Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon adaptation is a beautiful and funny masterpiece of over-the-top story-telling, with a dark and serious heart, says Ian Maleney.
“Change your hair, change your life… It’s up to you. Follow your intuition.”
We do not know ourselves. Throughout Inherent Vice, we are presented with characters fundamentally alienated from their own desires, unable to communicate or understand their own experiences. The drugs obviously play a role in this; they mystify what would otherwise be an endlessly depressive ignorance, casting incomprehension as fleeting and wondrous rather than crushingly endemic. Inherent Vice is an examination of this incomprehension. Larry “Doc” Sportello is a weed-smoking Los Angeles private detective in 1970, and our protagonist. Shasta Fey Hepworth is his ex-girlfriend, currently playing mistress to Micky Wolfmann, a big-shot real estate developer. Shasta employs Doc to investigate a plan hatched by Wolfmann’s wife to commit her husband to a “loony bin”. It all begins to unravel when Doc wakes up in the desert beside a dead biker, with Det. Lt. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen and half the L.A.P.D. pointing their guns at him, and Shasta has disappeared along with her boyfriend. The plot thickens quicker than the weed smoke and soon spirals out of control, often to genuinely funny effect. There’s a mysterious boat, Nazis, undercover informants, a rock band and character, Sortilége, who may or may not be a figment of Doc’s imagination. She also provides the narration. As Doc writes in his little red notebook, “Paranoia Alert”.
It’s fitting that the most spiritual moment in the film, the least paranoid, the closest we get to a sense of intimacy and acceptance, is during a long dope drought. Fitting too that it is remembered; it doesn’t happen in real-time – peace is always easier found in the past. Doc and Shasta are sitting on a stoop, withering from the summer heat and opium withdrawal, when Sortilége presents a ouija board. “Nobody had any. Everybody was desperate and suffering lapses of judgement,” she says on her voiceover. Doc operates the ouija board, and it gives him a number to call. The number leads to a pre-recorded message, giving them an address where they can score. Sortilége cautions restraint, but Shasta and Doc don’t listen and run, barefoot, to Sunset Boulevard. When they get there, there’s only an empty lot. It’s raining and the pair shelter in the doorway of a cleaners. They’re happy, kissing and laughing, while a Neil Young song called ‘Journey Through The Past’ plays in the background. “They didn’t score any dope that day, but suddenly it didn’t seem to matter,” says Sortilége. The ouija board operates as reclaimed instinct, but it leads not to the things we expect to desire. Instead, the true aims of desire, as in Tarkovsky’s Zone, are always hidden from us, unforeseeable. In Stalker, this idea of a “true desire” is a source of fear, of duty, of introspection. In Inherent Vice, it’s the only path towards love. They are maybe not so dissimilar.
This being Pynchon, nothing is ever quite so straight-forward either. The ouija board episode is also a key clue in Doc’s mission to understand the Golden Fang, an Indochinese gang of drug-smugglers. The memory of the ouija board is brought up in the first place through a postcard from the missing Shasta, which leads Doc to visit the site on Sunset again. There is now a large, golden, fang-shaped building there, housing “a syndicate of dentists, set up long ago for tax purposes”. It does appear to be a dentist’s, as there are many people there getting their teeth done (another clue), but it’s also a front for moving heroin into the country – as exemplified by the purple-suited Dr. Blatnoyd, a particularly flamboyant cog in the machine. The Golden Fang is what it says it is, and also not what it says it is. Shasta’s postcard is what it says it is, a fond remembrance of a happy time, but also not what she says; it’s a clue, and an instrumental piece of the plot. That Doc notices both sides, understands her fully, is perhaps a sign of the depth of their connection. Language is still subtle between them, flexible even, but it isn’t duplicitous.
Shasta also embodies many of the film’s concerns about sex. Sex here is something observed, or something bartered. Much as language is, sex is always mediated through the lens of money or drugs (where it operates in lieu of money). Doc observes the “Pussy Eater Special”, but he doesn’t participate as he thought he would. Blatnoyd is fucking his receptionist, but only when there’s coke to be done. Blatnoyd is also involved with Japonica Fenway, a young dope addict. Shasta’s relationship with Wolfmann is paying her rent but has her “looking the way she swore she’d never look” and “laying a heavy combination of face ingredients on Doc”. There’s more sorrow in her voice. It’s also a symbol of Wolfmann’s change-of-heart, which has him looking to forego his real estate empire in favour of giving free homes to everybody, which in turn forms the impetus for the plot in general. Sex isn’t about love anymore, this is post-Altamont, post-Manson. It’s instrumental, something to be used.
This is made explicit towards the end, when Doc meets with Japonica Fenway’s father, who gave him his first paying P.I. job finding Japonica after she’d gone missing. Fenway is apparently high-up in the Golden Fang circle and he meets Doc to get a large amount of heroin back off him. When Doc asks about Blatnoyd, Fenway describes the “sexual practices” to which Blatnoyd would subject Japonica. These practices included making her listen to “original cast albums of Broadway musicals while he had his way with her,” and “the tastelessness of resort hotel rooms he took her to during endodontist conventions; the wallpaper, the lamps”. Fenway’s concern is not for daughter’s morality as such, but for the decorative framing of her sex-life. He is disgusted by the cheapness – the lack of taste he associates with a lack of money, a lack of class. It is the aesthetics of sex which make it acceptable or not. Whether it’s drugs or love behind it, it’s the way the sex looks that matters. Sex is purely intellectual, always at a distance from instinct.
