Review: Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice, Sauncho and Doc

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I love Inherent Vice. The novel, I mean. I’ve read it at least six times at this point…possibly more. It’s by no means my favorite Pynchon, but when it was announced that for the first time ever the reclusive author allowed someone to adapt one of his works, I had to admit this was a good choice.

Inherent Vice, the novel, has a clear beginning, a clear ending, and a relatively clear journey between those terminal points. That’s more than you could say for almost anything else the man’s ever written. The fact that it also has a relatively small roster of important characters (again…a Pynchon rarity) and relies heavily on overt comedy makes it seem like the perfect Pynchon to bring to the screen.

I’ve now seen the film. In fact, I saw it with Paul Thomas Anderson in attendance, as he graced the humble Denver branch of the Alamo Drafthouse with his presence. I thought he might provide some insight into the film, or at least give me something that would make for a good story.

Instead he stood up to speak before the film, mumbled what sounded like a flat joke at the theater owner’s expense, and then seemed to lose all confidence. He interrupted himself in the middle of a sentence and said something to the effect of, “I don’t feel like talking. Let’s just watch the movie.”

Nervous laughter. Some shuffling. But, yeah, he was gone. I thought he made his way back to his seat, but when the houselights came up at the end of the film he wasn’t there, so I have no idea if he even stuck around after that.

And, you know, that’s okay. I’m not entitled to any special knowledge by virtue of getting a ticket to this particular showing. Hell, anything he might have said would have colored my impressions of the film I hadn’t yet seen. So my enthusiasm wasn’t dampened. I hope he wasn’t having as lousy a night as it seemed like he was, but other than that, I was completely focused on seeing, for the first time, my favorite author’s words come to life on the big screen.

If anything, that’s actually my complaint.

Or the closest thing I have to a complaint.

There’s too much Pynchon in this film. When adapting it’s not uncommon to strive for fidelity to the source material, but I don’t really see the point. The film should be good on its own merits, and if that means it needs to deviate from the plot, characterization, themes, or anything else that worked perfectly well in the book, that’s fine. Anderson seems — for much of the film at least…read on — to want to be as true to the text as possible, and I think that hampers where it can go, and what it can achieve.

A pleasant surprise hit me early in the movie: this was Pynchon’s dialogue. Not dialogue adapted from Pynchon’s dialogue, but Pynchon’s actual dialogue. And I felt supremely vindicated, as one common complaint from readers is that his dialogue isn’t natural…that he has a tin ear for it. I can’t bring myself to agree with that at all…and Inherent Vice, the movie, should put that criticism to rest. Reading it, yes, it might seem a bit artificial, but that’s because Pynchon doesn’t adhere to textual speech patterns; he adheres to human speech patterns. Hearing skilled actors delivering the same words demonstrates the impact they can have, at least once you tune in to their frequency and stop expecting them to tune into yours.

But it was followed by a much less pleasant surprise: this was Pynchon’s narration. Not scenes adapted from Pynchon’s narration, but Pynchon’s actual narration. And it was overkill. The film by no means needed a narrator. Granted, the writing was solid, but it wasn’t written to be spoken over images of exactly what it’s describing. It renders itself redundant. We see that Doc is distraught, and we’re told that Doc is distraught. It provides an unfair barrier between us in the audience and Joaquin Phoenix playing the character, as though the film itself doesn’t trust his performance.

Now Inherent Vice has one hell of a difficult mystery at its core, and I could understand the desire to keep the narration if Anderson felt that it would help his audience to understand what was going on. But it’s not the mystery that gets narrated…it’s the emotion. The motive. The inner conflict. You know…all the stuff that actors get paid to portray without words. And I found the inclusion of so much narration to be a clumsy and distracting decision.

It’s nice, I guess, that the narration was provided by Shasta Fay Hepworth, a character in the film, but what we see of Shasta doesn’t really convince me that she thinks or speaks like Thomas Pynchon writes. It seems as though Doc might be narrating this entire thing in his head with Shasta’s voice, but I just don’t see the value as making up for the effort.

This does lead to a really nice moment toward the end of the film, however, when Doc asks Shasta what the phrase “inherent vice” means. She replies that she doesn’t know. The narrator version of Shasta then defines it for him, and for us…which is a cutesy touch, but isn’t nearly enough to justify the inclusion of the narration overall.

So, there. Now that I’ve got my big complaint out of the way, I can talk about what I liked…and there’s a lot of it.

For starters, Katherine Waterston as Shasta Fay. She not only looked the part…but she was Shasta Fay. She embodied that character deeply and flawlessly…so much so that it was painful to watch. She was an absolutely perfect casting choice, and I can’t imagine any other actor — at any point in time — would have handled it better.

Shasta opens the film by informing Doc — private eye, hippie, and her ex-lover — of a plot to kidnap her current beau, real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann. As in the book, Doc follows up on this lead and investigates other cases along the way…each of which seems to feed right back into Wolfmann’s disappearance.

Along the way Doc clashes regularly with his law enforcement counterpart, Bigfoot Bjornson, who is played by Josh Brolin in the film’s other perfect casting choice. Brolin could have settled for making Bigfoot a comic boob, and that would have worked perfectly well. Instead he adds layers of sadness to the character deeper than even the book managed. Whereas the novel plays Bigfoot’s acting ambitions for laughs, the film turns them into a kind of ongoing silent tragedy. There’s little sadder than watching him in the background of an episode of Adam-12, with no lines, hoping against hope that somebody, somewhere, will notice him.

I’ll get back to Bigfoot in a moment, as I have a lot more to say, but the film itself manages to be very good without matching the greatness of Waterston’s and Brolin’s performances. Inherent Vice lags behind them, which is frustrating, because those two seem to have drifted into our world from a parallel one in which there exists a better version of this film.

The rest of the casting choices are very good without being revelatory. Martin Short as Dr. Blatnoyd is an expected comic highlight, even though he’s only in around two scenes, and Owen Wilson handles himself quite well as a regretful saxophonist nobody’s supposed to know is still alive.

Benicio del Toro plays the thanklessly efficient part of Doc’s attorney, a substantial part in the book that gets reduced to an unfortunately paltry series of scenes here. I get the feeling more was shot and we’ll see it on the eventual DVD, but for now Sauncho Smilax turns up a handful of times to sit near or walk beside Doc, and that’s a big disappointment. In fact, I’d have recommended cutting the character altogether if his significance was so severely reduced.

That actually leads to another of my concerns: the concern for fidelity leads to a lot of characters making the jump to the screen without really having much to do once they get there. Sauncho is one of them, certainly. So is Tariq Khalil, who sets Doc on the trail of a man named Glen Charlock. Charlock turns up dead, and Khalil I guess just forgets he ever cared, because we never hear from him again. Later we meet Clancy Charlock, Glen’s sister, for no real reason that I could discern, and then she’s gone, too.

Having Doc meet with so many clients who immediately disappear is a bizarre choice. These characters have larger roles in the book, and while I understand that not everything can (or should) be carried over to the screen, it’s disappointing that instead we get a kind of half-measure. “Here,” the film seems to say. “Remember this guy?” We do, yes, but it’s hard to get excited when the film doesn’t do anything with him. In fact, the end credits are filled with character names that we never actually hear in the film. There was such a commitment to getting as much on the screen as possible that it didn’t even matter if there was any significance to them being there.

This is especially problematic in the case of the film’s main villains: Puck Beaverton, and Adrian Prussia. Puck appears several times in the film, but in the book he had his own entire subplot which helped to establish him as a credible — and ruthless — threat, as well as the kind of guy Doc should have nothing to do with. In the film he has a swastika on his face. Is that enough? Maybe. But if that’s all you get, is he even a character?

Prussia is served even more poorly. The main dark force in the book, we meet him very close to the end of the film. There’s no way to complain about this without spoiling it, but let’s just say this is his only scene. The bone-chilling powerhouse in the book — who draws Doc into a climactic and comic shootout that spills out into the streets — is here, and then he’s not. Some small attempt is made to weave him back into the things we’ve already seen, but it’s too little too late. The scariest motherfucker in the novel is a complete non-entity in the film, and he’s not really replaced by anything else. His a walking signifier of all the things missing from the movie. Not just as an adaptation, but as a movie period.

