Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

inherent vice

Within the intangible mysteries of Inherent Vice, through its irrational behaviour, its loose, associative narrative and its flurry of amusing names and places, what really happens? What’s going to happen next? Wait, what’s happening now? As Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest draws to a close I remain baffled, but hardly disappointed. It’s a trip, a zany stoner romp through the heartland of 70s paranoia; in through the out door and down the rabbit hole, with Joaquin Phoenix’s spaced-out ‘Doc’ Sportello as our guide on a guileless journey. If you think this sounds like the ultimate stoner-flick you’d be sorely mistaken. It might have no use for causality or narrative coherence, but it’s still a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, the nonesuch chronicler of American stories. You’re going to need your wits about you for this one. Inherent Vice is, rather, like the anti-stoner film—to watch it high would be mental suicide. It omits its own cloud of contraband smoke, and the experience of watching it is like drifting away on a roaring contact high.

I guess it begins on a beach, somewhere in fictional LA, when the slinky Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) slides into the shack of one hippie dope-fiend and private investigator ‘Doc’ Sportello (Phoenix), her ex-lover, and asks him to investigate the insidious abduction of her new lover, Mickey Wolfmann, a real-estate mogul. It seems like your run-of-the-mill hard-boiled noir catalyst, but remarkably, this slight ignition kicks into full throttle a chronology of events linked by coincidence, consequence and, sometimes, Doc’s own paranoid free-association. Narrating the film, and dissolving in and out of the scenery, like the patron saint of hallucinogenics, is Sortilège (none other than Joanna Newsom), whose relationship to Doc (and Shasta) is never made completely clear.

A caravansary of strange, delightful characters punctuates the strung-out search for Mickey Wolfmann, amongst them the lumbering, flat-topped enemy-accomplice Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), ex-junkie Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) and her husband-on-the-run Coy (Owen Wilson), marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), DA Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) and, above all, a remarkable Martin Short in a brief but memorable zip-line through a coke-whizzed (sub)plot as Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd. Incredulous names and titles are flecked around ad absurdum. There is a heroin cartel-cum-syndicate of dentists called the Golden Fang, a runaway daughter named Japonica Fenway, and a cult-like asylum where a propaganda experiment and a white supremacist regime mix inconspicuously.

The novel on which the film is based is by the elusive Thomas Pynchon, whose prose has long been considered unadaptable. What’s more, Pynchon has never allowed anyone to attempt it, until now. Anderson has translated the novel sentence-by-sentence into a screenplay, and saved his own changes for that easier-to-adapt format. Still, if you’ve been near Pynchon’s prose, you’d know how demanding a task Anderson set himself up for. Pynchon writes in an idiosyncratic, often impenetrable style, his sentences winding wildly in and out of deep grammar structures and veering into allusion and social commentary whilst his character sit on pause. It’s remarkable that Anderson’s film moves at such a breakneck pace; even more so when you consider that you’re rarely getting anywhere. It’s in Anderson’s framing, in the detail and movement of his shots, that he’s able to tell a story that gets any further than just the exhaustively tied-up immediate plot.

Anderson’s soiree of counter-cultural delights does not come without the foreboding atmosphere of his previous work. In all of his films characters attempt navigation in a world that spins preternaturally faster than they are comfortable with. In Boogie Nights the eighties hits with a whacked-out thud that bruises Dirk Diggler’s inflated ego and sweeps him away in a clatter of white-suited overspending, gunfire and nightmarish soft-rock. Magnolia‘s contestants—and they’re all contestants in this cheesy game-show called Life—are losing their grasp on reality so rapidly that, in a sudden rapture, frogs fall from the sky. More recently, in The Master and There Will Be Blood, his protagonists become starry-eyed at the promise of a better life—be it American greed, be it a Cause worth fighting for in a freshly warless America—and spin into their own self-created insanity. And is there a more confused and mistaken central character than Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love?

