I knew I was going to love Inherent Vice (directed by P.T. Anderson, having its world premiere here at the New York Film Festival) the moment at the tail end of the opening sequence when Joaquin Phoenix, with his Chia Pet forest of sideburns, staggered out into the hippy seaside streets and suddenly the snares and bass of Can’s “Vitamin C” filled the soundtrack as the title—in all its 70s-style outline-font neon splendor—appeared—almost pulsatingly, I’d say—on the screen. The song took me back, as the movie, with its acid-flashback style tends to do—not to the 70s—but to the 90s, when I used to put the krautrock geniuses’ album Ege Bamyasi on the stereo and crank up the volume, and to one afternoon in particular when I was home alone on a Saturday afternoon and I put on Side B, and when the song was over I picked up the needle and played it again. And again. And again. Lead singer Damo Suzuki’s lyrics were so mysteriously incomprehensible they seemed to emerge from some wolf-like bundled core of inner pain. According to the lyrics web sites I’ve consulted in the ages hence, what he’s actually screaming is, “Hey you…/You’re losing/You’re losing/You’re losing/You’re losing…/Your Vitamin C,” but just at the moment when he allegedly sings the song’s title, some swelling chords blanket his voice to make his words even more cryptic than usual, so that back in the day I interpreted his yelps as a lament for his addressee’s lost “faces.” I remember that afternoon clearly. After the seventh or eighth playing, I lifted the needle and set it down at the beginning yet again and fell so deeply under the song’s hypnotic spell that I found myself lying on the floor, writhing—partly like a snake, partly as if inhabited by the ghost of Damo Suzuki himself —and groaning out my own lyrics to the chorus: “Hey you,” I sang. “You’re losing/You’re losing/You’re losing/You’re losing…/Your faces”; and each time the chorus returned, I screamed out these words louder than the time before, imagining an open meadow swathed with snow, a blizzard coming on, and a row of small faceless children huddled together as a band of wolves spilled over the horizon to descend upon them.
The movie, as you can see, took me to strange places. But that’s because Anderson understood something about noir’s potential for capacious destabilization, a lesson brought to the screen originally in Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, perhaps the ur-text of the modernist detective film. There’s a famous story of Hawks and his screenwriting collaborators William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett going through the Raymond Chandler novel trying to figure out who killed the character of Owen Taylor. When they couldn’t solve this puzzle on their own, they called up Chandler on the phone, but he admitted that he didn’t know the answer any better than they did. The point was that by not caring about the logic of the act of detection itself, the author was able to focus on more important, atmospheric themes. Hawks realized that he could draw on the fundamental insuperability that the detective film offers to lay bare the aimless maze-like wanderings that define our existence in the modern the world. And I think that it was this revelation that functions—in my interpretation of Hawks’s career—as the fulcrum between the first and second halves of his oeuvre. I think of the first half as being dominated by stories of amoral, nihilistic men living out a crazy philosophy of suicidal nihilism (think Dawn Patrol, Road to Glory, Ceiling Zero, and Only Angels Have Wings); I see the second half defined by a collection of good scenes, often interested more in their own sense of play than in the role they serve in the larger narrative (as in my favorite scene of Rio Bravo, when Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson sing “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” and then, as if that one song wasn’t nonsensical enough, Walter Brennen joins them in a moment of sublime majesty in the old folk song “Get Along Home, Cindy, Cindy”).
I saw Anderson in this film, like Hawks, moving into new territory because of his confrontation with the aesthetic possibilities of the detective genre. He, too, understands the modernist Chandlerian notion that the private investigator’s solution of the crime is not the thing that matters. The only thing that Joaquin Phoenix is really exploring in this movie is the paranoid state of Los Angeles in the 1970s. The only thing to learn about all the schizoid connections between everyone in the film is that understanding how these social networks work will never help these characters —or us—make any sense of anything. A friend of mine paraphrased Gertrude Stein the other night over some beers when she told me that for all of the dazzling literary pyrotechnics of the Thomas Pynchon novel on which this film is based, she suspected that there was no there there. As much as I enjoyed the film, my immediate reaction was also to compare it unfavorably with some other movies it most resembles, like Polanksi’s Chinatown and Altman’s The Long Goodbye. The former is ugly and the latter—a personal favorite—cloaks its ugliness amid the same hippy goofiness that pervades this film. But the extreme playfulness here initially seemed to make it impossible to articulate such a nasty intent.
That being said, the absent emotional core of the film may be Anderson’s very point: that the vagaries of the post-hippy lifestyle were as inexplicable as was the crime at the center of the film, if indeed, a crime has even been committed. In this vein, we might say that the film’s paranoia is its primary subject matter because the movie is a weary commentary on the inevitable residues of the psychedelic era. This seems true, but judgments like these are probably too crude; trying to make sense of this film might be just as much a mistake as Joaquin Phoenix trying to piece together the meaning of a man’s disappearance. We don’t try to make sense of the lyrics of a modernist rock song, like Can’s “Vitamin C,” after all. Part of the point of music like that is precisely to ridicule the sense-making faculties that make bluenoses of us all.
And that’s why it’s impossible to write about this film. Because there is no there there, I’ve been forced to ruminate on other things, to inhabit other landscapes. I’ve been listening to “Vitamin C” again repeatedly on YouTube as I’ve been writing this. The song is meaningless but infectious. The urgency in Suzuki’s voice evokes the same spirit of lunatic desperation that inspired me to roll around with my face pressed against the floor inventing my own gibberish interpretation of the song, the same spirit that infuses Joaquin Phoenix’s Australia-shaped sideburns, Josh Brolin’s staccato Japanese odes to pancakes, and Joanna Newsom’s voice-overs that kept reminding me that somewhere, hovering over or beneath this movie, there might be an invisible congress of electric harps that was giving birth to the psychedelic mania splayed out before us not as a jaded analysis of a lost generation but purely as an audiovisual feast.