At one point in Doc’s investigations he turns up the fact that Prussia was responsible for the death of Bigfoot’s partner. It sheds a lot of light on Bigfoot’s behavior in both the film and the book, but we last see Bigfoot in the book still following his desperate need for revenge, and it’s so pitiful that we can’t help but feel for him and hate him at the same time.

In the movie…well, that doesn’t happen. It’s replaced by a scene I’m not even sure I can explain. If you watch it, you’ll know what I mean when you get there, whether or not you’ve read the book.

Inherent Vice will probably grow on me. I’m sure I’ll watch it many, many more times. But as of right now, it feels like I’ve seen half of a film. Having read the book means I can fill in some of the blanks, but really what I wanted was a piece of art that could stand on its own merits…even if it had nothing in common with the novel but its name.

I’d have preferred a simplified plot to a rushed one, and a few different characters combined to loads of characters that have little or nothing to do.

The movie gets a lot right. The casting is never less than great. The soundtrack is perfect. The resolution of the dead saxophonist case — one of the very few things in this film that has a resolution — is genuinely sweet. There are excellent comic moments sprinkled throughout, and glimpses of a great film that somehow only managed to be very good.

I think my feelings about the adaptation can be summed up by looking at the ending. I won’t mention any specifics; I just want to say that at the end of the book, there’s a scene that seems irrelevant…and yet, reading it, I knew exactly how we got to that scene, and why. It mattered. At the end of the film there’s a scene that seems very relevant, and yet I couldn’t tell you why we ended up there. It has to matter, because it’s the end of the film, but that’s about all I can say for sure.

It’s worth seeing, I’d say. But it’s not the film it could have been.

Of course, I’m coming at this as a guy who read the book way too many times. Maybe my expectations, despite my best efforts, weren’t properly aligned. To find out, tune in a little later; a friend who’s never read the book but is deeply passionate about film will be providing a second review of Inherent Vice for Noiseless Chatter. I’m curious to see what he’ll have to say, based only on the merits of what was on the screen.

Quick Update: Survey and Reviews

"Raging Bender"

So! Thank you to everyone who filled out the 2015 Noiseless Chatter Reader’s Survey. On the very first day I had more responses come in than I had total during my last survey two years ago. That says a lot about how much this site has grown, so thank you. That’s humbling.

If you haven’t filled it out, please, please do. It’s only 10 questions (many multiple choice), and it helps me immensely, especially when it comes to what you want to see here, and how you’d like to see it.

The link is here:

If you do take the survey, you can enter to win the Thomas Pynchon novel of your choice! My Primer on the author is a good way to help you decide which. It’s a small incentive, but if it gets you to take the survey and ends up exposing somebody to a great writer, I think that’s pretty great.

I would like to address two things I keep seeing coming up in survey responses.

1) People liked the Breaking Bad reviews. Trust me, I liked them too. If there’s interest, I’ll perhaps start over and review each episode in turn at some point, but for now I’ll just officially announce that I am going to be covering Better Call Saul. The first season, at least…and we’ll decide on further reviewing from there. So stick around! I have no idea how that spinoff / prequel will turn out, but it’s guaranteed to be interesting.

2) People don’t know where to watch ALF. This came up a lot. People either like or skip my ALF reviews, but either way many of them expressed disappointment that the show is so hard to find, and therefore they can’t follow along themselves. So, allow me to help: Hulu has the entire series, and you can watch it without a Hulu Plus account. They’re the edited versions, which means you lose out on anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes with each episode, but it’s still watchable (I say “watchable”) in that format, and in fact those are what I used for my season one reviews anyway. There’s also this user on Youtube who seems to have every episode uploaded on his channel. Judging from the running times they are also the edited versions, but, again, they’re there, so if that was one of your concerns, hopefully these options will help!

Anyway, that’s all for now. I’ll be back on Monday (most likely) with my review of the Inherent Vice movie; I just wanted to pop in and give a little update.

Again, if you haven’t taken the Noiseless Chatter Reader’s Survey, please do. I’d appreciate it more than I can properly express.

The link is here:

ALF Reviews: The ALFies! (Season 2)

The ALFies

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the season two edition of The ALFies! Or it was like 12 weeks ago but I sucked dick at keeping to a schedule for this batch of episodes. SUPER SOZ

Anyway, I’m back to hand out awards to specific people and moments and things that played a part in making season two what it was, just to further cement my status as the only one who’s ever spent more than 22 minutes thinking about ALF.

So sit back and enjoy The ALFies, brought to you by Tool-Free Telescope Repair, Puppets By Post, and the Anne Ramsey Memorial Dog Shelter & Fuck Shack.

As always, winners receive the pictured statuette and all associated nightmares.

Without further ado…

The ALFie for…


ALF, "ALF's Special Christmas"

Sweeping the category two years in a row, it’s The Midget! For a long time I was afraid I wouldn’t catch so much as a glimpse of our costume-hobbled friend, but lo and behold, he came back to shuffle across a hallway in “ALF’s Special Christmas.” And what a shuffle! It was pointed out to me a while back that “The Midget” is actually Michu Meszaros, who appeared in Big Top Pee-Wee, H.R. Pufnstuf, Look Who’s Talking and more. In fact, the guy is still working today, with at least one film in post-production. That makes him more prolific, respectable, and enduring an actor than perhaps any other member of the cast. That’s some truly delicious irony.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "ALF's Special Christmas"

Unfortunately, the singular glance of the show’s best actor was counterbalanced in the same episode by this shit. “ALF’s Special Christmas” was an hour long exercise in tedious “ALF as alien savior” malarkey. But even though he’s delivering babies, talking Santas out of suicide, and rubbing poison oak all over Max Wright’s chest, one moment stands out as probably the worst thing this show has ever given us: ALF crying. He might be a puppet, but I think this is perfectly fair game for “worst actor” status. After all, I spend a lot of time complimenting Paul Fusco on his puppetry, and that’s for good reason: it’s usually, without exaggeration, pretty awesome. However, when the puppet isn’t just used to tug on heart strings but to drip salty discharge upon them, I have to draw the line. It also doesn’t help that the effect looks less like a tear than it does a transparent bead that ALF fell asleep on. “ALF’s Special Christmas” did nothing right. Asking us to weep with the naked alien having secret playtime with an eight-year-old girl still manages to stand out as a phenomenal misfire.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Take a Look at Me Now"

It says a lot that “Prime Time” was an entire episode built around the concept of a monumentally shitty TV show, and yet it didn’t even come close to the one ALF wanted us to take seriously. The Lenny Scott Show was a humorless, annoying riff on The Morton Downey, Jr., Show, a riff that seemed to recognize that people yelled and screamed on that show, but failed to recognize that having people yell and scream on this one too does not in itself count as parody. I’m not even upset that they went after Downey’s program; I’m not a fan of it, and it paved the way for some of the worst television we’ve seen in the subsequent decades. What ruffles my feathers is the fact that they found a deserving and easy target, but offered up a limp imitation rather than any kind of joke. It doesn’t help that the guy playing Lenny Scott is absolutely terrible (and has nothing of the brash charisma that made Downey such a compelling figure in the first place), and would have won Worst Actor easily if not for his perfectly acceptable turn as Officer Griswold later on. Polka Jamboree might have sucked a fat one, but it also wasn’t trying to send up a ripe cultural juggernaut. It was simply some low budget show on which people celebrated the music they enjoyed. I’d rather watch that than almost any episode of ALF, and I’d certainly watch it over Lenny Scott and his stuffed bird making vegetable puns while his audience of hooting retards blows out my speakers.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "We Are Family"

