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Josiah M. Hesse Josiah M. Hesse

On the Weed Bus With “Inherent Vice” Director Paul Thomas Anderson

My generation's greatest director came to Denver for the premiere of his new drug-addled film and cruised around the cannabis capital with me and 44 other stoners.

7 Substance

The bus shakes and bounces along a Denver street, carrying 45 souls in its belly, almost all of whom are smoking joints, drinking Tequila Zombies, eating chocolate-covered bananas and keeping an eye on the bearded man at the back of the bus, filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. The Association’s “Never My Love” is playing on the stereo, which, along with the drinks and sweets, is a reference to Anderson’s latest film, Inherent Vice, which we will be treated to the Denver premier of later tonight. First, though, we are here to soak up the hospitality of our hosts, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, and gush over one of the greatest directors of our generation.

Following our state’s legalization of marijuana, Denver has become a destination point for Hollywood stars looking to host promotional parties for their films. Last December, cannabis-loving comedian Seth Rogen attempted to host a smoke-filled screening of his film The Interview in a Denver theater (this was before the Sony hack), but city officials intervened and no marijuana was consumed at the event. The Alamo Drafthouse would run into the same dilemma if they tried to allow cannabis consumption in their theaters, and that’s why we’re on a party bus.

These vehicles have become a popular method for getting around public consumption laws. When city officials expanded open-alcohol container laws in vehicles to include marijuana, they inadvertently created a loophole that allows pot to be smoked inside limousines and party buses—which are legally sanctioned for alcohol consumption.

Anderson teamed up with the Alamo Drafthouse with the idea of a promotional contest, asking fans to dress up as characters from Inherent Vice and tweet the pics using the hashtag #InherentHaze.

Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice is a slacker-noir dramedy set in the post-hippie LA of 1970, a time when the violence of Altamont, the Manson murders and Vietnam were testing the idealism of a generation slowly coming to terms with the consequences of its own hedonism. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as a ubiquitously stoned private-eye attempting to unravel a complex conspiracy of kidnappings, drug rings, a rehabilitation cult, corrupt cops and white-power bikers—all while remaining as high as a giraffe’s balls.

Assuming that I was in for a debauched evening of cinema and celebration, I popped a Vicodin 20 minutes before entering the bus. Opioids aren’t typically my thing, but I’d been holding onto the pill for weeks and figured it would give me a nice lazy-grinned, mid-tempo warmth to match the tone of euphoric disillusionment of Inherent Vice. The flashing lights of the party bus mixed with the city driving and the squid-like mush of tangled bodies are, however, making me nauseous and pale. The pot, Tequila Zombies and pain-pill are engaging in a Lucha Libre wrestling match in my food-less tummy. All the while, my desert island, all-time, top shelf, no. 1 favorite filmmaker is standing only a few feet away.

Due to the humidity and monster-movie fog of cannabis smoke, the bus windows have become murky, gray clouds. We make an unexpected stop at a bar, and I’m sobered by the realization that we’ve traveled several miles to the neighborhood where I live.

Remember when you were in elementary school, and you’d go on a class trip that would bring you near your house, and it would be a surreal melding of your classmates and teachers with the world of your home-life? Visiting the Hi Dive bar with Paul Thomas Anderson is a lot like that for me. This is my neighborhood bar, and here is the wunderkind genius behind the humanizing lust of Boogie Nights, the Altman-esque, frog-raining lunacy of Magnolia, the carnal capitalism of There Will Be Blood and the Scientology autopsy of The Master.

An artist whose vision was born whole, requiring no instruction, encouragement or approval, Anderson is a cinematic true-believer, a populist and anarchist in the same breath. His movies force the audience to work for the payoff, dragging them through a tedium of misery and madness, only to come out the other side with a nihilistic wisdom that sits in your belly for days afterward. Every since 1997’s Boogie Nights (Anderson’s second film at the tender age of 27), I’ve maintained a WWJD-like discipline toward the director who has taught me to trust my creative instincts and disregard commercial failure—so long as I wrote the story I wanted to write.

“You’re the reason I never went to college,” I say to Anderson, drunkenly introducing myself. He laughs, understanding my reference to his dropping out of New York University two days after classes began, using his college fund to bankroll a short film that would get him into Cannes. “That’s a lot of pressure to lay on me,” he says, shaking my hand.

I ask for a photo with Anderson and suddenly the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, Tim League, shows up and says, “First you have to take a shot with us.” I’m feeling less nauseous now that I’m on solid ground and agree. We take the shots, followed immediately by my telling Anderson that his film Punch Drunk Love meant the world to me. He’s visibly excited by this, possibly because the Adam Sandler dark comedy about love, pudding and panic attacks was a box-office flop and is often overshadowed by his other cinematic giants. I revel in his enthusiasm.

I was told that tonight no journalist would be granted an interview with Anderson, and while I was invited on this trip as a reporter, my conversation with him doesn’t have the pretense of an interview. So I have no social armor when speaking with the man whose career has so deeply influenced my own. “You’re just…so…wonderful,” I tell him, while probably standing too close.

Smoking cigarettes outside the venue, Anderson tells me, “I’m actually not much of a pot smoker,” saying that he only gets stoned at his house in LA, and even then very rarely. As much of a sycophant as I am for this man, this is where our lifestyles take very divergent paths.

Back on the bus there’s a buffet of cannabinoid goodness to pilfer as we make our way back to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. THCelebrity marijuana critic Jake Brown hands me a CBD pill. The editor of Denver Post’s The Cannabist, Ricardo Baca, passes me a pen vaporizer. I follow up with 20 mg of chocolate pot I bought earlier that day at Denver Relief Dispensary. It’s not often that a night out in Denver lives up to the stoner-paradise fantasies outsiders typically have of this place, but tonight I’m on a party bus with 45 heavily armed stoners, and no “Mile High” cliches are off the table.

“Tonight, we are the first legally stoned audience in America to watch this movie,” Tim League says into a microphone once we’re inside the Alamo theater. Anderson joins him onstage, but only for a brief moment before saying “I just want to stop talking and start the movie.” (Perhaps at some point he succumbed to the party bus festivities?)

The edibles are finally kicking in, and I slouch with a satisfied grin deep into my extra-comfy theater chair. Seeing a movie at the Alamo is the last word in cinematic hospitality: Tonight’s screening is shown in 35 mm, a waitress serves me beer and dinner, to be eaten on my own spacious table. Halfway through the film, everyone is served a short-stack of pancakes, which is a reference to Josh Brolin’s character in the film (as were the chocolate-covered bananas we ate on the bus).

When I first got the assignment to cover this event, I set myself the goal of reading the Pynchon novel that it’s based on. I got busy but only made it a third of the way by tonight; I’m glad I had at least that much of a primer before taking on this two-and-a-half hour drug-noir odyssey.

Following the story of Inherent Vice is a lot like the waves of an acid trip. One minute, you’re like, “I get what’s happening, this is fun, I’m following a narrative.” And then seconds later, everything shifts and it’s “wait, whose that guy? Where are we? I’m lost.”
The disorientation is, for the most part, a very pleasant ride. The story contains dozens of characters and has a plot more complex than string theory, but being confused is part of the experience of this movie, as it puts you in the seat of Phoenix’s hippie-fried private investigator, who is confused and unnerved by the madness around him. Like any drug, you let the experience wash over you, not fretting about understanding the details lest you get twisted up in paranoid confusion.

The pale ales this waitress has been laying on my table catch up with me halfway through the movie, and I make my way to the bathroom. In the theater lobby, one of Anderson’s handlers pulls me aside and tells me that the director is hanging out in the theater bar with Tim League and Film Freak Central critic Walter Chaw (another hero of mine), and would I like to join them?

I am momentarily elated. But if I do hang out I’ll either be so stoned and intimidated that I won’t say a word, or the hyper, powder-puff superfan part of me will spring forth and I’ll start asking a string of Chris Farley Show-type questions: “Remember when you directed Fiona Apple’s video for ‘Paperbag’? That was awesome.”

Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t know who I am, and yet I know so much about him, which is an awkward dynamic for socializing. Our 18-year relationship has been through the one-sided lens of him making films, and me watching them. Considering that I’m as zonked as a baby on acid, and he probably could use a dose of quiet and normalcy after interacting with mobs of wide-eyed admirers in a city he’s never been to before, I decline the offer.

Besides, I’m halfway into a movie that I’m thoroughly enjoying. The Vicodin has long-since fizzled away, but the edibles are peaking throughout the last quarter of the movie. The film has been an exhausting ride of heartbreak and humor, full of delightful cameos from Martin Short as a coke-snorting philanderer, Joanna Newsom as an astrological princess, and Eric Roberts (who only a few years earlier was treated for marijuana addiction on Celebrity Rehab) as a man described as “technically Jewish but wants to be a Nazi.”

All of this comes to a delightfully baffling conclusion in the final scene where the straightlaced cop (played by Josh Brolin) startles a glassy-eyed Phoenix by kicking down his apartment door, only to stare him down, pluck the smoldering joint from his lips, puff on it, and then inexplicably chew it in his mouth. “I’m not your brother,” he says, and then proceeds to grab a plate of marijuana and gluttonously pour it down his own throat.

A scattering of people in the audience are chuckling at this, but in the moment it is honestly the funniest thing I have ever seen. Like a psychedelic bowel movement, this scene is the big payoff after a 150 minutes of mumbled dialogue, intricate conspiracies and an angel dust–fueled torture scene. Maybe it’s just the THC coursing through my veins, but I am literally screaming with laughter, unashamed that I am the only one experiencing a visceral exorcism.

After all, this is a film by the man who taught me to ignore the crowd and follow my creative instincts, which is the headiest drug of all.

Josiah M. Hesse is a Denver-based journalist who covers marijuana, politics, entertainment and pop culture. His work has appeared in Westword, Colorado Public Radio, Out Front Colorado and Vice magazine. His previous piece for Substance.com was about whether it is possible to be addicted to music and why he thinks he is.