L.A. stoner private-eye sunshine noir: Thomas Pynchon introduces “Inherent Vice”

By on May 7, 2015

One of our favorite films released to theaters late last year, and given wider released earlier this year — and then promptly forgotten — was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, based on the L.A. stoner private-eye sunshine noir novel by Thomas Pynchon, who narrates this somewhat mysterious trailer for the book, which was published by Penguin Press.

Since Pynchon hasn’t been seen in public since his writing career began in the 1960s, just hearing his disembodied voice became quite a topic of conversation and even some consternation once it started making the rounds in the ol’ blogosphere. Pynchon fans almost immediately began to voice their skepticisim, believing that it wasn’t actually the author doing the narration here, based simply on the fact that it didn’t sound like the cartoon-ish high-pitched voice that Pynchon had once provided to one of Matt Groening’s “Simpsons” episodes (we believed it was him right away, and loved how Pynchon even mocked the price of the Penguin hardover, saying “$27.95?? That used to be like three weeks of groceries, man! What year is this again?”).

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Finally, in a Wall Street Journal article — in which WSJ writer Steven Kurutz describes Pynchon’s voice as sounding “like actor John Astin (i.e. Gomez Addams from the old TV show), mixed with a Midwest corn farmer, with a dollop of aging stoner” — a representative from Penguin came forward and confirmed that it was, indeed, the reclusive Pynchon who provided the voiceover for the clip, which was produced by Brookyln’s Meerkat Media.

We suspect that Penguin was pretty excited about the imminent publication of Inherent Vice, which is considered my most to be the most accessible of the author’s famously dense works, and probably were pretty pleased to have the trailer get even a little attention, as confounding as it was to then have the debate erupt over who was reading the copy.

The clip begins as the novel begins, with an epigraph — Under the paving-stones, the beach! -- which actually comes from a graffiti slogan (“Sous les pavés, la plage”) dating back to the 1968 Paris student riots, when students pried up paving stones to throw at police found that there was sand underneath. Pynchon uses it here, we think, as metaphor for understanding that beneath the crusty cobblestones of city life, beneath the bricks and stucco and other materials which symbolize oppression, there is a more ideal life to be found, a natural and organize life, not man made — in other words, the sand equals freedom — and for Thomas Pynchon, freedom = living at the beach.

For those interested in such things, here is an odd and fairly lengthy online discussion about the phrase and its translation which, if nothing else, gives a flavor for how translations can go awry when people start trying to translate metaphors instead of words.

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The cover illustration is by Maui artist Darshan Zenith (see his official site). The piece is called “Eternal Summer,” and subtitled, “A ‘Retired’ Caddy Hearse Greets Daybreak at a Beach Surf Shop.” Prints of the painting can be purchased here. The 1959 Cadillac Hearse is parked in front of the “Endless Summer Surf Shop” (namechecking the Beach Boys Greatest Hits collection and Bruce Brown’s 1966 surfing documentary!).

Once upon a time, Pynchon somewhat famously lived in a beachside community much like the fictional Gordita Beach he created for Inherent Vice — actually, that’s not quite true, as Gordita Beach actually makes a brief appearance in his 1990 novel Vineland, where Zoyd Wheeler lived shortly after Reagan was elected governor of California — and Doc lives in a little apartment building right on the beach, one that is not too different from the one where Pynchon himself actually lived, in the lower unit located at 217 33rd Street, in Manhattan Beach, California. Here’s what it looks like:

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It’s where Pynchon is reported to have spent his days and nights, from 1967 to 1971, quietly avoiding the world outside while he was busy writing his novel Gravity’s Rainbow. We realize it doesn’t really look like much, but its proximity to the sand and sea certainly has pushed the price of the building up over the years; according to a post on Curbed LA, this modest duplex is now worth well over one million dollars, or at least that’s what the owners were asking four years ago.

