Feeling a bit under the weather, I treated myself yesterday to a matinee second-helping of Paul Thomas Andersons’s film-homage to Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I wrote about after catching it last month during its limited opening in NYC. I went back to luxuriate in Pynchonomania, of course, but also to try to figure out what’s been bothering me a bit about the film. As I said last month, among a slew of great comic performances I thought the only one that rang false to me was Katherine Waterston’s Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s “ex-old lady.” Anderson’s film, perhaps inevitably, focuses on the enigmatic romance core rather than the paranoid discursive rind of Pynchon’s novel. He treats Shasta as the story’s keystone, its visual ideal, and perhaps — as this very smart review-essay in Avidly by Evan Kindley shows — its excuse for indulging cinema’s semi-pornographic male gaze.
Kindley’s essay opens by showing one of the promotional images for the film (I reproduce Kindley’s close-up here), which shows a young woman’s, presumably Shasta’s, legs dominating the screen, with the good ship Golden Fang (aka Preserved, in a subplot the movie doesn’t really have time to explore) barely visible in the upper right of the screen. The primacy of female sex appeal in the image interprets itself, though if you think of the ship as a representation of the novel’s confusing paranoid conspiracy plot — what readers of Pynchon call “history” — then the relative size of the woman’s body v. maritime symbol indicates the desire of the publicist, at least, to sell more sex than paranoia. (A reasonable choice, perhaps.)
Like Kindley, I think Anderson’s decision to narrow the focus onto the Shasta Fay plot represents the film’s major reshaping of its source-novel. I’m not enough of a Andersonista or film historian to judge the movie through the visual history Kindley lays out in his review, but I think the sentimental shaping, in which the film coheres as a story of lost love, is worth thinking about. My sense is that it distorts Pynchon in two ways. Most obviously, as the poster’s asymmetrical split-screen shows, Anderson’s film squeezes out the novel’s paranoid vision of history, which really is the center of Pynchon’s project, around which sexual hi-jinks are mostly a particularly intense side-show. Secondly, the centrality of the love-plot sentimentalizes Shasta Fay herself, in ways that are worth exploring.
As you might expect from a figure who mysteriously vanishes early in the narrative only to just as mysteriously reappear — the novel’s storyline is more complex but not really clearer — Shasta appears in relatively few scenes. I count four main appearances in the film: 1) the opening scene, when she shows up unexpectedly at Doc’s place dressed in “flatland gear”, 2) the ouiji board flashback, which also includes a sentimental walk-on-the-beach scene of uncertain temporality (to me, at least), 3) the visually shocking reunion sex scene, which Kindley calls a “calculatedly unpleasant” example of “softcore sadomodernism,” and 4) the ambiguous final shot of the film.
(It seems meaningful that of these four, only the first and third are in Pynchon’s novel, even though Anderson, by all reports, has tried to represent the book faithfully. His film gets Pynchon right to an amazing degree — but in this particular case, I think he gets Shasta wrong.)
The first scene is the worst of the four: Shasta dressed to fit into Micky Wolfmann’s “straight-world persuasion” appears too obviously a Hollywood fantasy of vulnerable beauty. Pynchon describes her as illegible to Doc: “she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all. Maybe something she’d picked up at acting school” (3). But Waterston’s face is mostly too easy to read. Shasta’s little-mentioned Hollywood career, which Anderson’s film mostly omits, though Doc does tell Sortilege that he’d always assumed he’d next see Shasta “on the tube,” gets presented in Anderson’s opening as simple fear and a plea for help. Waterston mouths Pynchon’s sentimental dialogue — “You never did let me down, Doc” (5) — but with Anderson’s connivance, she makes Shasta Fay, for all her mystery and power, simply a damsel in distress. The independence and power, not to mention the sense of humor, of Pynchon’s opaque heroine gets lost in the shuffle. The novel’s Shasta is much more resourceful, variable, and less easily interpreted, than she is in the film.
(Incidentally, Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Assistant DA and Doc’s current semi-girlfriend Penny captures the force and independence that Waterston’s Shasta lacks. Perhaps b/c Penny remains, like all the characters in the story including Doc himself, a bit of a caricature? No space to consider this here, but I do think all the complaints about Pynchon’s characters not being “realistic” misses the point: he’s not a realist, but an allegorist. His characters, especially but not only his women characters, may be “paper-thin” (as Kindley observes), but they represent points in a system, not universes unto themselves. The disintegration of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the signature example of Pynchon’s baseline anti-individualism: “he is being broken down…and scattered….no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm” . But perhaps that vision of the corrosive force of history is harder to film than the lure of sexuality!)
