Thursday, November 27, 2014

Inherent Vice: Robert Altman, Thomas Pynchon, the Coen Brothers, and the Evolution of Stoner Noir.

PT Anderson’s latest movie Inherent Vice will be released theatrically this December (stateside, European viewers will have to hold out until late January.)   The film is hotly anticipated by two separate but likely overlapping cult enclaves: cinephiles because it’s an Anderson picture, and fans of cult, countercultural literature because it is the very first cinematic adaptation of the work of the legendary Thomas Pynchon, an author who stands as one of the few remaining literary voices indelibly stamped by that turbulent, vibrant state of mind, or period of cultural history, which is called the 60s, but really encompasses the 50s through to 70s, whose characteristic embrace of drugs, anarchism, surrealism, and mysticism still strikes some of us who came along later as one of the most extreme outbreaks of mass sanity in modern history.  His fans will doubtless make the most of what is likely to be Hollywood’s only foray into Pynchon’s distinctive literary universe for some time (if not all time, considering the untranslatable nature of most of his larger works.)

                Early reviews are mixed, but hardly in a way which would unduly alarm anybody acquainted with the source novel, as they seem to suggest a fairly faithful adaptation of its befuddling, fractal plot and typically Pychonesque tonal incongruities.  One thing many of the reviewers are agreed upon is in categorizing Inherent Vice as a stoner noir.  Most anybody who is even going to be aware of Inherent Vice’s existence probably knows what stoner noir is, having the Coens’ Big Lebowski in mind as the defining example, the virtual Shane, of this particular sub-genre of hard-boiled ratiocination.  However, having browsed around the web, I see that there appears to be few (if any) articles devoted to the evolution of stoner noir as a specific modern variant of the hard-boiled detective school.  By way of warm-up for Anderson’s Inherent Vice, that’s what I’m going to do in this post.

                In basic terms, stoner noir is exactly what it says on the tin: a detective story, drawing on the conventions of the Chandler/Hammett hard-boiled school, where the protagonist happens to be a pothead.  This crucial interpolation is the main wheeze or ironic pivot around which the genre is built.  Traditionally, the detective has a certain gravitas, an inherent capability, about him.  The hardboiled detective, as the name suggests, requires at least a modicum of toughness; otherwise, going down the mean streets on a routine basis would be life-threatening to an unhelpful degree.  He needs to be able enough in the realm of verbal and physical drubbing; quick to scoop up a pistol, and put the drop on somebody, until the next party saddles in unexpectedly, and puts the drop on him.   He needs to be able to recover rapidly from the blow of a stiff blackjack on a cold night.  He’s normally cool, laconic, and disciplined.  He has a certain sex appeal, even if it’s that weird, rake-thin longshore man with a mouth on him vibe that was only ever considered sexy when manifested in the persona of Humphrey Bogart.  The hardboiled detective may, in a sense, be a loser, but only in a noble or tragic manner; in a melancholic rather than farcical register.

Most of all, however, the gumshoe, like every other species of detective, by the very nature of the enterprise, needs to have his shit together, mentally.  Detective plots are complex – sometimes so complex that even their own authors don’t fully understand them.   Hollywood legend tells us that during the filming of The Big Sleep, neither Howards Hawks nor his screenwriters could figure out whether chauffeur Owen Taylor had committed suicide or been murdered.  Sensibly enough, they sent a cable to the novel’s author, hoping to clarify the matter – but Chandler later conceded: “They sent me a wire….asking me, and dammit I didn’t know either.”  Existing, then, in a universe where even God doesn’t have all the answers, the gumshoe traditionally lives and dies on his powers of concentration, the strength of his wit.

