Harry W’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Under the paving stones, the beach”
Before the iconic opening lines of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, there’s that saying. Before the sunshine close-up of Sortilège, whose name means the foretelling of the future, there’s that shot.
So when the opening frame of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice visualises the very epigram that derives from the Paris protest movement of 1968, referring to the process of searching for something ideal below society’s surface, by showing neither the paving stones nor the beach, but rather the juxtaposed land and sea, with a stairwell that beckons us to explore the oceanic expanse; all thoughts of perseverance and permanence disappear.
Much like Shasta Fay Hepworth.
The image of an unblemished natural expanse waiting to be rescued from beneath its suffocating enclosure signified, on a social, cultural, ecological and perhaps even religious wavelength, a poetic retort to history’s inexorable forward momentum. Two years following the Parisian students’ defiance of American imperialism, and of capitalist culture as a worldwide whole, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell released her hit single “Big Yellow Taxi”, which reworded the jeu d'esprit in its opening line, “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot”, as she juxtaposed the departure of her lover with the evils of urban sprawl.
Now, where does that sound familiar?
Mitchell’s song was released in the summer of 1970, the same year dramatised in Pynchon’s acclaimed novel and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s esteemed adaptation, and whilst “Big Yellow Taxi” isn’t included in the numerous sing-alongs found in Pynchon’s writings, nor does it feature amongst Jonny Greenwood’s neo-noir score in Anderson’s movie; both book and film embody aspects of Mitchell’s lyrics, in an authentic and intriguing way. Under the guise of an environmentalist lament, Mitchell was writing about a more universal or timeless sensation; the feeling of something, or somebody, unavoidably slipping away, wonderfully articulated in the song via the enduring refrain - “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.
Such elusive party in Inherent Vice is unmistakably Shasta Fay Hepworth, the hippie ex-girlfriend of Larry “Doc” Sportello, a self-styled private investigator with a marijuana addiction, that he isn’t ready to admit just yet. Doc’s also not ready to admit his lasting nostalgia with the “ex-old lady” that he’s still unmistakably in love with; so when Miss Hepworth vanishes quite literally, you can imagine it’s Doc’s stance that he holds responsibility to find her. Especially after an ominous secret rendezvous, where she outlined a high-society kidnapping scheme, with teary eyes and a look she swore she’d never sport.
The process of searching for something below the surface, to play detective if you will, is inherent, pardon the pun, to the storyline of Inherent Vice, as Doc Sportello attempts to locate Shasta as well as billionaire land developer Mickey Wolfmann, the victim of the aforementioned proposed kidnapping plan, who may or not be unwilling chained to a “loony bin” and who may or may not be Shasta’s new lover. However, detective work is also embedded more abstractly in the relationship between Pynchon’s book and Paul Anderson’s movie as, for viewers who’ve had the pleasure of reading the original novel and who’s interest was most certainly peaked by the film’s 150-minute running time, noting what had been included and excluded, altered and added, whilst mapping Pynchon’s tricky and endlessly verbose prose onto Anderson’s mis-en-scene, is an investigatory feat that would perhaps give even Sherlock Holmes himself a fair few sleepless nights.
The result is a film that functions as a kind of reversible palimpsest, depending on which artist you’re superimposing over the other, as one could attempt to find Pynchon in the events on screen, perhaps literally if rumours of the reclusive author’s cameo are to be believed, or else tally up the auteur touches. The roving camera, ghostly dissolves and virtuosos juvenilia all feature, but Anderson’s desire to break from original screenwriting once more, as seen in There Will Be Blood, highlights Inherent Vice as an outlier compared to the rest of his filmography, especially in consideration of Anderson’s utter reverence for Pynchon’s original text, on top of being a book set in an era closer to home for the auteur director, which yields a sense of fidelity.
Whilst the link to There Will Be Blood is at first striking, considering the similar production contexts, one could also see Inherent Vice as a clever companion piece with The Master, also PTA, and not just because the two share the same leading man, Joaquin Phoenix. To return to the mesmerising opening shot of Inherent Vice, it too begins with a shot of the ocean, but rather than The Master’s birds-eye magisterial position, it opts for a shot wittily undefined by horizontal lines. The Pacific is seen at a distance, bisecting the space between two ramshackle waterfront properties. In the foreground, the railing of a staircase invited us to climb down and head towards such horizon line, the same destination as Daniel Plainview and Freddie Quell.
This inviting trajectory is an apt entry point for a movie whose narrative and themes are tied to the idea of questing and exploration; of Doc’s search for Shasta, threaded as it is through a series of subplots about other characters who’ve become physically or figuratively lost amid LA’s labyrinth layout. It’s a clever play on Pynchon’s opening epigram, capturing a similar dynamic between civilisation and the natural world, the sun-blind stoner enclave of boardwalks and head shops exists at the edge of something huge and elemental. An endless summer.
Whilst Freddie Quell, and perhaps even Daniel Plainview coming to the end of There Will Be Blood, was a shambling alcoholic, Doc Sportello is a loud and proud pothead, an affliction that leaves him addled but functional nonetheless. He may be well and truly stoned in a majority of his scenes, which is essentially the entire movie, but not in a way that limits his abilities as a detective, and which also enhances his archetypal appeal. A few years after the Summer of Love, and one following the infamous Manson Murders, that Tarantino so perfectly satirised in his post-modern masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is often referenced in throwaway bits of dialogue, Doc’s patchouli couture brands him as a stand-in for counterculture resistance in a country otherwise serving the will of it’s silent majority via a foreign police action that has long since bled into a full-blown military campaign.
I’d argue it’s not quite right to call Inherent Vice a Vietnam allegory, though the war, and the larger ideological divide it proved to be the catalyst of on the American home-front, is clearly present as background texture. With his trusty notebook in hand, Doc, like the spectator, is eager to search for connections, however tenuous, between the people he meets in the line of duty, though most of the eastern Los Angeles chatter surrounds the shadowy syndicate known as the Golden Fang, whose both name and iconography hint at an “Oriental” origin. From such xenophobic angle, Doc is, in his own way, fighting the good fight in microcosm, but the Golden Fang really isn’t as exotic as it sounds, as it occurs to Doc that his true rivals are instead local.
Sportello’s numerous clashes with the stone-faced LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, wonderfully elucidated by a hilarious Josh Brolin, a physically imposing bully who burlesques Woodstock fashions on advertisements for local businesses, are broadly representative of the period’s schism between hippie hedonism and authoritarian machismo, often to a side-splitting effect. When Doc’s long and winding investigation into Mickey Wolfmann’s whereabouts leads to his stumbling across the headquarters of the aforementioned massive international corporatised criminal conspiracy; a towering, almost phallic, gilded building that paved paradise - under the name of no other than Golden Fang Enterprises.
It immediately becomes clear that, in Pynchon’s relentlessly dialectical conception, it’s actually communism’s evil twin that Doc’s battling. The spectre haunting the world is capitalism itself. However, this is exactly the same as it ever was. The noir genre has always reflected the social, historical and economic conditions around its inception and development, rooted in the dislocation and fiscal inequality of the post-war forties and updated accordingly as time passed, whether that be the Watergate fatalism of Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) or the Desert Storm dementia of the Coen brother’s The Big Lebowski (1998). Both of these canonical LA stoner noirs became inevitable points of critical reference for Inherent Vice, both book and film, and whilst Phoenix’s lead performance arguably splits the difference between the cool of Elliot Gould’s Phillip Marlowe, and the hapless sweetness of Jeff Bridges’ The Dude; Anderson’s choices in regard to Doc Sportello take their cues directly from Thomas Pynchon himself.
The narcotic drift of Robert Elswit’s camera and its recurring motif of slow-push-ins, ominous shots that provoke unstoppably through space while paralysing time itself, captures the novel’s distinct atmosphere of free-floating unease and paranoia. The techniques evokes the disequilibrium of being stoned as well as the constant fear of losing sight of the bigger picture as it contacts towards a vanishing point. Trippiness is very much in Anderson’s wheelhouse, considering the former cocaine addict admittedly now only resorts to marijuana to calm his nerves and further creative thirsts, and the portrayal of Doc Sportello and his medicinally enhanced paranoia follows the book almost exactly, providing the esteemed filmmaker with a steadily skewed frame on which to hang his myriad revisions.
The first and most apparent of such is the promotion of the aforementioned Sortilège into a position of great prominence. Being the first person to speak on the film, as the voice of the novel’s omniscient narrator, Pynchon himself, her character is elevated from the mere hippie chick side-kick who keeps Doc medicated and offers astrological advice; often almost mirroring Shasta, though her relationship with Sportello is purely platonic. If anything, she is Shasta’s obverse within the narrative, a constant presence rather than a structuring absence. Perhaps even a constant reminder for Doc, within his own head, of Shasta herself, slightly askew from the actual image of her. Anderson’s decision to give her authority over the story is a canny one, dissolving the hard-boiled aura around the private eye genre into something even hazier.
More practically, Sortilège’s expanded role allows for Anderson to retain snatches of the novel’s dazzling language, so distinct from anything else I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. For instance, it is via her voiceover that Inherent Vice builds upon the crucial theme of Los Angeles as contested territory; a city long since carved up by various factions looking to control its vast resources and economical position. The rapacious mindset dramatised in There Will Be Blood had not dissipated but instead thickened, hovering over pattern of land grabs authored by the spiritual descendants of Daniel Plainview. To quote Sortilège herself:
“Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Centre, and Tariq’s neighbourhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates”.
With his monstrous moniker and ruthless professional ethics, which involved even using members of the Aryan Brotherhood as hired muscle, Mickey Wolfmann is the central Plainview manqué, but he’s also a figure of pity and even pathos. Shasta informs Doc in the opening scene that Mickey’s wife Sloan, Mrs Robinson to “spiritual coaches”, is fixing to have him committed to an insane asylum. Locked away in Chryskylodon, a luxurious compound to catering to the extremely wealthy yet spiritually bankrupt, with such facility undeniably linked to The Master in consideration of Anderson’s filmography, Mickey finds peace in the relinquishment of his business interests. He’s content instead to buy into the doctrine of selflessness preached by his new captor-mentors, making the alpha-wolf capitalist an unlikely but symbolically rich causality of the era’s vogue interest for cults.
The key to Pynchon’s riff on noir is its lack of surprise at the idea that everything is connected, and that the protagonist’s understanding of this synchronicity, such as learning that the disappearances of Shasta, Mickey and the supposedly deceased Coy Harlingen, whom Doc has been simultaneously hired to find by Coy’d dubious heartsick wife Hope, are all part of the same case, yields not exhilaration but resignation. It’s all just a another byproduct of conglomeration, of a vicious circle of every increasing supply and demand. To quote the musing Sortilège once more;
“If the Golden Fang can get customers strung out, why not run around and sell them a program to help kick it. As long as American life was something to be escaped from; the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers”.
It’s through this prism of addiction that Inherent Vice located its hobbled, seriocomic soul. Dog’s meeting with the aforementioned Hope, whose name is a movingly blatant synecdoche of her character, is punctuated by one of the movie’s more outrageous gags, that never ceases to make me laugh. An almost Looney Tunes style double take and scream by Doc following a look at a long-ago Polaroid of Hope’s heroin-addicted baby, now cleaned up, like her mother, into a perfectly normal-looking suburban child named Amethyst, a quartz that wards off intoxication. Trainspotting but without the nightmares. Doc’s horror at the photographic evidence of Coy’s past negligence is tempted by his desire to help Hope out regardless, and of his general concern for fuck-ups trying to fly right, which reflects a degree of self-knowledge.
“You can’t take this life straight, can you?”
The very key question of The Master, directed at Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, relates to Doc Sportello as well, as he can’t take really take life straight either. His reliance of marijuana and the disintegrating effect it has on his consciousness is his very own Inherent Vice.
To wit, Doc never truly receives any sort of compensation for his role in knotting the story’s various dangling threads. Vice may be inherent, but virtue is its own reward, for whatever that’s worth. During a later meeting with a malevolent businessman, Doc cracks wise;
“How much money would I have to take from you so I don’t lose your respect?”
The irony being, he doesn’t take any more, not even expenses, at all. Such dialogue quoted above is straight from Pynchon’s novel, and it’s as much a query to the reader, in this case audience, as it is to the suited antagonist. Doc is wonderfully aloud about the consequences of his steadfast refusal to literally buy into the system that keeps the Golden Fang in business, and ever afloat.
A few scenes later, when we see him turning over several hundred pounds of shanghaied narcotics to some incongruously wholesome-looking operatives, a blonde mother daughter duo in a station wagon; the visual joke is almost a killer, the hippie handing over the heroin to the suburban family, an earthly tactical surrender to the impeding war on drugs.
Such surreal tableau plays up the idea that Doc is, for all his hipster accessories, as inviolate as Raymond Chandler’s original Phillip Marlowe; a white knight in tarnished armour. His only request is that the Golden Fang release one of their undercover agents, that’d be Coy who is also a police informant, perhaps Pynchon’s suggestion that capitalist, criminal corruption is institutional in American society, so that he can reunite with his wife and daughter. Anderson lots to shoot the subsequent reunion with Doc at a remove as, instead of going inside to observe the catharsis he’s engineered, he stays in the car; once more a reminder of his solitary position.
Coy Harlingen is one of two characters in Inherent Vice who can be taken as a doppelgänger for Doc. In the former’s case, he’s what Doc could’ve been, or perhaps still could be, if he were to choose the sage harbour of hearth and hole. The other, more significant, twin is detective Bigfoot Bjornsen, who is perhaps the movie’s most carefully modulated character; a foil who gradually takes on a tragic dimension. Initially, Anderson’s strategy is to satirise Bigfoot’s eight hundred-pound gorilla act, as in the profoundly adolescent shots of him sucking passionately and obliviously on a chocolate-covered frozen banana as he chauffeurs Doc through the city in his own squad car. A juvenile way of suggesting sublimated homosexuality, or perhaps a signal of homophobic panic.
As Inherent Vice continues, Bigfoot is shown to to be no less a victim of external forces, including the Golden Fang who, it is revealed, conspired have his partner assassinated, than Doc and despite his intimidating solidity, he may be less capable of holding things together in light of that knowledge. Anderson’s bold addition of a final tête-à-tête between the two characters compresses Bigfoot entire downward arc into a few broad, enigmatic strokes. In terms of the overall narrative, Bigfoot’s final actions are deeply ambivalent; he helps Doc escape from the clutches of some neo-Nazi abductors working on behalf of Adrian Prussia, a loan shark affiliated with the Golden Fang, but Bigfoot’s rescue is merely a pretence to plant a shipment of heroin in Doc’s boot, of his car not his shoe.
After Doc successfully offloads the drugs in exchange for Coy’s freedom, Bigfoot smashes his way into Doc’s house, leading with his size twelves, but his aggression is spent.
“It’s been a long and busy day of civil right violations... I was in the neighbourhood and felt compelled to drop in”
The subtext here seems to be that the super-cop misses his punching bag, but I’d argue it’s more than that. Bigfoot is profoundly lonely, especially within his relationship with his wife, seen in fleeting glimpses, named Chastity, more wonderfully on-the-nose symbolism, which evokes martial frustration. Where as Doc’s paranoia is par for the course, Bigfoot’s realisation of his own insignificance in the larger scheme of things is deeply wounding, and his contempt for his opposite number is laced with pure envy. Inexplicably, and eulogistically, their dialogue becomes synced and they speak as one in unison.
“Listen, I’m sorry about last night. You? Why should you be sorry?”
The humanising of Bigfoot Bjornsen is in line with Anderson’s characteristic surfeit of empathy, which also informs an everything including lovely flashback to Doc and Shasta, floundering together in “one of those prolonged times of no dope”, running out into the rain to score, because Sortilège’s ouija board said so. Though they end up completely empty-handed, the two fall laughing into each other’s arm under a strip-mall awning, seeking shelter from the storm. Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” underscores the scene’s status as a fragile, sustaining memory, effectively italicising Shasta’s absence in the present tense while the camera prowls along the length of the fence, enclosing a vacant lot, pointing similarly to something missing.
The punching line, which is sudden, elegant, devastating and even during Neil Young’s song, comes when Doc rounds the same corner on Sunset Boulevard to see that the vacant space has been filled by that aforementioned towering, brutalist office building, erected, quite literally, in the name of the Golden Fang. It’s not bad enough that they paved paradise and put up a parking lot; they only went and built a monument to greed on top of it. This moment is very much a point of no return, as the beach is well and truly buried, covered by the paving stones if you will. On some level, the multi-directional futility of Doc’s quest is known to us from the start, and yet its still painful to watch how the sweetly idyllic sensations of the rather literal “Journey Through the Past” sequence, gets spoiled upon Shasta Fey Hepworth’s return to Gordita Beach.
If Anderson’s Inherent Vice is indeed a meta-detective exercise in trying to decide whether the filmmaker has hijacked the material or vice versa, the scene in which Shasta appears in Doc’s house, as if almost by magic, is at once inconclusive and definitive. It’s modelled precisely on the novel whilst also manifesting something dark and disturbing, on what would appear to be a more personal set of terms. In the novel, Doc knows, thanks to Denis, that Shasta is back, but in the film she simply materialises. First in the foreground, like a shadow out of a horror movie, and then, just as unnervingly, as a placid, smiling vision. She brings her ex a beer, disappears to get changed, and emerges fully nude, asking in a lobotomised monotone:
“What kind of girl do you need, Doc?”