Without too carefully pigeonholing Anderson’s divisive and disparate works, there are consistencies throughout them that recur in Inherent Vice. To Doc, so perennially blazed that he can hardly etch comprehensible notes on a notepad, accepting the task of preventing the kidnapping of Mickey Wolfmann is like kicking a dusty cavalcade of problems into the atmosphere and trying to figure them out before they settle back into the dirt, only to be swept up again by barefoot wanderers. The situation develops too quickly into an insidious conspiracy for the green-brained Doc, and even for us. All of a sudden the P.I. license, Shasta Fay, and the chilled out cabin on the beach—and narrative comprehension—seem like by-products of disillusioned plan to bask freely in the hippy lifestyle that, in the sixties, seemed harmless. Wasn’t this supposed to be a rollicking stoner comedy?

Of course, it’s wildly enjoyable, even if it seems that the usual threshold by which humour is measured has been stolen and replaced by Beckett. It’s currency is absurd humour, just as The Big Sleep‘s was romance. It inherits a spot alongside that magnificent Howard Hawks film and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, both variations of Chandler’s Marlowe character, in a tradition of unstuck hard-boiled detective stories. Inherent Vice departs further from the original, via Altman’s noir subversion, and into abstraction. With Pynchon and Doc, he creates a similarly chaotic atmosphere that can be savoured through its pleasures despite lacking a firm foothold.

Hawks created a stylish noir, as craven and convoluted as they come, with primal importance given to visual pleasure and romantic crescendo. It’s all about Lauren Bacall ending up in Bogie’s arms. Altman’s Long Goodbye is a severely different beast—Elliot Gould stumbles through a beachside location and murder plot similar to Vice‘s, but it’s pangs of violence and (if you really investigate) discernible narrative can be considered a return of the bafflingly romantic original to its roots of realism.

Anderson, once an Altman acolyte and imitator who could almost outsize his idol in sheer scale and dizzying scope, can now stand on how own two feet with his own idiosyncratic style reassured. Here he takes his obsession with his master (he was an assistant director on Altman’s Prairie Home Companion) and transposes it into influence and subtle allusion—a dinner-table tableau that, for a split second, blasphemously references Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper’ as in Altman’s M*A*S*H (itself riffing on Bunuel’s Viridiana); an ensemble cast that is  impossible to keep up with; the hash-burnt milieu and meandering spirit of The Long Goodbye—in a continuation of this legacy. Noir incomprehensibility pushed to its limits, and filtered through the mind of the American cinema’s most masterful director of the camera.

viridiana last suppermash last supperinherent vice last supper

A tradition of ‘Last Supper’ allusions, from Bunuel’s Viridiana to Altman’s M*A*S*H to PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice.

There’s saving humour throughout the script that’s an easy grip for the logically inclined amongst us, performed rambunctiously by a zealous and impressive cast—it’s Anderson’s funniest film to date. Sportello is atrocious at his job, and only really benefits from his persistence, but Pheonix plays him with complete seriousness and perplexity. At every left turn he’s perfectly aghast—sometimes he’s aghast on the straight-and-narrow. Josh Brolin surprises with some serious comic chops, whilst Martin Short, Jena Malone and a young Jordan Christian Hearn (in his acting debut) stand out amongst the vast supporting cast. The ghostly psychedelia of the 70s is captured perfectly by production designer David Crank and costume designer Mark Bridges, who never veer into easy caricature, whilst Jonny Greenwood’s variation on the classical noir soundtrack (his best yet) compliments the choice soundtrack cuts, which include the flourishing ‘Les Fleurs’ from Minnie Riperton (Anderson’s deceased mother-in-law) and ‘Vitamin C’ from Can.

Inherent Vice is a rich tapestry of oddities, perhaps better symbolised as a magic carpet ride; a film to float away on. It will reward an adventurous spirit and leave behind those unwilling to take a toke of its equivocal substance. There is no Machiavellian pleasure for Anderson here, no indication that he’s pulling a fast one. As a sun-bleached Californian day turns to insidious denim, and as time becomes unstuck and ‘events’, the very substance of movies, swirl into a hallucinogenic storm of groovy textiles, the neon light clicks in your brain—it’s not about the chronology that leads us to the end credits, it’s about how we get there. Anderson, with Pynchon’s help, has made a film more interesting than most others, its peers Holy Motors and Upstream Color. It’s a novel of riches.

