Inherent Vice (2014 film)

ivWhoa. This movie was really good.

Knowing this was an adaptation of a Pynchon novel and seeing the reviews most cunningly coin it ‘incoherent vice’, I was expecting an aesthetically pleasing albeit nonsensical stoner tale. Instead I viewed a hilarious, surprisingly linear romp through a hazy 70s neo noir Las Angeles. Indeed, even a plot that made sense… sort of… eventually.

Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello, a private investigator on the trail of a missing land developer, bumbles from one outlandish clue to the next, unveiling police corruption, lost loves, rehab clinic conspiracies, and a mysterious entity called ‘The Golden Fang’, which could be a boat or a cocaine cartel or a dentists consortium. There’s copious amounts of drugs and sex, but the film does not devolve into going ‘Isn’t the 70s funny? Ha Ha’. Though if Doc isn’t sucking on an oxygen mask, he’s bending backwards over a table to snort some high-grade coke.

Presented almost as a series of vignettes, each ‘clue’ involves Doc, undoubtedly high on something, investigating everyone from double agent Owen Wilson, to coke fiend dentist Martin Short, to crazed & corrupt LAPD cop and failed tv star Josh Brolin (a flawless, hilarious, somewhat disturbing performance). Each segment reveals some new tidbit to the overarching plot, or some heretofore unknown quirk or connection between parties. I was halfway expecting this to go nowhere, to end in a puff of grassy smoke, potential resolutions swirling away up into the atmosphere.

I also realized I could have watched Doc bound from scene to scene, literally all night.

The casting is superb. Joaquin Phoenix is sublime as Doc, the bumbling but sort of lovable hero, who owes no small debt to The Dude of The Big Lebowski fame. It feels like all of the rest of the big name actors belong more to the neo-noir world of 1970 than they do to their own present. Plenty of 70s movies have a habit of haphazardly dressing people up in bright colored hippie costumes. The period dress of Inherent Vice is colorful, but actually adheres to a style people conceivably enjoyed and wore. The desaturated color of fictional Gordita Beach paired with the impeccable soundtrack encapsulate the setting perfectly, and leave the viewer yearning for that sleepy beach bum lifestyle. At least for a while.

The meaning of the title is revealed via monologue late in the movie. ‘Inherent vice’ is an old shipping term, a label for cargo that is uninsurable due to its volatile and fragile nature — eggs for instance. It’s low hanging metaphorical fruit to extend this to the cast, to 70s America at large. But this is a fond, forgivable kind of vice. The movie warmly treats its cast, even its most degenerate goons. While I haven’t read the novel, I’ve read other Pynchon books and would have thought them nigh-unfilmable. Paul Thomas Anderson not only succeeded, but made one of those movies that I knew, before it even ended, would become an instant favorite.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

asmeatlovessaltThe back of this book claims it to be a psychological thriller about a 17th century englishman, enlisted in Oliver Cromwell’s army, who falls in love with a fellow soldier.

This isn’t entirely inaccurate, but it’s such a small piece of a dense 600 page brick. Thus I endeavor to better describe the pieces that comprise As Meat Loves Salt.

 

The Servant

We are introduced to our brutish (both physically and morally) first-person hero, Jacob Cullen, while he is dragging a pond in search of a drowned corpse. It is immediately apparent by Jacob’s apprehension that he had something to do with that corpse attaining its present state, lying in the muck at the bottom of a pond. Chronicling the day to day of the servants to a minor lordship, this part of the book is heavy with foreboding. Not least of all because it takes place amidst the calm of indentured servitude, spent polishing silverware and beating rugs, while our protagonist pines after his betrothed (a woman); this, when the reader is certain things must go south, having read the back of the book and its tales of war and romantic soldierly love. On top of this, Jacob Cullen is a guilty, anxious man. A peevish ogre, quick to anger and jealously paranoid. And when everything comes to a head, when his true colors show, the events are even worse than I had imaged. McCann has a knack for describing the violently terrible, in all its wet detail.

But I was afflicted with an ugliness of the soul that no physick could correct

 

The Soldier

Following Jacob’s expansive display of ugliness, he is thrust into the English Civil War. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition — Jacob Cullen, murderer, rapist, all-around shitbag, ends up looking damn near angelic by comparison to the horrific atrocities committed by the army upon those they conquer and pillage. Partly because we can say at least Jacob feels bad after, when he does something outstandingly terrible.

And feel bad he does. Jacob spends much of his time pondering his own damnation, begging forgiveness, making grand plans for restitution. Devout Jacob’s imagination portrays a vivid depiction of Hell, all aflame and in torment. He’s also a wonderful moper. This goes on until his anger gets the better of him once more and he starts bashing a man’s head into a table at the slightest provocation. Then he starts anew. Did I mention he has a Voice in his head, speaking in biblical liturgy, alternating between being his dead father or the devil, commanding him to do ill to his fellows?

 

London

In the army, Jacob meets Christopher Ferris, his eventual lover, and deserts to the latter’s house in London. This section is long; interminable. It drags.

Up until the London episode, reading this novel was akin to being locked in a room with rabid dogs, only to escape and find yourself in a room of rabid wolves. It was incredibly upsetting, unsettling, arresting. I turned pages in fear of what Jacob would do next. There was periods of anxious quiet punctuated by clamorous strings of violent, appalling action. This all committed by a first person narrator, making all manner of excuses for his actions.

Now the pace slows, the love story picks up. Jacob doesn’t so much as love as possess; the gender of his object of ownership is irrelevant. He yearns, he isolates, he loves, his wrath destroys. The fact that this part of the novel goes on so long is the great weakness of As Meat Loves Salt. We know this man is capable of the very worst — hundreds of pages of tranquil setup is much too much.

 

Swords into ploughshares

Drunk on the self determination ideology of the time, Ferris assembles a group of bright-eyed malcontents and sets off to a common green space to establish a farm community. Though loath to leave London, Jacob begrudgingly follows his lover. The ominous tone of the early chapters returns, and a grain-based doomsday clock builds to Armageddon.

And I craved it. I wanted Jacob’s Bad Angel to return because I was bored of the meandering pace of the London chapters. As the narrative scythe prepared its reaping, I realized this book is at its best, it’s most gripping, only when The Worst Possible Things are happening. It’s when a militiaman is violently throwing a newborn to the ground, that I can say this, this is when As Meat Loves Salt is at its best, my stomach rolling all the while.

This book is superbly written. The period dialogue is so effective, I could hear the characters speak, and at times I felt I could fain converse in kind. Even though I ultimately found the entire package only a few notches above okay, I will miss McCann’s handle on prose. It’s alternately beautiful and diabolic.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

acrNarratives in video games face an intractable problem: the story can find itself in conflict with the gameplay, and will always take a back seat to the profit margin.

The framing device of the Assassins Creed series is this: The Assassin Brotherhood and the Knights Templar have been fighting a secret war across history for thousands of years — basically forever. The Assassins are anarcho-libertines, their creed is literally “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” and they promote individual freedom and self determination above all else, consequences be damned. The Templar are pro-authoritarianism, claiming humanity is too weak and self destructive to continue to survive without a guiding hand. Marco Polo was an assassin. The Medicis were templars.

In the present day, a shady pharmaceutical company has designed a machine that allows you to plug in and live the memories of your ancestors. Thus, we can stick NYC bartender Desmond Miles into the machine and he can re-live all the lives of his assassin ancestors. I forget exactly why we’re doing this, but something about the information recovered in the past will allow the aforementioned shady pharmaceutical company to do something Really Bad.

The very first game has Desmond reliving the life of Altair Ibn La’Ahad, a Syrian assassin living in the time of the First Crusade. When it was released, the critics griped about the gameplay being repetitive (it was), the brooding main character dull (he was), and that the story was weak (it was). Yet, I found it profoundly COOL. Running around the Holy Land — Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre — in the middle of the crusades (on the Arab side no less), hunting down armored, clanking templars and leaping off buildings to gasps from the crowd below. It was great! I realized what would be the enduring appeal of the entire franchise: historical tourism. Can’t get enough of it. Show me all the cities.

In the follow-up, time shifted to Renaissance Italy and the ancestor Desmond now locked into was the highly charismatic Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio was about ten thousand times more compelling than Altair; the game time skips through his life, from teenage years to fortyish. To make up for the repetitive complaints of the first game, the gameplay and missions structure was greatly varied and enhanced, though I did find it adhered a little too closely to the modern gameplay trend of leading the player from one map beacon to the next and then exhibiting set pieces via cutscenes. But, whatever, I got to run around the rooftops of Florence and Venice! Ride a horse around the hills of Tuscany! Own a fancy Villa!

The supernatural elements supremely ramped up in this installment and it ends with Ezio busting into a secret room in Vatican (right after he engaged the pope in fisticuffs; seriously) and coming face to face with none other than the Roman goddess, Minerva. Minerva then speaks directly to Desmond (remember, that’s the guy in the high tech machine in modern day) to Ezio’s total confusion. It was actually a pretty cool narrative device. The threat is SO BIG that it crisscrosses centuries and this entire dude’s life/video game culminated in just getting a brief message across time to Desmond in 2011 or whenever it is.

But, then, OK, here’s where the video game narrative issue comes in. Ezio’s story was clearly supposed to end here. He goes on to live his life, no longer important to the plot and never knowing what the hell happened. But because this is a video game, and because, well capitalism, Ubisoft released another game the following year.

Entitled Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, we returned to Ezio, who gallivanted off to Rome for dubious narrative goals. The controls were tightened and honed, new features were added, you got to train up a whole cadre of assassins — the gameplay was just all around better. And yes, Ezio’s character arc was already complete, but they recast him as a teacher of others, and more importantly, embroiled him right into the plot of The Borgias.

Yeah. So incase you didn’t pick this up in history class, the Borgias were secret templar and Cesare himself was actually killed by one Ezio Auditore. Anyway, it worked. Cesare was a great villain and I actually bought a Borgia history book due to this game. It is still on my shelf and I swear I’ll read it some day. The framing story took a nosedive, sort of treading water since this game was unplanned, and inexplicably killing off a major character who totally wasn’t supposed to die yet*.

But, as I am sure you can tell by the title of this post, it didn’t end there. Ubisoft released yet another Ezio game. This time he’s old and running around Constantinople… for, uh… reasons. The gameplay really couldn’t go much further at this point — there’s ill-conceived add-ons like tower defense and bomb crafting. Nothing left to squeeze out of Ezio’s character either. There’s flashbacks to Altair that let you re-live scenes the game has already summarized for you in previous games. Faced with yet another unplanned episode, the writers had completely stalled on Desmond’s story and the framing device barely even exists in Revelations. Yet, yet, yet the game is still fun. And Constantinople! Climbing the Hagia Sophia! Visiting the volcanic region of Cappadocia! People calling me Effendi like when I read My Name is Red!

You might wonder wonder why I’m spending all this time summarizing a story that wasn’t even good in the first place. And honestly, 1000 words in, I’m wondering too. But it illustrates a fine point. The story was stalled and hacked apart and I just can’t see it recovering in the next game, but this led to the creation of one great game and one pretty good game. I got to swing around the coliseum in Renaissance Rome and chase fools through the Great Bazaar in Constantinople a few years later. And of course, a giant corporation made millions of dollars. How can you argue that?

 

And yeah, yeah, I know I’m like several AC games behind but I plan to catch up.

 

*So here’s what happened. The character in question, Lucy, was voiced and had the likeness of Kristen Bell. Bell decided she didn’t want to do it anymore, so like the TV shows where a main character suddenly dies when it clearly wasn’t time yet — see Battlestar Galactica, Sliders, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers… — they just bizarrely and disorientingly killed her off!

Responding to fan complaints, Ubisoft released paid extra content where her death is explained (she was a TRAITOR!!), but since they still didn’t have Bell on staff, she only communicates through email. Haha.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage

colorlestsWay back in highschool, Tsukuru Tazaki was the fifth person in an inseparable group of friends. After meeting in a volunteer program, they did everything together as a pentagonal unit. Then, suddenly, after Tsukuru left their provincial hometown to go to engineering school in Tokyo, he was cut off. His hitherto steadfast friends stopped answering his calls and one of them phoned to explain that none of them ever wanted to be contacted by or see Tsukuru ever again. Utterly baffled by this turn of events, he fell into a depressive void at college that he barely survived and went on to have a fairly unremarkable life. Tsukuru rarely got close to another person ever again.

Now thirty six years old and finally dating someone he actually might love, said date tells him that he clearly still has emotional baggage lingering from his friend breakup. Thus, Tsukuru Tazaki sets off to locate each of his friends and discover what happened to cause his severance.

OK, it’s true. You can play Murakami Bingo. He has a set of tropes that repeat in all of his novels. Mysterious women. Alter egos. Cats. Dream sex. Name brand whiskey. When I first read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, I was blown away. Then I read a few more of his novels and became progressively let down that so much of it repeats. But now I’ve come around, come to terms with the recycling. There’s nothing terribly wrong with utilizing the same ideas, rearranging the same story or reusing the same hero with slight differences. I think as a reader you just have to be prepared for it (and only read the guy every few years).

I am not sure how much of the above realization fed into my enjoyment of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, but it was my favorite Murakami novel since Wind Up Bird. The central mystery — why Tsukuru was kicked out of the group — is intriguing, and when half-way through the book, the mystery is partially revealed, only more questions arise. That very little of them are answered doesn’t matter.

Murakami’s style is withdrawn and subdued. No one ever seems to act with passion (indeed, part of Tsukuru’s character arc is learning to make bold, passionate moves). Characters hardly react to world-shaking events or emotional trauma. There’s a peculiar cadence that marks the characters and the dialogue itself. Everyone talks in the same measured tone, punctuated by commas. They answer each other in complete sentences:

Reader, would you like fries with that?

Yes writer, I honestly would like fries with that, thank you for asking.

It sort of feels like Murakami is in the room with you, sipping whiskey at measured intervals and speaking in an entirely monotone voice. Also, you are blindfolded. Half-asleep. But it’s pleasant enough.

Upstream Color (2013)

upstream colorThere’s a whole slew of movies that utilize a sci-fi premise to explore loss, relationships, anger, pain & abuse, whatever. The level of investment in the sci-fi can vary — some clasp it fully and others just use it as a set up to launch complicated emotional arcs. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Her, Alien, etc.

Upstream Color is one of those movies. It is also the type that goes above and beyond and truly embraces the horrifying premise that haunts the lead characters and instills in them the pain and loss they stumble through. The shuddering body horror and confusion it evokes is singular and in some perverse bit of viewer solidarity, none of the synopses and reviews of the movie even describe it. You have to experience it visually and aurally, without prior expectations.

Upstream Color is steeped in abstraction, from its narrative to its dialogue to the quick back-and-forth cuts that comprise its scenes. Locations change, faces change in quick, often incomprehensible cuts. The dialogue is purposely low-key, unclear, and cast at a low volume compared to the music. As such, you can never decipher the full breadth of what the characters are saying and instead you have to catch just enough to gather what the sequence is communicating. I loved it, but I could see many other people loathing this ear-straining style.

(those people are lame)

The color, music, and natural scenery is beautiful. New England streams and forests, with incongruous orchids sprouting between the roots of trees. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is central to the film’s mythos and some childhood setting in Vermont is sought after, in memory, like the promised land. Music is almost always playing and sets the mood of the scene, and does as much speaking as the characters do. It often bubbles, tinkles, or roars like water. There’s actual biology specialists in the credits that designed the film’s numerous abstract closeups of birth and decomposition. This all ties together into a cohesive, if not coherent, whole.

