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Have you ever had that experience when someone or something gives you such a moment of concentrated rapture that it puts you in their power forever after? It doesn’t matter how frustratingly non-rapturous subsequent encounters with said subject is, you are always inclined to cut them some slack simply because, well, you can’t escape that one moment when everything was utterly, obliteratingly perfect.

I’m really starting to feel that way about Paul Thomas Anderson. My big shiny moment with this guy came fifteen years ago, with the release of the extraordinary Magnolia, a film which instantly rocketed onto my list of all-time favourites. (Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve watched it in over a decade: perhaps I’ve just been afraid to discover time has not been kind to it.) That film was enough to make me turn up to practically every Anderson movie since – Punch Drunk Love, There Will Be Blood, The Master, I’ve been there for all of them, and found myself having to contend with my own bemusement: for all of these films are clearly the work of a master, but a master who seems to be deliberately underperforming.

Nevertheless, I’ll keep coming as long as he keeps filming, because none of these films have actually been anything less than striking and memorable. So it was that I turned up to his latest offering, Inherent Vice, an adaptation of a novel by reclusive American novelist Thomas Pynchon.

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Set in Los Angeles in 1970, the story is that of hippy private detective Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello (nicknamed thus presumably because he meets clients in the back of a doctor’s surgery), who is played by Joaquin Phoenix. The film opens with him taking on a number of apparently disparate cases: his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston) believes her new beau may be in danger of kidnap by his own wife and her lover, a Black Panther hires him to track down a Nazi skinhead who owes him money, and a young widow (Jena Malone) wants him to help confirm her belief that her husband (Owen Wilson) may not be as dead as has been widely advertised. Despite being medicated to the point of semi-consciousness much of the time, Doc sets to work, and discovers strange connections between all three enquiries: namely, a secretive organisation known as the Golden Fang. Between the perils of the cases and the hostility of the local detective (Josh Brolin), will Doc be able to uncover the truth?

Well, normally spoilers would dictate me giving away the ending, but in this case I’m not entirely sure what the ending is. You know how most people don’t remember anything about their lives prior to the age of four or five? I’ve always thought this is because when you’re really young, you’re not aware of what anything around you actually means, so you can’t store it in your memory – in the same way it’s much easier to remember a sentence in English than one in a language which is completely alien to you. Well, in the same way, sort of, my memory of much of the latter stages of Inherent Vice is deeply confuzzled, because past a certain point I had absolutely no clue what was going on. The basic connections of the plot just weren’t there, and I was left with a sequence of scenes in which various characters appeared and had conversations which I almost understood, but which had only tenuous links with the scenes preceding and following them.

A wise friend observed to me that this narrative incoherence is all part of Anderson’s intention for the film, which is to recreate the experience of being deeply stoned without the actual need for pharmaceutical ingestion. I’m not so sure, but it is true that Inherent Vice remains a crazy, distinctive trip. Anderson has assembled his usual excellent cast, including people like Benicio del Toro, Reese Witherspoon, Martin Short, and (cameoing) an on-form Eric Roberts, and it’s never actually boring to watch. Phoenix gives another charismatic, hugely likeable performance as Doc, and it’s just a shame that the actual narrative doesn’t live up to those of some other films in the LA private detective genre.

I’m thinking of things like Chinatown and even The Rockford Files (which features an equally amiable anti-hero), but the stoner-on-a-mission plot most recalls The Big Lebowski. This type of story has a noble history, going all the way back to Raymond Chandler, of using the detective genre to say things about the nature of wider society. Much of Inherent Vice is so bizarre and disjointed that it’s hard to tell if it’s attempting to make such a comment: but I suspect the title may be significant. It refers to the extent to which many things are fragile and perishable by their very nature: nearly everything turns to rubbish in the end. It’s a downbeat message for a film which is about characters who mainly seem to be trying to live in the moment. I suppose a further theme is that Doc and his stoner friends, who are despised by ‘respectable’ society, actually have more decency and integrity than the police, businessmen, dentists, and so on. But I am hesitant to claim too many insights, for obvious reasons.

It’s never actually dull to watch, and Anderson displays his usual technical mastery: here he shows a great fondness for the occasional very long take, usually in a two-handed scene. The film is full of wit and incident, and in its early stages is frequently very funny, though it darkens considerably as it goes on, and the ending, to the extent that I understood it at all, seemed rather ambiguous.

Inherent Vice has had some glowing reviews from respectable critics, which means one of three things: a) the press pack contains a detailed synopsis allowing them to follow the plot while watching the film, b) their refined sensibilities allow them to enjoy the cinematography, direction, and so on, without having to worry too much about the story making sense, or c) proper critics are just really, really clever. My money’s on b), to be honest. In any case, I’m reluctant to dismiss this movie out of hand: it has that aura of class about it, for all that the actual narrative is maddeningly obscure, to the point of virtually seeming incoherent. But then again, I’m inherently biased where Paul Thomas Anderson is concerned.

