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Reading the film score: part 1

Philip Brophy: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice Joaquin Phoenix, Inherent Vice
Quite early in PT Anderson’s Inherent Vice, we hear Jonny Greenwood’s theme “Shasta.” Standard musical portraiture in the film—but what a slithering, sonorous mystery this theme is. Imagine Olivier Messiaen’s symphonic swathes (like a French forest lifted up and floating in the clouds) reinterpreted by Nelson Riddle’s teasing velvet string arrangements for sono-erotic voices like Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland.

Clarinet, oboe and cor anglais outline the corporeal form of Shasta (rendered ghostly flesh by Katherine Waterston), then melt into her insouciant presence. It sounds like she’s coming in and out of focus. And that’s what she does throughout the film. She’s neither here nor there; neither telling the truth nor lying; neither sad from having loved Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) nor yearning to start afresh with him. “Shasta” inaugurates Inherent Vice’s score as a mirage.

The grandiose “The Chryskylodon Institute” unfurls when Doc follows a lead to a privately funded post-hippy loony-bin. Think Bernard Herrmann meeting Philip Glass by way of Jon Brion’s Magnolia score (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999): loping, patterned overlays, serially generating harmonic moiré effects as sections lock into a gridlocked waltz-stanza. It’s partially pastoral—evoking the fluidly expanded spatial domain of the eponymous institute—but it also reflects how Doc navigates the institute’s hall of mirrors. It’s an inhabited pastorale. The score swells while location sound recedes. Then, plucked bottom-end strings (echoing Herrmann’s ominous ECG death-gulps from Psycho’s 1960 score when Janet Leigh expires in the shower) start to corrode the tinkling Glass-like patterns, changing the waltz into a strange limping 4/4 riff. It mimics Doc walking, scuttling, then crawling and finally on his knees as he converses with a heavily medicated Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). The two drug-addled minds talk while the score disintegrates around them. It’s more avant-garde dance theatre than neo-noir pulp fiction.

“The Golden Fang” saunters in mid-ground as we approach the corporate citadel of The Golden Fang, led there by Doc who interprets a cryptic note in a postcard recently arrived from the invisible Shasta. In the middle of a commercial dime store strip wasteland stands the ludicrous architectural folly. Greenwood takes his cue from Les Baxter’s exotica arrangements (sketching violin passages then overlaying them with vibraphone and celeste). If the architecture looks like exotica in concrete and steel, investment dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short channelling British TV’s Jason King) looks like Baxter’s number one fan. But gradually the track darkens, melting into a reworking of Bernard Herrmann’s sensorial dirges for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), where orchestration relates less to situation and description and more to the body and its presence. In place of Robert De Niro’s exhausted Vietnam vet wired by debilitating insomnia, we get the tuned-in dropped-out headspace of Doc. Bleached-out anxiety, slo-mo paranoia, now dusted with cocaine.

“Adrian Prussia” is the most Radiohead-like melodic construction in the score, replete with anxious string arrangements (all rasping, scratching, thumping) and a Zelig-like ghosting of their pulsations by an analogue synthesizer. Its dark couverture symbolises the morbid delight Adrian Prussia (a Putinesque Peter McRobbie) displays in administering vengeful violence, here likely to befall Doc. The synth is gradually over-amped, flicking wildly through multiple octaves, while the reverberation of the orchestral textures builds into an overbearing wall of sound. With its core motif and swelling momentum, it evokes a whirlpool growing in size, speed and intensity—the aural equivalent of the water-down-the-drain optical effect which was often superimposed in montage sequences at the peaks of delirium in classical film noir gumshoe tales. But unlike the quivering Romanticism of Miklos Roza, Elmer Bernstein or David Raksin, Greenwood’s theme is energised by an interiorised deconstruction of its own musical grammar. The Hollywood Romantic scorers could beautifully narrate or describe the bleak disposition of their entrapped anti-heroes, but only through analogous measures. “Adrian Prussia” sonically cannibalises its form to morph from Self to Other, from Hollywood to Burbank, from Monroe to Manson.

Greenwood delivers the most ‘indie combo’ track in the score late in the film. “Under The Paving Stones, The Beach!” occurs when we taste again the bittersweet yearning evoked by the oral ménage à trois of Shasta’s breathing, Doc’s exhaling and Sortilège’s (Joanna Newsom) liquefied crackling, as the latter’s voice-over stage-directs a rolling sunset review of the impressions Shasta has left on Doc’s mind. Cue that golden brown coastal ennui of silhouetted lovers. Shift focus and f-stop to capture that Kodak moment on the sand. The music sounds like Tortoise jamming on a disembodied surf ditty, here thickened with multiple bass lines and low guitar riffing. No chords, just muscular linework shaping the melodic counterparts. As the French student revolutionaries chanted “Sous les pavés, la plage!” when they tore up the paving stones to hurl at the May ’68 riot police, they romanticised this reality effect of ‘the street,’ aping Yves Klein’s Nouveau Réalisme in a detournment of Eugène Delacroix’s revolutionary history painting. But California’s 70s topography was radically different: fresh asphalt, widely dispersed, dripping into pools of developments like Channel View Estates’ arterial displacements funded by corrupt commerce. California’s youth ‘head’ culture was already at the beach, away from actual and symbolic barricades. Greenwood’s riffs have a slightly tragic air: Manhattan Beach has plenty of pizza, but no Latin Quarter.

Near the film’s denouement, we sink back into atonality. “Meeting Crocker Fenway” accompanies the queasy encounter between Doc and the story’s true puppet master, Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), father of teen runaway Japonica. It’s the classic Herrmannesque rhythms of breathing/sighing/exhaling—first done in Hitchcock’s Psycho, where the score is more neurological than musicological; more synaptic than symbolic. Greenwood’s appropriation of this approach colours the scene with a visceral tension. Everything becomes less literary and more bodily: the unflattering light on flesh; Doc’s pubic sideburns and dead-fish eyes; Fenway’s Nazi death-mask visage. Where is this scene going? Who is pulling whose strings? The music asks these questions. The ondes martenot (Messiaen’s favourite ethereal instrument) plays underneath a series of cello/viola/violin waves, effecting things going forward and backwards simultaneously. It ‘auralises’ the narrative’s lack of directionality. The instruments’ wavering envelopes connote a hovering stasis where space, distance and ground waver indistinctly, just like the perceptual haze through which Doc orients himself to LA’s vanishing point.

“Shasta Fay Hepworth”—a retake of “Shasta”—provides a non-committal coda to Inherent Vice, here subscribing to her full familial status rather than highlighting her mystical attraction in Doc’s life. It marks her return to his arms, and his to hers. Searing concerto violin arcs sparkle as they bond, melting her head into his shoulder, driving in an unspecified vehicle, at an unstated time, into a time and space nearer to us, but just as far from themselves. It might be daylight, but a car following them shines its lights onto Doc’s face, reflecting off his rearview mirror. Is it the morning beach or moonlight asphalt? The Bartok-like gypsy cry of orchestral heartache sounds like the disembodied music from an old Hollywood movie playing on a TV set out of reach. It ends sans harmonic resolution. Was it playing at all? Were they driving anywhere? Its beauty lies in how you read the score—not the novel.

Read part 2.

Inherent Vice, writer, director Paul Thomas Anderson, based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, music by Jonny Greenwood, cinematography Robert Elswit, editor Leslie Jones, 2014

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 19

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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