Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The inherent vice of the movies

with 3 comments

Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice

Earlier this week, I caught up with two of the titles on the list of movies I’ve wanted to see from the last twelve months—a harder matter than it might first appear, since I haven’t seen a film in theaters since Interstellar. They were Inherent Vice, which I rented, and Mad Max: Fury Road, which I was able to see, thankfully, on the big screen. And while they may seem like an unlikely pair, they have more in common than first meets the eye. Both are the work of legendary directors operating near the top of their respective games, and both push in intriguing ways against our assumptions about how a movie ought to be structured. Inherent Vice is deliberately designed to undermine any expectations we might have about a profluent plot, with an endless series of incidents following one another in a way that teases but frustrates our hopes of a larger pattern, while Fury Road comes as close as any movie can to a single uninterrupted action scene. Both create the sense of an entire world existing beyond the edges of the frame, and both are too dense to be fully processed in a single viewing. And although Fury Road is considerably easier to love, both serve, in their own inimitable ways, as reminders of how rich the movie medium can be, and how rarely we see it taken to its full potential.

And what’s especially noteworthy is that each film arrived at its final shape by following a path that had little to do with how movie scripts are usually written. Paul Thomas Anderson adapted Inherent Vice by transcribing Thomas Pynchon’s novel in its entirety, sentence by sentence, into one massive screenplay, reasoning that the resulting doorstop would be easier for him to edit: “I can understand this format,” he explained to the New York Times. With Fury Road, George Miller took the opposite approach, but for much the same reason:

Because it’s almost a continuous chase, you have to connect one shot to the other, so the obvious way to do it was as a storyboard, and then put words in later. So, I worked with five really good storyboard artists. We just sat in a big room and, instead of writing it down, we’d say “Okay, this guy throws what we call a thunder stick at another car and there’s an explosion.” You can write that, but exactly where the thunder stick is, where the car is and what the explosion looks like, it’s very hard to get those dimensions, so we’d draw it. We ended up with about 3,500 panels. It almost becomes equivalent to the number of shots in the movie.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In starting from storyboards, Miller—who won an Oscar for Happy Feet—may have been harking back to the technique of the great animated movies, which were planned as a series of thumbnail sketches rather than as a conventional script. And in both cases, the approach was dictated simultaneously by the formats the directors understood and by the demands of the material: a challenging literary adaptation on one hand, an action extravaganza on the other. The result, in each instance, is a movie that inspires a unique set of feelings in the viewer. Inherent Vice encourages us to stop trying to piece together a coherent story, which is probably impossible, and just lie back and wait for the next gag or visual joke. Fury Road leaves us in a state of similar serenity, but by very different means: by its final half hour, we’re in the kind of blissful high that Pauline Kael liked to describe, and instead of feeling pummeled, as we might with Michael Bay, we’re carried along on a gentle wave of adrenaline. It’s a reminder that a script, which has been fetishized as an object in itself, is really a blueprint, and that it can and should take whatever form seems most useful. Books like Save the Cat! and similar manuals have distilled scripts down to such a formula that act breaks and turning points are supposed to happen on particular page numbers, which is as much a convenience for harried studio readers as it is a recipe for storytelling. But it’s not the only way.

And it’s significant that these departures from the norm owe their existence to acclaimed directors, working from their own scripts, with the clout and support to make it happen. Your average screenplay is written from a place of minimal power: to be read in the first place, much less to make it through the development process, it needs to look like every other screenplay that crosses an executive’s desk. And while I’m skeptical of the auteur theory, it’s worth asking if the grinding sameness of so many movies is an inevitable consequence of the screenwriter’s imperiled position. A writer knows that he could be replaced at any point by someone else who can follow the beat sheets, so he paradoxically has an incentive to make his work as generic as possible. You could say that blandness is the inherent vice of the modern screenplay format itself—a property that causes material to deteriorate because of an essential quality of its components. “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters,” as the narrator of Inherent Vice reminds us, and scripts written according to a fixed template will bore us. Inherent Vice and Fury Road are both throwbacks to a time before these formulas took over the world: Miller has his own movies to serve as inspiration, while Inherent Vice harks back consciously to Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, much of which is about Philip Marlowe literally trying to save his cat. We deserve more movies like this. And the fact that the system is designed to deny them to us should make us a little furious.

Written by nevalalee

July 8, 2015 at 9:12 am

3 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. We also deserve more critical insights like yours …

    Jnana Hodson

    July 8, 2015 at 9:15 am

  2. Thanks so much!

    nevalalee

    July 19, 2015 at 9:52 pm


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: