At the Tyneside Cinema’s Book Club screening for Inherent Vice I wasn’t sure what to expect, though Pychon’s The Crying of Lot 49 is next on my list I hadn’t read anything by the author before.
Approaching the film in the way only an English student could, with a pre screening talk and post screening discussion, I felt more enlightened about the film than I otherwise might. The Pynchon specialist, who also happens to be my lecturer, highlighted many issues I may not have recognised as relevant and discussed a film noir culture that I was largely ignorant of.
The film begins. One of the benefits of the book club screening is that the informative talk comes at the expense of annoying adverts. The film is narrated by a friend of Doc’s who maintains a stoned drawl as she describes the events we see unfold. This narration not only contributes to the drug induced atmosphere of everything on screen but also acts as a guide to the mystifying west coast world of Doc’s investigation which the audience never fully comes to understand. The film is a confusing mix of film noir, crime mystery and comedy; it is incredibly complex.
A private investigator, Doc the stoner is approached by his ex-girlfriend Shasta who subsequently disappears alongside the rich real estate developer, Mickey Molfmann. who she admits to Doc is her lover. Looking for Shasta and investigating the theory she approached him with, Doc delves into the darkest parts of the city, namely the drugs scene. As a ‘hippy’ himself, but one who works for the justice system, Doc is simultaneously part of the establishment and the counterculture.
It’s a film you will need to see more than once to get your head around
We see everything through Doc and his drug induced haze symbolised literally through a pervasive fog. The film is also a self reflexive meta-narrative in its awareness of typical tropes and conventions of the genre. It uses well known actors such as Benico del Toro and Michael K Williams, almost borrowing their characters from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Wire, feeding further into a simultaneous adherence to, and parody of, the genre.
At the same time as we see the ludicrous nature of the 70s lifestyle portrayed, we can sympathise with Doc and his friends. Their wish to have fun and remove themselves from the capitalist American society they inhabit only lands them in a more exploitative culture. We see a sharp critique of both sets of lifestyles, but we are also left with some level of reconciliation (without wanting to spoil the ending).
Typically, as part of the film noir genre, there are scenes that make for very uncomfortable watching. But the sex and violence isn’t gratuitous, it serves a necessarily purpose; it demonstrates power plays, emotional crises and the characters dealing with the extremes of the world around them. Equally, the atmosphere of the film is heavy; scenes of drug induced drawling become heavy and difficult to watch. Despite this the film has a drive, an accumulative force through the build up of events. We are pulled along with Doc, seeing through his eyes and experiencing his revelations.
The film is weird and wonderful. Dazzlingly bright and blindingly dark and confusing, we see 70s Gordita Beach (based on Manhattan Beach) depicted sharply yet hazily. We see the consumer culture alongside the hippy dream. The whole thing is beautiful, disgusting, funny, uncomfortable and downright overwhelming. It’s a film you will need to see more than once to get your head around, but I can only imagine enjoying it more every time.