                The stoner noir asks us: what would happen if the gumshoe had to live or die based on the powers of concentration, the general state of mental adroitness, characteristic of the pothead?   In this sense, stoner noir operates to some extent in the parodic tradition of the mock-heroic.  According to wiki, mock-heroic fictions are “satires or parodies that mock common Classical stereotypes of heroes and heroic literature.  Typically, mock-heroic works either put a fool in the role of the hero or exaggerate the heroic qualities to such a point that they become absurd.”  This is a fairly good definition, but it’s worth noting that modern mock-heroics don’t necessary seek to mock the conventions of their classical models – they are quite often informed by a deep love of those conventions.  However, what mock-heroics invariably do is take the heightened, perfect archetypes of classical story-telling, and place them alongside the comic imperfections of the real world.  In so doing, they tell us something about both the real world, and the story-telling conventions we employ to represent it in fiction.  Stoner noir certainly replaces the unflappable, sardonic hero of the hardboiled detective novel with a type of fool – the pothead being an ideal modern archetype of the fool, a figure whose fraught relationship with the hardships and nuisances of everyday life we can all identity with to some extent.  The Dude, as the Stranger observes, takes it easy for all us sinners – all us perhaps greater fools who are guilty of the sin of actually trying to stay up on the bucking bronco of life, rather than just kicking back and hoping its severer mood swings will just pass us by.

“THE BUMS WILL ALWAYS LOSE!”  An Elegy for the 60s Counterculture.

                So, to understood stoner noir, the first thing to note is that its protagonist is somewhat more scattered, more dishevelled, than the traditional hero – and perhaps a little bit more like ourselves in this regard.  To explore what themes are important to stoner noir – difficult enough in the context of a very loosely evolved sub-genre – I’m going to concentrate on two which seem particularly relevant in approaching Inherent Vice: the disillusionment at the end of the 60s dream, and the nature of plots themselves.  One of the only theoretical articles I did find about stoner noir was an interesting piece for Boing Boing by Mark Dery called Facebook of the Dead.  Dery isn’t really writing about stoner noir as a genre here, but rather uses the term to designate a certain malaise in 70s youth culture – a sense of cultural vacuum opening up when all the idealisms of the 60s were gone, leaving only its hedonistic escapism to chase an increasingly garish, mass market dragon.  This specific zeitgeist, combined with Dery’s personal, and not altogether rhapsodic, memories of high-school, give the term a much darker aspect than we typically find in stoner noir as genre, but the piece is worth quoting: 
   “By contrast, the sludge-brained anomie of stoner noir is just what it looks like: the rudderless yawing of youth culture on the morning after the ‘60s.  It’s the numb realization that the tide that carried in the counterculture’s utopian dreams and cries for social justice has ebbed away, leaving the windblown scum of Altamont and My Lai, the Manson murders and the Zodiac killer.  Stoner noir stares back at you with the awful emptiness of the black-hole eyes in a Smiley Face.  Have a nice decade.  As late as the mid-70s, the iconography of rebellion, at least in the track-home badlands of Southern California, was a politically lobotomized version of hippie: the bootleg records, blacklight posters, underground comix, patchouli oil, and drug paraphernalia retailed at the local head shop.”
                As an artistic exemplum of his conception of stoner noir, Dery highlights Charles Burns’ brilliant, somewhat dark 70s coming of age comic book Black Hole.  The difference between the bleaker stoner noir of Dery and Burns, and the more mournful, elegiac variety found in Pynchon, is perhaps the difference between growing up through the 60s, and growing up in its aftermath.  Nevertheless, the 70s conceived as a hang-over decade is crucial to the development of stoner noir – Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the most important cinematic precursor to The Big Lebowski, emerges from the foggy haze of a very specific zeitgeist: the moment when the insurrectionary, utopian frisson of the 60s dissipated into the aimless narcissism of the Me Generation.   Hunter S. Thompson’s “high and beautiful wave” had crashed, leaving in its wake a flotsam of glazed pleasure seekers, health faddists, and pop psychologies, all of which hovered satellite-like around the nebulous concept of the “self.”   These trends were consistently mapped by the movies; as early as ’71, Alan J Pakula’s Klute registered a chilly emptiness in the liberated sexual mores of the new decade, and as late as ’78, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers repositioned the Cold War anxieties of the original firmly in the dense Californian fog of the Me Generation.  In his 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s late Philip Marlowe novel The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman decided to relocate the action to modern day Los Angeles.  Modernizing Chandler was not unheard of (see the trailer for Marlowe, 1969, above), but Altman made this transposition the thematic core of the film, imagining his Philip Marlowe as a perfectly preserved relic of the bygone values of the 40s and 50s, somehow transplanted into the flaky miasma of 70s L.A., a kind of “Rip Van Marlowe.”  Ironically, then, the first hero of stoner noir was not himself a stoner – far from it, Dude.

                The Long Goodbye begins with a classic mock-heroic gesture, and one of the all-time great film openings.  We find Marlowe (Elliot Gould) struggling, not with brawny hoodlums or brassy dames, but with the dietary whims of his cat.  Woken in the middle of the night, he is forced to drive to the supermarket to try and buy the pet’s preferred brand of cat food.  When the store is out, we next see Marlowe engage in an elaborate and ultimately unsuccessful ruse designed to fool the cat into eating an alternative brand.  Having immediately established its unconventional Marlowe, the opening sequence also firmly locates Marlowe in a social context of decaying 60s counterculture leftovers.  Marlowe’s neighbours are a group of permanently stoned young woman who will engage, throughout the movie, in nude yogic exercises on their balcony.  Their existence is funded by the manufacture of scented candles which they sell in a local head shop, prompting one of gangster Marty Augustine’s hoodlums to observe ruefully “I remember when people JUST HAD JOBS!” 

Marlowe’s concern for his cat, like his unstinting and misguided loyalty to his friend Terry Lennox (Tim Bouton), emphasizes his status as a heroic fool.  Nobody cares about loyalty and honesty in this fallen world, and nobody cares about Marlowe’s cat.  The winners are ruthless thugs like Marty Augustine and Terry Lennox.  Most likely well-intentioned people like Marlowe’s hippy neighbours have retreated into a zonked-out fog of hedonistic self-exploration.  “The best lack all conviction, while he worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”  Like Paul Newman observes in Harper (1966):  “The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert.  Only cream and bastards rise.”  Or, as the winner Lebowski tells his loser namesake in The Big Lebowski, “The bums will always lose!”

 It is this thematic undertow which ironically makes Altman’s movie closer in spirit to the Chandler novels, although this aspect of the film was and continues to be misunderstood.  Upon its release, Gould’s somewhat dishevelled take on the detective lead many viewers to perceive nothing more than a revisionist spoof – even an affront – in the film.  Writing for Time, Jay Cocks wrote that “Altman’s lazy, haphazard put-down is without affection or understanding, a nose-thumb not only at Philip Marlowe, but at the genre that his tough-guy-soft-heart character epitomized.”  Charles Champlin went even further in the Los Angeles Times: “This Marlowe is an untidy, unshaven, semi-literate dimwit slob who could not locate a missing skyscraper and who would be refused service at a hot dog stand.”  Partially, the problem was that these critics were working off memories of previous screen incarnations of Marlowe, rather than the Chandler novels themselves.  What those previous adaptations lacked was the lonely, melancholic spirit at the core of Chandler’s creation.  Chandler’s world is inherently a fallen one where the evil prosper, “a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels, in which a screen star can be a finger-man for a mob….”  The redemptive figure in all this is the lonely detective who moves through this world seeking a “hidden truth”, always retaining his own sense of honour and integrity even though it profits him little in a material sense.  Altman placed this melancholic aspect of Chandler – and this distinctly noirish conception of the world – to the fore in The Long Goodbye, whereas previous adaptations had tended to emphasize the cynical glamour of Marlowe’s world.

But part of the shock of Gould’s Marlowe was due to the fact that it was, in certain respects, crucially different to Chandler’s conception.  One of the things which fascinates me about The Long Goodbye is that it undercuts – whether intentionally or otherwise – its own central premise of the detective as a frozen-in-time “Rip Van Marlowe.”  I would argue that Gould’s Marlowe, despite his stubborn sense of values, is a very much a product of the 70s.  One of the first ways in which this premise feels undercut is by virtue of the very casting of Gould himself.  With the exception of Donald Sutherland, surely no other actor is as quintessentially a leading man of the 70s?  Gould’s Marlowe is a product of a zeitgeist where the rise of feminism and anti-war pacifism had served to undermine many conventional aspects of masculine heroism.  (While some may associate 70s masculinity with the Bert Reynolds moustached stud archetype, it’s worth noting that this decade also witnessed the iconic prominence of non-alpha type males like Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen.  Hoffman’s breakout in 1967’s The Graduate apparently provoked a paranoid freak-out in Steve McQueen, who feared that it signalled the demise of the alpha male movie star.  Sometimes these days I wonder if McQueen’s freak-out wasn’t entirely unwarranted.)   Hence, Gould is infinitely less confident with women; Bogart’s implicit, unquestioned dominance of women is no longer possible.  As much as he is not a lover, Gould’s Marlowe is even less a fighter.  The style of wisecracks, too, has changed, absorbing Gould the actor’s more ironic, improvisatory, and zanier persona.  Marlowe’s characteristic refrain throughout The Long Goodbye – “It’s alright with me” – sometimes appears amiable and easy-going, but more often carries the caustic, passive aggressive sting of the later coinage “Whatever.”  Like Woody Allen, this Marlowe responds to an absurd world with wry, ironically detached humour – until, of course, the film’s nihilistic final reel.

The Long Goodbye’s significance to the stoner noir cannon lies primarily in the fact that is almost impossible to imagine The Big Lebowski without it.  Both films present revisionist, comic twists on the noir genre, featuring protagonists who are not quite the unflappable and laconic heroes of yore – the mock-heroic tendency, obviously, being dialled up a few notches in the case of the Dude.  Marlowe’s dishevelled supermarket quest for cat food bleeds into Lebowski’s iconic introduction to the Dude as an informally-attired nocturnal shopper:

The Dude is also, we are informed, uniquely a man for his times; yet also, like Altman’s Marlowe, a throwback to an earlier era, a man out of time.  He is a Rip Van Winkle who has not so much been asleep, as stoned out of his gourd, for decades.  The real-life influence for Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski was former political activist and film producer Jeff Dowd.  Dowd – along with SIX OTHER GUYS – made up the “Seattle Seven”, a core group of Seattle Liberation Front members who were charged with “conspiracy to incite a riot” following a protest at the Seattle Federal Court in 1970.  After the hurly-burly of 60s student activism, the Seven went this way and that, with Dowd drifting to Hollywood to work as a screen-writer and producer, where he would encounter the Coens while they were promoting Blood Simple in the early 80s.  To find a fictional precursor to the Dude, however, we will turn to Vineland, Thomas Pynchon’s novel of California in 1984, the year of Orwellian undertones and (not coincidentally for Pynchon) Ronald Reagan’s re-election.

Vineland was the first Pynchon novel published since the gargantuan Gravity’s Rainbow, some 17 years earlier.  Perhaps because of this long wait, coupled its shorter length, comparatively simpler structure, and unexpectedly gentle and sentimental tone, Vineland has been consistently underestimated by critics and Pynchon devotees, frequently dismissed as Pynchon-lite.  Though by no means as imposing as the larger quasi-historical works, Vineland may nevertheless be the most perfectly executed of Pynchon’s novels, and has struck some readers as the most direct and emotionally resonant.  Just as its tie-dye plot spirals off into multiple flashbacks, tangents, and interludes, before finally returning to its beginning, Vineland is a novel of many homecomings: the political past coming home to roast in the present; the psychedelic adventurers of the 60s coming home after their long, strange trips to (something at least a little bit like) everyday reality; Pynchon himself, the literary anarchist/outlaw of the 70s, coming back from the often scary headtrip of Gravity’s Rainbow to (something at least a little bit more like) the realist novel, and to themes of familial responsibility and the American present.

