“I don’t even know what I just saw” says Doc Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix) as he stares out into the misty California evening, obscured by stale joint smoke and the thick Los Angeles fog. Beyond the haze lies the South Los Angeles shoreline and the enigmatic “Golden Fang,” a ship bearing heroin from the Golden Triangle. At about this time the viewer thinks, “I’m right there with ya, Doc.”
Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, stays true its source… what that means is the plot is winding, disorienting, and labyrinthine, supersaturated with one-liners and surrealist gags. It is a unique, albeit polarizing, experience. Anderson’s undertaking is certainly bold and Inherent Vice is not without its critics, who claim the film is languid at best and incoherent at worst. Such criticisms may say more about the viewer than the film itself. Inherent Vice is certainly not for the lover of clean endings, nor for those who rely on linear narratives as a crutch. For the optimal experience, the viewer must be willing to look beyond coherence and to be subsumed by the fog.
The story begins as they often do: with a woman and a problem. Shasta Fey Hepworth, Doc’s slinky ex-girlfriend, drifts into his house, in need of another favor. This time, Shasta’s been messing around with Mickey Wolfman, a shady real estate tycoon. Mickey’s wife has a beau on the side, and they are scheming to send Wolfman to the loony bin and make off with his fortune. Doc, a private detective by profession, walks Shasta back to her car, promising to look into it. Next thing Doc knows, he wakes up encircled by the LAPD, with an anonymous corpse lying beside him. The ensuing investigation brings Doc into contact with an array of outrageous characters, including members of the Aryan brotherhood, a surf-rock saxophonist who works undercover for the government (Owen Wilson), a coke-dealing dentist, and Bigfoot, an LAPD straight-man who eats chocolate covered bananas in a homoerotic fashion. No one wants to cooperate, and everyone is hiding something. As lies, marijuana haze, and spooky synchronicities thin the veil between the real and the unreal, the indistinguishable mix of portends and paranoia sends Doc further down the rabbit-hole until, finally, he has become an arm of a conspiracy he cannot even comprehend.
“Inherent Vice”, the sultry voice of Sortilège (played by Joanna Newsome) explains, “is anything you can’t avoid.” In the film, the definition is cited in reference to the torch Doc carries for Shasta. The title takes on a broader meaning in reference to the Golden Fang, the seemingly inescapable conspiracy which lies at the heart of the Wolfman mystery. The Fang boggles the mind in its totality. The Golden Fang is not only an importer of high-quality opiates, but also the head of a chain of luxury rehab facilities. The youth of America are sold their own rebellion, told to “turn on, tune in, drop out” with drugs and hippiedom, and are immediately sold its cure, New Age spirituality in the guise of Manson-esque recovery cults. The conspiracy supplies its own demand, a perfect perpetual motion device with ruined lives turning the cogs. This is best exemplified in the damage done to one’s teeth from prolonged heroin use: “it sucks the calcium right out of ya”. The Fang has even controlled for this, incorporating a sketchy conglomerate of dentists to clean up after the damage is done. It is a totalizing system, one in which even the U.S. Government has a stake. The extent of the Golden Fang is parodied in the film’s final scenes. Doc must execute a drug exchange with operatives of the Fang, who turn out to be a stereotypical suburban family. Even the Joneses down the street are in on the plot.
The technical definition of “Inherent Vice” reads: “a hidden defect of a good or property which of itself is the cause of, or contributes to, its deterioration, damage, or wastage.” Inherent Vice does not merely, as some critics claim, send counter-culture off into the fading sunset of the sixties. Inherent Vice is not a funeral; it’s an autopsy. The Golden Fang (and the film as a whole) diagnoses the ‘hidden defect’ that led to the demise of hippie-dom. Counter-culture is a pipe-dream. By its own terms, it exists as a negation of something more actualized and sustainable. Like a parasite, counter-culture attacked America with the vague, nihilistic notion of negating everything society had stood for in order to build something better anew, but it could not live without its host. The Golden Fang suggests that this host was capable of co-opting its parasite, transforming hippie-dom into something which could be subsumed by the mainstream. If you can be sold your own rebellion as a commodity, then there is no rebellion, especially if you can be sold the rehabilitation from your rebellion. In 2015, the Orwellian nature of the Golden Fang ought to hit close to home. After the Snowden leaks, the world itself has become Pynchonized: the totalizing conspiracy expressed by the Golden Fang is a mere tease compared to the NSA’s digital panopticon. There is no safe place, no counter-culture impervious to the host’s immune system.
These are dizzyingly complex ideas that Pynchon plays with, and if the viewer finds Inherent Vice to be confusing or disorienting, it is doing its job. The film succeeds in that it perfectly captures the experience of discovering a conspiracy. The twists and turns, disjoints and inconsistencies create a viewing experience which echoes what is onscreen. The form could not possibly be more suited to the content. Doc’s investigation swallows him whole in a psychedelic inversion of reality. Just so, the viewer is swept in by Inherent Vice, and swirled about by its meandering plot and superfluity of detail. The aforementioned Harbor scene is thus the films aesthetic epicenter, in which the feelings of the audience are mirrored perfectly by Doc’s onscreen sentiments.
The viewer is almost implicated in the action as the conspiracy unfolds both around and within Doc, subsuming him in its totalizing wake. Doc’s investigation into the Golden Fang has a way of incorporating him into its operation, making him implicit. As the conspiracy unfolds it becomes impossible for Doc to parse from within because, like a bad acid trip, the distortion is only visible from the outside. However, for the viewer, who has a degree of separation from the events, there is hope. The possibility of multiple re-watches allows the audience to be the detective Doc cannot be. Inherent Vice is not impenetrable; the astute viewer can build coherence from the cacophony. However, the first viewing is unique in that it offers viewers the chance to wander alongside Doc in the fog. To exacerbate this echo effect, try lighting up each time Doc does. See how long you last.
by Rachael Smith ’16