Audiovision: Reading the film score: part 2

Philip Brophy: Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice

Throughout Inherent Vice, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) strains to grapple with a convoluted plot typical of the quagmire which entraps the classic PI, pushing forward yet tethered to the black elasticised tar of his circumstance. But Doc is never perplexed by this. He arrives on the scene, ready for anything yet completely unprepared.

Can he read anything going on in any of these scenes he blithely enters? Can we read his face? No—but Can can. Can’s “Vitamin C” (from the 1972 LP Egg Bamyasi) cuts in, loud and upfront: an amazingly precise Krautrock motorik rewiring of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” (1969), with premonitional-Portishead falsetto Japlish by singer Damo Suzuki. German in origin, the track here is LA pastoral: it accompanies locations and architecture more than faces and action. Its studio architecsonics of crisp live instrumentation sonically draw up a plan of the brooding scenario at the trailer whorehouse in the middle of the skeletal Channel View Estates as if it’s scoring the space without acknowledging the characters within.

The music’s pulsating groove is thus all the things Doc senses but never eyeballs in detail. This is the opposite of the classic noir PI whose post-war asphalt terrain grounds the Chandleresque figure with a Sherlock Holmes intensity of observation. Doc stumbles and rummages. Can see the scene for what it is. It signposts how songs appear throughout Inherent Vice: they’re deliriously disconnected, palpably parallel—for that’s how Doc perceives things.

Despite its labyrinthine plot, the film maintains an eerily flat rhythm. It’s like watching five 70s TV cop shows at once (try Mannix, Adam-12, Colombo, Hawaii Five-O and Cannon) on downers. But read this anti-cinematic pro-televisual film closely and you’ll hear that its tonal shaping of drama is set-designed by the score and songs and their placement. The sound of the music is astoundingly sharp, irrespective of its vagaries or its spiky inappropriateness. The latter is exemplified by The Markett’s “Here Come The Ho-Dads” (1963). Played in toto, it too is essentially pastoral and environmental: it scapes as it sounds. Yet it also comments: it musicologically evidences the lack of societal synchronism of such radiophonic 60s dance-craze pop (the surfer’s stomp) with the Mansonesque 70s blood dawn (the hippie’s stab). One might ask why did the Manson Family do what they did, but one could equally ask why are The Marketts still being heard in South Bay while corporate celebs are being slaughtered like pigs in the Hollywood Hills?

The Marketts were produced by Joe Saraceno, producer of The Ventures: the archetypal instrumental garage/lounge-room teen combo who commandeered the US charts with their domestic lo-fi amateur rock’n’roll in 1960. Like The Ventures, The Marketts bear an innocent sound, like they’re playing in your living room rather than a studio. Charles Manson may have heard them on the radio over and again while he read the Bible and envisioned a suburban apocalypse. Inside Charlie’s head, “Here Come The Ho-Dads” would have been the sound of dumb rich white kids playing in their living rooms, ripe for slaughter. The song’s placement in the film marks a ‘socio-aural suppression’ of how larger socio-musical realities beyond the story’s scenography frame its incidents better than literate description.

Appropriately, Doc seems caught between these two social realms, of going with the radio flow of things, yet sensing the probability of darker wavelengths modulating reality. From his relationship with a pot-puffing assistant D to his doctor’s office at a small medical centre, to his ‘head’ appearance within the corridors of the LAPD, Doc doesn’t fit; nor does the music. The more one observes this, the more “Here Come The Ho-Dads” seems displaced. Its snare room reverb evokes a tangible space beyond the phonological realm of the otherwise normative stomp track. Even Saraceno and The Marketts could not help infusing their music with aural hieroglyphic encoding of an ‘otherness’ beyond its domain.

Another strange track placement—but so it should be, as it’s heard in Doc’s inexplicable reception area. We faintly hear Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleur” (from the 1970 LP Come To My Garden). Doc’s ‘secretary’ Petunia Leeway (Maya Rudolph) behaves like a counter-agent, talking in cryptic code, seeming to pretend to be a secretary yet perfectly synched to Doc’s ‘profession’ as a pot-head PI. At first it sounds like office Muzak à la Jack Nitzsche’s BGM for Milos Foreman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). But “Les Fleur” has distant echoes of groovy Broadway 60s musicals. That’s because it’s produced by Charles Stepney, the Chicago producer who worked with Ramsey Lewis and Rotary Connection (Riperton’s first band) to develop an orchestral take on ‘psychedelic soul.’ It’s a black, sumptuous, sexy genre, tinged with spotlit pain and undulations of Gospel. It became hyper-Californian, blossoming in the power terrain the recording industry had attained nationally at this time, when regional voices of rock, pop, soul and funk were channelled through LA’s recording industry head offices. Stepney’s productions and arrangements are accordingly neither folk nor funk, fish nor fowl. Furthermore, the scene is genetic: Maya Rudolph is the actual daughter of Minnie Riperton and Charles Stepney. She bears the corporal DNA of the very sound we are hearing. By this stage, Inherent Vice’s soundtrack is emerging as the densest textual layer in the film.

Les Baxter’s “Simba” (from the 1956 LP Tamboo!) scores an outrageous party scene with Mrs. Wolfmann (Serena Scott Thomas with a fake facelift). It’s one of Baxter’s arch exotica tracks, plum-stuffed with corny Africanesque posturing. It sounds like Joseph Campbell in race-drag dancing an ‘expressive movement’ pantomime on a camp stage in the late 50s. Baxter’s orchestration is half-Nadia Boulanger, half-Walt Disney. His sounds are synchronised to West Coast 50s hipsterism, a kind of sunny beat existentialism before the 60s counter-culture took over the mental real estate of the newly instated youth culture. Amid the gaudy trappings of LA wealth, “Simba” echoes the Coens’ use of Yma Sumac’s “Atypura” (1950, co-written by Baxter) in The Big Lebowski (1998) at the similarly decadent beach party of pornographer Jackie Treehorn. Here, it’s all Martinis and Mai-Tais, Incan princesses and American wealth. Doc reads it as a decrepit time-warp, out-of-phase with social justice yet au courant with the bald exploitative machinations of petty commerce at the time.

The smooth whine of Neil Young floats in twice: first, “Harvest” (from the 1971 LP Harvest); second, “Journey From The Past” (a 1971 track unreleased until the 2009 CD box-set The Archives Vol.1). His voice and stoned, laconic farmhand instrumentation provide a reprieve from the hitherto eclecticism of the soundtrack. This shift to a naturalistic centre often occurs in American movies, when they wish to clear the smoke of artsy pretentions or worldly weightiness. The vernacular of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter movement provided the template for this device. The applied ‘realism’ of such a practice mimes a sincerity of intent in the film’s narrative. It provides an assuring crutch in a movie, as if there’s something being resolved by a character, by their circumstance, or by the plumed line of a script contrivance. But in Inherent Vice such a moment is illusory—or more appropriately, a mirage in the Southern Californian desert. For while Doc might be half-thinking of some grounded mental or emotional state, he continues to randomly wander and blunder through his investigative duties. Again, he stands separate from the music which evidences his perspectives on things, himself and others. The song thus accrues a complex multi-voicing, despite how resolutely normal it sounds.

Finally, another ‘socio-aural suppression’: the absence of any songs by Joanna Newsom. For her embodied and disembodied voice flitters around the film’s amoebic periphery—crucially providing a Grecian-chorus-therapist voice-over narration in a floral reconstruction of the celebrated gravel of the film noir PI. Like the film’s multi-voicing song selection, her voice speaks in multiple tongues. It fuses a ranch-hand twang (bearing a distant sense of back home) with a surf-shack drawl (now acclimatised to coffee house brews and lounge room tokes), while retaining a pubescent timbral veneer. She sounds like Mimsi Farmer or Tuesday Weld at a beach party dropping a truth trip on you. And like those iconic figures from 60s groovy movies (Roger Corman’s The Trip [1967], Arthur Dreifus’ Riot On Sunset Strip [1967], Maury Dexter’s Mary Jane [1967], Russ Meyer’s Vixen! [1968], Richard Rush’s Psych-Out [1968], William Rotsler’s Mantis In Lace [1968], Robert Thom’s Angel Angel Down We Go [1969] etc), Newsom’s performance personifies those hip trip chicks who gravitated to the bright lights of LA and all its otherworldly charm. Newsom’s own music, of course, is the polar opposite: ornately cerebral, stylistically obtuse, harmonically herbivorous, rhetorically angelic. So is her singing voice opposite to her narrating voice. But most importantly, this creates a meta-voice for the film, conjuring an image but voicing its contra. In this sense, Newsom’s Sortilege is just like a Manson chick: middle-class refugee, prepped to be a bridesmaid, but readied as an agent of terror. She sings with her mouth shut, insinuating an invisible Otherness, just as the Manson chicks broke into well-off houses in LA late at night, creeping around for the hell of it. Their silence was their method. Inherent Vice hears it well.

Read part 1.

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. 20

© Philip Brophy; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

20 April 2015