Inherent Advice: An AFI Fest Essay

Making a film is the art of retroactive hypnotism. And there is no greater cinema hypnotist than Paul Thomas Anderson.

It's rare to see a movie simultaneously this interesting and this good; this incoherent and this profound; this frustrating and this enjoyable.

The movie moves like an acid-fueled sprint through a hedge maze...

No, it's more like running through series of short-

No, it's more like a hedge maze that, turns out, is actually only a roundabout. Like watching a dog chase its own tail (and just as fun).

No, it's like running through a series of brief hedge mazes that exit into one another. And once you think you've-

No, actually, no. It's not like that at all. Not a hedge maze. One of those haunted house mazes. With horrifying characters jumping out to scare you. Thrilling and funny, in a strange way. But what's the point of walking through one of those things? There isn't one, really. You just follow it to the end. Then you're out. Then the world starts to resume normalcy. Everything slows down. And you have sufficiently wasted a little more time on your ride around the sun.

It's not really like that at all. It's actually... Actually, it is this really cool substance that gets into your veins and pushes your senses deep into your subconscious. It's mind-altering. It's fun. There's a spirit to it that's dangerous. Or seems dangerous. No, it is dangerous. That's part of it. And if you're not careful, if you're not clear, if you're not ready, if you're not present, if you're not in the right headspace, it can fill you with fright. It can send you into a tailspin of anxiety. It can seize you and throw you. It can really fuckin' freak you out, man. I mean, how do we even know that we really exist? Or why we exist? Are we even conscious of the world moving around us? Or are we just little ego-driven drones in a pre-determined device?

Joaquin Phoenix & Josh Brolin in Inherent Vice presented by
AFI FEST 2014 presented by Audi. © Warner Brothers

So yeah, it can be frustrating, sure. This thing. This film. This trip. But if you stick it out. If you're able to steady yourself, it explodes with epiphanous pleasures in far out places and peaceful pauses in time and space. If you're open to the experience, you feel something real, something true, something inherent in all of us.

You see, PT Anderson doesn't use his hypnosis for manipulation, that's not how hypnosis works. He is working to stretch his radical powers to expand the mind of movie audiences. He's asking us to trust him, to be willing participants for the confounding chaos as well as the little moments of human harmony. We are all already part of it, and therefor participants in it. In this world, this shared experience. And what does that add up to? Nobody knows, really. And so, it can't really be about that, can it? For me, it's about those ideas that catch you unaware, those surprising thoughts, those psychedelic moments of understanding, feeling, love. Because at it's core, it's a sweet, simple love story. A lesson in devotion.

PTA has composed a challenging mural of morality.

When constantly surrounded by death and dysfunction and deceit and decay and corruption and chaos and fucking cataclysmic calamity, some people would willingly allow their moral core to erode. And many do, though those with a rotting conscience so often are publicly presented as the opposite. The righteous are not always right. Sometimes it takes diving into a mess to get clean. There is a dense integrity in curiosity. This is a film of great social and political import.

So if you find yourself about to give up on the flick, see it through. The calm fractions will find you, and you will be enriched for having felt them wash over you in a wave of self-actualization. It comes down to that one, big existential question. What's it all about? What the fuck is the point of all of this? What is the point of life? My generation screams, "Happiness!" But that can't be it. You can't be happy all the time. Nobody, anywhere, is ever always happy. So to pursue happiness is to pursue disappointment. Beyond that, there are those disenfranchised, those depressed, those broken or lacking in some way, those souls that are hardly ever happy. They take the notion that happiness is meaningful as a goddamned insult. It's like telling somebody they are less than what they are supposed to be. There is no supposed to be. There is just being. Happiness is just one shade in a life of infinite colors. Contentment then? How fucking boring is that? Also, with all the injustice in the world, what is there to be content about? Everybody knows the truest way to live. Restless.

So here's what's about it, maybe, probably, possibly. It's about being open to interesting experiences. Not buying into the trap that is the pursuit of happiness. Instead, we should be finding those intriguing series of circumstances and exploring a disparate direction to discover all the colors. Freedom is afforded for us in small bursts, but those bursts are monumental, magnificent, marvelous. And life is nothing if not a series of quiet bursts offset by thunderous minutia. We must fight to find the ephemeral freedoms. We must collect stories to build secure structures and weave blankets of those itty bitty bursts.