Well, this column is going to take yet another detour. I swear I had a pretty solid game plan going into this series. I knew what movies I wanted to cover, I knew the order, and I was even excited to revisit some of my favorite films that I haven’t seen in years. But life has a way of making fools of us all (see for reference: “The Breakup Files”), and I think I see the problem with my advanced planning: I am not the person I was when I looked to those films for answers to the questions I had about life. For better or worse (in the case of High Fidelity, probably for the worse) those films told me what I didn't know I wanted to hear and then reinforced those beliefs in me through repeat viewings. Films can serve as a lens into a world that we want to know more about, but they can also serve as a cipher to the world that we already know, creating a feedback loop between the film and the viewer, so that what we experience in the movie bleeds out into our life and influences the person that we will become. Maybe it was foolish for me to try and lead my grief by the nose and now maybe I should just let the films speak to me. Maybe, now that I understand who I was, it’s time to look towards who I’m going to be.
This entry is an interesting take on this series, as it is a film where I first saw it with my ex. We drove 2 hours to the nearest theater that was playing Inherent Vice when it was widely released in January, this year. It was a lovely day, we drove to Atlanta, caught this excellent film that we both loved, and got an above average dinner at a Japanese restaurant afterwards. It's one of those times where I remember us being cohesive, a solid couple. Revisiting the film afterwards, it has become slightly bittersweet as I mentally tie the film I’m watching with the time in which I watched it. Rose colored lenses fail to find even the inklings of the upheaval that is coming my way. It’s just another memory, “in the sea of memory and forgetfulness,” where I find myself dwelling more and more, longer and longer after the fact.
This gets to the heart of what Inherent Vice is all about, though. Superficially there is California, there is the changing American dynamic where the idealism of the hippie generation is slowly consumed by the threat of madness (in the form of Charles Manson) and drugs (in the form of the rising tide of heroin taking over the once LSD and pot-ridden scene). But at its heart, Inherent Vice is the story of a lost love and how we can never truly rid ourselves of what we’ve lost. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) doesn’t even see when his ex-Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston) first walks back into his life. He turns his head to catch her hanging in the doorway, like she surely had so many times before. A living ghost, bringing back with her all that half-forgotten regret, longing, and loneliness. The hardest part of breaking up is detangling your own life from the person you have been sharing it with, and, slowly, forgetting the parts of that life that left you such a wreck in the wake of the disintegration. And the even harder part of breaking up is being confronted with that life you desperately want to forget, when that ex shows back up in your doorway. There are two ways you can mentally deal with this: it can serve as a punctuation mark, a sign of how far you have truly moved from that point in your life, or it can lead back into those painful memories that once were so comforting. For Doc, it seems to bring him all the way back into Shasta. Or, at least, his memories of Shasta.
Because there is something ethereal and elusive about Shasta. Unlike the detached Joanna Newsom (playing Sortilège, a character that serves as a sort of narrator/imaginary friend of Doc’s), Shasta effects the story and other people acknowledge her existence constantly, but she is never really there. Like a ghostly presence she appears to Doc, dragging him back into her life, and then staining every aspect of his life after. While Doc stumbles around Shasta’s mystery (leads trouncing upon him more so than any sleuthing that he does), she appears in bits and glimpses, always being talked about by other people, even while they have not seen her. Shasta is simply made up of memories, and the hazy, pot-fueled ambience of the film mimics the sporadic and diluted thoughts that Doc manages to work his way through. But everywhere, absolutely everywhere, there is Shasta.
That’s the thing about trying to forget someone you’ve known for a long period of time: they’ve had time to work their way into so many aspects of your life. Where you’ve been, what you’ve done, and, to a smaller-or-larger extent, who you are. You can’t escape them, but even when you try to track them down (in that vast ocean of memory) they only come back as vague remembrances, half uttered sentences, and living a life that you don’t recognize because it isn’t your life with them. Where you do find them is in those memories that you share. At one point Shasta sends a postcard to Doc mentioning that time with the Ouija board (“You don’t remember do you, Doc?”). Doc goes back through the memory, one that he had forgotten until it was mentioned, and remembers a lovely day, one where they didn’t get what they wanted (to buy some weed) but that brought them closer anyway, as they ran through the streets in the pouring rain. That is until Joanna Newsom corrects: “It was weird that[ …] Shasta should have chosen to remember that one day in the rain. It had stuck with Doc, too. Even though it was late in their time together, when she already had one foot out the door.”
And that is what it truly, sometimes sadly, boils down to. Memories are shared only to an extent, and they reside differently in every person. The memory I have of my ex and our day spent going to see Inherent Vice and the great time we had with it, is really only my memory. I have no idea how she may have felt about that day. Even if she said she had enjoyed it at the time, it could just as easily be that she remembers it either horribly or not even at all. There were a couple of times where she would ask about what some of my favorite moments in our relationship were…and I would often not have an answer. If I did she would usually demure, “oh, I thought that was a pretty bad day.” When she would answer the same question I would find myself thinking at times, ‘well, I thought that was a bad day.” It is a sad reminder that our experiences are simply our own. As much as we may share with a person, we never really will wholly be with them. We can only get glimpses of the other people in our life, piecemeal, showing us what they want us to see. Every once in a while we may catch a glimpse of them with their guard down and get that elusive glimpse behind the curtain, and for a beautiful (or sometimes frightening) moment see the machinery that makes this other person work, this person you are so enamored and fascinated by. But that is still only your memory, your interpretation, and something you can’t share with anyone else, least of all that person.
In the end, though, even when this person shows back up in your life, there is a temporary nature to it. You can see it in Shasta & Doc's face at the end of the film: she stares ahead, frightened but calm; Doc constantly looks behind him, trying to see what's coming for them this time, but smiling wryly because, for the moment, he has what he was searching for. It will all come crashing down, because it must. It is merely circumstance that has led to this moment back together, and this moment will surely come to pass, as the headlights in the rearview get closer and closer and become more and more menacing. But there's still this moment. A light rain in that ocean. "This doesn't mean we're back together." "Of course not."