ON A JOURNEY THROUGH THE PAST
The eternal sound of waves crests and crashes against the coastline of fictional Gordita Beach in the shimmery ruins of the California Republic. It’s a steady metronome of foamy surf that seems the only unyielding permanence left to these chaotic post-1960s days and nights of hippie private investigator Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), as everything else from peace to love to hope has crumbled like wet sand beneath the sandaled feet of time, a.k.a. the newly-minted post-Manson drag known as 1970.
Or so Doc probably thinks, lying on his couch, staring into the gunmetal blue twilight out his window with the melancholy of a man on the wrong side of 35 as neighborhood kiddos run and laugh past his bungalow, clueless to the potfogged sadness blooming inside, the regret for times passed and times changed. And speaking of Time, the object of Doc’s heavy-hearted high—suddenly, just like that—takes shape in the impossibly tall and hourglassed outline of his ex-old lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who materializes in his doorway like a thousand film noir femme fatales before her, bringing with her the sinistral whirlpool of a mystery alloyed with love and regret for a wayward P.I. to lose himself in, a case that begins like all others, with “those five little words:”
“I need your help, Doc.”
~ ~ ~
Upon its release in 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s neo-noir novel Inherent Vice was met with what might be best described as muted appreciation from the director’s fanbase—with an unruly runtime that stretches past long works like The Master and Phantom Thread and comes within contact-high reach of such epics as Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice, for all its temporal breadth, seemed to say very little with its sybaritic unfurling of Pynchon’s fractal-plotted, shaggy-dog detective story, and when it did say something at all it tended to be in a wistfully depressed mumble rather than amusing stoner giggle, leaving audiences confounded as to what they just watched, and why.
Beginning with a classic woman-with-a-mystery noir setup as old as the genre itself, the film quickly veers into the book’s strange, searching rhythms, a picaresque hazylazy daisy chain of chapters in which the perpetually (and increasingly) stoned Doc knockabouts into one-on-one confrontations with heartbroken cops, hippies, hitmen, ex-junkies, sax players/government snitches, feds, and flatlanders, all of whom lay bare for Doc the memories and loss that haunt their lives, all of whom spin in slow orbit around Shasta Fay’s convoluted case after she goes inexplicably missing. And that case—which, despite its many dog-legged detours, is more or less summed up in the first 20 seconds of the film’s trailer (“if it’s a quiet night out at the beach and your ex-old lady suddenly out-of-nowhere shows up with a story about her current billionaire land-developer boyfriend, and his wife, and her boyfriend, and a plot to kidnap the billionaire and throw him in a loony-bin, maybe you should look the other way?”)—sends Doc reeling into his own past, and the pasts of others, his city, his country, his era, finally washing up onto the shipwrecked shoreline of his relationship with Shasta Fay, trying desperately to understand where and why everything changed, and what went so goddamned wrong with all of it.
On its surface, Inherent Vice isn’t much more than the bleary-eyed and bloodshot jumble of these conversations between a stoned detective and whomever he shares a scene, mumbling to each other in lyrical, convoluted Pynchonese; however, like a series of songs on a long double album concept record from Doc’s collection, both Pynchon and Anderson build a narrative out of these individual song-beats, some of which may not seem immediately remarkable—or even comprehensible—at first, but when viewed as a whole, they form in their totality a mood and story of loss and love.
Viewers who tried to locate in this sprawl a Lebowksi’d or Long Goodbye’d smirky whodunit, though, were left as bewildered as Doc himself. A mystery in which the mystery isn’t the point, a detective story in which the detective seems incapable of remembering all but the most basic facts (and even those require scribbled entries into his pocket notebook), a film noir set not at night but mostly beneath the milkspilt murk of L.A. County’s smogwhite daylight…Inherent Vice is a film that—like the novel—deceptively uses its hardboiled detective fiction framework as a method of inquiry into something far deeper, and far more serious, than a plot to kidnap a real estate developer.
For Pynchon, the book was a look back over his shoulder from the time of its publication in 2009 to the sun-hammered SoCal of 1970—a time and place in which the reclusive author lived and was roughly the same age as Doc—in order to examine the broken promise of a hopeful generation, the schismal moment when everything in the American fate seemed to sour, and the sweet, heady period that apexed with the Summer of Love slowly sloughed into a bloodied and despondent winter of neverending discontent. Pynchon achieved this look back through Doc’s interactions and interrogations with the similarly lost souls of the time, all while using Doc’s painful heartbreak and longing for his beloved ex-old as subtextual metaphor for Pynchon’s own soul-stung search for meaning. For Anderson, though, the crucial resonance of Inherent Vice isn’t in the failed hopes of the Free Love years but rather Pynchon’s background metaphor of lost love; the director’s extraordinary romanticism inverts the thematic structure of the story so that subtext is made text, and Doc’s odyssey becomes that of a man sifting through the clues at the murder scene of a wayward generation to relocate the love of a woman he has lost.
Late in the film, Doc’s pal—as well as the movie’s narrator and quite likely a phantasmic figment of Doc’s addled imagination—Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) helpfully tells us that “‘inherent vice’ in a maritime insurance policy is anything you can’t avoid. Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters.” For insurance purposes, the term represents that which will inevitably change due to its nature. The film Inherent Vice is an investigation into the ultimate universal force of change as well as its central subject—time—and it bases that investigation from the modest ground-level vantage of those who dazedly, sadly watch it go by. Eggs will break, eras will end. Chocolate will melt, love will fade away. The 1960s and Shasta Fay and the Summer of Love and the Kennedys and The Beatles are all inherent vice—they are, like time, things that change due to their intrinsic makeup. They cannot be insured against. And just as insurance policies cannot guarantee against inherent vice, so too are the characters of Inherent Vice unable to insure themselves against the passage of time, nor can they let go of that which passes with it. Inherent Vice the novel is an elegy for an era that has permanently changed, taking all of its hope and promise with it. But the film is a profoundly mournful, profoundly funny study of men and women stunted in the thrall of time’s passage, and by the loss it creates as those they love disappear within it.
A SENSELESS CHAIN OF CORRESPONDENCES
“Put it another way,” as Sortilège might say: if the central theme of Anderson’s work as expressed in his magnum opus Magnolia asks us “what can we forgive?” then Inherent Vice considers the same question but only after getting high as all stratospheric fuck while locked in what Janis Joplin called “dem ol’ kozmic blues again,” repetitively murmuring the question to itself, mantra-like, beneath a gathering of what is either the mystic coastal chill of the Pacific’s dawnlit fog or just a cumulonimbus ceiling of cannabis smog, the film’s voice fracturing Magnolia’s primary inquiry into component parts, scattering them about as if to find a deeper meaning while the marrow-deep paranoiac gloom settles in:
What can we live with?
What can’t we live with?
And finally, most importantly, what—and who—can’t we live without? How do we even try?
~ ~ ~
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live” Joan Didion famously wrote in her essay “The White Album,” a work that loosely catalogues the significant moments of Didion’s life while living in 1960s Los Angeles, braiding her experiences—living in the city, experimenting with drugs, watching The Doors disintegrate during a recording session, coming to know Manson Family member Linda Kasabian during her testimony in the 1970 Manson trial for the murder of Didion’s friend Sharon Tate, among others—into a sprawling attempt to apply narrative to the passage of time. Those who survived the ‘60s told themselves stories, she asserts, to makes sense of the pain, the madness, and the gnawing sense of loss that followed the hangover of a passing epoch, the decade and the damage done. “Times passed, times changed. Everything was to teach us something,” Didion wrote, noting that “in this light all narrative was sentimental.” That kind of sentimental application of narrative allows for the excavation of meaning from the senselessness of ever-passing time: in a single paragraph, Didion draws a fatestruck kite-string from her purchase of a wedding dress on the morning of JFK’s death to a drunken party a few years later during which director Roman Polanski stained said dress with red wine, all the way to that god-awful summer of 1970 in which Didion found herself buying another dress, this time for Kasabian to wear during her testimony concerning the murder of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate. What did this all mean, this decade-long series of dresses that seems to reflect the dawn and dusk of the 1960s? Mustn’t it mean something? And if it does mean something, if it’s all for something, doesn’t that make our suffering of time’s passing just as important? “I believe this to be an authentically senseless chain of correspondences,” she wrote, “but in the jingle-jangle morning of that summer it made as much sense as anything else did.”
