The year is halfway over, and the movie to beat for my favorite Chicago premiere of 2015 remains Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, which opened here in January. Vice is one of the most inspired literary adaptations I’ve seen—it’s so densely realized that watching the movie feels like wandering through Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel. Anderson claims that for his first draft of the script, he simply typed up the entire book in screenplay form, and the finished film preserves so many details from the book one can’t possibly catch them all on one viewing. Now that Vice is out on DVD, you can pause, rewind, and find all the stuff you missed the first—or second or third—time around. I was impressed, on one recent reviewing, that Anderson even preserved a throwaway gag at a pizza parlor wherein Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) finds he ordered a pie with marshmallows on it; typical of Anderson’s approach, the detail is not commented on in the dialogue.
The movie, in short, is a gift that keeps on giving—naturally, it inspired a superior making-of documentary that’s now available to watch online. Chryskylodon Blues, directed by the gifted underground filmmaker Laura Colella (Tax Day, Breakfast With Curtis), is as novel in its approach to the behind-the-scenes doc as Inherent Vice is to the literary adaptation. Shot on Super-8, it looks like it could have been made in 1970, when Vice takes place. Colella recently explained to me that Anderson, an old friend, originally intended for her to play an amateur filmmaker during the scene set at the surf-rock band’s party that Sportello crashes midway through the film, and that she’d shoot Super-8 footage onscreen. She ended up using the Super-8 camera to film Chryskylodon, rather than shooting it digitally. (When asked why Warner Bros. decided not to include her film on the Inherent Vice DVD, she declined to comment.)
The short documentary revels in its shooting format—indeed the first thing we see is a few seconds of film leader. The subsequent images are grainy, the camera movements are shaky, and the subjects are typically seen from a distance. It feels as if Colella snuck into the world of Inherent Vice and decided to have a look around. Adding to the outsider feel, there are no interviews with the cast or crew or even any diegetic sound. What we get are fleeting impressions of the shoot, accompanied by music by surf-rock band the Growlers (who play the surf-rock band the Boards in Vice) and passages of Pynchon’s novel read by Theo Green, the old hippie who starred in Breakfast With Curtis. When Anderson appears, he seems focused yet casual, as if trying not to disrupt the environment that he and his crew have created. Colella devotes as much attention to the extras (all wearing vintage outfits) as to the filmmakers, implying that the genius of Vice lies in its many details.
The purposely disorganized Chryskylodon feels more like a memory piece than Vice did, in part because Green’s recitations carry a sense of nostalgia. His gruff yet bemused-sounding voice is a perfect match for Pynchon’s prose—he really sounds as if he lived through the hippie era that Pynchon describes. (I’d love to hear him read the entirety of Inherent Vice as an audio book.) When Joanna Newsom recites Pynchon’s narration in Anderson’s film, she sounds like she’s describing events from the recent past. Green, on the other hand, sounds like he’s trying to recapture a bygone era. His readings draw attention to the melancholy undercurrent of Vice, another quality of the film that isn’t readily apparent but which grows in prominence the more you watch it.