The Noirvember Files: Inherent Vice
Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is a film indebted to the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, paranoia-laced neo-noirs of the seventies and eighties as it is to the likes of the cynical noirs of the forties. But, it is not simply in the winding, labyrinthine, and ultimately nonsensical narrative that Inherent Vice reveals its infatuation with the likes of Spade and Gittes. Anderson also lovingly washes the film in the distinct aesthetic trappings of the noir and neo-noir tradition.
In Paul Schrader’s “Notes on Film Noir”, he describes the tradition’s almost “Freudian attachment to water.” So, it’s natural, then, that our meandering protagonist – Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) – would find himself a cozy little corner tucked away beside the lapping waves of the Pacific. Doc is from the water. It is also natural then, that the film’s McGuffin is a rickety old schooner tauntingly, and perplexingly, labeled the Golden Fang. Of course, the plot never calls for the Golden Fang to be anything other than a boogeyman dangled in front of Doc like a carrot on a stick. However, it seems quite poetic and hilarious that Doc, a man who returns to his home beside the water each night is unable to see the ship he’s looking for even as it is floating lazily a couple of miles out from his home.
The stark lighting film noir couched from German expressionism clearly trickles into the piece as Doc lounges awash in cool blues and crackling reds in his seaside abode. But, instead of the jagged edges of shadow that sliced across the faces of Bogart and Stewart, Doc is immersed in color. Light here is meant not to evoke anxiety, but rather communicate the temperament of the characters. Blue for Doc’s cool, serene head. Red for Shasta’s volatility and vivacity.
Film noir is also a tradition caked in a cloud of hazy cigarette smoke. The protagonists of noir and neo-noir fame seem to perpetually walk through a cloud of smoke that acts as a visual metaphor for their state of discombobulation. J.J. Gittes of Chinatown is perpetually either smoking a cigarette down to a nub or lighting up a new one. PTA takes this tradition a step further and into a sort of literal confusion as Doc Sportello is perpetually rolling, lighting up, or smoking a joint. And, it is not just through a cloud of milky marijuana smoke that our hero wades. It is also through the very literal discombobulation that he experiences while high. What is so interesting about Anderson’s take on the noir ending, though is in its relatively optimistic and clear endnote. Despite not only the Federal government revealing itself to be corrupt, but also the local government in Bigfoot’s betrayal, Doc renegotiates Coy’s freedom, disposes of the planted heroin in the process, and reunites with Shasta. There may be a considerable deal of doubt as the two ride cuddled in the back of a car to an unknown and unseen destination, however the ending tone is not that of anxiety for the future, but rather of calm resolution. A “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.” this is not.
Inherent Vice is a film awash in the murky aesthetics of the neo-noir and the classic noir. Anderson acutely understands the trappings of the film noir tradition and leverages them to spring Pynchon’s hazy novel off of the page and onto the screen.