According to those who knew Pynchon, his apartment was sparsely decorated, and Jim Hall, executive director of the Redondo Pier Association, once told the L.A. Times that he remembered meeting the author and noticing he had an affinity for pigs (readers of Pynchon’s novels may remember the character “Pig Bodine” from his novels V. and Gravity’s Rainbow).

A photograph on the back cover of a memoir by Phyllis Gebauer, a close friend of Pynchon’s, shows the author’s hand extending out of the door of his apartment, giving a peace sign with a pig piñata named Claude and Gebauer visible in the foreground. In 2011, Gebauer donated her rare collection of signed Pynchon novels to UCLA.

Let’s talk about the movie now, based on the novel of the same name, which didn’t do as well at the box office as expected, but we suppose everyone concerned probably already knew it was going to be a slog for the filmmakers and the studio who backed the film to find the right audience for this drug-fueled shaggy-dog-of-a-detective story, even filled as it was with great psychedelic music and beautiful, grainy cinematography: cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer David Crank and set decorator Amy Wells all deserve singling out for their contributions, by the way, not to mention the incredible score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

The soundtrack is a wonder too in this day and age of filling CD soundtrack releases with awful contemporary chart-cloggin hits; this one is, instead, chock-a-block full of deep 70s cuts like Can’s “Vitamin C” and even vintage Neil Young album tracks, who Joaquin Phoenix even resembles, to some extent, doncha think?

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As we’ve said, or have we?, Inherent Vice is set in 1970 in the aforementioned fictional Gordita Beach, among paranoid burnouts, white-supremacist bikers, black-power ex-cons, and hippies turned toothless heroin addicts.

As the story begins to unfold, the “gum-sandal” detective Doc Sportello (a mutton-chopped, mumbly Joaquin Phoenix) begins investigating a mystery at the behest of his free-spirited and foxy ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and to the consternation of the corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, played by James Brolin, who is bedecked with a “flattop of Flintstone proportions,” as one character says in the film, along with a malicious “twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violations.'”

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Along the way, Doc uncovers a conspiracy that touches the shady land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and a surf-rock saxophonist named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), both of whom may either be dead or alive.

The movie spends most of its time figuring that out, in fact, and looming over the proceedings all is the specter of the Golden Fang, which may be a boat, an Indochinese heroin cartel, a rehab center, a syndicate of dentists — or something even more vastly incomprehensible.

Inherent Vice, the movie, turns out to be yet another contribution to the ever-increasing L.A. stoner private-eye sunshine noir genre, which would have to include stellar movies like Robert Altman’s 70s movie The Long Goodbye (a riff on the Raymond Chandler novel of the same name), and, more recently (but now decades old)  Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski, not to mention that the movie, at times, resembles lesser known titles (or less remembered, perhaps) like the 1969 James Garner-starred Marlowe, and there’s at least one scene — when Doc visits the Chryskylodon Institute — which reminded us of mountaintop guru Claude’s Temple in the Clouds in the 1966 Paul Newman movie Harper (played wonderfully by one of our favorite character actors, Strother Martin).

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The movie confounded a lot of people who wanted it be something it was never going to be. You can find lots of critical reviews online if that’s your thing, but we’ll quote here from one of our favorite movie critics, David Edelstein, who, writing for Vulture, said this:

“Like Pynchon’s novel, it’s a little insular, too cool for school. It’s drugged camp. Some of the plot points get lost in that ether — it’s actually less coherent than Pynchon, no small feat. It’s not shallow, though. Underneath the surface is a vision of the counterculture fading into the past, at the mercy of the police state and the encroachment of capitalism. But I’m not sure the whole thing jells. At two and a half hours, it overstays its welcome. It’s stubbornly shapeless. Maybe when I see it again, I’ll smoke a little weed first. I’m looking forward to that.”

That’s not a bad recommendation, actually, but we had only final comment about the book, not the film (but it ended up in the film too, so both, we guess): why did Pynchon decide to have the fictional band the Boards be a “surf band” — in 1970?? It just struck us as a little odd since any band residing in Topanga Canyon at that time would probably have been a lot more blues-rock, like Canned Heat, or psychedelically hippied-out, like Spirit, or they could have sounded like any of the other bands that lived there, maybe even been a beardo country rock band, any or all of those would have worked. But surf music was decidely passé by 1970, as far as we remember — but maybe not to a recluse like Pynchon who admittedly doesn’t get out that much.

