Thomas Pynchon ("P"), author of the celebrated but indecipherable V and Gravity's Rainbow, is an author whose avoidance of publicity has become legendry.
Since he slipped away from a national US magazine photographer in Mexico City after publication of V in 1963, he has refused all requests for interviews, his whereabouts are kept a secret and "his very existence has been called into question". If you are going to make a documentary about someone's life there are easier people to choose.
Inevitably, with so little hard biographical data to go on, filmmakers Fosco and Donatello Dubini end up taking a wry look at the mythology and industry that has arisen around Pynchon and his work, as much as the man himself. What starts as "a journey into", becomes "the hunt for", P.
Interviews with scribes, webmasters and assorted Pynchonphiles fill us in on the scant biography. He went to Cornell Uni, joined the navy and worked on the Minuteman missile for Boeing. Not the kind of credentials you'd expect of a writer who had so much subversive appeal, but in the case of this enigmatic man entirely appropriate.
We also learn that he was tall, shy, sensitive, very pale, and smoked cigarettes. An old girlfriend says he was "dramatic" and liked role-playing. He liked to hand write his work first then edit it when he typed it out. "The sort of person who could turn out an almanac in a week," adds literary critic George Plimpton.
Not surprisingly, for an author whose cryptic writings were noted for their paranoia, conspiracy theories abound. Is he Salinger? A CIA agent? A collective? Still alive? One interviewee thought he saw Pynchon in drag in his store in the Sixties, but he couldn't be sure. Other Pynchonphiles say he might have turned up to their lookalike contest in a New York bar.
This could have been very dull stuff, and at times the obsessiveness does become trying, but the filmmakers capture the spirit and humour of the man and his myth.
Talking heads are juxtaposed with offbeat Cold War footage and recurring tunnel imagery in split screen shots, montages and slo-mo sequences. Footage is hilarious and disturbing. For example, newsreel from the Sixties depicts a discombobulated cat on LSD, while a cigarette-smoking doctor, with a nicotine-stained grin, tells us that LSD could be "a humanistic way to wage war".
The trippy electronica soundtrack by The Residents with netherworld-sounding samples and repetitive Philip-Glass-like ditties, adds to the overall sense of things being off-kilter.
As for the mind of P? A performer who impersonated Pynchon for a Carnegie Hall awards ceremony has a good line. He remembers with amusement the audience's confusion when he took to the podium and started his spoof acceptance speech: "They didn't know Pincher. I didn't know Pincher. I even think Pincher didn't know Pincher." It's a sentiment that you will share by the end of this.