Inherent Vice is in cinemas March 12.

Directed by Woody Allen

bananas

A political comedy from Allen’s “early, funny” period, which doesn’t quite match the laugh-a-minute Love and Death or Sleeper in sheer comic velocity but holds up nonetheless as a zany B-movie. It’s about an American product tester who finds himself embroiled in a political crisis in the nearby nation of San Marcos (modelled on Cuba) where under mistaken circumstance he becomes the troubled nation’s leader. Allen writes an unrepentantly lewd part of his lover for Louise Lasser, who does the underfed part comic justice without taking it seriously. But it’s Allen’s unabashed sexuality, teeming with hedonistic excitement, eyes popping, mouth open wide, that recovers the film from its poor production values and script lite on commentary.

Directed by Jean Renoir

the southerner

Warm and inviting slice of Steinbeckian dustbowl drama (actually based on a novel by George Sessions Perry) directed by Jean Renoir. It was his first American film and his biggest stateside success, even garnering him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director (shockingly, his first and only nomination) and the very first Golden Lion (then called the Grand International Prize of Venice) at Venice. Zachary Scott and Betty Field star as a couple of down-on-their-luck cotton pickers determined to create a better life for their two children and hee-hawing grandmother (Beulah Bondi). The film celebrates the resilient spirit of the American working man with Renoir’s signature earnestness and warmth, but it still delivers home truths about the harsh time period and unrelenting financial and environmental strain on farmers. The final sequence, a flood, is impressively conducted on location, especially considering the production era. This should be amongst Renoir’s most treasured films, highlighting his buoyant humanity in spite of a foreign language and location. Instead it is mostly forgotten. It has since fallen into the public domain and is easily accessed on YouTube or, for a limited time, on Mubi.

Directed by Orson Welles

citizen kane

How did they make Citizen Kane? The question, after all these years, still presses my mind. Every shot of this whip-smart, life-spanning drama by Orson Welles is a small miracle, an anecdote behind its making waiting to be told. The film dazzles as it unfolds, with every twinkling second contributing a passage to the tome of Charles Foster Kane’s life story. We hear this story twice; once in the faux-newsreel that follows the famous opening sequence, and again throughout the film, in ellipses of subjective memory recounted to a faceless news man by Kane’s closest friends and associates. Amongst them are Joseph Cotton as Kane’s best friend Jedediah Leland and a delectably coarse Dorothy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane, his second wife. Gregg Toland’s groundbreaking cinematography is in essence a sequence of trick shots, each more impressive than the last. There’s the shot that glides through the sign at Susan’s revue show and then down through a window into her parlour. There’s the pensive wide-take that sees Kane slowly drift across a mirror, his reflection refracting and dividing, much like his identity does throughout the film. And then there’s the beautiful deep focus shots, the most famous of which captures Kane’s mother signing away her parentage to a stranger from New York whilst little Charles plays outside in the snow, with the answer to the movie’s quintessential question right under our noses, like a gun in plain sight. What is ‘rosebud’? There are too many in our generation who have yet to see Kane, so to reveal the answer to that question would be to spoil one of the great works of 20th Century art. ‘Rosebud’ is always more than it seems. This story of a newspaper man, this astonishing feature debut from Welles, who had, before his twenty-fifth birthday, revolutionised three art forms, tells us that ‘rosebud’ signifies a wilting American dream—spoilt by greed and petulance and power—and the last bastion of privacy: memory.

Directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell

a spell to ward off the darkness

A seven-minute long, slow-burning pan across a placid river kicks A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness off with divisive aplomb, winnowing out audiences unfit for its content. Ben Rivers is a director of the self-ascribed ‘slow cinema’, a small collection of disparate filmmakers (including Lav Diaz) who have descended from the Antonioni and Chantal Akerman school of contemplation, meditation and, hopefully, transcendence achieved through pensive imagery. His debut feature Two Years at Sea made waves on the festival circuit, and cemented his status as an auteur to nurture. Ben Russell I am less familiar with, but judging from a few of the videos on his Vimeo page, he’s more concerned with ethnography and installation art, more enigmatic and academic subgenres of this thing we call film.

The wonderful thing about A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness is the wistful, unguided way in which it treks through inexplicable location changes, quick snaps between fiction and documentary, and ambiguous characters, rather than the more explanatory, guided films we’re used to. Even on the very edges of cinema, there are few films as puzzling, enthralling and visually breathtaking as this quite undefinable film. Rivers and Russell have pushed the medium to its limits—some may find it deeply unattainable, but some, like me, will find it masterful.

The introduction, the minutes-long panning shot mentioned above, acts as a palate-cleanser, a sort of meditative introduction that allows us to find the film’s wavelength before we join its ebbing journey. It follows an unnamed protagonist—musician and artist Robert AA Lowe—through a triptych of vastly different environments. First we’re dropped into an environmentally conscious commune in Estonia, populated by the kinds of people who bathe together nude and have garrulous conversations about the trance-like nature of electronic music. Our protagonist appears sporadically, and always silently, before an etched triangle appears emblazoned on the screen and we’re shifted on to the next locale, the bucolic wilderness of isolated northern Finland. Finally, we observe him as the guitarist of a black metal band, playing to a crowd in Norway, for almost

It’s my best guess that Russell directed the probing commune segment, evinced by the unhinged and observant camera that defines his online work, but Rivers’s fingerprints are all over the second segment, which is more sparing, tactful and still than those which bookend it. It’s never less than transfixing and totally entrancing, a metaphorical walk through nature that inspires reverence and calm, and also a sort of puzzled detachment as Lowe sits, hikes and rows with neither a hint of interpretive suggestion nor the promise of anything happening any time soon. There’s a strangely violent moment that jolts us, but without warning we’re swept away to Norway.

The final chapter of this so-far enigmatic film will not dispel the fears of those seeking narrative resolution. Told in three shots, running over half an hour long, the directors squeeze their cameras into the faces of the band members, observing their shrill, repetitious playing and lulling us into a death-metal lullaby. They also take us through the audience, perhaps attempting to capture the sheer splendour of the many faces in the crowd, but unfortunately encountering a few over-zealous patrons unawares, prompting a few stares-to-camera and a few more resplendent grins.

As it patters to and end I’m assured that I’ve witnessed a powerful statement, but still completely unsure of how to categorise it. It flirts with concepts of the occult, of environmental sustainability, of race and gender and of violence, without ever committing itself to any proffered meaning. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, like much of the best art, offers itself up for interpretation without telling you what to interpret. Spellbinding indeed.

A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness will likely never be shown anywhere in Australia; you’re on your own.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer

still alice

Films about Alzheimer’s Disease are thin on the ground, and good ones, flayed from the restrictions of romantic formulas and glib resolutions (I’m looking at you, Notebook), are almost non-existent (Away from Her and Amour the exceptions, and I’m yet to get around to Poetry). With Still Alice, from first-time co-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, we’re spoon-fed yet another over-generalised portrait of the affliction. This film is TV-movie flat, most of its characters underdeveloped beyond simply names and occupations, with the drama developing in the most unimaginative chronology that spans a linguistics professor’s descent from forgetfulness and into degeneration.

Alec Baldwin plays Alice’s husband, a fellow academic, who struggles with his wife’s persistence to succeed despite all odds, and Kristen Stewart, Hunter Parrish and Kate Bosworth are adequate but rarely striking as her children, the eldest of whom (Bosworth) inherits the disease from her mother. Like the clockwork of a poorly produced Channel 9 TV movie, Alice’s first pangs of forgetfulness seize her in the first scene and worsen until she’s gagging on derelict, Oscar-baiting material in the surprisingly facile finale.

