Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Inherent Vice


Pynchon's Politics and Anderson's Movie


When I heard Paul Thomas Anderson was making a movie from Thomas Pynchon’s novel inherent Vice, I was tickled. I knew nothing about Anderson’s filmmaking, but I have been reading Pynchon devotedly since Gravity’s Rainbow was published. It gratified me to know a movie by a noted director would bring Pynchon’s writing to new audiences. I looked forward to the movie for months. Yet I did not expect the movie to satisfy me. Even Pynchon’s simplest writing challenges his readers in uncommon ways and would challenge a film maker no less.

On the way to the theater, we listened to a podcast interview with the director. Anderson described the movie as the story of the ex-lover you remain devoted to. His description confirmed my expectation that the movie would not tell the story on the same levels as the novel did. Watching the movie, I was struck by the near total absence of the book’s political themes. In the podcast, the interviewer had raised the question of 60s influences on Pynchon’s style and themes. This question nagged me. He mentioned names like Lenny Bruce, but not Herbert Marcuse or Chairman Mao, whom the novel actually mentions. I want to discuss this political blindspot and the resultant difference between the stories Pynchon and Anderson tell.

Politics figures in the novel on two levels. The first level of politics is explicit. On several occasions,  characters interpret experiences in terms of “capitalism.” In their mouths, “capitalism” indicates their political consciousness and thereby frames the story as political from their own perspective. On several other occasions, private eye Doc Sportello’s investigations turn up lengthier background histories of characters and organizations. These explicitly political histories reveal deadly forces of covert repression that threaten Doc, his clients and friends. On a second, implicit level of politics, the dynamics of capitalism pervade the characters’ very feelings and their relationships. The explicit examples of politics suggest the political themes that permeate every aspect of the novel and demonstrate how Anderson’s adaptation systematically elides these fundamental themes.

On the level of explicit politics, Doc Sportello, his lawyer Sauncho Smilax and the sex worker Jade, whom Doc befriends, each interpret particular experiences in terms of capitalism.  For Doc, capitalism defines the values that govern his complex relationship to the police, his most important relationship in the novel. After talking to a witness about the disappearance of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, Doc finds police detective Bigfoot Bjornson waiting for him. They talk, and once Bigfoot leaves, Doc works out that Bigfoot must have lost a partner and, torn up by that loss, now works alone. The narrator elaborates in language that mirrors Doc’s thoughts, “This bond between partners was nearly the only thing Doc had ever found to admire about the LAPD. … No faking it, not question of buying it with favors, money, promotions – the entire range of capitalist inducement couldn’t get you five seconds of attention to your back when it really counted, you had to go out there and earn it … .” Relations conducted on capitalism’s terms cannot secure care and devotion. Doc prizes these intimate social values and the kind of relationships that can only thrive outside capitalism. These emotional consequences of capitalism and their significance for the pursuit of justice form one of the novel’s main themes on the deeper political level.

Doc’s lawyer Sauncho Smilax watches tv absorbedly while stoned and often interprets his viewing for Doc. During a visit to fill Doc in on information he has gathered about the schooner Golden Fang, an animated ad for StarKist tuna unnerves Sauncho. The ad features Charlie the Tuna in his ongoing attempts to impress the cannery StarKist with his cultural tastes and ends as always with the punchline, “StarKist wants tunas that taste good, not tunas with good taste.” Sauncho explains the ad’s distressing premise, “Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! He wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! Suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of supermarket America, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it … .” Sauncho’s absurd outburst expresses his fear of an unthinking acquiescence in the destructive exigencies of commodified work and commodified pleasures. These further emotional consequences of capitalism also form one of the novel’s deeper political themes.

The sex worker Jade might seem less likely to grasp her subjection to capitalism conceptually. Sauncho has, after all, gone to college and law school. Doc at least went to community college. Jade, on the other hand, went to prison. But a consciousness of capitalism as an exploitative, oppressive system is common in Doc’s circles. On the night of Doc’s second meeting with the missing sax player Coy Harlingen, Jade rides back to town with Doc and his buddy Denis. She tells the story of her criminal and sexual career and cautions the men, “Just be advised, boys, … you’ll want watch your step, ‘cause what I am is, is like a small-diameter pearl of the Orient rolling around on the floor of late capitalism – lowlifes of all income levels may step on me now and then but if they do it’ll be them who slip and fall and on a good day break their ass, while the ol’ pearl herself goes a-rollin on.” Jade responds to a society and a job that make her accessible to men and to their abuse by hardening her feelings. This choice allows her to protect herself as well as to inflict harm on those who would abuse her. The interdependent emotional consequences  of physical, emotional and economic dependence, exploitation and abuse, form another of the novel’s root political themes.

In their reflection on personal relations in day-to-day capitalism, the characters of the novel express their interest in living relationships with emotional substance beyond self-interest, in finding gratification in activities beyond isolated consumption, and in shaping their own lives to protect themselves. Their political consciousness and the character traits it divines and guides are lost in the movie. So too is the inescapable impact on them of the repressive networks and institutions that enforce private control over property and lives. On the novel’s explicitly political level, two nexuses of these repressive force interconnect Doc, his friends and clients. The schooner Golden Fang and the murderous loan shark Adrian Prussia embody these deadly networks. Doc’s investigations reveal these focal points of power, and they emerge bit by bit in the narrative until their histories are extensively disclosed. The movie omits the political histories that make sense of the ship and the loan shark and the plots lines involving them.