What follows is a one-take, tour de force sex scene with Shasta naked and draped across Doc’s lap, while recounting her adventures as a rich man’s compliment plaything; a simultaneously erotic and disconcerting bit of exhibitionism that lines up rather smugly with Sportello’s most anguished fantasies, and perhaps even Anderson’s sometimes sentimentalised sexism. The basic choreography is Pynchon’s, as is the suggestion that Doc is, at his core, no different that then power-tripping masculine psychopaths he inwardly distinguishes himself from, as he is no less aroused by “submissive, brainwashed, horny little teeners”, than Charlie Manson, and no less into power-tripping than Mickey Wolfmann or Bigfoot Bjornsen. In offering herself completely to Doc, Shasta is enacting something between a come-on and a confessional, though the exchange that follows is more brutal and possessive than it is tender or erotic; an aggressive, violent and almost illusion-shattering moment which suggests the death of the 1960s. Instead of sharing kisses in the rain to Neil Young, they’re sharing jaded sneers and aggressive power struggles.
This twist-of-the-knife is plunged even deeper into the spectator’s skin however, as Anderson cleverly cuts to a time in the past of the pair in happier times, on a beach, unpaved. It’s at once a saving grace, and even features Sortilège providing insight to the film and novel’s mysterious title.
“Inherent Vice, in a marine insurance policy, is anything you can’t avoid. Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters. And Doc wondered what that meant when applied to ex-old-ladies”
What it means is that things inevitably fall alert, and ultimately Inherent Vice is about the folly of nostalgia, for a culture, for a country and for a lover, even as it luxuriates in its comforts.
“Does it ever end?”
Sortilège muses of her cohort’s glory days, before correcting herself with the same abrupt velocity as that shot of the Golden Fang’s phallic tower.
“Of course it does. It did”
What Sortilège is describing isn’t an ending, but a point of continuum whose contours are visible in retrospect, and which gains meaning from the fact that everything just keeps crumbling yet rebuilding. Intimations of corruptibility and crime aside, what Inherent Vice really represents is the necessity of contingency, of not falling for the idea that people or ideology are truly immutable, and of toeing, though not crossing, the thin line separating closely held principles for reactionary intractability. The distance, for example, between Doc Sportello and Bigfoot.
The point is not that the heartless, profit-driven calculus of the Golden Fang adds up to something new, but that it reincarnates something ancient and stubbornly enduring, which can’t be toppled by a single knight-errant or otherwise, yet is subject to the same Inherent Vice as those who built it. It preys only human frailty without transcending it, and the path of the practical radical is to wait it out, off the grid and for as long as possible; which is to say, no real path at all. It may be a function of Anderson’s abundant empathy that he refuses to let Doc go down that road alone, contriving a “lovers-on-the-run” ending where Shasta shacks up with Doc once and for all, though he insists,
“This doesn’t mean we’re back together”
Pynchon’s conclusion offers one last variation on the opening epigram’s language of unveiling, as Doc waits, “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead”. Anderson suggests that something is a Shasta, but even so the morbid tenor of their sex scene, it’s lingering despair and fetishistic, almost necrophilic undertones hang in the air. Her presence also means that Sortilège, Doc’s voice of reason and the one person in the whole hazy caper that is Anderson’s Inherent Vice capable of seeing clearly, is nowhere to be found. Has he swapped out his dream girl for the real thing? Or has he abandoned his friend and navigator, in an attempt to sustain an illusion?
However, it’s also possible that Shasta isn’t relay there, and that Doc is on a different kind of trip, one down memory lane. In this case, Anderson’s ending diverges from Pynchon and brushes up against The Master, which I’d argue is Inherent Vice’s contemporary, with Joaquin Phoenix once again stranded in a liminal space, with a lover who completes him by being a projection, a phantom, of his very own desire.
“Remember the day the Ouija board sent us off into that big storm? This feels the same way tonight”
To attempt to live inside a memory is to drift within a fog that never lifts; the headlight that catches Doc’s eye before the final cut to black could mean that he sees through it, or else that he’s happy to stay blind to reality, or unreality, of his situation. Either way, he looks right at us, red-eyed but inquisitive, as if to scrutinise our response;
A detective down to the very last frame.
“What’s up, Doc?”