Lo and behold; Still Alice is not total shit, because Alice is played by the great screen stunner and talent without peer Julianne Moore, whose abilities single-handedly elevate the film from bordering-on-offensive to totally watchable. Moore’s powerful eyes and unabated expressiveness pull us in from frame one, and even when the eye-rolling developments and infuriatingly underfed characters leave us untouched, she’s busy finding strands of human compassion that rope us in again. It’s also a delicately technical role. In one scene, Alice gives a speech at a fundraising event, and Moore has to read through it on paper as though her character doesn’t understand a word of it—it’s breathtaking to watch her struggle through it and, despite the objections of my brain, my heart skipped a beat or too and swelled with pride as she pulled it off.

In that sense, Still Alice simply exists as a showcase for the gifted, giving Moore, who has never been bad even in her few bad roles, and who always astonishes in the good ones. She’s also never won an Oscar, despite four nominations in some incredibly complex films like Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights (and Magnolia). Here she delivers an artful performance in a totally artless, Academy-friendly film—no raining frogs, garrulous coked-up rants or gay husbands here—and on cinema’s night of nights she will, without a doubt, finally win her well-deserved Oscar.

Still Alice is now showing in limited release.

Directed by Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgados

the salt of the earth

Things are looking up for the legendary German director Wim Winders, who will this week premiere his film Every Thing Will Be Fine, accept the Honorary Golden Bear and receive a full-career retrospective at the Berlin Film Festival, whilst his latest documentary, The Salt of the Earth, sits on the list of Academy Award nominees for Best Documentary. His late career slump, promptly ended by 2011’s 3D doco Pina, seems well and truly over. The Salt of the Earth is a profound and crushing portrait of celebrated photographer Sebastião Salgado, who has spent his life travelling the globe—from the innermost regions of the untouched Amazon to the barren Siberian peninsula to the darkest reaches of Africa—photographing the elusive human condition.

That phrase, ‘the human condition’, is mentioned throughout the documentary, although its meaning is barely elucidated by Wenders nor by Salgado. In fact, there’s little explication of Salgado’s artistic pursuit, nor his methods or inspirations. Instead, the film is strung together mostly chronologically, with Salgado narrating the audience through each series of photographs as they are presented on screen with crystalline clarity, with brief interludes providing glimpses of Salgado’s private life with wife and chief collaborator Lelia and son Juliano Ribeiro, who co-directs with Wenders.

The ineradicable photographs are the star of the film; they impress more firmly a sense of what Salgado aimed to achieve than words could ever do justice. Wenders begins the film by relaying the story of how he saw one of Salgado’s photographs (see above) at an exhibition and was so moved that he immediately bought a print. Later in the film, Salgado explains that the success of a photograph can be measured by the reaction within the first half-second of seeing it, when a flicker of a person’s soul indelibly impacts the viewer. It’s a theory that would hold up if tested by any of Salgado’s works, each of which produces a small tremble of shock—either at the wrenching sadness of their subjects or at Salgado’s magnificent black and white composition and epic framing—before the photograph can fully settle in the mind and sink into the retina. It’s easy to see what Wenders found so remarkable about that first photograph of Salgado’s that he saw twenty-five years ago, and what led him back to Salgado all these years later.

First Salgado guides us through Other Americas, a photo essay published in 1984 after eight years in the making, for which he spent long stretches of time away from his young family visiting the countries that surrounded his native Brazil, scaling mountains, sweeping treacherous deserts and spending months in small enclaves at the edge of humanity. There is fatalism in the faces of the inhabitants of these faraway lands, where religions and customs have remained unchanged for centuries and the spectral Salgado, with his blonde hair and bushy beard, looks like an angel sent from heaven, at least to one young local who quickly befriends Salgado.

The most exasperating stretch features Salgado’s photo series from the Sahel region of Africa, which encompasses parts of Ethiopia, Niger, Sudan and Mali. It’s impossible to overstate the overwhelming power of these images of poverty, sickness and cruelty. Images of ghastly faces and dried out bodies, eyes sapped of hope, limbs hanging limply, awaiting death. Salgado rightfully subtitled his book of these images End of the Road; it’s an apocalypse where death, it seems, is a relief to those whose lives have been intolerable, where it is not an event, but rather the continuation of lifelessness. It becomes clear to Salgado that the main theme of his work is the displacement of large populations, which inspires his next series on mass migrations, called Exodus.