It’s Shasta who breaks this down. She taunts Doc, undressing while he’s on the phone, asking him “What kind of girl do you need Doc? Maybe a thing for one of those Manson chicks?”. “What would Charlie do?”, she asks him. “Probably not this,” he replies, lighting a joint. She tells him how “powerful” Wolfmann was, how “sometimes he could almost make you feel invisible”. Wolfmann’s power lies in the way he dominated; her, a room, L.A., whatever. How easily he moves in the world. She’s making fun of Doc’s attachment to her, how he can’t take control of a situation, how passive he is. “If I had the faithless little bitch across my lap, I know what I’d do, I’d…”. Four hard slaps, and then it’s over in a few quick seconds. It’s an embodiment of the Reichian “orgastic potency”, an impulsive, near-apocalyptic act which derives from a radical confrontation with one’s received, repressive influences. The Doc we’ve seen so far would never slap anyone – there isn’t a hint of dominance in him. But then, like Adorno said, when we’re least like ourselves, that is when we are most ourselves. Or, as noted Reich fan, Norman Mailer, put it, “Intellectuals never had good orgasms.” Maybe Doc himself said it best: “Don’t worry, thinking comes later.”
The Reich connection is worth expanding on, because the Austrian’s ideas about sex and liberation were a huge part of both the hippy ideals of “free love” in the 60s – which Shasta is an obvious emblem of, Country Joe and the Fish t-shirt and all – but also the way those ideas were used to sell products like Reich’s own “Organe Accumulators”. You can fuck whoever and however you want, as long as you’re buying something. This is particularly obvious right at the beginning of Inherent Vice, when an ad for Wolfmann’s “newest and grooviest” housing development is voiced by an afro-sporting Bigfoot, who wants “to see you in your own pad” with “no buzzkill credit cheques”. The breakfast nook is “out of sight” and the view of the flood control channel is “right on”. The language of the sexual revolution (which was once a political revolution) is now fully embedded in the language of advertising and big business, as deployed by a cop who wants to be an actor. It’s a marketing ploy. This is mirrored near the end of the film, when Adrian Prussia, a bald, middle-aged loan shark/hitman, is on the phone: “Far out man, right, psych-e-delic”. The language of love is now the language of a man who beats, tortures and kills for a living.
This transformation is not limited to the word either; the language of symbols is equally open to reinterpretation. Another heavy, this one called Puck Beaverton, has a swastika tattooed on his face. When Doc visits the Chryskylodon Institute (“Straight Is Hip”), the private rehab clinic where Wolfmann is being kept, he is told that Beaverton’s swastika is “an ancient Hindu symbol meaning ‘all is well’. It brings good fortune, luck and well-being.” All of which is strictly true, but at the same time, isn’t. Of course, it could be seen as just another gang sign in a post-ideological world, particularly one where a member of the “Black Guerrilla Family” does business with a member of the “Aryan Brotherhood”, because they share some opinions about the U.S. government. The Brotherhood in turn act as bodyguards for Wolfmann, but he’s been abducted and committed to an institution by the F.B.I. It’s all connected, or maybe it isn’t. It is and it isn’t.
Despite all the paranoia, there is a strong thematic concern underpinning everything that happens here. The central idea under Pynchon’s microscope is how the ways in which we connect and communicate with ourselves and each other are effected by the forces of the state, the media and big business. In the wake of the 60s, Pynchon sees capital as freer than ever to determine our lives, to undermine “authentic” connections, to manipulate the desires and structures of daily life. Whether it’s the drugs, or just the way the whole idea of meaningful language has been undermined, almost no one in Inherent Vice understands one another. Doc’s friend, the Marine Law officer, has begun to have near-sexual feelings for the Golden Fang’s boat. When a woman explains a Spanish phrase to Doc, he writes “something Spanish” in his notebook, not the translation she gives him. When Doc gets to the Chryskylodon Institute, the word “facilities” is used in two different ways in the space of two sentences. Chryskylodon is first said to be an ancient Indian word that means serenity, but then it’s actually a Greek word for “animal tooth tipped with gold”. Perhaps, outside of the film, it’s neither.
People are misunderstanding words all the time, not catching each other’s drift. People are setting each other up, lying to each other, lying to themselves. The businessmen are taking acid and building apartment complexes in the desert. The District Attorney breaks into sealed records “all the time”. The L.A.P.D. are using contract killers. Drug traffickers own rehab clinics; why not make a profit on both sides of the coin? Stands to reason. When someone wants to give their money away and provide homes for people, it’s the state that stops them and wakes them up from their “horrible hippy dream”. It is a world constituted almost entirely of paranoia and fear. When the phone rings, Doc merely looks at it and says, “Can’t be good”.
The only figure outside of all this is Sortilége. She appears as a physical character several times, eating pizza or riding in the car with Doc, but there is still the sense that she isn’t quite real. Maybe she is and isn’t. She’s in the car while they drive out to a brothel, and also on the way to Chryskylodon, but isn’t there when they reach either place. As far as we know she’s not on drugs, she seems too clear for that. Maybe she’s just on better drugs. She knows the inside of Doc’s mind, and when he’s about to get in trouble, the voiceover whispers, “Doper’s ESP Doc, doper’s ESP!”. At the end, Shasta says, “She knows things Doc, maybe about us that we don’t know”. And this is what it comes down to really, that there are forces that know more about us than we do ourselves, that we’re open to manipulation both beneficial and otherwise. We’re not in tune with our senses, and maybe that’s intentional, all part of the plan. Maybe someone can take advantage of that. As Sortilége wonders in the film,
“Was it possible, that at every gathering — concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back East, wherever — those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear?”
The evidence in Inherent Vice suggests that those ancient forces are indeed present, hidden behind just about every action once you look hard enough. There’s a good chance they’re winning too.