For the purpose of this essay, our focus is on the novel’s (sometimes) protagonist, Zoyd Wheeler.  Like the Dude, Zoyd is a burned-out, slightly frazzled aging hippie, who is nevertheless mostly together (after his own fashion).  Washing up in harsher, less giddily Technicolor decades (the 80s for Zoyd, 90s for the Dude), the protagonists of Vineland and The Big Lebowski show only partial adaption to the passage of time: both still smoke large quantities of weed, and both bask in the recollection of former acid epiphanies.  Both find the pursuit of their marginal and largely placid existences abruptly shattered, Zoyd’s by the re-emergence of his old Federal nemesis Brock Vond, and the Dude’s by the desecration of his room-completing rug. 
Vineland is Pynchon’s greatest elegy for the 60s counterculture, a period and ethos which the author clearly celebrates, for all its woolly-headed flaws, as a unique, almost miraculous time when it briefly appeared possible for the world to fork off from the highway of modern history, to veer away from its implacable course of technocratic, militaristic capitalism, off onto kinder, stranger side-roads.  This sense is beautifully expressed in an exchange in Vineland between Zoyd Wheeler and Wendell “Mucho” Mass (Opedia Mass’s deejay husband from back in 1966’s The Crying of Lot 49).  The timeline of the scene is roughly analogous to Inherent Vice; with the looming spectre of Manson, the Nixonian counter-revolution, and the increasing commercialisation of rock n’ rock, the death of the 60s dream is drawing in. 
Mucho blinked sympathetically, a little sadly.  “I guess it’s over.  We’re into a new world now, it’s the Nixon Years, and then it’ll be the Reagan Years - ”
“Ol’ Raygun?  No way he’ll ever make president.”
“Just please be careful, Zoyd.  ‘Cause soon they’re gonna be coming after everything, not just drugs, but beer, cigarettes, sugar, salt, fat, you name it, anything that could remotely please any of your senses, because they need to control all that.  And they will.”
“Fat police?”
“Perfume police.  Tube Police.  Music Police.  Good Healthy Shit Police.  Best to renounce everything now, get a head start.”
“Well, I wish it was back then, when you were the Count.  Remember how the acid was?  Remember that windowpane, down in Laguna that time?  God, I knew then, I knew….”
They had a look.  “Uh-huh, me too.  That you were never going to die.  Ha!  No wonder the State panicked.  How are they supposed to control a population that knows it’ll never die?  When that was always their last big chip, when they thought they had the power of life and death.  But acid gave us the X-ray vision to see through that one, so of course they had to take it away from us.”
“Yeah, but they can’t take what happened, what we found out.”
“Easy.  They just let us forget.  Give us too much to process, fill up every minute, keep us distracted, it’s what the Tube is for, and though it kills me to say it, it’s what rock n’ roll is becoming – just another way to claim our attention, so that beautiful certainty we had starts to fade, and after a while they have us convinced all over again that we really are going to die.  And they’ve got us again.”  It was the way people used to talk.
“I’m not going to forget,” Zoyd vowed, “fuck ‘em.  While we had it, we really had some fun.”  (Vineland.)
Inherent Vice is also infused with this sense of sorrow at the end of youth, the end of an era, and the closing down of the temporary autonomous zone of the real and metaphorical 60s: “….and here was Doc, on the natch, caught in a low-level bummer he couldn’t find a way out of, about how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness… a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time, easy as taking a joint from a doper and stubbing it out for good.”   As an aside, somebody really should write a song (possibly in the psych-Country vein) called Caught In a Low-Level Bummer (I Can’t Find a Way Out Of).


Anyway, it is via Altman’s Long Goodbye, and Pynchon’s Vineland that we arrive at The Big Lebowski, and hence stoner noir.  (I’m not sure that Vineland was a conscious influence on the part of the Coens, but it’s always played primarily like a mixture of those two elements for me.)  Vast sociological desertions and studies might be written about precisely why The Big Lebowski struck such an indelible chord with a fairly large sub-set of the film-viewing public – particularly men of a certain generation.  It was first released in 1998 to a mixed critical response and lukewarm box-office, but repeat viewings on DVD created a snowballing cult phenomenon – first noted in Steve Palopoli’s 2002 piece The Last Cult Picture – which would ultimately result in the near-canonisation of Jeff Bridges, and the sense that the Dude was some kind of modern archetype, comparable in significance to Hamlet.  Maybe it was that a generation of young men, making their first inroads into the travails of the adult world, were suddenly struck with the intimation that perhaps trying to stay up on the bucking bronco of life – earning a crust, advancing in a career, chasing carnal pleasures, pursing endless trophies or minor affirmations of the ego, voting, everything – might actually turn out to be the original low-level bummer that you can’t find a way out of.  Something like what Dustin Hoffman was going through in The Graduate, every time he’d look off into the near-distance, and Paul Simon’s arpeggios start to fade in over the score.    Or maybe it was just that Bridges’ unique charisma, likeability, and maturing handsomeness somehow managed to make an otherwise marginal and unrewarding existence seem idyllic.