A lot of things happen for no reason in “We Are Family,” but the thing that happened for the most no reasons is this: ALF, hosting Late Night, interviews Sandy Duncan about the show airing after ALF. It seems like a tremendously odd thing to happen in any episode, let alone to happen in the same episode that just featured ALF being tortured by his government captor, but it makes sense when you view it in another context: Paul Fusco was angling for that gig. I don’t mean that he intended to take over from David Letterman permanently, but the fact that he has a fairly straight-forward interview with a real-world celebrity and plays the Late Night conventions straight with no attempt at subversion makes this seem more like a pitch reel than a scene from ALF. Maybe Fusco was hoping for ALF to be tapped as guest host when Letterman went on vacation. Or maybe he was hoping some other network would see that he had the necessary chops and give the puppet an interview show of its own. The facts that “Tonight, Tonight” comes so soon after this episode (we’ll get there soon enough…) and that ALF’s Hit Talk Show was eventually a thing that existed lends this theory more than a little credence. Paul Fusco was interviewing for another show right in the middle of this one. What a treat.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Varsity Drag"

Damn, “Varsity Drag.” You could have been so good. Despite a strong start in which Lynn has her hopes of attending Amhert dashed, this one really seemed to think it would be remembered for the extended sequence of Willie and Kate delivering newspapers from their car. We can test the accurateness of that mindset right now: hands up all those who remember Willie and Kate delivering newspapers from their car. Yeah…that’s what I figured. The abandoned character angle is annoying, not only because it’s far more interesting than two idiots delivering papers for half an episode, but also because it would have put a great button on the sweet relationship that developed between ALF and Lynn in season two. She comes to his defense whenever she feels he’s being treated unfairly, and he in return allows himself to be vulnerable with her. Season one seemed intent on getting them fucking in the shower, but season two took a much smarter approach to developing a dynamic between them, and it’s one that resembled friendship more than any other pairing we’ve seen on this show. What a perfect complication, then, “Varsity Drag” could have been. Closing out the season with an episode in which Lynn faces the fact that defending ALF and keeping him around has literally cost her her future. The family member to whom she grew closest turns out to be the one that held her back, intentionally or not. It would have been a great way to explore those sort of conflicted feelings that can only come when you’ve been hurt by somebody you care a great deal for. ALF working his way back into Lynn’s good graces could also allow for any number of silly, comic set pieces. Instead, we say fuck that and turn the episode into a live action game of Paper Boy. Lucky us.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Night Train"

Everything was fine. Really, it was. I was enjoying “Night Train,” a Willie episode for crying out loud, and genuinely looking forward to where things would take us by the episode’s end. It was a nice — and surprisingly effective — two-hander, allowing ALF and Willie to bond, reveal their insecurities, and help each other through a few problems that they’d never before managed to articulate. So imagine my delight when all of this was trampled upon by a cartoon hobo! Gravel Gus played no role in “Night Train” whatsoever, making his appearance pointless as well as insulting. Perhaps the writers didn’t trust Paul Fusco and Max Wright to pull off the necessary emotion. I can’t say I’d have blamed them if that was the case. But they did pull it off, and therefore the appearance of Gravel Gus isn’t comic relief, but a broad tonal shock to an otherwise enjoyable melody. Oh well. At least ALF immediately murders him.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "ALF's Special Christmas"

You wouldn’t think anything could go wrong when you wheel a pregnant lady into an elevator and walk away, but CHRISTMAS IS A TIME OF MIRACLES. In what must be the most understaffed (least overstaffed?) hospital in California, a gynecologist and his buddy Black Santa have to team up to fix the electrical whatsit box before this poor lady gives birth! …only they don’t. They fuck around long enough for an alien to teach himself how to deliver the baby from scratch, and then I think the woman dies of a staph infection because nobody seems to remember that ALF slipped into trench of human feces earlier in the episode. To make matters somehow less comprehensible, this stunning display of total incompetence earns Santa a job as the hospital’s handyman, ensuring that no patient will ever escape a simple elevator ride on his watch.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "We Are Family"

Yeah, I admit I played up the confusion for the sake of laughs, but “We Are Family” made that the easiest way to talk about the episode. Unrelated clips (ALF hosting Late Night, ALF in government captivity, and…erm…some public domain nature documentary) kill time while we avoid going to Jake’s graduation party, which happens while ALF calls a press conference consisting of exactly one journalist, then ALF takes a big liquidy shit in the tub, and a bunch of people come over and scream at him to end this fucking episode already. At least “Hail to the Chief” had an identifiable central theme. Here we just know the scenes all relate to ALF being lonely because we’re relentlessly told that’s the case. The episode’s biggest crime is that it brings back two characters from the show’s best episodes (Jodie and Dr. Dykstra) to completely waste them here. These are characters that work because they reconfigure ALF and force it to think through different aspects of itself. In “We Are Family,” however, they are rolled into the tasteless dough of every other interchangeable non-entity, and we’re much poorer for it.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Something's Wrong With Me"

This is not only a picture of Willie that makes it look like the crack hobo sucking him off just bit down; this is the best picture of Willie that makes it look like the crack hobo sucking him off just bit down.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

I actually had to re-read my review to confirm that I wasn’t hallucinating this shit. “Hail to the Chief” is a complete mess of an episode, with some loose framing device about how much better life would be if politicians were like ALF, and a series of fantasy sequences about Kate running for president. But there’s no internal logic to link them together at all. First Kate is running against ALF, then ALF is the moderator in a debate between her and Senator Nobody, then ALF is her image consultant, then forget all that shit because ALF was running against her after all and now he’s on Mount Rushmore. With no respect for seeing a single joke or idea through — let alone for the audience’s time — “Hail to the Chief” is one long, masturbatory excuse to give us an extended look at some shitty ALF fan-art. Ugh.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

When I started pointing out these bizarre sexual moments in the show, I knew I was at least slightly reaching. Until, of course, ALF inserted his schnozz into Kate’s reproductive chute and jammed it around in there for several minutes in the hallway. Willie, of course, did nothing to stop this. And I’ll never forgive him for it.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1"

Don’t get me wrong, Kate Sr. warbling “The Band Played On” sounded worse…but I can at least see what they were going for there, with everyone gathered around the piano and reveling in each other’s company. Here? I have no fucking clue. We cut to Willie in the middle of “Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 1” for a musical break, like we’re watching the god-damned Muppet Show. That’s odd enough, but he’s performing “The Letter” by The Box Tops, which has no kind of thematic resonance that I can think of. This episode is about burglaries and ALF screwing the Neighborhood Watch, so I don’t know what Max Wright singing about flying around the world to pork his slutty girlfriend has to do with anything. It’s such an odd moment that I still don’t know what to make of it. Was the episode just short? (If so, maybe it shouldn’t have been a two-parter.) If they absolutely had to give Willie a musical spotlight, couldn’t they have had him sing “I Fought the Law”? “Take the Money and Run”? (Thanks, Sarah Portland!) “Been Caught Stealing”? “911 is a Joke”? Is it too much to ask that something that happens in an episode has something to do with that episode? (Spoiler: yes.)

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Someone to Watch Over Me: Part 2"

Part 1 of “Someone to Watch Over Me” was about a burglar working his way through whatever part of LA you can buy a 12 bedroom palace in with a social worker’s salary. As the episode progressed, the LA-bians organized a Neighborhood Watch to ensure that they’d be victimized no more. So, needless to say Part 2 was about ALF helping the thief get away with it and escape the police. I mean, the show doesn’t realize that. The writing staff doesn’t realize that. And nobody involved realizes that. But that’s exactly what happens as ALF convinces the entire LAPD that he is the criminal they’re looking for, distracts them all night while the unnamed burglar makes his getaway, and then with no consequence gets carted away by Willie so the city can be burgled anew come morning. This is a great show, you know.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Can I Get a Witness?"