That Gordita Beach reference we mentioned above from Vineland also has the character Zoyd, a musician in — what else? — a surf band, sharing a house in Gordita Beach — perhaps he and Doc were even pals in some kind of cross-parallel universe that exists only in Pynchon’s imagination.

Those dudes in the band living in that Topanga House, in the movie, by the way, were played by the Growlers, by the way, a pretty good little band you might wanna check out if you’re interested (and the lovely Brook Power is one of the film’s extras in the Topanga scenes too, but you gotta look close…).

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We’re going to close here with an excerpt from Pynchon’s novel, which sorta captures the vibe of this trailer we’ve included here, and illustrates so much about life in Southern California (famously parodied by the “Saturday Night Live” in their skit “The Californians,” where so much of the comedic focus is just about how to get around town easily and avoid traffic as much as possible… yes, it’s hilarious, particularly if, like us, you live here):

“Doc got on the Santa Monica Freeway, and about the time he was making the transition to the San Diego southbound, the fog began its nightly roll inland. He pushed his hair off of his face, turned up the radio volume, lit a Kool, sank back in a cruising slouch, and watched everything slowly disappear, the trees and shrubbery along the median, the yellow school-bus pool at Palms, the lights in the hills, the signs above the freeway that told you where you were, the planes descending to the airport. The third dimension grew less and less reliable–a row of four taillights ahead could either belong to two separate cars in adjoining lanes a safe distance away, or be a pair of double lights on the same vehicle, right up your nose, no way to tell.

At first the fog blew in in separate sheets, but soon everything grew thick and uniform till all Doc could see were his headlight beams, like eyestalks of an extraterrestrial, aimed into the hushed whiteness ahead, and the lights on his dashboard, where the speedometer was the only way to tell how fast he was going.

He crept along till he finally found another car to settle in behind. After a while in his rearview mirror he saw somebody else fall in behind him. He was in a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness. It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.

Doc wondered how many people he knew had been caught out tonight in this fog, and how many were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep. Someday–he figured Sparky would confirm it–there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and from alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.

He cut in the Vibrasonic. KQAS was playing Fapardokly’s triple-tounge highway classic “Super Market,” ordinarily ideal for driving through L.A.–though with traffic conditions tonight Doc might have to settle for every other beat–and then there were some Elephant’s Memory bootleg tapes, and the Spaniels’ cover of “Stranger in Love,” and “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, which Doc realized after a while he’d been singing along with. He looked at the gas gauge and saw there was still better than half a tank, plus fumes. He had a container of coffee from Zucky’s and almost a full pack of smokes.

Now and then somebody signaled a right turn and cautiously left the line to feel their way toward an exit ramp. The bigger exit signs overhead were completely invisible, but sometimes it was possible to see one of the smaller ones down at road level, right where the exit lane began to peel away. So it always had to be one of those last-possible-minute decisions.

Doc figured if he missed the Gordita Beach exit he’d take the first one whose sign he could read and work his way back on surface streets. He knew that at Rosecrans the freeway began to dogleg east, and at some point, Hawthorne Boulevard or Artesia, he’d lose the fog, unless it was spreading tonight, and settled in regionwide. Maybe then it would stay this way for days, maybe he’d have to just keep driving, down past Long Beach, down through Orange County, and San Diego, and across a border where nobody could tell anymore in the fog who was Mexican, who was Anglo, who was anybody.

Then again, he might run out of gas before that happened, and have to leave the caravan, and pull over on the shoulder, and wait. For whatever would happen. For a forgotten joint to materialize in his pocket. For the CHP to come by and chose not to hassle him. For a restless blonde in a Stingray to stop and offer him a ride. For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”

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Manhattan Beach, CA

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.