Howsoever, I’m going to finish by briefly considering The Big Lebowski in relation to the second stoner noir theme I wanted to look at: plot.  The idea of plots – complex, puzzling, sometimes illusory - ties together the various strands of this story like a good Moroccan rug.  In a sense, the idea of a plot has always connected the world of the detective and that of the stoner – the good detective story requiring a plot above all else, and the stoner often being subject to the conspiranoid intimation that everything might be some kind of plot.   The complexity of the traditional detective plot is a large part of the stoner noir gag – witness, for example, the Dude undertaking a “strict drug regime” in order to keep his mind “limber” enough to meet the mental rigours of the case:

When The Big Sleep was released in ’46, there was a general consensus that the plot was mystifying.  Bosley Crowther observed that “so many cryptic things occur amid so much involved and devious plotting that the mind becomes utterly confused.”  Crowther concluded that the movie “was a web of utter bafflement.”  However, a writer for Time argued that the plot’s “crazily mystifying blur” was an asset, and that The Big Sleep was “wakeful fare for folks who don’t care what is going on, or why, so long as the talk is hard and the action harder.”  This raises an interesting point about hardboiled detective plots: in one sense they are all important, and in another almost completely arbitrary. For all their complexity, their function is largely to keep the dialogue, and the detective’s encounters with the bizarre, the beautiful, and the deadly, coming hard and fast – to keep, in other words, the “talk hard and the action harder.”  A good example of this is Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Mickey Spillane adaptation Kiss Me Deadly.  This movie is all plot, and yet the plot itself is largely made up of an arbitrary pursuit of the ultimate McGuffin – the mysterious, shinning case which would re-emerge much later in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp FictionKiss Me Deadly’s script feels very self-conscious about all this, as we see in Velda Wickman’s somewhat Pynchonesque speech at the mid-point:  
They?  A wonderful word.  And who are they?  They’re the nameless ones who kill people for the Great Whatsit.  Does it exist?  Who cares?  Everyone everywhere is so involved in the fruitless search for what?”
The stoner noir genre tends to engage this aspect of detective plots – their complexity and ultimate arbitrariness – with affectionate humour.  Joel Coen said of Lebowksi that they wanted to “do a Chandler kind of story – how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant.”  For this reason, the “plot” of The Big Lebowski unravels and evaporates in the last act into a fog of misdirection and misapprehension which the various actors had fashioned around an illusory kidnapping.  This relates also to the paranoia of potheads, and the literary paranoia of Pynchon’s work.  The paranoiac’s grand plot also tends to evaporate and vanish, either at the point where the paranoiac realizes that the plot was, all along, a creation of his or her possibly weed-befogged brain – or, at the point where the plot reaches it maximal state of complexity, and hence vanishes because it has become everything and nothing.  This brings to mind the famous passage in The Crying of Lot 49 which many have taken as emblematic of Pynchon’s work:
In Mexico City, they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central paintings of a triptych, titled ‘Bordando el Manto Terrestre’, were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world.

A LOT of strands, in other words, in old Duder’s head.  It will be very interesting to see how PT Anderson fares out in translating Pynchon’s sensibility to the screen, and whether, in the longer term, Inherent Vice will follow The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski in eventually acquiring a cult following after meeting with initially mixed responses. 


Facebook of the dead, by Mark Dery.

The Simple Art of Murder, by Raymond Chandler.

The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland, and Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon.    

No comments: