob | Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), December 9, 2014 | Go to article overview

'Inherent Vice' Director, Stars Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin Discuss Translating Complex Pynchon Novel to Big Screen


Lowman, Rob, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


From left: Josh Brolin as Lt. Det. Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, Benicio del Toro as Sauncho Smilax and Joaquin Phoenix as Larry "Doc" Sportello in "Inherent Vice." Wilson Webb - Warner Bros.

When director Paul Thomas Anderson gave Joaquin Phoenix the book "Inherent Vice," which he planned to make into a movie, the actor's reaction was, "How is he going to do this?"

That is not unexpected. The novel's author, Thomas Pynchon, a towering figure in literature for more than half a century, is no easy read. While many passages in his works are cinematic, comic, visionary and lyrical, others can be opaque and complicated. The consensus of opinion has been that his novels like "V.," "Vineland," "Mason & Dixon" and "Gravity's Rainbow" are unfilmable.

As a longtime fan of the author's work, Anderson felt possessive about Pynchon's writing. "I felt if I can't do it, I wanted to be the one who tried. I didn't want to see anybody else do it," says Anderson, who is known for dark films like "There Will Be Blood" and "The Master."

If any of Pynchon's work was going to be turned into a film, though, it was his 2009 novel "Inherent Vice," considered his most accessible book. On Dec. 12, Anderson's movie adaptation of the book hits theaters.

The filmmaker says reading Pynchon, for him, was like a "kid who has read J.D. Salinger for the first time and thinks 'The Catcher in the Rye' was written for him."

Like the late Salinger was, Pynchon's life is something of a mystery. He hasn't been seen in public in decades. In fact, Wikipedia uses his high-school picture from 1953. "The Simpsons" has depicted him three times as a man with a bag over his head with a question mark on it.

We know he exists because Pynchon has steadily produced novels that are uniquely his. He also has a devoted following, even if his fans sometimes have to puzzle through his books. The New York Times recently described his 1973 novel "Gravity's Rainbow," winner of the National Book Award, as "a gargantuan parable of rocketry, sex and a whole bunch of other stuff." It is so intricate that it is compared to reading James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake."

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"Inherent Vice," on the other hand, begins with: "She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to." It reads like something from a Raymond Chandler mystery, but hidden within the sly, often funny, stoner detective story is a tragicomedy about an America going wrong.

The words are from Larry "Doc" Sportello (Phoenix's character), a big-hearted hippie private investigator who lives in Gordita Beach, a surfing community that may be a stand-in for Manhattan Beach. The "she" in this case is Doc's old flame, Shasta, played by Katherine Waterston, recently seen in "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby."

In any detective story, a femme fatale/damsel in distress means trouble, and Shasta's connection to a big real-estate developer soon sends Doc on a mystery tour through the surreal landscape of Los Angeles in 1970 as he investigates a murder and kidnapping case.

"Many people pinpoint 1970 as being the hangover year from the crest of the 1960s," observes Anderson, a native of the San Fernando Valley, where two of his films are set - "Magnolia" and "Boogie Nights."

By 1969, the real hippie era - which Pynchon described as "this little parentheses of light" - was over, although remnants were still evident throughout the culture. That year, however, put a deadly exclamation point on it. Charles Manson's cult followers had shocked the nation and cast an uneasy pall over L.A. with the brutal murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others. Hippies suddenly looked dangerous.

Later in the year, the death of a black youth beaten by Hells Angels at a Rolling Stones concert undid the peace, love and understanding of Woodstock.

In May 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard killed students at Kent State University during a Vietnam War protest. …

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