Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Inherent Vice: Top 5 cinematic depictions of characters on drugs

Two things become immediately clear in Inherent Vice - the lead character Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) will smoke a lot of weed, and the plot will be very hard to follow.

These two characteristics of the film are of course meant to be linked. The mounting confusion and sense of paranoia the increasingly complicated plot builds is supposed to put us the viewer on the same wavelength and deliriously hazy state of mind as the stoned protagonist.

But instead the experience of watching Inherent Vice is more like being the only sober person at a party full of high people having a wild time: we’re confused by their ramblings, politely laugh at what they seem to find hilarious, and are reluctant to go along with their flights of fancy.

The main problem is that the film is too dialogue-heavy. Despite Paul Thomas Anderson’s exceptional talent for stylistic filmmaking, his usual visual flourishes have here been limited in favour of long, one-on-one conversations between Doc and another of the film’s zany cast, perhaps owing to the director’s eagerness to fit as much of Pynchon’s source material in as possible.

As a result, most of the film is spent wondering just what the hell these people are and what they’re talking about. Crucially, the characters - despite usually being intoxicated - do understand each other and are on each others’ wavelengths, leaving us shut out and finding the films impossible to directly relate to. Even those who have loved the film have admitted to getting lost following the story, underlining how our sense of confusion is fundamentally different from that of the characters.

So despite the film’s efforts, and despite Anderson’s obvious talents, we never feel in the same inebriated state as the characters. Such an effect is evidently difficult to pull of, but here’s five of the best successful attempts in cinema history:

1 The Big Lebowski

Along with noirs The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye this is a clear precursor to Inherent Vice, with a similarly bemused, pot-smoking protagonist who struggles to understand the madness that unfolds around him. But The Big Lebowski is just about coherent enough for us to grasp what’s going on at any given time, and the Coen brothers prove far more adept at humour than Anderson.

2 Easy Rider

Famous for being one of the first films to depict the taking of LSD on the big screen, hippie director Dennis Hopper used innovative cross-cutting techniques to represent the effect of the hallucinogenic drug in a way that was radical for a US film scene adapting to the new post-Hays Code environment. It still makes for trippy viewing, evoking the confusion, randomness and occasional terror of a trip.

3 Enter the Void

Forty years on from Easy Rider, French arthouse director Gapsar Noe offered his own take on the hallucinogenic experience, only this time with the drug DMT and through the use of digital special effects. What makes this film so distinct though, and so much more immersive than Inherent Vice, is the use of a point of view camera that never departs from the protagonist’s perspective, meaning we see, hear and directly relate to everything he does

4 Mean Streets

The scene (linked above) of Harvey Keitel’s character in a merry drunken state demonstrates yet another way of directly relating to an inebriated character; by attaching a camera to the actor’s chest, director Martin Scorsese brilliantly evokes the swaying motion and diminishing awareness of the surroundings that someone close to passing out feels. Also, special mention to the final act of Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the subtle way it alters the pace of the film to capture the frenzied mindset of its cocaine-addicted protagonist.

5 Trainspotting

Unlike the relentless high the characters in Inherent Vice enjoy, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting documents both the ups and downs of substance abuse. The first half-hour is a relatively light-hearted rollock, but the subsequent comedown is made particularly horrific by an awful tragedy. The scene of a feverish Renton hallucinating in bed while going cold turkey is particularly visceral.  

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