Steve Likes Almost Everything: Inherent Vice and Ender’s Game
January 19, 2015 § Leave a comment
Welcome back to “Steve Likes Almost Everything”, where I like almost everything, even when I don’t.
Today, Inherent Vice, which I couldn’t wait to see as soon as it came out, and Ender’s Game, for which which definitely I could wait. And did.
Have you ever heard the urban legend(?) that when you watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, you’re supposed to drop acid when the movie starts, and then you’ll peak right at the flashy lights scene? I think that Inherent Vice is supposed to be this, but backwards. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute.
First of all, this review hinges on the premise that I think that, once it hits home video, Vice will be overwhelmingly couchable—the type of movie that you can turn on, on a Sunday afternoon, volume lowish, and keep on in the background while you do other stuff. It shouldn’t be that, because it looks like a drama, and you don’t couch dramas, you couch action and comedy flicks. But Paul Thomas Anderson has made couchable movies before. Not just Boogie Nights and Punch Drunk Love, either. There Will Be Blood? Oddly, as Dan showed me, very couchable.
Vice has gags that will be funny 20 rewatchings later—basically, any moment Josh Brolin is on the screen, and its Goldilocks-sized portion of Martin Short. And Reese Witherspoon, and so on. It’s got enough side-characters and side-tangents that you can watch and explore and flit away, without the plot ever mattering too much. And Joanna Newsom’s narration is too much, too dense, too prosey to really latch into in the theater. It will find a permanent place next to The Big Lebowski on any shelf that holds the former…for, uh, non-alphabetic reasons.
It’s fitting that the first Pynchon novel adapted into a film is couchable, because Pynchon wrote probably the finest essay on couches ever penned. In “Nearer, My Couch, to Thee”, part of a series for the New York Times in which writers discuss the seven deadly sins, Pynchon gives an impassioned defense of Sloth. And Doc Sportello, the protagonist of Vice, is perhaps the Slothiest of any Pynchon protagonist, even Gravity’s Rainbow‘s Tyrone Slothrop, whose name is allegedly an anagram for “sloth or entropy”.
Doc is a man who wants to live life as it comes to him in a world where that was briefly allowed (that world: shoddy apartments on the sand in Manhattan Beach, drainage pipes out their windows, 1970). But less slowly than Doc’s dope-addled mind can fail to notice, that world is getting stamped out by real estate developers, the LAPD, and Richard Nixon. If 2001 is peaking on acid, Vice, as a movie, is sobering up after smoking some weed. Pop it on at home, on the couch. Feel your attention sucked back in as soon as shit gets way, too, damn, sober.
Of course, being a Pynchon fan, I also have to talk about how the movie and book compare to each other. If you haven’t read the book and don’t care, skip ahead a couple paragraphs.
The act of shoving any person in front of a camera for 2 hours, even a character as phlegmatic as Doc Sportello, makes them the main character. But in Pynchon, the protagonists are so incidental to the story being told, and have such little impact on it, that it’s more accurate to consider his settings as the main character. Pynchon novels are told through multiple lenses and locations, a million stories buzzing around a central zeitgeist, illustrating it, expanding on it. Doc is probably the one that most naturally and understandably ducks out of the way of the zeitgeist among Pynchon’s “protagonists”, because his hippiness and druginess is played for laughs.
Now, I’m not exactly lamenting the more focused treatment Anderson took in adapting Vice. I don’t know if it was possible to make a movie about zeitgeist in the same way that Pynchon writes—even a movie with an ensemble cast feels more like it’s about its characters than Pynchon novels feel like they’re about theirs. And I’m glad Anderson didn’t try. Something had to get lost in translation, and I’d rather we lose out on some of the things the novel did well as a separate work of art, like thematic breadth, than the things that a movie had an opportunity to accomplish in a unique and visually interesting way, like its tonal complexity and outrageous humor.
I liked Ender’s Game. I mean, I’m supposed to, because of what this whole thing is called. But still.
Ender’s Game is the absolute ultimate test case in what this type of review is supposed to be about, because I know I was supposed to hate it, and I DID hate it for the reasons I was supposed to hate it. First, they got rid of Ender and Alai hugging, and making meaningful eye contact, and Alai kissing Ender on the cheek. In the middle of the controversy of Orson Scott Card’s batshit homophobia, that just fucking sucks.
Second, wow, I did not catch the awful gender politics of Ender’s Game when I read the book when I was like, 11. Every woman in Ender’s life only exists as a nurturer for him. Ender’s sister, Petra, and Harrison Ford’s Black Assistant seem to be plenty capable in their own rights, but they all disappear as soon as Ender needs something. Bleh.
Also, for the longest time I thought it was nice that Card snuck a person of color past the conservative sci-fi culture and into a crucial role in Enderverse—ok, I guess I just assumed that Bean was Mexican. Upset now that he seems to be white in the movie.
But I also rediscovered a lot of the things that made Ender’s Game my favorite book when I was 11. It starred the smart kid who was younger than everyone else succeeding and thriving, I’m sure that had its pull on me. But wow, Ender’s Game pulls no punches in its treatment of the military industrial complex. It presents a compelling, well supported case that the military would ruin the lives of its children, fuck up all of society, and cause complete alien genocide just to fight a war that didn’t need to be won. And I like the final message that any enemy, no matter how foreign and different from you, can be talked to, reached as an equal.
Finally, there’s Ender’s final argument, final statement to Graff: “it matters how we win”. This is, to me, the most compelling argument for non-violence. It’s above Gene Sharp’s strategic nonviolence, in which non-violence is presented as simply the most strategically easy method for achieving social change. And (fitting that I saw this movie on MLK day), Ender’s argument is below King’s principled nonviolence, in which non-violence is a great moral principle that rests on an external moral force that favors those who choose not to hurt or kill.
“It matters how we win”, coming from Ender, is a warning. Ender is smarter and sees strategy several steps farther than anyone else. He wants to not just end the war, but end all future wars. And he understands that ending conflicts in violence may solve a present conflict, but it creates future conflicts. Even if you wipe out your enemy as completely as he does the Buggers (oof, that word looks wrong post Card-homophobia controversy), it creates future conflicts, because you will be starting future conflicts. As we see in the rest of the Ender series, using violence turns you into a future aggressor, because that’s how you know to end conflicts.
I also couldn’t help but start to analyze the movie as a piece of Mormon fiction. Card, of course, is Mormon. Mormonism is the largest, most distinct current religion based on white American mythology. Ender commits mass genocide (Xenocide!) and feels guilty, and takes it on as his burden to rescue the buggers. I got kind of bored with that line of analysis.
Look, the movie as a movie wasn’t good. Like Vice, it was a very incomplete adaptation of a much longer novel, and it lacked more for its compression and choices than Vice did. It focused on the wrong things, it sacrificed the continuity its characters needed for their moments together to feel genuine in order to give Harrison Ford more screen time. But this movie felt like a pure nostalgia trip for the now-adult fans of a book which was, at the time, the shit for me and a lot of young kids. It evoked just enough of the book that I loved once upon a time to make the romp enjoyable.