Willie loves outer space and trains and robots and ham radios and rain gauges and…well, anything nerdy and / or scientific. His specific hobbies might rotate from week to week, but they all hew pretty closely to what we’d expect of a gangly, pasty, sitcom dad with glasses. That’s why it’s downright ridiculous that they’d suddenly expect us to believe he gives a shit about football. But aside from Willie’s complete lack of manliness (and excitability), there’s another important reason we know he’s not a football fan: football — American football, at least — is a social activity. While it’s not inconceivable that somebody might watch a game alone, that’s certainly not the norm. Friends get together. People go to bars. Large parties with huge television sets and impressive spreads of food are thrown. Willie has no friends. Even at home he’s watching the game alone. Max Wright simply doesn’t convince me that Willie would be able to sustain interest in the sport over a lifetime of lonely howling at the TV. He does a much better job of convincing me that he jacks off over vintage chemistry sets, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Tequila"

For a show about a naked alien that lives in the laundry basket, ALF sure likes to get preachy. And as sick to death as I am of the guy getting the floor to burble some vaguely inspiring bullshit (hello, “Weird Science” and “Take a Look at Me Now”!), it’s far worse when he tries to address real-world problems. Alcoholism, for instance, has been a problem for as long as there’s been alcohol. As fun as drinking can be (and I’ll be the first to admit it’s pretty fuckin’ fun) there’s no question that it’s ruined countless lives, both directly and indirectly. It’s a touchy subject, and it’s rare for a comedy to speak about the subject intelligently, opting instead for the easy laughs. ALF, surprising no-one, skirts both the comedy and the intelligence. Kate’s friend whoeverthefuck is drinking her life into shambles, until she’s saved by a tiny brown alien that only she can see. We all learn a valuable lesson about ALF being rad, which is sort of the same thing as facing your demons or getting therapy, and we never hear from Kate’s only friend again. Goodnight, everyone!!

The ALFie for…


ALF, "Night Train"

I’m as shocked as you are that a Willie episode was the best this season had to offer. I’m even more shocked that I don’t mean that as a backhanded compliment. Season two wasn’t great, but it was a marked improvement over season one…which itself did have a handful of very good episodes. In fact, the best episode of season one (“Going Out of My Head Over You”) got a very effective reprise in season two, with the Dykstra-heavy “I’m Your Puppet.” That episode is a very close second, as it had a real set of balls and some great insight into the process of making this show. But “Night Train” took the most problematic of the main characters and gave him, for half an hour at least, meaning. Willie Tanner, for the first time, was human. Not coincidentally, for the first time I enjoyed spending time with him. The premise of “Night Train” is so simple, I’m surprised it took this long for the show to attempt it: stick ALF and Willie in a confined space, and listen to what they say to each other. It was a bit of a gamble as neither characterization nor dialogue are ALF‘s strong suits, but “Night Train” was a lovely exception to both rules. It was a sweet little experiment that almost tricked me into thinking I might eventually come to care about Willie Tanner. That, unfortunately, was too tall an order…but I sure enjoyed the ride.

The ALFie for…


ALF, "ALF's Special Christmas"

Man…what did “ALF’s Special Christmas” not do wrong? It repeated the same themes from last year, took twice as long to do it, and was cloyingly, sickeningly devoted to the idea that ALF made the world better by sheer virtue of being in it. (I can promise you first hand, my friends, that this is not true.) Additionally it treated us to familial reconciliation, a kind-hearted cancer moppet, an elevator birth, and a suicidal black Santa Claus, meaning there could have been an entire episode of ALF graphically buttfucking Mrs. Ochmonek and it wouldn’t have come close to unseating “ALF’s Special Christmas.” It’s even more absurd when you realize that a few weeks after ALF is moved to tears (or hot glue globs, anyway) by the sadness he feels in the face of death, he strips and embalms Willie’s elderly uncle after murdering him in the yard. Oh, then he throws a party. “ALF’s Special Christmas” isn’t just the worst episode of season two…it’s the worst episode so far, and I’ll be genuinely shocked if anything in the next two seasons steals that title. I know they’re bad…but I am convinced this has to be worse. (Prove me wrong, final 50 episodes!!)

The ALFies

And that’s that! Next week we slip further into madness with season three, and edge ever closer to the ultimate nutslap that is Project: ALF. Join me, won’t you?

A Thomas Pynchon Primer

Two years ago (because time does, indeed, fly) I put together A Wes Anderson Primer as a short resource for those who might be interested in Moonrise Kingdom, or weren’t sure if they’d be interested, because they hadn’t really seen much Anderson yet.

This time around, I’m Primer-ing you on Thomas Pynchon…my favorite author. Inherent Vice comes out in December…the film, that is. The first film he’s ever allowed to be adapted from his writings. Perhaps you’ve seen the trailer. Perhaps you haven’t. Either way, if you’re not already a fan of Pynchon’s, the odds are good that you don’t know what the hubbub is about.

Sure, it looks like a cool, funny movie. But why is it important?

You won’t know — or won’t understand, anyway — unless you read some Pynchon for yourself. That’s an intimidating task, though. Pynchon’s a notoriously and deliberately opaque figure, and while I wholeheartedly feel there’s something in his books for everyone, finding that something can be impossible if you go in unprepared. I’m not exaggerating; I adore the guy, and I still find his books frightening.

But let’s go through each one of them in turn. I’m going to try to help you find a way in. And don’t forget that you can win any one of these books by taking the Noiseless Chatter reader’s survey.

V. (1963)

V.Length: 507 pages
Overview: Dual protagonists Benny Profane and Herbert Stencil more or less alternate their respective searches for meaning. Benny is described in the novel as an incurable schlemiel, swept along by the forces — and inanimate objects — of the world around him, while Stencil is the opposite and actively seeks an answer to a question he may not fully understand: the identity of a person (or place…or thing…) known to him only as V. Woven throughout their stories are the stories of others, relayed both first-hand and via flashback, painting a larger portrait of a world of isolates, each seeking some kind of reason to carry on. V. is packed with great characters (some of whom we’ll get to know better in later novels), sharp satire, and haunting imagery, but it’s not nearly as tight as Pynchon’s later works. While a chatty aimlessness is one of Pynchon’s greatest tools — and while it absolutely is a theme explored through the lenses of our main characters here — V. feels a lot like it’s padding for time, and the reader doesn’t always return from these bizarre sojourns with the feeling of there having been a purpose to what he was just told. In Gravity’s Rainbow especially Pynchon manages to retain — indeed, amp up — the disorientation, but it always feels purposeful. Here, excellent though the writing is, it often feels like we’re watching a great artist find his footing. The strongest moments in the book are the ones that see the characters identifying a goal for themselves and working toward it, whether that’s the extinction of alligators in the New York City sewer system, the disassembly of a priest, the attempted theft of The Birth of Venus, the cosmetic reconfiguration of a lover’s face, or the quest of father-and-son adventurers to return to a place that may never have existed. Each of these goals — and dozens more — seem to provide as much of a spark for the author as they do for the characters involved, and it’s here that we catch glimpses of the Thomas Pynchon we know today.
Opening Timeframe: 1955
Chronological Sequence: Fourth
Pynchonverse: As Pynchon’s first novel and almost everybody’s introduction to his talents, the entirety of V. can be seen as a framework for what’s to come. The alternating comedy / horror, the meandering expeditions through history, the extreme violence and sexuality, visions of unreachable utopia, a detective figure, the withheld climax, the winking original songs…in fact, one would be hard-pressed to find a single hallmark of Pynchon’s that isn’t on display already here, however rough some of them might be around the edges. Also, being his first novel, there aren’t any real callbacks here. As you’ll see, however, every release that follows takes the opportunity to weave itself into a much larger, even more satisfying framework.

