07 March 2009

Movielog, Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of [P]

Thomas Pynchon: A Journey Into the Mind of [P], 2001
Written and Directed by Donatello Dubini and Fosco Dubini
96 minutes

Who exactly is this movie intended for? I'm a huge Pynchon fan who has read each of his books at least once and who has spent some amount of time learning as much as can be known about the man and his works, so I can watch Journey and fill in some of the gaps in the film that the casual viewer cannot. But the film spends so much time trying (ineptly) to convince me of its own insight and "strangeness" that it doesn't give me what I'd most like to have: information about the subject of the film.

Thomas Pynchon is the author of six novels, from V. in 1963 to Against the Day in 2006. He is incredibly reclusive, has never given an interview or commented on his dense, mazelike novels, and indeed hasn't been photographed in decades. A handful of photos of the author exist, all of them from before he was an author, mostly from his days in college or in the Navy. It is natural for those of us who love the writings to attempt to puzzle out the author's life, and a film that attempted to use what little we know of Pynchon's biography to flesh out some of the stranger passages in his novels would be a fascinating one. But that is not this film.

We know, for instance, that Pynchon based much of the family history of the protagonist of his greatest work, Gravity's Rainbow, on his own blue-blood heritage. We know that Pynchon spent some of his time living on a commune in the Pacific Northwest, an experience that seems to inform a good chunk of 1990's Vineland. We know that he spent time in the Navy, and his experiences must have had some influence on the characters in V.. A Journey Into the Mind of [P] mentions none of this, not even brushing by these kinds of elements, and instead focuses on making wild conspiratorial rantings about connections between Thomas Pynchon and the military-industrial complex.

Early in the film, we are told that Pynchon lived in Mexico City at the same time that Lee Harvey Oswald visited the city. Did they meet? Did they ride the same train? intones an interviewee, a Pynchon researcher who seems from the evidence in the film to have taken a few too many drugs back in the day. This is followed by a series of propaganda-like images showing Oswald's life, arrest. and eventual murder at the hands of Jack Ruby. Certainly paranoia is an aspect of Pynchon's writing, but connecting him with Oswald? Really?

The film suggests that perhaps Pynchon had a history that he was afraid would get out if he became a public figure, a suggestion bolstered by an interview with a man who knew Pynchon in the late sixties and early seventies. This gentleman (sorry to be vague about the names, but I can't find references to the interviewees on the web and I already sent the disc back to Netflix) also intones deeply that Pynchon may have been involved in the military testing of LSD, "just like Timothy Leary." So, you know, consider the source. The recollections of those who once knew Pynchon are interesting and useful insofar as they illuminate the man, but less so once they become more fodder for the grist mill.

A real lost opportunity is the interview with an ex-lover of Pynchon, a woman who was the inspiration for "Bianca," from GR. What was he like as a man? As a lover? Where did they go for fun? What kinds of books, movies did he like? Was he introspective? Depressed? Joyful? Aside from a brief discussion of Pynchon's desire to protest the Vietnam War in Chicago, we get none of this; instead we are bored by the woman's attempts to enter the apartment where Pynchon lived decades ago, hectoring the current occupant to let her (and the film crew) in for "just a minute." Sure, it's interesting to see where Pynchon lived while he created his greatest work, but by focusing on that instead of more substantive issues the filmmakers due their audience a disservice.

Another researcher talks about Pynchon's personal correspondence. We get a long intro in which he discusses his first reading of Gravity's Rainbow, and how he first got involved in Pynchomania, but when it comes to the real meat of the issue, he closes his files and pushes the camera away. Some of the documents were private correspondence, sure, and there are ethical issues, but to expose the audience to the kinds of wealth of material about Pynchon without even hinting to their content? Ridiculous. We're talking about literally boxes of papers, full of detail and insight, but as a viewer we are completely shut out. There's the real info, that's what might have been an interesting movie. The rest? Eh.

And that's the feeling I got at the end. Eh. Journey has some interesting bits that prevent it from being a total waste of time, but even within the confines of trying to understand such a reclusive artist, there are much better ways to go about it. I wonder what kind of film Werner Herzog would make about good ol' Ruggles....

Rating: D+

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