Set in Southern California in the 1970s, just as the bloom is coming off the rose of the counterculture, with Charles Manson leading the headlines and social paranoia is a symptom of decay, Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Voice” has a rare quality considering the ponderous, difficult reading tomes the author usually puts out: It’s digestible. Unlike “V” or “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “Mason & Dixon” or “Against the Day,” the detective novel about Doc Sportello, a pot smoking slacker a little like the Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” almost calls for film adaptation.
Which is the case for the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, which premieres this month at the New York Film Festival and opens in theaters on December 12, about the time of year the most serious candidates for film awards are released. (The trailer for the film, which is one of the most entertaining teasers you could see, was released in late September.)
“Inherent Vice,” the novel, captures a season of dread and utter chaos to an imagined soundtrack of surfer hip. A confusing world is emerging and through the eyes of the lackadaisical detective, the reader breathes in the uncertainty of interpreting the larger forces at work, everything from an increasingly brutal law enforcement to mysterious people working on something that would become the internet. As in Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge,” which tells another detective story about New York City prior to the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, “Inherent Vice” fills the reader with an odd sense of flashback memory, premonition and how even low culture, in a very James Joycean way, can be filled with mythic importance. According to Wikipedia.org, “The term ‘inherent vice’ as a phrase refers to a hidden defect (or the very nature) of a physical object that causes it to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of its components.”
That director Anderson should attempt to capture such a work about a world spinning into entropy (a favored concept for the author) is pretty daring considering the potential for disappointing Pynchon readers. The director described the project as “like somebody dumped bags of gold in front of me and I can only take so much with me.”
Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Owen Wilson, Josh Brolin star in the movie, which appears to include an ongoing menagerie of characters. The director, Anderson, is also known for “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.”
As a promotional calling card in addition to the trailer, many of the writers previewing the new film are stating Pynchon, whose best known photograph looks like an awkward shot from a high school yearbook, will actually make a cameo appearance. Brolin is quoted as saying he was on the set, lurking in the deep background in a typically reclusive way, but many of these same prognosticators are also writing that Pynchon does a voice over on the trailer, which doesn’t apparently be the case.
At any rate, the filmmakers have obviously got the 77-year-old author’s murky, legendary character right: as a figure in the mist.