~ ~ ~
“I need your help, Doc.”
With those five little words, Shasta Fay Hepworth is back in Doc Sportello’s life, a year after their breakup. Here she stands, “looking just like she swore she’d never look,” according to Sortilège, so changed by time as to have abandoned her trademark look of sandals, bikini bottoms, and a Country Joe & the Fish tee for flatland gear of the straightworld persuasion. This is not the carefree hippiechick that Doc knew from the previous decade who “could go weeks without anything more complicated than a pout;” her face lined and crumbling beneath heavy sorrow, the transition from 1969 to 1970 has clearly been a hard one for Shasta, harder than Doc could have imagined. And as his eyes narrow to slits over his open-manhole pupils, and his chest fills with a weird mix of jealousy, nostalgia, love, and endless lung layers of marijuana vapor, Shasta, like everyone else Doc will meet in the film, hands him her story, as if begging the big-hearted detective to find the sense in it, the narrative. In a tremored voice Doc has never heard before, Shasta explains that she’s become the kept woman of married real estate bigshot Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and that Mickey’s wife and her kept man want to kidnap Mickey, commit him to an asylum, and make off with Mickey’s massive wealth. They want Shasta’s help, and Shasta wants Doc’s, as she suspects Mickey’s wife is having her followed. Her pained face softens his, and he takes the case pro bono. But when he offers to let his ex-old/still-current love sleep at his place until this blows over, it’s all Shasta can do to keep from crying as she leaves, telling him simply, heartbreakingly, that he never did let her down.
“You were always true.”
~ ~ ~
Didion’s essay (and subsequent book) shares its name with the moniker for The Beatles’ self-titled and famously white-jacketed 1968 double album known as “The White Album.” Both are era-defining works of art that wrestle with the inherent vice of the 1960s by incorporating everything within the artistic reach of their creators, looseweave monuments that attempt to diagnosis a generational movement before finally resigning into autopsy. Didion’s “The White Album” crisscrosses multiple events in the Mansonoid terror twilight of its oft-eulogized decade, a patchwork of moments and conversations and happenstance; The Beatles’ “The White Album” uses the built-in structure of the double album—four sides, each able to hold a handful of disparate song-ideas and themes—to organize its discordant sounds of a fracturing and unhappy band and time into a cohesive whole. Rock ‘n’ roll, beerhall chants, soft-pop, and proto-ambient noise all share space on the schizoid record, which seems to fly in four different directions at once. The band builds a narrative out of these individual songs, some of which may at first seem slight—or like simple noise—but when viewed as a complete, four-sided work, they form in their totality an album, a story. That story is about the end of an era, sure; but unlike Didion’s “White Album,” this double album constructs a narrative about that end not by capturing the events of the day, but instead with its personal story of a breakup: the dissolution of Lennon/McCartney. It charts the death of the ‘60s’ promise within the demise of the relationship between these two, and it is as if an entire world disappeared with their love.
~ ~ ~
The next day, Doc is greeted at his office by Black Guerrilla Family member and ex-con Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) with a two-fold case: Tariq is owed money by former convict Glenn Charlock, who currently works as a bodyguard for…Mickey Wolfmann (“paranoia alert” Doc scribbles in his notebook), and Tariq wants Doc to retrieve the cash. Tariq’s connection to Wolfmann runs even deeper than a bodyguard, however: recently released from prison, Tariq was horrified to discover his entire neighborhood in Artesia had disappeared (“Man, I’m talking not there. Ground up into little pieces…just a ghost town”), as if inherent vice now somehow applied to physical neighborhoods, too, swallowing them as whole as it did ex-old ladies, free love, and the last decade. And the avatar of the that disappearance and these changing times for Artesia? It’s all due to the groundbreaking, neighborhood-clearing construction for Channel View Estates, a new subdivision being built directly atop Tariq’s old stomping grounds by…Mickey Wolfmann. And it is there, at Channel View Estates, that Doc goes with the intention of settling Charlock’s debt with Tariq and figuring out the whole Wolfmann mess for Shasta, but is mildly impeded with a baseball bat beatdown into unconsciousness. When he wakes, it’s next to the dead body of Glenn Charlock, and the smug, accusatory face of Lieutenant Detective Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), Doc’s LAPD arch-nemesis and, unbeknownst to either of them, his spiritual brother and shadow-self in their joint struggle against the inherent vice of time and the forces that do its bidding.
