Inherent Vice evokes the possibility of a different California, one in which the hippies beat the cops.
It is 1970, and the ’50s are fighting the ’60s for the soul of the country. In one corner is Larry “Doc” Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix’s hippie private investigator, representing live and let live, free love, and weed. In the other is Josh Brolin’s cop with a buzz cut, Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, standing for the family, sobriety, and stability. It’s swinging dicks versus Nixon, the groovy against the square. Suburbs versus bungalows, call it. In the first few minutes of P.T. Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, we see Doc lighting up in his beach house, the waves crashing behind him. In another few, we see Bigfoot on Doc’s TV. Dressed in a flared collar and an afro wig, Bigfoot is supplementing his policeman’s wages by starring in some kind of infomercial. Doc squints with recognition and displeasure, and we know these two have been at it before.
This time, Doc and Bigfoot collide over the shaggiest of dogs, a Big Sleep-ish story involving a heroin cartel called the Golden Fang and a slumlord developer, Mickey Wolfmann, whose new girlfriend Shasta so happens to be Doc’s old one. Related by blood or by money to the Golden Fang is a rehab facility run like a religious cult, and either heroin or a secret government agency is responsible for the death (or is it?) of a sax player named Coy Harlingen, whose disbelieving widow shows up to hire Doc.
Anderson’s alternately hammy and hard-boiled script is ripped from the black-and-white downtown L.A. of the ’50s. But Inherent Vice is also a movie in ’60s Malibu pastels. Set about a quarter of a century after throwbacks like L.A. Confidential, Vice belongs to the time when Los Angeles was turning into the place that plays itself. The most influential police chief of the mid-1960s, William H. Parker, was also a consultant on Dragnet, the most influential procedural drama in American television history. Valley of the Dolls came out in 1967, a commercial hit and the first cautionary tale of New Hollywood, and in 1969 the American New Wave arrived with the near-simultaneous release of Jacques Demy’s Model Shop and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider, both filmed in and informed by L.A. In Vice, every character is performing a role, and not always in the same kind of movie. We watch, as if flipping through the years, a stoner comedy, a period caper, a neo-noir.
At first all the genre confusion has Phoenix seeming out of his depth. The audience, too, is slow to react when Brolin goes from solid to silly, sucking a chocolate-covered banana like it’s a dick. Then the chimera shuffles into its own loping rhythm, not committing to any one thing, and it’s clear that Anderson sees the story from more angles than Pynchon did. Less clear is the plot. Competing lifestyles—not story lines—inform the chaos, and I doubt I’ll spoil the mood by saying that Coy finds his way out of a neo-Nazi group and back to his no-longer-widow and child, as well as a new American Express card.
It is 1970, and we are five years removed from the Watts Riots. Only one in ten housing units is de facto available to blacks. The Index of Dissimilarity in Los Angeles is 88 percent, meaning 88 percent of residents would have to move in order to redistribute racial groups evenly across the metropolitan area, desegregating it.
Real estate is the physical manifestation of the currents of power in a city, and in the novel, Pynchon pays attention to the way those currents have shifted around the year of his story. “Long, sad history of L.A. land use,” Doc thinks. “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium, American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center, Tariq’s neighborhood bulldozed aside for channel view estates.”
Tariq is Tariq Khalil, the only black character in both versions of Vice. In the novel, the shadow of the riots hangs heavier than it does over the film, and Khalil appears intermittently as part of a subplot involving a post-prison settling of scores. Anderson, for his part, gives the guy one longer scene. Khalil has just gotten out of the California state prison at Chino and he duly appears at Doc’s office, which is shared with an actual doctor who gives amphetamine shots for cash. In prison, Khalil explains, he was a member of the Black Guerrilla Family and conducted business with the Aryan Brotherhood (one of which Brothers is now Wolfmann’s bodyguard). “Racial harmony, I can dig it,” says Doc. Now, Khalil wants to reconnect with his former gang. The problem is that all of their houses are gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” says Doc.
“Not there,” Khalil says. As in, Wolfmann leveled to develop the territory. Doc writes in his notebook, “not hallucinating.”
It’s a lucid note. In Vice's world—ours, too—authority perpetuates itself by casting doubt on the perceptions of the weak. Someone says, “You’re ruining my neighborhood” and you turn to your partner and go, “This man is hallucinating.” Doc himself has been the victim of this. Early in the novel, he and Bigfoot arrive at the construction site for Channel View Estates, where one night previous someone had knocked out a snooping Doc. The cops discover him unconscious, suspecting malfeasance. “Yes,” Bigfoot says, “this time it appears you have finally managed to stumble into something too real and deep to hallucinate your worthless hippie ass out of.”
The fact that Doc is high off his ass all the time doesn’t undercut the point about power, but supports it. One of the vividest scenes in the film is a memory Doc has of kissing Shasta in a rainstorm, leaning against a parking lot fence, Neil Young playing in the background. How can anyone say this isn’t real? What it isn’t is reasonable, and when you want to make a city conform to your orderly vision, as Bigfoot does, you tell the other guy he’s only seeing things.
Bigfoot Bjornsen stands for the suburbanization—ergo, segregation—of California. This is the period in which the L.A. police become corporatized, spreading from the city: by the time of the Rodney King riots, 80 percent of the city’s police lived in suburbs, and this was not an accidental transformation. The Times reported in 1967 that the LAPD was easing its recruitment requirements and offering some of the highest salaries in the country in order to attract “the kind of men…being sought by business and industry, where wages are also high.” Bigfoot wants a world, as the novel puts it, where father, mother, and child gather “night after night, to gaze tubeward, gobble their nutritious snacks, perhaps after the kids are in bed even attempt some procreational foreplay.” His home life is a pastiche of all-new wood-paneled boredom and 3 a.m. beratings from his wife, and when he calls Doc to discuss the not-new developments in the case, it is our first clue that he envies the other’s freedom.
But many fathers envy their sons. The notion that hippies are children and cops are men is so laced through the story that we can picture Doc and Bigfoot, a decade earlier, sitting across the dinner table from one another—dad explaining Normandy while son burns draft card with a roach. In a scene from the novel that Anderson didn’t film, Bigfoot takes Doc for a drive and talks to him about Nixon. Pynchon’s Bigfoot only knows to be a father, not a friend or even a rival. In another scene, set in a dentist’s office owned by the Golden Fang, Doc finds a book called the Procedures Handbook, which contains a section on hippies: “Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll, although in which order these are to be deployed must depend on conditions specific to the moment.” Conditions specific to the moment—an unnerving evocation of going under cover, perhaps.
One night, late in the novel, “Doc dreamed he was a little kid again.” It is not an unhappy dream. What separates the cop from the hippie isn’t his embrace of grown-up risks and responsibilities, but his disdain for all things child-like. And yet, between the cop and the hippie, it’s the hippie who doesn’t have to put on a costume to feel like an adult.
As the film begins to close there is a scene in which Bigfoot shows up at Doc’s place and kicks the door in. He is always kicking Doc’s door in, thence his nickname. Doc is sitting at his table contending with a great deal of marijuana. Being hospitable, he offers his guest a joint. Bigfoot refuses. Then he starts taking fistfuls of weed off the table and stuffing them into his mouth. He’s like a goat. He’s ravenous for it. Doc watches dumbfounded, but we know it’s inevitable. All that rage has to go somewhere in the end, and would that it always dissipated so benignly, in a seaside bungalow under a gray California sky.
Repression’s twin is excess—and usually of force. What makes Inherent Vice, the book and the movie together, an artifact of such beautifully revisionist history is that it shows us another way the ’70s could have gone—the pigs washed away on an unstoppable tide of grooviness, the bungalows left standing and the suburbs taken under. But it’s just a proposition. When the ’70s became the ’80s, Reagan, shortly to be re-elected governor, would trade the mansion in Sacramento for the White House. The state of California would institute life without parole, and five years later would begin to build the prisons whose lights are so plentiful they guide pilots through the Central Valley at night. If Tariq had been convicted 10 years later, he might never have gotten out, nor showed up at Doc’s office to tell what was no longer there.