Monday, January 26, 2015

Inherent Vice

The graininess of Inherent Vice makes every frame backwards-looking; the story's nostalgia for 60's dreams mirrored in director P.T. Anderson's nostalgia for 70's filmmaking, and for celluloid itself. But it's also well-suited to the movie's own story and themes. After all, film gets grainy when you're losing light.

Inherent Vice is a movie about left-behind people. They're scuttling around the fraying edges of the counterculture, trying to stay warm by the dying embers of their past, trying not to notice the shadow of money and power as it slowly covers their entire life. Doc Sportello's stoner paranoia is a funny, sad attempt to imagine there's more to the story than the oldest story in the world: greedy assholes taking everything that was free and selling it.


The plot kicks in from the first scene, when a Doc's lost love Shasta Hepworth shows up with a story about her married boyfriend whose wife is plotting to get him institutionalized so she can take his money. When Doc first sees Shasta, he comments on how she's done herself up all respectable-like, not knowing just how sucked into the system she is; the plan is for a legal kidnapping, the square's version of a heist. The wife isn't mad about his habit of boinking hippie girls, which is just standard bourgeois infidelity. But she's determined to stop his hippie-influenced plan to give up building expensive condos and start building free housing. We can only imagine the delight she takes in making a flower child's honeypot part of her reactionary scheme.

One of the major themes of the movie is a world where all the things once free are being packaged for sale. And the commodification of free love is a big part of that. The scenes of a wanna-be-hip dentist swapping easy sex for good coke may play as a laugh riot, but it's a lot sadder when you consider that these snow bunny deals are being made in an office complex built on top of the vacant lot where Shasta and Doc were once drugless, in love, and free. Making it all the more pointed that Doc is distracted by coke and ass as anyone. As in Pynchon's Mason & Dixon, joy and freedom can only happen in the empty places where money has not yet begun to scheme, and as soon as anyone with power notices, they'll be plowed right under so that someone can sell admission.

And in the movie, as with the historical 60s, ubiquitous sex is the promise that gets suckers through the door. Doc gets a free preview of the pussy eater's special, but the girls are just trying to distract a guy they think is a cop. A closet full of naked-lady ties is a souvenir of all the bodies that real estate money can buy. And when Shasta strips, it's a sure sign that something terrible is happening. Black revolutionaries and Aryan bikers may be the era's rebel motherfuckers, but they end up pawns as surely as the hopeless junkies who will always be good customers "as long as American life was something to be escaped from."

Eventually all the interlocking stories are revealed as a plot of The Golden Fang, a vertically integrated 60s-eating monster, encompassing hard drugs, new age therapy, cosmetic dentistry and pricey real estate– everything you need to build the white man's Los Angeles. The Fang came into the 60s like Dracula drifting in by sea, and sucked the optimism out of the 60s with teeth made of precious metal. But the moneymen washed in on a wave of teenybopper sex, all those drugged-out, hope-addled girls irresistible victims for the dealers, the hustlers, and the frequently name-checked Charlie Manson. Doc's got a good heart, and he wants to save everyone. But he can't stop listening to his dope and his dick, and they keep him wrapped up in obscurantist insights and too-easy pleasures, never seeing the pattern that's right on the surface.


Chedo M. said...

God I love this film. I think that 30-40 years from now it will be one of the classics or cult classics. 2001 was met with the same extremely polarizing reactions as Inherent Vice and that film is considered to be one of the best movies of all time. My favorite part of the film was the themes so I'm glad to see you explore them. But I was wondering what you meant by, "Making it all the more pointed that Doc is distracted by coke and ass as anyone" and "But he can't stop listening to his dope and his dick, and they keep him wrapped up in obscurantist insights and too-easy pleasures, never seeing the pattern that's right on the surface." Do you mean that Doc represents counterculture and the hippie movement in the 60s and thats it's inherent vice was the fact that they (Doc) failed to see their downfall until it was too late because of the use of recreation drugs? That's kind of how I see it haha. This film will be analyzed for many years haha.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Yeah, that is pretty much what I had in mind (though I hadn't thought of that excellent shade of meaning in the title!). The scenes with Dr. Blatnoyd felt to me like the 60s turning into the 70s: lovers' open spaces colonized by the squares, the young folks realizing too late that sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll are entirely compatible with old-fashioned exploitation.

One thing that really differentiates Inherent Vice from The Big Liebowski is the movie's attitude towards it's protagonist. The Dude is ultimately a Bogart figure: a shell of indifference soon cracks to reveal an endlessly good person. Doc is the opposite: he wants to be someone who does the right thing, and he tries to help, but when the chips are down, he's easily misled by easy pleasures or the hermetic satisfaction of stoned theorizing.

In the middle-of-the-movie sex scene, it's like Shasta is testing Doc: can he ignore her naked body and listen to what she's saying? The murky, mournful shooting of the scene suggests that the film shares her disappointment that he can't.

Thanks for commenting! Since you were taken with the themes, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Josh Brolin's character. And his banana! Just a gag, or something else?

Chedo M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chedo M. said...

I actually thought that the sex scene represents how Shasta has been corrupted by Mickey Wolfmann and his harmful ideas and buisness. And the fact that Doc had sex with her represents what you said. But to Doc Shasta represents the old and free way of life, so I actually say a lot of the film as a kind of broken life story. There are so many unexplored layers haha.

As for Bigfoot I thought that he represented the opposite of Doc and his way of life, the conservative mainstream viewpoint at that time who were one of the main causes of the death of 60s counterculture. . When he eats Doc's weed at the end, it thought it meant that Doc's way of life had been swallowed whole by well everything that Bigfoot represented (which I haven't fully figured out yet). But his banana was awesome.

This is one of the films that I love, but I won't argue with anyone if they hate it. Well I might but I will understand their POV.

What was your favorite scene in the film?