Watching all of Paul Thomas Anderson: Inherent Vice
On Christmas this year my husband and I saw Phantom Thread on 70mm here in New York. It was a magical experience and has inspired us to rewatch, chronologically, all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s feature films. So, I’m here to invite you along for this journey. I won’t be recapping the stories, no exhaustive research, just trying to understand what they have in common, how they fit together and what I can learn from this dude. No real spoilers but this will probably be pretty boring if you haven’t see the movies.
Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (and to a lesser extent the book it was based on) was very important for my teenage years. Film’s ability to express the chaos of the mind was a revelation. I never did drugs like that (don’t worry mom) but it was always clear to me that there was a serious disconnect between my internal life, anyone’s internal life, and concrete reality. Teenagers, in general, are not good at subtlety so Gilliam’s flamboyance and the hyperbolic narrative helped me feel less alone in a world I did not understand. Feeling and seeing differently was not a function of something broken in me but of a world that wasn’t actually as orderly as grownups would have you believe. I don’t know if Fear and Loathing holds up after all these years, and I’m not particularly interested in revisiting it, but what it meant to me at the time has remained relevant.
Inherent Vice feel like that, too. Watching a character move through a world and a story that is as jumbled and chaotic as the real world is jarring but also feels like looking in a mirror. Seeing the loose connections between divergent narratives also makes it easy to see how someone can slip from reality into conspiracy theory.
Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc Sportello harkens back to PT Anderson’s early, pure-hearted characters. He may be bombed all the time, and take work from questionable individuals, but his mission is always to set things right for others. It it both a personal mission and a career. This is a new twist on the hippie identity for me, a group typically portrayed as either self-centered hedonists or as blindly idealistic zealots. Doc isn’t like that, a dispassionate hedonist, yes, a disaffected antiestablishmentarian, yes, but also a good person who loves his job. He sees others as individuals and gets real satisfaction out of his work when he is able to set someone’s life right, to solve a problem. And this is where Doc and Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) come together. They are men that, despite outward image and idiosyncrasy, are deeply affected by the suffering of others and have pursued careers that let them ease that suffering.
There aren’t a lot of movies about people who love their jobs, but it seems to be something that Anderson is interested in. As far as I can tell there are two main career-related narratives that exist in culture. One, follow your dreams and the money will come, which is manifested both positively and negatively across cultural narratives. Two, you are not your job, the idea that an individual works in order to support the human, non-work part of their life, that work is subsidiary to life. Both of these have truth in them, but Anderson seems to present a third way, a way that is closer to my personal experience of the relationship between work life and everything else. I love my job and I think that’s partly, like Bigfoot, because I’m good at it and partly, like Doc, because the end result of the work makes me feel good.
Anderson explores how people love and live with their jobs in different ways. We meet criminals in Hard Eight who have no separation between work and life, live the hustle, and even if they don’t love it they love each other. Then Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights who has a “special thing” that will make him very good at a job, and he takes great pleasure in being good at it. Also in Boogie Nights there’s Scotty J. who has found a job that gives him pleasure within a difficult life. Magnolia has a man who’s built an empire, a character who comes back in There Will Be Blood and the Master. These are men who create themselves through commerce. These seem like the only possible outcomes for the lives that they have lead. These are men whose selves are defined by what they have built. Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love does not love his job, does not seem to define his life by it, but has made a point of building something outside of his family into which he can escape.
Magnolia also holds within it the weight of success. Quiz Kid Donnie Smith loved a job he was good at and it pretty much destroyed his life. Officer Jim Kurring loves his job for the same reasons Doc does but carries the burden of not being all that good at it.
Reynolds Woodcock, in Phantom Thread, is a kind of hybrid. Like Frank Mackey, Lancaster Dodd and Daniel Plainview, Reynolds as built for himself the thing that he wants. Unlike them he is a new and melancholic evocation of the creation impulse. He leads the House of Woodcock partly because he is good at it, but also because it is the only thing he can do. Like Barry Egan he creates this company as a nest to live inside. Unlike Doc Sportello he does not care about about the impact his work has on the people it most directly affects, the people that value it most.
Inherent Vice is hard to follow, but that’s the point. It is not about who committed a crime or how the strands of this particular knot of human melodrama unravels. It is about, when it’s all over, the small progress we can make in improving the world.
Next (and last): Part VII: Phantom Thread