“What’s up, Doc?”
~ ~ ~
For “The White Album,” the Beatles recorded three versions of the song “Revolution:” “Revolution 1” was a slow blues, while “Revolution 9” was a startlingly abstract musique concrete; splitting the difference was the proto-metal b-side version of the song, released simply as “Revolution.” The tune was such a popular release that, months later, in the final year of the 1960s, pop-rock outfit Thunderclap Newman had to rename their own “Revolution” track as “Something in the Air” in order to avoid confusion with the music-buying public. And while “Something in the Air” never reached the cultural ubiquity of “Revolution,” its sentiments of peaceful rebellion were catchy enough to be commodified by advertisers in later years, who passed the song around and used it to hawk wares as various as a telecommunications company, British Airways, and the Austin Mini (“Revolution,” meanwhile, was used to sell Nikes), betraying every core tenant of the movement it represented. This likely did not escape the attention of Thomas Pynchon, who used the song to humorous effect in the novel Inherent Vice: while chasing a mysterious schooner called The Golden Fang (which seems to float at the heart of Shasta’s case), Doc notices a Department of Justice cruiser also tailing the Fang; on it are a crew of DOJ lawyers and bikini-clad dancers, all partying “to the revolutionary anthem…with every appearance of sincerity—though Doc wondered how many of them would have recognized revolution if it had come up and said howdy.”
This is the mood and point of Pynchon’s novel in microcosm: an angry look back at an era left unprotected against inherent vice, a time so irrevocably changed that its deepest, most profound beliefs and works of popular art were then used to sell shoes and soundtrack fuzz dance parties. It is as if Pynchon traced some irreversible American trend towards entropy and obliteration right back to this moment, in Doc’s time. And while Pynchon refuses to give interviews or explain himself, Anderson has offered his own opinion about the author’s motivations, noting that “2009 is when the book came out. But as somebody who was there, who wrote in the ‘60s, it’s worth asking ‘what’s still nagging at you that you’ve gotta look back? You could write about anything.’ But there’s something obviously still nagging at him to want to talk about it again…there’s still some unresolved business that he felt the desire to write about.” Yet it was not so much Pynchon’s anger that Anderson identified with, but rather his sense of loss, and longing, for something beloved stolen by the inherent vice of time. “Amidst all these crazy jokes and everything else…what else is there? What’s the real thing? And the real thing in the book is [Doc’s] love for Shasta, his pining, and that obsession with an ex-old lady that got away, that’s maybe not the one you want to be with, but you can’t help but think of her all the time…What the book was about to me was about how much we can miss people…as it applies to people, or as it can apply to the past in general.”
~ ~ ~
“My husband, he was a close friend of a friend of yours: Shasta Fay Hepworth.”
As Doc struggles to understand what happened at Channel View Estates (following Charlock’s murder, Mickey Wolfmann and Shasta Fay both vanished in the subsequent chaos) while avoiding the harassing eye and bare knuckles of Bigfoot, yet another prospective client reaches out: ex-heroin junkie, current drug counselor and mother, Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone). Her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), was a famous saxophonist in the surf-sax scene of the 1960s; after a “meet-squalid” in a (literally) shitty dive along the California/Mexico border, the two fell in love, developed serious smack addictions, and had a baby, Amethyst. Fallout from this twinned junkiedom included Amethyst being born with a heroin addiction (now resolved in toddlerhood), Hope requiring a comically-oversized set of dentures (“heroin sucks the calcium out of your body like a vampire”), and Coy’s death by overdose. Except: “I don’t think Coy is really dead.” Hope was never asked to ID Coy’s body, and soon after the supposed OD, she received a massive and unexplained deposit of life-altering cash in her bank account. The sum was enough for her and Amethyst to get clean and healthy, but not enough for her to let go of the past, to keep her from trying to construct her own explanation for these events—that her love is somehow, in some way, still alive. And despite Doc’s business policy of never getting involved in “matrimonials” he takes the case, because within his own aching for the long-gone Shasta Fay, Doc locates a sad empathy for Hope’s, well, hope, along with a desire to protect whatever kiddo innocence inherent vice has not managed to rob from Amethyst.
As Sortilège notes further, “Doc had known it to happen that those left behind would refuse to believe that people they loved, or even took the same classes with, were really dead. They came up with all kinds of alternate stories so it wouldn’t have to be true.” Scene after scene in Inherent Vice skips from comedy to paranoia to drama to American lament to satire to sorrow (sometimes all in one), and finds Doc interrogating or being interrogated by Pynchon’s impossibly-alliterative rogue’s gallery of brokenhearted burnouts for whom time has passed by, all of whom struggle against the inherent vice of the day and present Doc with the various mysteries of loss that haunt their lives—from dead husbands to missing neighborhoods to in-danger real estate bigshots—each essentially demanding from Doc that he build them a story in order to keep them living: “Make sense of this, find the narrative, and solve my life.” All while Doc himself struggles with essentially the same pretzeled question at the heart of his own: “Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters, and Doc wondered what that meant when applied to ex-old ladies?” Or put it another way, as Doc’s occasional straightworld paramour and Deputy District Attorney Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) does when Doc asks her for help:
“How close were you with Shasta Fay Hepworth?”
~ ~ ~
Humming like an out-of-tune guitar string, warbling in and out of sync with his era, is Charlie Manson, false prophet murderer with bloodied fingerprints on all of the above and everything to come—one can’t listen to “The White Album” without knowing where songs like “Piggies” and “Helter Skelter” were fated to land in the American consciousness; he personifies the inherent vice of the hippie movement in Didion’s essay (“many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the ‘60s ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community…The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled”); he even skulks the margins of Inherent Vice, which takes place during his trial, a judiciary scab-tearing of the entire hippie movement, a pus-leaked deathknell signaling that the Good Times, if they ever really existed, had been stabbed to death on a sticky summer night the year before. And those presumed Good Times were always at risk; such is the inherent vice of life. But Inherent Vice posits something far more nefarious: what if the unseen happenstances of life that drive times to change, for glass to shatter, for chocolate to melt, for hippies to seek refuge in heroin, for Mansons to kill and Vietnam Wars to last and Shastas to leave, wasn’t random happenstance at all? What if all of this, Doc’s life, your life, his cases, the ‘60s, now—what if all were beneath the boot of forces not only immune to inherent vice, but the cause of it? As Sortilège asks, sorting through the city dump of Doc’s mind, “was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up North, back East, wherever, some 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?
“‘Gee,’” he thought, “‘I dunno.’”
THE FULLY FUCKING WEIRD OUTFIT THAT KILLS PEOPLE
A mysterious schooner that runs at night without lights or radio traffic, bringing in heroin from Southeast Asia (where America happens to be sacrificing what will eventually be 60,000 of its own sons).
An Indochinese heroin cartel that brings its homegrown product stateside for distribution to those looking to tune out from the horror of 1970 and get stoned against the inherent vice of the day.
A laundering operation that cleans drug money through a massage parlor called Chick Planet in none other than Mickey Wolfmann’s Channel View Estates, right where Doc meets a baseball bat to the head.
A tax-shelter syndicate for dentists who happen to specialize in replacing (with gargantuan dentures) the rotten teeth of hippie heroin junkies.
A psychiatric and rehabilitation facility where hippies, commies, and other subversives with anti-capitalist interests are secretly brainwashed back into the conservative American fold (after being kidnapped on a certain night-running schooner); this institute is referred to in public circles as “Chryskylodon” (Sortilège: “It’s ancient Greek. It means ‘animal tooth made out of gold’”).
These are all things that go by the name of The Golden Fang (or variations thereof), a hazily interconnected web of interests that can be guaranteed a bottomless pool of new customers and endless revenue “as long as American life was something to be escaped from.” As long as inherent vice is allowed to rule the age, to end the dreams, to perpetuate the endless wars, to sour the news, to murder Hollywood stars, to commercialize a movement, to destroy neighborhoods, to change time, an organization like The Golden Fang will prosper. The Fang operates as inherent vice’s avatar, its critical hand of fate, responsible for everything from the Vietnam War to the disappearance of Mickey Wolfmann. They are what Pynchon writes about when he posits that “if everything in this dream of prerevolution was in fact doomed to end and the faithless money-driven world to reassert its control over all the lives it felt entitled to touch, fondle, and molest, it would be agents like these, dutiful and silent, out doing the shitwork, who’d make it happen.”