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

The Crying of Lot 49Length: 183 pages
Overview: Oedipa Maas receives news that not only has her absurdly rich ex-lover passed away, but that he’s appointed her executor (or executrix, she supposes) of his estate. With the help of a former child actor turned attorney, Oedipa disentangles the affairs of the late Pierce Inverarity, and finds an entirely new kind of tangle emerging instead. It involves a (possibly fictional) centuries-old feud between rival postal services, echoes of which seem to be in evidence everywhere she turns. Rare stamps, Jacobean revenge dramas, and even otherwise innocuous children’s songs convince her that either some incredible secret is just waiting to be uncovered, or she’s gone genuinely insane. It’s a hilarious book that pivots into psychological horror on a dime, and is constantly weaving at least two types of tales into the narrative at once. Pynchon himself seemed dismissive of it in his introduction to Slow Learner, but it’s one that I come back to frequently. Admittedly, its brevity is a good reason for that. (Reading the entire book in one day, which I’ve done several times, reveals a whole other level of interconnections, and I recommend doing that at least once.) That brevity, however, doesn’t make it much “easier” than anything else Pynchon has written. In fact, my first memory of The Crying of Lot 49 is a fellow student breaking down in one of my college literature classes because he was supposed to give a presentation on it and, despite reading it multiple times, had no understanding of the book at all. I bought it soon afterward because I was intrigued by the idea of such a slim volume putting up a fight like that. And, sure enough, it took a good long while before I was even barely comfortable talking about it either. Its ending is very instructive to readers of any Pynchon; it feels as though it’s unresolved, and in terms of the book’s central mystery, it is. But while you (and Oedipa) were following one kind of plot, Pynchon was actually developing another. You’ll get to the end looking for an answer, and at the end you’ll get an answer. But the odds are good that you and Pynchon had very different questions in mind, and the fact that such a rich and satisfying experiment in misdirection comes from a seemingly tiny, silly, unassuming text is endlessly impressive to me.
Opening Timeframe: 1964
Chronological Sequence: Fifth
Pynchonverse: Ballistics company Yoyodyne appeared in V., along with Clayton “Bloody” Chiclitz, who himself appears here and again in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)

Gravity's RainbowLength: 760 pages
Overview: Man…an overview of Gravity’s Rainbow. A more daunting exercise does not exist. Period. It’s my favorite novel, as you probably know, but it’s also one that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I remember the first time I read it: I hated it. It was painful to read. At almost no point did I feel as though I had a handle on what was happening, and when I did it didn’t last long. But I pushed through it, and I’m glad I did, because when I revisited it a few years later, it went much better. I was able to pay more attention to certain characters because I knew they would pop up later in the narrative, even if it happened after hundreds of pages had passed. I knew to treat other characters (and passages) as less-important digressions because they didn’t actively factor into anything to come, which freed me up to enjoy them (if not always comprehend them). Gravity’s Rainbow is a book that needs to be re-read, not read, which makes it a serious time commitment, and by no means a good recommendation for the Py-curious. In fact, I may have only been able to make sense of it due to a very superficial guide I found online…one that didn’t seek to interpret the book for me (because fuck that…if I want someone else to do the interpreting why am I reading in the first place?) but one that simply outlined in a sentence what happened in each section. That allowed me to know which scenes were flashbacks, fantasies, hallucinations, monologues delivered by characters who are dead (which the book may or may not make clear before you meet them), and so on. Gravity’s Rainbow is an almost endless exercise in self-orientation, and it’s a breathtakingly beautiful one. The beauty, however, lies beneath a thick layer of frustration. If you are dedicated enough to dig through to it, you’ll be glad you did. If you’re not, and only make it partway through the barricade, you’ll regret that you tried in the first place. Whew. There’s my overview of Gravity’s Rainbow. Unless you want to know something about the plot, which is a sort of loose mosaic of scenes and horrors interlocking their way across the insanity of World War II. The nearest thing to a protagonist we have is Tyrone Slothrop, an American serving in England during the V-2 blitz on London. Slothrop gets roped into a conspiracy — only gradually realizing he’s the central component — when it’s observed that the sites of his professed sexual conquests turn out to be the exact targets of rocket attacks a few days later, without fail. Slothrop is interrogated and studied for any information he might have — consciously or not — about the connection, a process that takes him from being plied with alcohol and sex to being abandoned in “the Zone” without money, identification, or a way home. But Slothrop’s story is only one of many, and it may not even turn out to be the most important to you as a reader. Which is why Gravity’s Rainbow is impossible to summarize; it’s a book that exists in your mind after you read it, not one that exists as words on a page. It’s a work of brutal, repulsive, challenging, brilliant, fearless, unforgettable art. It’s one you should both experience at some point in your life, and avoid at all costs.
Opening Timeframe: 1944
Chronological Sequence: Third
Pynchonverse: This novel reunites us with several of the minor characters we met in V., including Pig Bodine, “Bloody” Chiclitz, Kurt Mondaugen, and Weissmann, all of whom have more important (if not necessarily larger) roles here. Pappy Hod from that same novel also gets a small mention.

Slow Learner (1984)

Slow LearnerLength: 208 pages
Overview: A collection of Pynchon’s early short stories, Slow Learner lives up to its self-effacing title. As flawed as I consider V., I absolutely grant that it provides marvelous indication of the talent to come. The stories that comprise Slow Learner, though, won’t seem much different in terms of quality, style, or substance from anything you might have seen from classmates in a college-level writing workshop. That’s not to say they’re bad, but they don’t strike the reader as the work of somebody that was in command of his abilities. (And, in objective fairness, subsequent writings have proven that he certainly was not.) What makes this book worth owning, though, is the introduction, penned by Pynchon himself. If you think I’m hard on these stories, you should read what he has to say about them. The introduction is an older, wiser, respected Pynchon, looking back at the floundering youth who wrote these stories and seeing a different person entirely. It’s a brief memoir, personal reflection, writing instruction, and advice column all in one, and for a man that communicates with the outside world so rarely in any form, the introduction is beyond value. It’s also worth noting that the only editions of this book I’ve ever seen (including the first edition), contain five stories. However a sixth story, “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna,” was apparently included in at least one printing, somewhere, at some point. I’ve yet to confirm this myself, but if I don’t mention it somebody else will. (And if anyone knows which edition(s) contain(s) this story, please do let me know.)
Opening Timeframe: n/a
Chronological Sequence: n/a
Pynchonverse: A reworked version of the story “Under the Rose” eventually became a chapter in Pynchon’s debut novel, V. That novel also features Pig Bodine, who appears in the story “Low-lands” here, as well as in Gravity’s Rainbow. Hogan Slothrop, Jr., from “The Secret Integration” is the nephew of Tyrone Slothrop, the closest thing we get to a hero in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Vineland (1990)

VinelandLength: 385 pages
Overview: In the almost twenty years that passed between this and Gravity’s Rainbow, expectations soared. Whatever was taking Pynchon this long to deliver his next sermon, it was bound to be worth the wait. And then, like a wet thud, Vineland hit shelves, disappointing idiots everywhere. Vineland is one of my favorite Pynchon novels, and probably the one I recommend most often to readers looking to experience him for the first time. And, frankly, the “It’s not what I wanted it to be” backlash that the book received is insulting. Yes, it was Pynchon’s easiest novel to date, but that doesn’t mean it’s of a lower quality. With Vineland, Pynchon’s sharp social criticisms are as biting as ever; the fact that they’re couched in some of his most overtly comic (and comically effective) writing yet should have been a cause for celebration…but I’m digressing. The story takes place with an Orwellian hat-tip in 1984, where unemployed ex-hippie Zoyd Wheeler finds his life of quiet dreaminess shattered by the re-emergence — in a way — of his ex-wife, Frenesi…as well as her old suitor, government man Brock Vond. In order to keep his daughter Prairie safe from the fallout, he sets her out on an adventure of her own, and the bulk of the novel drifts backward through time as we and Prairie weave together — via newsreels, newspapers, hearsay — an understanding of exactly who her mother was, and of everything America lost, destroyed, and gambled away between the mid 60s and the mid 80s. It’s a great book with warmth found in the most unexpected places, such as between Zoyd and his police department counterpart Hector Zuniga (which, in retrospect, plays like a dry run for the relationship between Doc and Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), or the one which develops between a hired assassin and the diminutive Japanese man she accidentally kills. (It makes more sense when you read it, I promise.) Pynchon is as insightful as ever, if not necessarily as deep, and this relatively surface-level approach allows him, I feel, to explore the outer sadnesses and flashes of desperation as impressively as he’s explored the internal emptiness and quiet panic of his characters in the past. Vineland is a lush and memorable narrative, with some of his best-defined characters and most impressively catchy songs. Its ending, as well, stood as the final chronological sequence in any of his novels before the release of Bleeding Edge, and it serves as such perfect punctuation that I kind of wish it still was.
Opening Timeframe: 1984
Chronological Sequence: Seventh
Pynchonverse: Mucho Maas from The Crying of Lot 49 appears here, providing just a little bit of a clue — but still no answer — as to what happened after the end of that novel.

Mason & Dixon (1997)

Mason & DixonLength: 773 pages
Overview: Astronomer Charles Mason and surveyor Jeremiah Dixon carve their famous line into a young America, an action itself that seems to draw a line between generations of hopeful superstition and the colder, more measurable Age of Reason. It’s also Pynchon’s most difficult text, which is saying something. The entire thing is written in, for lack of a better term, mid-Colonial American. What that means for you as a reader is that the words on the page — in sentences, in paragraphs — don’t necessarily behave by the rules you seek to impose upon them. Long-forgotten slang and obsolete terminology abound, meaning that everything you read gets read twice: first to find out what’s written on the page, and second to translate it internally into something you can understand. As a result, Mason & Dixon is both tiring and off-putting…at first. Much like Gravity’s Rainbow, this is a book that necessitates multiple readings. You cannot read it once; that’s a waste of time for everybody. You should commit either to reading it twice, or not at all. The second time, at least, you’ll understand what’s happening, as you’ll be in tune with the textual approach. And every time beyond that, you’ll fall in love a little bit more. The relationship that blooms between our dual protagonists is one of the richest in Pynchon’s arsenal, and there’s an amazingly touching undercurrent of record and measurement beating back, and eventually supplanting, legend itself. The world of Mason & Dixon seems to grow along with its characters, itself adapting to technological advancements and provable science. This means that legends — whether talking dogs, giant worms, hollow Earths, glowing Indians, or golems — do exist…until they’re disproven, anyway, at which point they never existed, and they shift permanently into the realm of fancy. It’s a neat trick, and Pynchon handles it beautifully, turning the dawn of the Age of Reason into a kind of unspoken tragedy as much as it is an advancement, and forging strong bonds between all those who witnessed it together. It’s an absolutely beautiful experiment, which might stumble and fall along the way, but which ultimately brings us the most rawly emotional moments to leave Pynchon’s pen, including Dixon standing up to a slaver, and Mason confronting the ghost of his deceased wife. When I first read this book, I was disappointed. I think I expected it to be funnier. The joke, I’m pleased to admit, was on me.
Opening Timeframe: 1786
Chronological Sequence: First
Pynchonverse: The Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke shares a last name with a character in Gravity’s Rainbow, and Fenderbelly Bodine is the earliest known ancestor of the Bodines we meet (and have met) in V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Slow Learner, and Against the Day.

Against the Day (2006)

Against the DayLength: 1,085 pages
Overview: The lives of several major character sets are traced from the World’s Fair in Chicago all the way through — and past — The Great War. I’ve read Against the Day several times, but have rarely finished it. It’s in competition with V. for being my least favorite novel of Pynchon’s…and yet, there’s so much good in it that I find myself thinking about it, meditating on it, wishing to revisit it. I think the problem with Against the Day is that there’s simply too much going on. Unlike Gravity’s Rainbow, which utilized “too much” as a successful method of piecing together a global nightmare, Against the Day wants to be both human and cosmic at once, which means we find it doing great things that feel incompatible with the other great things it does. It’s a fractured experience, but one worth having at least once. While I’m fully aware that I fall into Pynchon’s trap when I read the first few chapters of the novel and get amped up for an exciting saga of Western revenge, the fact is that the stories that follow are, on the whole, not quite as interesting. Overlong passages and seemingly meaningless sequences of events in which characters are shuffled all over the world for the sake of shuffling them make this feel like Pynchon at his least focused and most frustrating. That’s not to say it’s without its merits: an extended sequence in which an arctic expedition finds a malicious figure buried in the ice leads to some of Pynchon’s most chilling writing yet, and the various uses / implications of the double-refracting mineral known as Iceland Spar lead to moments of both effective comedy and tantalizing philosophy. It also introduces us to Dally Rideout, my favorite female character in any of Pynchon’s books, and a firm candidate for favorite overall. (Merle Rideout probably wins the award for Best Pynchon Dad as well…and it probably says something that he’s not actually related to Dally.) Frank Traverse, the universal runner-up, also has a particularly affecting character arc. In short, Against the Day would have been better had Pynchon dedicated more focus to almost any of his ideas. As it stands, too much adds up to too little.
Opening Timeframe: 1893
Chronological Sequence: Second
Pynchonverse: We witness the birth of Jesse Traverse, grandfather of Frenesi Gates in Vineland. We also tag along for a first-hand exploration of the “hollow Earth,” a theory floated in Mason & Dixon. This book features O.I.C. Bodine, a relatively minor — but still welcome — link in the Bodine lineage. The skyship Inconvenience shares a name with a more traditional ship in Mason & Dixon. We also check back in with La Jarretière (Melanie l’Heuremaudit’s stage name in V.) to find that Pynchon revised — perhaps for reasons known only to him — her grisly ending from that book.

Inherent Vice (2009)

Inherent ViceLength: 369 pages
Overview: With the exception of Mason & Dixon, I think each of Pynchon’s novels features a detective figure in a major role. Inherent Vice is the only one, though, that features an actual detective as its protagonist. Doc Sportello is that protagonist, a smarter-than-he-looks hippie being washed unhappily into the 70s, while the Charles Manson trial unfolding in the background serves as a sad reminder that 60s idealism is gone for good. The case he’s working on is one he isn’t even getting paid for: his ex-girlfriend informs him of a plot to kidnap her real-estate mogul beau, Mickey Wolfmann. This being Pynchon, of course, a dozen other stories get woven into and spun out of what should be a relatively straight-forward investigation, and I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that making it to the end of the book doesn’t necessarily imply that you’ll find any kind of resolution. At least, not that resolution. The fog-heavy coda plays like a sustained chord. Some eternal, melancholy echo that hangs in the air long after you’ve placed Inherent Vice back on the shelf, and part of me wishes that scene — that moment — could stand as the last thing Pynchon ever gave us. But, whoops, I’ve gone and skipped over the whole novel. That might be because the best things about Inherent Vice are the exchanges, the way the characters interact and intersect. This is probably Pynchon’s most realistic novel, in that regard, as every friendship and every antagonism feels natural. These are people who both need and needle each other, and are trying, in their own ways, to find meaning in the significant cultural shift happening around them. Most of them find nothing, but none of them stop searching. And every so often Pynchon gives these poor folks a break. The announcement of a pregnancy. A grudging admission of respect. An unexpected payout from a forgotten casino. Throughout Inherent Vice things go from bad to worse, but not at a steady clip. There are moments of respite. There are chances to catch your breath. And there are opportunities to be thankful for what you have, even though — or perhaps because — you know you can’t have it forever.
Opening Timeframe: 1970
Chronological Sequence: Sixth
Pynchonverse: Doc is the cousin of Scott Oof, a young musician we met in Vineland. He’s also done some work for Sledge Poteet, another character from that book. What’s more, we visit Kahuna Airlines here, which played a big role in Vineland, and the two novels also share a fictional location (Gordita Beach). At one point in the book we get a mild hallucination in which Doc has a conversation with Thomas Jefferson, whose dialogue reprises the textual stylization of Mason & Dixon.

Bleeding Edge (2013)

Bleeding EdgeLength: 477 pages
Overview: Maxine Tarnow, a decertified fraud investigator, finds herself set by various interested parties on long, complicated, dangerous trail, similar to the one on which Doc found himself in Inherent Vice, but here the backdrop is entirely different. Technology allows freer and faster access to information, but it brings with it the “Deep Web,” which might not be an inherently bad thing but certainly provides a platform for the bad to grow worse. This symmetrical advancement, both positive and negative in roughly equal measures, serves as a big theme; technology allows us to spread word of injustice, but it also makes it easier for professional silencers to track us down. It’s a terrifying, all-too-recognizable landscape that he paints, and yet it feels like Pynchon’s most personal novel to date. Sure, he’s not a female detective, but there’s an unexpected warmth and openness in what drives Maxine, in how she interprets the world, and in what she allows to break down her barriers. I’ve warmed up to it quite a bit since I reviewed it, and though I do still recognize its flaws, I’ve come to be disarmed by just how fragile he allowed this small sliver of his world to remain. When the towers come down in September — as we know they must — the things that matter to these people will get reprioritized, which itself is both a positive and negative advancement. The good times (and good people) will be gone, but the bad times begin to heal in the wake of larger tragedy. Lives lost on the surface continue to exist in echoes of technology. Fears and frustrations are borne out in video game behavior and a child’s choice of Halloween costume. Maxine’s lesson is daunting in its complexity, as she’s punished (along with everyone else) for both caring too much and not caring enough. Incorporating such a relatively recent event into one of his narratives was a gamble — especially 9/11, considering how often it’s been used for the sake of cheap manipulation — but it leaves the modern-day reader with an innate understanding of what Maxine feels at the end of the novel, which resolves with perhaps the most poignant, affecting, simple image Pynchon will ever create.
Opening Timeframe: 2001
Chronological Sequence: Eighth
Pynchonverse: Misha and Grisha, a pair of Russian revolutionaries from Against the Day are reborn here in an updated (and arguably more threatening) context. There’s also a reprise of “Soul Gidget,” a Pynchon song we learned the lyrics to in Inherent Vice.

Steve Zissou Saturdays #9: A Little Too Much Water

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Last month we left Steve, Ned, and new crewmember Bill Ubell in an elevator, all set to…

…wait. Let me just check the date of that last installment and…



That was fourteen months ago. God, I’m terrible at this series. And I genuinely apologize to anyone following it with interest. That’s frustrating, and there’s no excuse for it. But I do have to mention, before we move on, that something significant happened in that time: The Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s a brilliant film, and it may have actually unseated The Life Aquatic as my favorite.

That doesn’t imply that The Life Aquatic has diminished in any way in my eyes…it instead speaks to how strong, affecting, and remarkable The Grand Budapest Hotel is. But we’re not here to talk about that. (Yet.) For now, let’s finally free those three members of Team Zissou from an awkward elevator ride, and plunge ahead into the next section of the film: a montage set to Devo’s “Gut Feeling.”

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

There’s no dialogue in this section until the end, and even though “Gut Feeling” is not an instrumental,* we only hear the intro…cutting out before any of the lyrics kick in.

This is Anderson taking the time to tell his story without words, and while montages are a fairly common way of doing just that, we’ve seen plenty of sequences in his other films — in which dialogue and exposition is replaced by score and a flood of visual details — that let us know that he uses this as a flourish, and not a crutch.

Specifically, see the heartbreaking NOVEMBER sequence from Rushmore, the shaving sequence in The Royal Tenenbaums, and, most overtly, the night the Whitmans spend with their mother in The Darjeeling Limited.

Loaded visual details are layered on fast and thick in this sequence, as we cut immediately from the elevator to a view from the chopper as it approaches the Belafonte. Pele, the safety expert, waves them in, which is a nice touch. Things like that can take an audience member many viewings to even notice, so the fact that Anderson sweats of all of them goes a long way toward making him my favorite director. He makes digging worth it.

From there we get a lovely shot of a small shuttle boat taking the boys back to Pescespada Island. Ogata, it seems, is with the chopper now, but in this case I don’t know if there’s any particular significance to that, and it may just be a way of keeping the Belafonte visually alive while it’s still in frame.

In the image above you can see each of the characters reacting to this early leg of the journey in a way that tells you a lot about their personality. Newcomer Bill is awkward and uneasy, gripping his briefcase and hat (and the side of the boat) tightly against the wind. Ned is excited, facing the breeze head on. Pele, having done this hundreds of times at least, is disinterested. Steve is wearing literal blinders.

So much characterization in a single, silent frame.


Next we see Steve planning something, and speaking to somebody just off camera, whom we don’t see. It could be Jane, as part of the ongoing interview, or it could be one of his own documentarians. However since we see Vikram standing in the background of this very scene, that’s a little less likely.

There’s a lot of detail in this moment as well, including Steve holding a ping-pong paddle (though he isn’t playing…perhaps Jane interrupted a game to ask about the actual voyage?) to his placing a very small Belafonte toy on the map to indicate where they are. (Or, perhaps, where they are going.)

Something excellent revealed itself to me while writing this. He has a paper map spread out on top of a ping-pong table. Right? Yes…but the ping-pong table is itself made of a (much sturdier) map of the world. There’s something massively appealing to me there. Maybe it’s the fact that Team Zissou built their own ping-pong table instead of buying one. Or maybe it’s just the continuous echo of Team Zissou taking for granted what they should be taking seriously.

Either way, I love it. And I feel compelled to mention that ping-pong appears in a few other Anderson films as well. In Bottle Rocket it took the form of a test of character (at least seemingly so), and in The Grand Budapest Hotel the Nazi analogues are seen carrying a table to their room. I feel as though I’m forgetting at least one other appearance; feel free to fill me in on that.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We then see Anne-Marie, doing something I can’t really identify. Any help on this? She seems to be loading something on her lap, and when she’s done she clicks a stopwatch. Once she does we get a great 90-degree pan to Klaus, who is organizing their shooting schedule, but I have absolutely no idea what Anne-Marie is meant to be doing.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

The long plastic strips presumably indicate scenes that need to be filmed. As far as the coloring goes, I’m not sure. It could mean anything, from the time of day that the shot needs to happen to how expensive the shot might get.

This is Team Zissou’s chance to pre-edit, but, in their defense, it’s something that any production unit with even a minor sense of how to make a movie would do. My personal theory is that the colors keep the scenes grouped by location. Being as we’ve already seen Steve discuss the importance of continuity, I don’t think it’s unlikely that he’d have Klaus arrange the shooting schedule so that, say, all of the scenes of the crew at the compound can be shot together, whether or not they will be anywhere near each other in the final film.

There is something to be said for the financial aspect, however, and we’ll get to that in a moment.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We then pan right past Bill’s room, just as Steve himself would if he were making this film, but if we pay attention on the way we can see our bond-company stooge in the act of triple tasking. He’s working figures with his left hand, writing something with his right, and reading (or consulting) something else with his field of vision.

Pretty impressive. And I also like the detail that Bill sits his coffee (or tea) in a saucer. I think we can safely say he’s the only member of Team Zissou — temporary or not — who does that.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We keep panning past Wolodarsky in the recording booth, listening to one of his compositions and conducting along. The hand-lettered DO NOT ENTER – – RECORDING sign is pretty lovely, as in order to see it you’d have to be looking at the very window that gives you a very clear view of that happening. It’s also nice that Wolodarsky wrote in two short dashes instead of one longer one. A very Anderson touch.

A lot of pictures on the wall pass by during this sequence, but I can’t make many of them out. On the left in the grab above we have one of Steve above one of Ogata, but beyond that I’m lost. Regardless of who is in which picture where, however, it’s another pretty obvious way that Steve surrounds himself with his past.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Further down the hallway we pass Vikram and Pele color-balancing a camera. Not much to say about this except that having Pele hold it (instead of, say, propping it up against a wall or hanging it somewhere) says a lot about Team Zissou’s interest in efficiency. (As well as Anderson’s dedication to world building. This is one continuous shot, remember, which means he needed his entire cast on set for this. Not a cheap proposition.)

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Then we pass Pietro in the shower room (which is fitting, as he’s Zissou’s soundman and showers have famously good acoustics), but I can’t tell what he’s up to. He seems to be listening to something, but he’s also toying with what looks like a hamburger bun. It’s fully possible he just ducked in there to have some privacy while he eats his lunch, but I can’t tell for sure.

Just outside that room, Eleanor is reviewing some potential ideas for stunt work. She crosses off SKYDIVE INTO VOLCANO, and I get the sense this is more due to financial restriction that safety concern, especially with Bill crunching numbers right up the hall.

It’s also interesting that Steve keeps this STUNT WORK corkboard in common space, as though everyone is welcome to contribute ideas as they think them up. And that may well be the case. If some member of Team Zissou wants to skydive into a volcano, why not give them the chance to request it?

Furthermore, all of this pre-planning (especially in terms of what should otherwise be unexpected “stunts” required of the crew) casts further doubt on Steve’s insistence that all they do is film what happens.

For the record, some other ideas on the board include BOTTLE-SHOOTING, CLIFF-JUMPING, and one that looks like ZODIAC SPEED-RAMP OVER ROCKS. No idea what that last one means, but being as Eleanor crossed that one off, too, I don’t think that matters. (Still, if you know what it is, speak up!)

Needless to say, this stuff is all in a day’s work for a team of oceanographers…

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Then we glance outside, where the interns are jogging in place. In the background one of them, seemingly with an injured knee, has ice applied to his leg. But more interesting is what happens in the foreground.

Steve enters stage left, and walks across to stage right. As he does so, one of the interns (whom we will later learn is named Nico) stumbles and falls.

I heard or read somewhere that this was unplanned; the actor (Matthew Gray Gubler) actually just fell, and that take made it into the film. I’m glad it did, though, because it makes for an interesting suggestion that Steve and Ned are indeed related.

See the very next shot:

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Ned passes by Ogata, and offers him a drink. This causes Ogata to lose the ball he was playing.

In this shot and the one that immediately preceded it (which was a continuous take, remember), we have some neat, silent symmetry: a crewman is doing just fine on his own, a Zissou enters the frame, and the crewman — by sheer virtue of the Zissou’s appearance — stumbles.

Like father, like son.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

We then leave the compound for a quick moment back on shore, where Pele and Wolodarsky are testing out the dynamite Steve successfully negotiated out of Oseary.

It’s a silly little moment, but one I love, simply due to its unexpectedness and its humorous framing.

They aren’t doing anything significant, but remember that every stick of dynamite that the team uses contributes to the fact that there’s none left by the end of the film.

This I find interesting because it leaves the climax somewhat open-ended. While Steve doesn’t follow through on his promise to “fight” the Jaguar Shark, we can’t be entirely sure of why. Did he change his mind, or was he just out of dynamite? If Anderson didn’t have the character confirm that they had no more explosives, the answer would have clearly been the former.

I still believe the answer to be the former…but I like the fact that being out of dynamite makes it just a little less clear.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Then we have Team Zissou running along the beach. In Steve’s case he’s biking, but since I’ve never biked on the beach I don’t know if this is an example of Steve taking it easy. I feel like that’s the intention, but at the same time I’d have to imagine that riding a bike through loose sand is pretty damned tough. Anyone out there know?

Speaking of a million questions I’m asking readers instead of answering for them, Anne-Marie is jogging topless. That’s not surprising for two reasons: everyone is topless, and she’s usually topless anyway. But at the same time…wouldn’t it hurt to jog without any kind of support for the breasts? I’ve always assumed that’s why sports bras existed. But never having needed one I can’t really confirm.

It’s less a question about the character than about the actress. If that’s as uncomfortable as I imagine it to be, I feel bad for Robyn Cohen.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Ned breaks formation to go talk to Jane. Ned, being Ned, continues to jog in place as he does so, which is such a perfect little character detail.

He gives her a sand dollar he found, and we’ll see that again later. For now it’s the sort of thing a little boy (ahem) would give to his mother (ahem ahem), and we’ll leave it at that.

Steve wheels over, and though we don’t hear him it’s clear that he tells Ned to get going. Considering what follows, this is the first time that Steve scolds Ned right before physical tragedy strikes the boy.

It’s not the last, however. Something similar happens when the ship is taken by pirates, and then, of course, we have their scene just before that final ride in the helicopter.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

For now, though, Ned’s tragedy is a minor one. (Relatively minor, anyway; we do learn later that his heart stopped beating.) He is prepping for the journey in the dive pool. Pele is swimming in the background, Pietro is casually observing and enjoying the sun. Ogata, the frogman, is presumably training Ned, but he bites into a banana as soon as the boy goes under, unaware of what’s about to happen.

Ned told Steve earlier that he wasn’t a strong swimmer, and we see now that he wasn’t exaggerating. This is another ill omen for Ned, considering that he’s about spend an extended period at sea.

This isn’t something I think we can blame on Ogata or Pele; these are people who have been diving for years. It’s second nature to them, and I don’t think they really believed that Ned could be in need of that much attention.

It’s routine. It’s nothing to worry about.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

…until, suddenly, it is.

One thing that I think is worth noting is that whenever I watch this film with somebody — starting way back when it was in theaters, and continuing up through a few weeks ago when my girlfriend saw it for the first time — they laugh at this moment.

What’s funny about it?

Well, if you know what’s coming, nothing.

But if you don’t, it’s not so much that it’s funny as the fact that it has the cadence of a joke. Anderson pushes his camera in on Ned, who falls backward into the pool and disappears. “Gut Feeling” reaches its climax on the soundtrack, and then…cut. Ned is prostrate. He’s being given CPR. No music.

Expectations are subverted so quickly that it feels like a visual punchline, even though what we’ve seen is a man almost drown.

Of course, at this point in the film we don’t know all of the rules for what we’re seeing. We don’t know if this is a silly comedy in which all of the characters are safe, or a film in which the time left to them is determined by the choices they make. Watching this movie a second time makes this scene a little harder to get through, but the first time it gets a big laugh. I’m sure I laughed, too.

Anderson’s using our willingness to engage with him playfully against us. We’ve just finished a nice little montage with silly music and funny visuals, so we’re primed to laugh. When we suddenly cut from one thing to another, we expect that it must be a punchline, and so we treat it as one.

But it wasn’t. It was a man nearly dying. It’s a bait and switch handled so effortlessly that it takes us another minute after the cut to realize that we’ve been tricked.

The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Once Ned is resuscitated, Vikram reaches into shot with a light meter. Steve confirms with him that he’s capturing this on film. Pietro has vanished as well, presumably because he’s also off-camera, handling the sound for the scene.

All of that happens, it has to be noted, before any of them know if Ned is going to be okay. Team Zissou correctly assumes that getting the shot will be more important to Steve than anything that happens in it. Just as when Esteban was eaten, Steve’s first concern is the camera.

This is the “relationship subplot” Steve talks about later in the film. You know. The one in which his son almost dies and he expresses open concern about the moment is being recorded properly. Touching, isn’t it?

Steve also refers to the incident as Ned drinking “a little too much water,” which is the kind of euphemism that someone might actually use in such a situation — particularly after the speaker knows the victim will be okay — but for Steve it’s just one of many examples of his disregarding the actual and avoidable danger in which he places his crew.

Omen after omen after omen. We see them where Team Zissou does not. And though we’ve yet to take to the sea, we have enough darkness cast over Ned’s fate that we know he won’t be coming back.

Next: Even in the most challenging circumstances, the members of Team Zissou find ways to keep morale high.

* …and man was I disappointed to learn this. Not being familiar with Devo, I didn’t realize that this fantastic piece wasn’t written for the film specifically. Hearing the full version on the soundtrack album was a nasty surprise, because the huffing way in which the lyrics are delivered undercut the rollicking majesty of what I heard in the film. Or so I thought then. As of now I appreciate the song, but at the time the unedited track was a rude awakening. (For the sake of contrast, I’ll say right now that I had no such disappointment hearing the full version of “Staralfur,” which to this day chokes me up.)

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