the salt of the earth1

Following Doctors Without Borders into Ethiopian refugee camps, witnessing the break-up of Yugoslavia, and, most shockingly, venturing into the heart of the Rwandan genocide, Salgado begins to lose his faith in humanity. For the first time the suffering captured in his photographs is not caused by famine or drought, or by any naturally occurring disaster, but by the hand of other humans. The documentary, once awe-inspiring, culminates in this short but heady maxim on the scurge of humanity—an awakening statement that chills to the very core. He ventures into the Congo, the same site of early-20th Century colonial pillaging, and sees millions of men, women and children that have retreated into the jungle. Looking into their eyes, Salgado informs us that most of these millions, he believes, were murdered.

There is optimism to rescue Wenders and his viewers from this metaphorical end of the road. After an astonishing but short visit to the firefighters battling the Kuwaiti oil fields set alight by Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War, we’re given respite by Salgado’s new direction—nature photography. In 2004, inspired by Darwin’s writings on evolution, Salgado visited surprisingly large fragments of natural environment that remain untouched by human activity. From the Galapagos Islands to the deep African jungle, he proves that the glimmers of soul he spent decades searching for and successfully capturing in humans are just as easily found in the animal kingdom—a particularly ennobled portrait of an Ape, and another of a centuries-old tortoise, can attest to this. A note on environmental conservatism, surprisingly plugged onto the end of this exasperating journey, is an encouraging place to leave his audience.

the salt of the earth2

As is expected for Wenders, The Salt of the Earth is more accomplished than the usual run-of-the-mill artist doc. Instead of relying solely on Salgado’s narration and simple cross-cutting between talking head and source material, Wenders sits Salgado in front of a transparent pane, with his images projected onto it so that he is able to show Salgado responding to his own photos. When Salgado leans in to inspect a detail, or to catch a closer look, we see his image cut into the photograph at hand, like a dramatically inventive and practically achieved cross-fade, that heightens the experience and provides a sort of visual narration.

Also notable is the musical score by Laurent Petitgrand (who composed the score for Wenders’s Wings of Desire sequel Faraway, So Close!), which might be better characterised as a sound-scape. It heightens the sensory experience of each of the sharply-focussed, high-contrast photos by aurally recreating their surrounds—in the burning oil-fields, for example, a mechanical, cog-like sound thrusts away in the background whilst mighty explosions sound off as Wenders cuts to each new frame—and then weaving them into a subtle rhythm. It trickles into the life of the photographs, adding visceral life to their already arresting style.

There are loose ends which drop off rather clumsily. Juliano Ribeiro directs a segment that portrays Salgado and his crew snapping a walrus migration in some frosty end of the world. He’s exalted that he can finally join his father, who was absent for much of his childhood, on an expedition, but he’s barely present from that point on, Wenders’s touch too recognisable to really be able to see where his contributions begin and end. There’s another subplot which reveals Salgado’s second son’s Down’s Syndrome, which sadly patters off into nothing. Also notable absent is Salgado’s hard-working wife, Lelia, who is mentioned throughout as his chief collaborator and main curator, but is only seen in old photographs and in one short interview snippet.

Little of this matters; the strongest portions of this powerful documentary eviscerate much of the superfluity that surrounds them. It’s clear that Salgado’s mastery of monochrome and superlative ability to capture fragments of human soul and ineffable moments of tragedy are enough to carry a film. Wenders is blessed to have access to Salgado and his full catalogue (and he mentions throughout that the project was initiated by the Salgado family, who invited him to make the documentary), but it’s also impressive to see that he’s not coasting on the strengths of the material alone. Wenders has a profound admiration for artists—who could forget his famous line, “Sex and violence was never really my cup of tea; I was always more into sax and violins”—and here his respect for the powerful photography of Sebastião Salgado translates into a duty to do them justice. With that, Wenders and Salgado make brilliant collaborators.

The Salt of the Earth screens from February 16 as part of the Perth International Film Festival. Session times and ticketing details can be found here. The film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary, which will be announced on February 22.

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