Has Hollywood’s foremost interpreter of California lost his touch?
That may seem a strange question to ask now that said interpreter—the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson—is up for a screenwriting Oscar at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. But Anderson’s work often poses strange questions.
Anderson matters because, at age 44, he’s already the greatest California filmmaker ever. That’s a claim based not just on the ambition of his films (famous for their fascinatingly flawed characters and long, tension-filled scenes), or the awards and critical acclaim he’s won, or the fact that two of his movies—Boogie Nights (a portrait of the porn business starring Mark Wahlberg) and There Will Be Blood (a portrait of the oil business starring Daniel Day-Lewis)—are already considered classics.
What truly distinguishes Anderson is that he has focused so relentlessly on one place—California, and particularly its more populous and puzzling southern half. For all the millions of times writers have used California as a film backdrop, no other living writer, with the possible exception of Joan Didion, has burrowed so deeply into our state and its people.
And since Anderson is a child of California, with a particular devotion to his native San Fernando Valley, his films, while fiction, stand out for accomplishing the impossible-seeming task of capturing our state’s sprawling landscapes, weird habits, idiosyncratic language, and believe-it-or-not history. He is an antidote to the typically all-or-nothing portrayals of California, in which we’re either a gorgeous place of dreams or a dark, noirish cheat of a place full of phoniness and betrayal. On either side of that coin, we are less than real people.
But in Anderson’s films, Californians are taken seriously, and shown as the full humans we really are: lost souls, yes, but quite lovely and loving once you strip away the artifice. Anderson seems particularly interested in our schemes and our endless attempts at reinvention. Adam Sandler, in Anderson’s violent romantic comedy Punch-Drunk Love, hatches a plan to change his life with frequent flier miles accumulated through purchases of huge amounts of pudding. He, like so many Californians, may be nuts, but isn’t such nuttiness worthy of respect, and even forgiveness? Which Californians among us, Anderson’s films seem to ask, have not gotten carried away?
“Everything is a cult in a way,” Anderson told Esquire in a recent interview. “What’s the difference between a cult and dropping my daughter off at school this morning? It’s a group of people gathered in one place pursuing a likeminded set of ideas and goals.”
From his earliest movies, Anderson’s forgiving way with his characters rubbed off on this California cinephile. Even when the plot seemed too sprawling (as in There Will Be Blood) or the cast too overstuffed with characters (as in Magnolia), it was OK. After all, isn’t California too sprawling and too overstuffed with characters? I rooted for Anderson and his films because I was sure that no one else would attempt such pictures. The only living auteur who ever made a California film richer than any of Anderson’s—Roman Polanski, with Chinatown—has been living overseas as a fugitive from Los Angeles County justice for nearly 40 years. The Anderson oeuvre is, reassuringly, of California, by California, for California.
But forgiveness has its limits. And in his last two films—a fictionalization of the Scientology story called The Master, and his recent adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s doper Hollywood novel Inherent Vice—the writer-director has tested my patience and stoked my anxiety about the ability of California’s preeminent chronicler to keep chronicling this state.
Anderson’s previous movies, while always challenging and sometimes strange, remained audience pleasers. But parts of 2012’s The Master seemed almost contemptuous of the audience, crossing the line from thought-provoking to downright confusing. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as a very damaged veteran who hooks up with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s cult is powerful at times but hard to understand. The public reaction was so polarizing that Anderson rebutted the criticism.
“The Master is not supposed to be a riddle,” he told one interviewer. “It’s not meant to be medicine. It’s not meant to be something that you have to work hard at deciphering.”
But Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice, raises questions about his intentions. It’s a film full of frustrating puzzles and riddles that don’t lead anywhere. One newspaper critic wondered whether Anderson was smoking some of the same stuff as the film’s protagonist, a stoned detective played by Phoenix.
Maybe that was the effect Anderson was going for. Or maybe the blame should go to Pynchon’s novel, which Anderson faithfully adapted. I’ve now watched Inherent Vice three times, and feel I understand it less with each viewing. It wallows in its weirdness. I would recount the plot for you, but it’s frankly beyond me (Entertainment Weekly called it “impenetrable”): something about a boat, an ex-girlfriend, a prosecutor, a white supremacist, a jazz saxophonist, a conscience-stricken real estate developer, a police officer who performs fellatio on a popsicle, and a dentist who dies in a trampoline accident.
During the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time, I often felt taunted by the filmmaker’s deliberate incoherence. Anderson relies heavily on images of obstructed views—particularly of the ocean, barely seen in the slivers between houses—and a character who talks about a family whose members lived lives “of high density” and “incoherence.”
“So you’re here about … ?” one character asks Phoenix’s detective.
“Good question,” replies Phoenix, who doesn’t know.
Of course, if you don’t care about understanding what’s going on, the film can be enjoyed for its striking visuals (rockers eating pizza in the dining room of a Laurel Canyon house briefly becomes “The Last Supper”), and a few lines so great they belong on billboards. Such as: “You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far—then you’ve gotta get back up on the freeway again.”
An inherent vice is a defect in a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of fundamental instability. Maybe that explains how even the greatest director can crack up.
Or maybe, since this crazy film did earn Anderson an Oscar nomination, the fault lies elsewhere.
Maybe it’s our fault. Maybe it’s that Anderson is mirroring a California that is itself incoherent and has become too diverse to be contained by any one narrative. Could it be that, with the old California dream dead, we’ve lost the plot of this place, and all we have left are a collection of interesting characters who sometimes give us great lines?