Amy Seimetz plays the main character, Kris, and does a superb job of looking haunted and lost while anchoring the viewer to her presence. Otherwise, Upstream Color is the total vision of one man. Shane Carruth has directed, written, produced it. Did I mention he’s the male lead? Indeed, he’s the editor, the composer, the designer, and he chose the cast. It’s the sort of movie that could maybe only exist as a contained obsession.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

ThecorrectionscvrThe great triumph of this novel: Franzen takes a family of reprehensible goons, who do little more than hurt each other or themselves or anyone who has the misfortune of being around them, and makes them both compelling and sort of sympathetic. Everyone is awkward. Everyone is lost. By the end, I wanted them all to succeed.

The Lamberts

Alfred and Enid, the progenitors of the Lambert clan, seem never to have had a happy marriage. Even its inception was dubious. Enid, your midwestern mom obsessed with maximizing status and minimizing shame, could have been satisfied if Alfred had acted differently, perhaps shown some actual physical love and affection or exploited the easily exploited stock market. But Alfred was never that person. A consummate workaholic, he spent the prime of his life working at a railroad, baffled by people who took unpaid coffee breaks, who used phrases like ‘take it easy’, who yearned for sexual intimacy. Now, in their elder years, Alfred has Parkinson’s disease and is largely unable to take care of himself. Enid is as miserable and nagging as ever, convinced Alfred needs merely to try and many of his physical woes will disappear.

Oldest son Gary, who is probably the biggest prick of the lot, ties his existence to being more successful than average people, especially average midwesterners. He fled to Philadelphia to work in finance and marry a pilates-bodied blonde woman and beget 3 children. Gary is a condescending tightwad. He has little-to-no relationship with his children. He’s clinically depressed and the only way his viewpoint even works is that he has such a heinous, manipulative wife that portions of Gary’s chapters actually turn my stomach and give me no choice but to side with him. He has the least satisfying character arc, and I’m not totally sure he adds that much to the novel.

Youngest daughter Denise, an ultra-perfectionist chef, will probably try and sleep with your husband, or your wife, while maintaining the fiction that if she does not make the first move, she is being totally honorable and not responsible for the fallout. Clearly the marriage egg timer was up and it was gonna happen anyway. She has an ironclad set of defenses that govern her relationships with family, generally involving not getting too close whilst desperately wanting to. Denise also has absolutely no idea what she really wants, which is the crux of her character arc. Honestly, this I-Don’t-Actually-Know-What-I-Want problem is characteristic of all the Lamberts but the rest of the family have some fictive ideal that they at least think they want.

The middle child Chip is obsessed with the corruption and moral vacuity of capitalism, while also being head-over-heels immersed in it (much of his plot involves money). He laments objectification of women in media, especially after his sister poses in a magazine to promote her restaurant, and then flips through a Victoria’s Secret magazine to get off. Hypocrisy defines him. And he knows it. After losing his job at a university for sleeping with a student and then failing to write a decent avant-garde screenplay, Chip finds himself amongst Lithuathian gangsters, writing internet copy for their e-scams. He kind of skews golden child a bit, having the happiest emotional arc in the book. His major philosophical conflicts feel like an author-insert of Franzen’s own internal turmoil.

The story lives in in the late 90s, a time of American excess that feels fantastical by today’s standards. Enid feels like everyone around her is getting rich and it’s her life’s great frustration that Alfred wasn’t up to the task of making them the same. Everyone is investing in something. Finance seminars on cruise boats.The goblet of public confidence is overflowing and splashing on the floor. While all of this is building up to the rdecline that begins around the time of The Corrections publication (2001), the tone/time feels alien to someone like myself who was too young to interpret business/finance as it was happening.

Franzen is a pretty slick writer. All of the Lamberts are realized splendidly and his clever metaphors only occasionally fall flat. The writing, tone, and pacing are consistent the whole way through and I found it the sort of book I could open on a holiday flight and read straight through. It’s funny, but not that funny. And it probably could have been cut like 30-50 pages. Like the family it encapsulates, it’s often awkward. I am glad I read it.