Thomas Pynchon, whose gumshoe stoner novel Inherent Vice debuts today, exerts a peculiar fascination on the imagination of film lovers. Jonathan Rosenbaum reviewed the book this week for Slate. John Carvill just penned an excellent piece in the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal about Pynchon’s literary legacy and his rich invocation of cinematic referents. Anecdotally, nearly every book reader I know working in film has a jones for this high-minded jester, whose carnivalesque historical novels (Mason & Dixon, especially) I count among the best reads of my life. So what accounts for Pynchon’s appeal to cinephiles? Carvill has an angle on that:
“For Pynchon has always been a movie nut, a fact that has long been apparent to his readers. In particular, Gravity’s Rainbow fizzes with film references, from Laurel and Hardy to German Expressionism, King Kong to Rita Hayworth. Characters often “act” the part of movie stars, taking on their attitudes and modes of dress, affecting a Cary Grant accent, say, or donning a “flopping Sydney Greenstreet Panama hat.” This is all great fun, but Pynchon also uses these acts of emulation to explore and illuminate a number of his perennial themes, not least the impact of technology on our lives.”
He goes on to elaborate the ways in which Pynchon “recognizes the contradictions inherent to the medium itself,” and provides, as evidence, a sustained reading of Inherent Vice. Is it any surprise the new novel, set in 1960s California and featuring a perpetually drugged-out detective, should echo both The Big Lebowski and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye? Read Carvill’s piece: it’s smart and exceptionally engaging.
Not long ago, I wrote a ruminative post entitled “What Makes a Novel Cinematic?”, in which I surveyed some of the other cinema-besotted authors (Don DeLillo, John Haskell, Steve Erickson) whose work seems to bear the influence of filmgoing experience. Pynchon isn’t mentioned (except as an adjective), though he should have been included in my mini-roundup. Nevertheless, some of the questions I pose at the top are relevant to this line of inquiry.
By the way, the creators of this video essay, which I discovered at GalleyCat, have just the right take on what makes Pynchon so fascinating: