you can’t improvise a concerto

I read a pretty good piece on the New Yorker website that clarified some of my misgivings about the movie Inherent Vice: “Paul Thomas Anderson’s Nostalgia Trip

Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of “Inherent Vice” bears the burden of his manifest devotion to Thomas Pynchon, but it’s second to his apparent devotion to Robert Altman.

Yes, exactly.

Anderson was a friend of Altman’s (he was on set for the entire production of Altman’s last movie, because Altman couldn’t be insured otherwise), and it’s long been obvious that he’s a fan (Magnolia was clearly his attempt to do Nashville — it even has two of the same actors, which can’t have been a coincidence).

But there are major problems with both of his devotions, to Pynchon and to Altman.

Many reviewers have talked about Inherent Vice as a book (and movie) where the plot doesn’t tie together, where everything is just seen through a cloud of pot smoke, where the questions aren’t answered and who cares.

Um, well, no.

In the book, the plot is tight. All mysteries are solved, all motivations make sense, and everything ties up. In the movie that’s not the case, and that’s a huge difference. What was solidly based in reality is now free floating, not tethered to anything, and, as I said before, very, very sentimental. Which the book pretty emphatically is not.

On the other hand, the only way to make an Altman movie… well, the only way to do it for real is to be Altman, but if you’re not, you at least have to work the way he did. You have to let the reins be loose, trust your actors, and pay as little attention to the script as possible. This movie was pretty obviously not made that way, and that’s the only way it can be done.

Altman used to say that when he was shooting a movie he never had a copy of the script. Someone on the crew (in Hollywood traditionally referred to as a “script girl,” but I have no idea if they were all women or not) kept track and made sure key plot points were covered in each scene, If not, if there was a great performance from the actors and something was missed, Altman would ask if that point could be placed somewhere else, or if it could be discarded.

This is why he was pretty universally loved by actors, and grudgingly admired, at best, by screenwriters.

You can’t get a stack of staff paper and create a great jazz solo, any more than you can get a bunch of musicians together to improvise a concerto.

To go back to the New Yorker piece, I agree that comparisons to The Long Goodbye do this movie no favors. That movie is based on a book also, but it’s not hampered by excessive reverence for the source material.

And I’m going to have to think about the switch of focus to the women in the story by having a female narrator. That would be an interesting tie back to Nashville, which was also, although not obviously, about the women.

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