Or, as Anderson puts it, “the Golden Fang is this idea of this mysterious organization that somehow seems to fuck everything up for the good guys.”
And those good guys, in Inherent Vice, are Coy Harlingen, Bigfoot Bjornsen, and Doc Sportello.
~ ~ ~
Hope’s hope, it turns out, wasn’t so misguided after all—as Doc discovers, Coy is very much alive. Disgusted to see America turning into something like a smack-addicted mother, strung out “on sending people off to die in jungles for no reason—something wrong and suicidal about that that she can’t stop,” and to further see that reflected in his junkie’d home life with Hope and Amethyst, Coy decided to take a deal with Vigilant California, an anti-subversive outfit to whom he was introduced by one Shasta Fay Hepworth to get clean. If he agreed to fake his death, betray all of his beliefs, and become an undercover snitch tasked with bringing down hippies and commies, Hope and Amethyst would be taken care of financially. On top of that, “I thought it was something good to do for my country, stupid as that sounds.” It was only once Coy’s beliefs were broken and he was inside the organization that he pieced together that Vigilant California is a wing of the Golden Fang, the same organization sending troops to their deaths abroad, bringing back the heroin that was killing his wife and daughter, and may or may not have kidnapped Mickey and Shasta. He also discovered that it’s far too late to do anything about it—the Golden Fang is like a gang, and once you’re in, you’re in for life. Any attempt at escape “would be my ass, and my family’s, too.”
All Coy can do is desperately beg Doc to look in on Hope and Amethyst, and make sure his daughter remains untouched by inherent vice for as long as possible. “Them little kid blues…that happens. They get that.”
~ ~ ~
“The old hippie-hating mad dog himself,” is how Sortilège describes Lieutenant Detective Bigfoot Bjornsen. “SAG member. John Wayne walk. Flattop of Flintstones proportions. And that little evil-shit twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violations.’” Bigfoot haunts Doc throughout Inherent Vice almost as much as Shasta’s memory does. The moody cop is oddly obsessive about Doc’s Shasta-Wolfmann-Charlock-Harlingen caseload, slyly feeding Doc information between beatings that intentionally nudges Doc towards the Golden Fang, and, specifically, the Golden Fang’s baseball bat-wielding chief assassin, Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie)…who, Doc learns, murdered Bigfoot’s former LAPD partner, Vincent. This revelation recasts Bigfoot’s behavior in the film as a grotesque funhouse mirror of/stand-in for Doc’s own lovelorn grief for Shasta—as Doc is a hippie longing for the ‘60s and his ex-old lady, Bigfoot is a square who mourns the dual deaths of the ‘50s and his partner. The increasingly emotionally volatile Bigfoot is seen wantonly, longingly fellating one frozen banana popsicle after another, eventually going beyond ludicrous lasciviousness to something bizarrely touching, hinting at an emotional devastation and loss that he is unequipped to express, let alone process. His aching love for Vincent is a satirical and subplotted version that repeatedly echoes Doc’s own nostalgia for Shasta throughout the film, and their anguish over what inherent vice has taken from them unites the two men on a bizarre wavelength of shared misery and almost brotherly empathy, as there are moments Doc can literally sense Bigfoot’s nearby presence, or see hear him speaking through a television. At one point, their strange symmetry is literalized when they cannot stop speaking the same lines of dialogue simultaneously. And it’s through this shared wavelength, without the backing of the LAPD, that Bigfoot is able to work through the similarly heartsick detective. He manipulates Doc into a confrontation with Prussia in which Doc shoots and kills the assassin in self-defense. And despite his need for revenge seemingly quenched, Bigfoot then secretly loads Doc’s car with Golden Fang heroin worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, inexplicably setting the detective up for a fall with the Fang.
~ ~ ~
Back at home, Sortilège finds Doc crying and overwhelmed by the scope and reach of what he’s up against. It was indeed the Golden Fang that kidnapped Wolfmann, taking him aboard the Fang and then to Chryskylodon to “reeducate” him after he discovered drugs and decided to make amends for his capitalist marauding by building free housing in desert. Shasta, however, had been set free, because “they told me I was precious cargo that couldn’t be insured because of inherent vice.” Yet when Sortilège asks what’s going to nag at Doc in the middle of the night when all of this is over, for the first time in the film, Shasta Fay is not the first thing that floats into his cannabinoid brain. Instead, he tearfully whispers “little kid blues.”
However elastic and backgrounded Anderson-by-way-of-Pynchon’s hardboiled detective fiction may be, they still maintain a classic hero at its center: Doc is the only character in the world of Inherent Vice who refuses to take a compromising deal with the Fang to get what he wants most: Shasta Fay. Instead, he understands why Bigfoot crammed package after package of heroin in his car—it gives Doc the leverage he needs to get something from the Golden Fang without sacrificing anything of his own, as Coy was forced to. Return the heroin to the Fang, and the one thing that the usually easygoing Doc refuses to abide—“Nobody deserves to go through life without seeing their daughter. That don’t sit well with me”—will cease, and Coy will be released to his family. Together, Coy, Bigfoot, and Doc all work to extricate Coy from the Fang, and become as close to heroes as this sorry world of cartels and dentists and inherent vice allows. All three men, ruined by their mourning for the past and the loved ones it has taken from them, risk all that they have so that one little girl can avoid the little kid blues.
And when Doc hears Hope’s cries of happiness as Coy walks back through his front door, and despite the empty car seat next to him where Shasta should be, he smiles.
“Yet there is no avoiding time,” Sortilège muses near the film’s end. “The sea of time. The sea of memory and forgetfulness. The years of promise gone and unrecoverable. Of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have that claim jumped by evildoers known all too well and taken instead, and held hostage to the future we must live in now, forever.” Inherent Vice is a film that tricks us into settling in for a noir about a man solving a mystery, and instead presents us with a man confronting a melancholy truth: everything—lives, eras, and loves—comes to an end. The inherent vice of existence, its sole unchanging irony, is that times inevitably, unavoidably, change.
“The obvious thing there,” Anderson noted of the ‘60s while doing press for the film, “is that they fucked up and they lost and they let it slip away…But I think deeper than that is that thing Doc has for Shasta. That’s something that everybody can get with—the girl I shouldn’t be with but I need to know who’s she fucking, where did she go, what did I do? That was really heartbreaking in the book. How much you can miss someone.” Everyone in the film, having lost a love, is adrift in the riptides of memory, carried out to sea by mirages of a better place, to drown in a fata morgana of a better time.
Such is the case even with its hero, Doc, who cannot let go of, nor be let go by, Shasta Fay Hepworth. While Pynchon’s novel used a broken relationship as a metaphor for a disintegrating nation in order to facilitate his angry ruminations of an American dream betrayed, Anderson’s film inverts the dynamic: his Inherent Vice uses the imagery of a decaying country and the ominous forces tearing it apart as a metaphor for the pain of lost love, and the drive to get it back.
~ ~ ~
Shasta Fay bookends Inherent Vice. Despite a few brief memories and cameos, she primarily anchors either end of the story, suffusing the long stretch of two hours and 30 minutes in between with the dusting of her starstuff, as if she is this universe’s Big Bang and Big Crunch—the story cannot begin, nor end, without her; but even further, the story is her, a strange supercosmos of Shasta Fay. Sprinkled throughout this long tale is the history of Doc and Shasta, the two once-young lovers who, in the words of their narrator, “each gradually located a different karmic thermal… watching the other glide away into different fates. Does it ever end? Of course it does. It did.”
At the exact moment of the film’s halfway point, she reappears in memory—Doc receives a postcard from Shasta at sea, with her sorrowful message of remembrance, of a day with a Ouija Board. “I miss those days. And I miss you. Nothing was supposed to happen this way, Doc. I’m so sorry.” Doc’s memory of that day with the board is perhaps the film’s—and Paul Thomas Anderson’s—most heartrending moment, its central moment, soaked in the sweet melancholy of Neil Young’s “Journey Through the Past” as a younger Doc and Shasta run through rain, searching for a weed connection teased by the Ouija Board. They never found the connection that day, but “that board sure did its work,” drawing he and Shasta close for one perfect afternoon, one perfect memory, kissing and laughing in the rain. The pain of this memory forces Doc to return to that spot where the board sent them, only to find the gilded, spiraling tower of the Golden Fang’s new dental headquarters. Was the postcard a secret message from Shasta, coded in lovetalk, to help him locate and bring down the Fang? Was it simply a note of lovesick regret, and his flash to return to the scene simply a moment of coincidental luck? Is the appearance of the Fang’s headquarters here, where they kissed, some brutal metaphor for time sweeping away their love? Or, like Sortilège, was the postcard quite possibly a hallucination sent forth from some blood-kinked, cell-deprived fold of Doc’s overtaxed cerebellum? What’s real, and what is simple hope? What is a real memory, and what is the fictional story we tell ourselves to survive it?
It’s a question made all the more complex by Shasta’s return at the film’s end, slinking into Doc’s bungalow dressed in a Country Joe & the Fish t-shirt and bikini bottoms, just as Sortilège described Doc’s memory of her. As she strips naked, alternately seducing Doc and telling him all of the things she let Mickey and his rich friends do to her out at sea, tormenting him with her flagrant sexuality and degradation before they tearfully, abruptly fuck, one is forced to wonder—is this really happening? Just as Sortilège gives voice to Doc’s thoughts and intuitions, is this Shasta articulating Doc’s terrors and insecurities and worries about his lost love in the face of inherent vice? As this Shasta whispers, postcoital and crying, that “this don’t mean we’re back together,” the answers appear to be just as unclear to Doc as they are to us. “Of course not,” he mumbles.
What is clear, despite that harrowing sex scene (if it actually happened) is their love for one another—whether real or imagined, Doc loves Shasta, and she him. Like Pynchon with the 1960s, Shasta is that one old lady he just cannot forget, the one that time passed into terrible wrongness, requiring a story in order for her to survive. And while Pynchon’s novel ends with a cold chuckle—Doc cruises alone along the Santa Monica Freeway into a dense and blinding fog, a man betrayed time and again by time itself, heartbroken now that Shasta is gone again, hoping that if he misses his exit he’ll manage to find his way on surface streets, hoping “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead”—Anderson seems unable to help himself, and once again twists Pynchon’s cold sneer into a warm smile.
His film ends with Doc and Shasta driving down Santa Monica in the middle of the night, surrounded by a cotton candy fog of cosmic purples and pinks starred with the hazy nebulae of red dwarf tail lights ahead and the flared supernovas of headlights just behind. There’s something about this Shasta that seems more real, more concrete, not just a memory, the real woman, the real love, together with Doc again like a record that always skips and comes back around to the same place.
And sitting there, next to him, like Joan Didion and Hope Harlingen and Thomas Pynchon and Charles Manson, she tells Doc a story about them, and a Ouija Board, and a world that was once theirs. She tells a story for them to live:
“Remember that day? The Ouija board set us off into that big storm? This feels the same way tonight. Just us. Together. Almost like being underwater. The world… everything… gone someplace else.”
Doc considers this, eyeing her warily as if some kind of neuron pile-up has occured on whatever hairpin turn is his main synaptic thoroughfare. He looks at this precious woman, who cannot be insured because of inherent vice. “This don’t mean we’re back together,” he teases. “Of course not,” Shasta whispers with a grin.
They drive on, and eventually a twinned bloom of cold white headlights novas in Doc’s rear-view, pulling his eyes to the murk of the past, to the fog of inherent vice…but then his gaze drifts onward, past the rearview, looking forward now, into something new, like a mystery or a truth or a story to be shared. A story in which eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters. If inherent vice is anything you can’t avoid, as far as that applies to old ladies, perhaps it means things stay the same as much as they change. Or so Doc probably thinks as he smiles into the dazzling white from the rearview, the light of the past shining into the future, as they cruise alongside the sea, that place where the story began, like that record always skipping back to the same place again, the place where the steady metronome of foamy surf seems the only unyielding permanence left, the eternal sound of waves cresting and crashing against the coastline of Gordita Beach in the shimmery ruins of the California Republic.