The second of Shasta’s scenes, an extended flashback dance-in-the-rain with Neil Young soundtrack that represents the once-happy couple’s past, is lovely to watch but entirely un-Pynchonian. The novel’s Shasta is never this easy to see. I understand why Anderson might have wanted such a scene, but it further puts Shasta’s legs in the foreground and the ship of conspiratorial history in the background. The whole things is pretty but misplaced.
The third and most striking of Shasta’s scenes brings her to Doc’s place for reunion sex, with dialogue almost entirely taken verbatim from Pynchon. The scene features extended nudity from Waterston and some SM role-playing, in which Shasta regales Doc with tales of her dominating lover Mickey Wolfmann. “Sometimes he could almost make you feel invisible,” she says, gliding naked across the room to descend upon Doc, who uncomfortably mutters, “Guys love to hear shit like this” (307). The scene’s sexual tension shocks, especially within the generally easy-flowing pace of the movie. The sound of the “half dozen sincere smacks” that Doc gives Shasta’s bare ass set up an ambiguity that Shasta’s immediately post-coital line, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” (307), doesn’t dispel. (That line appears in the novel too, but notably after a second, less disturbing, sexual episode. Pynchon’s novel is also careful to specify Shasta’s “intentions”  in the scene, which are harder to parse on the screen.) Kindley’s review suggests, persuasively, that this scene is pure exploitative male fantasy, the beautiful helpless naked woman. It’s a hard point to dispute, as it’s shown visually, but in the novel the scene also includes an explanation of Shasta’s trip on the good ship Golden Fang, the two characters’ mutual lamentation of the complex fate of Mickey Wolfmann, and in general much more of Pynchon’s tangent-zooming than the sexualized gaze of the camera allows. The visual opulence of film overwhelms viewers in the way Mulvey theorized, so the ironic turnings of Pynchon’s signature method aren’t as available during this scene.
I don’t think Anderson could really have filmed all of the novel’s plot, nor am I sure that it would have been worth it to chase down all Pynchon’s blind alleys. I am sort of hoping for a Director’s Cut DVD that will serve up another 45 min or so of what got left on the floor, but the structure of Pynchon’s novels involves disorientation, not solutions.
No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into… (Gravity’s Rainbow 3)
During my first viewing, I slightly misread Shasta’s final scene, which I had thought was a pure addition. Based on the hazy back-lighting, I now recognize the scene as a version of the driving in the fog vignette with which the novel ends. Doc, in Anderson’s version accompanied by Shasta, has been driving south down the 405 when a dense coastal fog brings everything to a halt. As the “third dimension grew less and less reliable” (367), the cars formed themselves into a “temporary commune to help each other home” (368).
In Anderson’s version, Shasta nestles into Doc’s shoulder, and he looks a little foggy himself. He repeats her line from the earlier scene — “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” — and she replies, as if hiding a secret, “Of course not.” The romance fantasy-plot has other ideas, of course, and we’re left with the hope of something like a happy ending.
Kindley suggests that the Shasta plot parallels Anderson’s own doomed romance with Fiona Apple, which suggests that the film “Inherent Vice” may represent Anderson’s coming to terms with a lost love (Apple) as well as a literary master (Pynchon). That seems plausible, though I don’t know the Hollywood history. As a Pynchonista, however, I’m not entirely pleased with the distortion of Shasta Fay, who gets transformed from a mysterious source of power — her name echoes Mt Shasta in Northern CA, where, according to hippie / New Age legend & lost Inherent Vice subplot, three Lemurian sages first set foot on sacred California after the inundation of their homeland — into a masculine fantasy about female beauty, vulnerability, and sexuality.
Even as I was working out these distortions in Waterston’s Shasta Fay, I found myself enjoying the film the second time through. I think by the end I was pleased to have found something on the screen that couldn’t quite touch the real Pynchon. It makes the moments of real contact between visions and artistic modes more striking.
I know the oversized masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon are impossible — but I’d love to see him try Bleeding Edge or Lot 49!