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Let us imagine you are a ‘creative’ working for the BBC’s daytime TV schedule. For the purposes of this exercise you are a strange and, in reality, non-existent hyphenate, a combination of a channel controller, department head, producer, script editor and writer. You find yourself with 500 minutes of TV to fill on weekday afternoons, ideally with some kind of drama. Ideally, you want something that will be popular, classy, and not too expensive to produce.

Your immediate thoughts turn to doing either a medical show or a mystery series, as these are ‘banker’ genres with an established track record. You dismiss the medical idea, as Doctors has run on weekday afternoons for years and you want to do something different. So it is to be a detective series. But what? How to stand out in such a crowded marketplace?

You need something with built-in name recognition for the more mature audience which makes up a large percentage of the daytime audience. And then it comes to you in a flash – with the Sherlock Holmes stories and the works of Agatha Christie both enjoying consistent success, there is another iconic literary detective who has been long-neglected by TV.

And so you hurriedly secure the TV rights to G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories. This done, you breathe a sigh of relief, congratulate yourself on your good sense and sit down to see how these stories can be adapted for daytime afternoons.

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Immediately you see there will be problems. The original stories were published between 1911 and 1935 and take in a huge variety of locations – in England, which is good, but also the rest of Britain, Europe, and the Americas. Father Brown himself is the only real constant throughout the series, and the closest thing he has to a Watson is Flambeau, a formidable, but reformed, master criminal from France. The 1920s is a bit too far back for a contemporary audience to feel properly comfortable with – this is daytime, so you want something fairly cosy – and the budget obviously won’t stretch to filming in Europe, let alone South America.

And so you decide that your version of Father Brown will live in the 1950s, in a sleepy Cotswold village. This has the advantage of creating associations in the mind of the viewer with the Marple stories and Midsomer Murders, which share the kind of vibe you’re shooting for. The disadvantage, of course, is that in TV Land sleepy Cotswold villages are not noted for having large Catholic populations for priests like Father Brown to minister to. So you decide there will also be a comedy relief Irish woman living in the village (you have noticed that Chesterton inexplicably neglected to include comedy relief in his stories), along with an attractive young Polish woman from a DP camp in the area (an attractive young woman will help with the publicity as well). Recurring characters like these two, and a grumpy police detective who objects to Father Brown’s sleuthing, will build up the cast and get around the lack of a proper sidekick for the protagonist.

Things are going well and you start thinking about which stories you will actually adapt for your series. You decide to start with The Hammer of God, which has the advantage of actually being set in a small English village to begin with. However, as you read the story you see your problems have only just begun.

Chesterton’s story revolves around the central image of a local debauch and scoundrel being found dead, his head literally shattered like an egg – Chesterton, with his usual consummate skill, puts it thus – ‘the skull was a hideous splash, a star of blackness and blood’. The mystery is not framed in terms of who would have wanted the man dead, but who could possibly have the power to strike such a titanic blow with the small hammer used? (Especially as the victim was wearing a steel-lined hat.)

You realise this sort of thing will be a bit too gory for the afternoon slot, and you know your audience will be expecting much more village intrigue and many more suspects and subplots. It is what they are used to, and it is obviously not your job to challenge them in any respect.

And so you set to work writing in new subplots, removing the central image of the obliterated head (even though this is crucial to Chesterton’s conception of the whole story), adding a bit where the comedy relief Irish woman falls into some bushes, and so on. You add a gay subplot, too, because this is a TV show being made in the 21st century, and also because this way you can make the killer a homophobe (another amendment to Chesterton). You remove a subplot about an attempt by the killer to frame a man with learning difficulties for the the murder, as this might seem dated and tasteless.

When it comes to the crucial denouement, you fall back on the TV mystery show playbook, with flashbacks of the crime taking place while Father Brown explains what happened. But you have grave misgivings about the philosophical and psychological musings which precede and justify it – and which are, again, crucial to Chesterton’s conception of the story. So you cut these out, along with the striking moment in which Father Brown physically restrains the murderer from committing suicide, saying ‘Not by that door, that door leads to hell.’ You remove most of the theology from the story – in fact, whenever you find something you consider to be an intellectually ‘chewy bit’ you excise it.

As it turns out, you are lucky enough to have Mark Williams playing Father Brown, an actor good enough to suggest the essence of the character even with so much of the original Chesterton edited out, which is your great good fortune. As you are attempting to create a series of G.K. Chesterton adaptations, but also intent on removing all the elements which made the original stories memorable and distinctive – their very essence – this is extremely useful.

If there is an artist with whom you feel kinship while working on this kind of project, it is probably a fish chef or a butcher, for your objective is to fillet and bone the stories of all their original structure and concerns while still retaining something of the original story and flavour. In the end, what you have produced retains the Father Brown name, with all the history that comes with it, but has thankfully dispensed with all that talk of sin and reason and theology, and is virtually indistinguishable from any of the dozens of other detective programs on TV today. You congratulate yourself on a job well done.

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