Along with Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson — writer-director of Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, and The Master — is one of the few mainstream filmmakers capable of inciting feverish curiosity by virtue of his name alone.
Contemporary Hollywood is propped up on the tentpoles of superhero movies and adaptations. What these properties do is, to at least some extent, sap the mystery out of the finished product. They come with rules. Those of us who care are aggressively acquainted with the Marvel roster already, and those of us who don’t will get as much pleasure out of seeing Ant-Man stills as we do walking through Times Square. The excitement of looking toward a film like Gone Girl rests in the knowledge that David Fincher will turn a solid story into heightened cinema, but we know what to expect.
P.T.A. is different. It’s impossible to guess what he’ll do with a film visually, narratively, or substantively. His reimaginings have only proven that point: There Will Be Blood was an adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! like a 747 is an adaptation of a biplane. And Inherent Vice is no Oil! The most screen-ready of Thomas Pynchon’s novels simply in that it isn’t 800 pages long, Inherent Vice is a meandering and phantasmagoric detective story that features very little detective work or story; most of what passes for plot is a sequence of conspiracy theories stacked up one on top of the other, until they begin to congeal. For that reason alone, it’s a classically American story — few other novels so closely resemble the million-car pileup that is our cultural consciousness — but it’s also written by one of the greatest stylists in postwar literature. Turning it into a movie requires two big decisions: (1) what of that stew-like story can be ironed into a “plot,” and (2) how to render the prose into something physical.
We have so little to go on, and that’s part of the joy. When images were released of a muttonchopped Joaquin Phoenix, playing substance-addled private investigator Doc Sportello, it didn’t elicit the same sort of pleasure as the fanboy trilling over a Comic-Con debut. In the case of those unveilings, the satisfaction is also real, but it comes from a different place: reconciling the fan’s own interpretations and understandings of the source material with the new onscreen component. It’s collaborative, in a way.
When it comes to P.T.A., though, or Tarantino, the hype has a different tenor. What’s so exciting about a new project from either of these filmmakers is that it’s being spun from whole cloth. There’s nothing to reconcile. Rare in our evolving age of information, it’s a step into the unknown. Nolan’s Interstellar provides a similar ecstasy, but the quality of film is different. While Nolan’s an auteur, his movies’ innovations are more aesthetic and tonal, less visceral. No director is better at working square within the blockbuster framework than Nolan, but P.T.A. exists outside of precedent.
With Inherent Vice, the anticipation becomes doe-eyed. For a certain sector of the public — the part that still thrills to his bag-headed “cameo” on The Simpsons — Pynchon’s rumored presence is enough to put a normal movie over the crest of excitement. Combining his gargantuan presence with that of Anderson’s is concussive — stopping short of artist worship, it provides at least the chance of seeing something completely new. This, I’d argue, is part of why Guardians of the Galaxy did so well: Moviegoers were given the chance to engage with a property they barely knew, under the same safeguards that now drive folks to a theater. As enjoyable as The Avengers and Star Trek can be, they still come with packaging you’ve seen before, if not far more than that. What we know about Inherent Vice is that it’s unknown, and that’s a gift in itself.
Kevin Lincoln (@KTLincoln) is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.