Inherent Vice: Get sky-high on the zeitgeist

Shaggy-dog detective: Joaquin Phoenix as the stoner PI Doc Sportello in "Inherent Vice". (Wilson Webb)

Shaggy-dog detective: Joaquin Phoenix as the stoner PI Doc Sportello in "Inherent Vice". (Wilson Webb)

Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s glittering sunshine noir, opens with a characteristic long shot of a strip of ocean view sandwiched between two crummy beach houses in the foreground. Two surfers bob like flotsam on the surface of the choppy sea while gulls hover above. A title card sets the scene in fictional Gordita Beach, within the very factual historical moment of California in the year 1970.

The image of the beach is not simply aesthetic. Thomas Pynchon’s epigraph to the source novel – “Under the paving-stones, the beach!” –refers to radical graffiti by the Parisian soixante-huitards, the French countercultural student movement that almost toppled the nation’s government in 1968. The rallying cry speaks to the wave of Sixties idealism that sought to rip up the foundations of the Establishment and free the world from the constraints of conservative conformity and replace them with its vision of liberated utopia.

But Anderson’s walling in of the ocean in this very first shot is a reminder that as quickly as the wave approaches, so too does it crest, break and recede, leaving the walls of suburban mediocrity still standing, far above the high-water mark. Inherent Vice allegorises the unfulfilled promises of the hippie movement that ultimately gave way to its own neutralising absorption into mainstream culture, and the Reagan-era conservative American politics that persist today.

By the early 1970s, the violent exploits of the Manson family and the violence of the Hells Angels security guards at the Altamont music festival (both are alluded to in the film) had revealed a shadowy side to the peace and love utopian dream.

For this seventh film in a line of consistently masterful pieces of Hollywood auteurship, Anderson’s lens focuses once more on the American zeitgeist at a moment of transition, pulling at the frayed edges of one era as it bleeds into another. The humanity of his characters, who at first glance epitomise epochal stereotypes, is thrown into relief by letting them wash adrift into a world in which they no longer belong.

In Anderson’s The Master, war vet Freddie Quell struggles to adjust to post-World War II America, becoming vulnerable to the appeal of an early manifestation of American self-help cult philosophy. Boogie Nights sees late-1970s porn star Dirk Diggler flailing and convulsing in the face of an inevitable update to 1980s manhood that mirrors the shifts in its high-fidelity technology, rendering him and his “equipment” ­obsolete.

Chaos and unpredictable mayhem
In this film, the first ever adaptation of a Pynchon novel, we have Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) – hippie jape and stoner PI who has stayed too long in the Summer of Love. Verging on caricatured ­buffoonery, he spends his days smoking pot, not changing his clothes and scribbling impossibly vague investigative notes in his pocket book.

Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon in Inherent Vice

When diaphanous femme fatale and ex-lover Shasta Fay Hepworth appears to him during a nap and asks him to look into the disappearance of her new lover, married property tycoon Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), he is plunged into a dizzyingly circuitous and tangled web of an underworld hiding in the long shadows cast by the Californian sun.

Shot in 35mm by a director who refuses to go digital, the images gleam and glisten in lurid psychedelic tones. And from the opening ascending-descending piston-pumping bass line of Can’s Vitamin C, we are cued into the mode of an unstoppable forward propulsion that is simultaneously tight and chaotic, both meticulous precision and unpredictable mayhem.

Alongside its typically well-considered soundtrack, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood contributes as incisive a score as he did for There Will Be Blood and The Master before this.

The perfect storm
Although Inherent Vice may be on the less convoluted end of the scale with regard to Pynchon’s oeuvre than, say, Against the Day, which features more than a hundred characters in settings ranging from the late 19th century to the end of World War II, the plot is a veritable fish market of red herrings.

The shaggy-dog Doc, evidently referential of Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and brilliantly characterised by Phoenix with endearingly confused whimpers and grunts, follows investigative leads like a puppy with attention-deficit disorder, dragged along on a leash by MacGuffin, the Golden Fang. In Anderson’s words, the Golden Fang is just a “depository for anything”, a device reminiscent of classic noir films such as The Maltese Falcon.

It is at once a schooner belonging to a blacklisted Hollywood star, the name of an Indochinese drug cartel, Shasta Fay’s hiding place and a syndicate of dentists. A lot of the time the plot doesn’t make sense, and when it does, it makes almost too much sense, invoking the suspicion that it’s the result of a paranoid and conspiracy-minded hippie.

Needless to say, trying to follow the hazy causal logic will have the viewer spinning in circles. Inherent Vice is the perfect storm of noir convolution and marijuana-induced short-term memory impairment, and is characterised by a dark humour that is sometimes deadpan and sometimes hysterical. A dry jocularity permeates every turn of events, as when Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a saxophonist-turned-informant who wants Doc’s help in reuniting his family, is able to hide undercover by playing for his old band, because its stoned and flaky hippie members don’t remember who he is.

Although hippie siren Shasta Fay is the carrot blunt on the stick of Doc’s search, the real love story is between Doc and Los Angeles police department Neanderthal Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). The bromantic tension between the two is always powerful as Bigfoot both harasses and assists Doc. Inasmuch as each is the antithesis of the other, so too do they seem to want to become each other in veiled ways.

An important moment in American history
Bigfoot dons a hippie party wig in a part-time appearance on a television commercial, and his repressed homoerotic fascination with Doc’s world is unsubtly demonstrated in his suggestive eating of chocolate-coated frozen bananas. Doc’s investigative fervour belies a latent belief in the notion of justice, and as he draws closer to the unravelling of the mystery, Bigfoot taunts him: “Oh you really feel like a cop now, don’t you?”

Both are impossibly curious about the other side of the coin and rely on each other to define themselves oppositionally in ways to which neither would ever comfortably admit.

Joanna Newsom’s perfectly cast voice-over as the character Sortilège lends a dreamy, nostalgic overlay to the story, elevating it from too deep an immersion in plot, reminding us the devil is not so much in the detail as in the bigger picture of a world in which privatised mental health facilities brandishing the slogan “Straight is hip” have been vertically integrated with the heroin trade so that the former is guaranteed a “bottomless pit” of new customers.

This is a world in which the spirit of subversion has collided head-on with the powerful early stages of late-era capitalism, shattering the once distinct division between the establishment and its detractors into a illusive and confusing mosaic of fragments in which nothing can trusted, but so rich and intricate is this image of a transitory but important moment in American history that the film easily bears a second viewing. I can’t wait to watch it again. – © Guardian News & Media 2015



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