Doc’s investigation of the schooner Golden Fang spans more of the story than all but one of his commissioned cases. The movie retains the gradual introduction of the Golden Fang:  a note Jade leaves for Doc that closes “Beware the Golden Fang”, a shadow apparently passing in the waterfront fog behind the first conversation between Doc and Coy Harlingen, and the restaurant meeting between Doc and Sauncho where the lawyer introduces the ship’s history.  Uncharacteristically, the movie even keeps the initial mention of the schooner’s political connection. The boat once belonged to actor Burke Stodger,  who sails away on it when he is blacklisted. Anderson even explains the meaning of the blacklist for the viewers, adding  to Sauncho’s account the gloss that Stodger was “branded a Communist.” However, we hear little more than this simple fact, as the movie excises the boat’s subsequent history.

 Later in the same chapter of he novel, Fritz Drybeam, a loan collector who gave Doc his first job as an investigator and remained a friend, has retrieved this history from the ARPAnet, precursor of the internet. Stodger handed the boat over to the government as part of the deal that allowed him to return to work in Hollywood.  This much of Fritz’s information Anderson transfers to Sauncho in the restaurant scene.  But Fritz’s account continues. The schooner reappeared off Cuba on a spy mission “against Fidel Castro.” Later it was deployed on “anti-Communist projects” in Guatemala, West Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere. It monitored radio traffic, delivered weapons to “anti-Communist guerillas, including those at the ill-fated Bay of Pigs.” It ran “CIA heroin” and also took on as cargo “abducted local ‘troublemakers,’ who were never seen again.” The Golden Fang’s history recapitulates decades of the covert repression conducted by the U.S. government against insurgent Communists and nationalists and against its own citizenry. These operations drive the events of the plot. The Golden Fang and the network of government agencies and propertied interests that operates it produce the disrupted lives that Doc investigates.

The exposition of Adrian Prussia’s career is more confusingly abbreviated in the movie. Neither limousine driver Tito Stavrou, who first mentions Prussia,  nor Doc’s former boss Fritz Drybeam, who provides personal knowledge of Prussia’s ties to the LAPD, even appear in the movie. Prussia is introduced in the restaurant scene in which Bigfoot Bjornsen points Doc to Prussia and his Nazi biker henchman Puck in connection with Coy Harlingen’s faked overdose death. As much of Prussia’s history as we are allowed comes in the scene in which Doc’s lover, assistant district attorney Penny Kimball provides him with a sealed file on Prussia’s collaboration with the LAPD. From these records we learn that Prussia was responsible for the murder of Bigfoot Bjornsen’s partner, Detective Vincent Indelicato, that he commited the murder for the LAPD, and that in fact “he might as well have been working for them as a contract killer.” The movie leaves the history of LAPD’s collusion with Prussia at this.

The novel expands on this history and its explicitly political character. In the novel’s climactic scene Adrian Prussia and Puck Beaverton have abducted Doc and are preparing to murder him. Puck cruelly toys with Doc before preparing a fatal injection of heroin for him. We see this scene in the movie, but we do not hear Puck recount how Prussia became LAPD’s contract killer. A small-time pornographer threatened Governor Reagan’s administration with a blackmail scheme that would have brought it down. To defend Reagan’s career, the Vice Squad commissions Prussia to kill the would-be blackmailer. Adrian arranges a particularly perverse and gruesome murder. The loan shark  is politically conservative and finds that killing for the sake of his political values gives him a “cold keen-edge thrill” with “something sexy about it.”

 Exhilerated by this illicit pleasure, Adrian “felt like his life had turned a corner.” He embraces his new-found career and happily continues to sell his services to the LAPD.  Over the years he “found himself specializing in politicals – black and Chicano activists, antiwar protestors, campus bombers, and assorted other pinko fucks.” When the LAPD asks him to kill a cop, however, the prospect gives Adrian no pleasure, so he hands the job over to Puck, who has particular grounds to despise Detective Indelicato. The omission of this information eliminates the parallel between the covert anti-insurgency conducted from the Golden Fang and the assassinations carried out by Adrian Prussia. It eliminates indications that these foreign and domestic operations are branches of a single network. It also eliminates the defense of his political values as a powerful motive beyond personal animosity and desperate self-preservation for Doc’s readiness to kill Adrian and Puck.

The movie consistently excludes the novel’s explicit political themes at the expense of coherence and depth in the story. The characters lose features, the plot loses motivation and continuity, and the thematic framework loses conceptual integrity. I could present further evidence for Anderson’s treatment of the novel’s politics, but this brief comparison establishes the point clearly enough. The anti-capitalist perspectives voiced by Doc, Sauncho and Jade broach themes that generate the novel’s implicit political substance. Drawing on Herbert Marcuse’s speculative thought on the shaping of the psyche by the relations and processes of capitalist production, in the second part of these comments we will next look at how these deeper political themes fare in Anderson’s adaptation.