I love a good story as much as you do. While the primacy of storytelling in our lives doesn’t explain the popularity of “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” the allure of straightforward, absorbing narrative in any medium remains as important as ever, especially given how much in our popular culture carves up our empathy, our curiosity and our attention spans into smaller and smaller pieces.
Yet I wonder: With the right movie, does story matter, really?
Several colleagues have mentioned their experience of seeing “Boyhood” and the restless, itchy reactions of various loved ones (spouses, children) to writer-director Richard Linklater’s film. Too much life, not enough plot, some say, which may be a code phrase for a more interesting reaction — just as the familiar three-word write-off “I was bored” often points to something more provocative than boredom, closer to active frustration.
It’s a long way from “Boyhood,” but writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” opened recently, and with it comes the old question of story and how much we depend on it for cinematic satisfaction. Anderson’s evocative adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel, set in 1970 Los Angeles, will be a divisive number indeed. It practically drools plot, and you know what? The plot doesn’t really matter.
Pynchon fashioned a detective narrative steeped in the legacy of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, relocated (not far from where Robert Altman’s 1973 “Long Goodbye” landed) to a new, eerily blissed-out and disoriented LA, reeling from the Charles Manson murders. Anderson has folded in as many of Pynchon’s blind alleys and red herrings and heroin-cartel mysteries as he could and still keep “Inherent Vice” a tick under the 21/2-hour mark. Many will not go for “Inherent Vice.” I did, though at various points in the story, even the story didn’t seem to care much about the story.
In the detective genre, which Pynchon and Anderson exploit, blithely, do we really put plot first? When I think of “The Maltese Falcon,” I don’t think about the falcon. I think of the faces of those who are after it, and the looks on the faces of Bogart and Mary Astor in their not-long goodbye. Plot, I contend, in every genre, can be deployed in the way T.S. Eliot once wrote about “meaning” in his narrative poems. It’s there, he argued, “to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a nice piece of meat for the house-dog.” Same with plot. It’s the steak you throw over the fence to distract the guard dog while you come up with something more interesting.
Anyone who reads Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice” or sees Anderson’s film version for the story is making a big mistake. Though Anderson erred, I think, in giving his movie an epic length — detective fiction, even Pynchon’s mournful goof, is best when it’s boiled down and stripped for parts — he got the main thing right. The world of Doc Sportello, the beach shacks, the alarming collisions of counterculture and Nixonian law and order: These ideas provide images of contrast and beauty, and harsh, sun-lit rot. And Anderson shoots it all like a waking dream.
One final thought on plot, for which we consult that master of pulp-free fiction, Anton Chekhov. When Chekhov’s plays premiered, few knew what to make their free-associative, plot-unreliant gatherings of characters. This is why his writing feels so alive and present and ever-contemporary: There’s no heavy-duty melodramatic plot machinery to date it. David Mamet adapted “The Cherry Orchard” and, in a marvelous and instructive essay, wrote about his realization that the title of Chekhov’s masterpiece is irrelevant. Nobody in the play gives a rip about the cherry orchard.
“The cherry orchard and its imminent destruction,” wrote Mamet, “is nothing other than an effective dramatic device…Chekhov has thirteen people stuck in a summer house. He has a lot of brilliant scenes.” He needs to “come up with a pretext which will keep all thirteen characters in the same place and talking to each other for a while. This is one of the dilemmas of the modern dramatist: ‘Gosh, this material is fantastic. What can I do to just Keep the People in the House?’”
The Golden Fang cartel in “Inherent Vice” is the key to everything and it does not matter much. What matters is what happens to Doc and LA en route to the resolution of the mystery. In Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil,” do we care about who planted the car bomb? No. We care about Joseph Calleia as the loyal supplicant, looking out a window, wised up and heartbroken, at Welles’ Hank Quinlan as the grizzled veteran lawman falls back into the company of his old demons for good. That’s better than plot; that’s life, dramatized, crystallized.
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