The staggering amount of information in the world can be overwhelming. This is partly why genres such as detective fiction are so popular – they resonate with the human desire to control and order the unknown. But this impulse has pitfalls, and the cinematic adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s detective novel Inherent Vice reveals these with aplomb.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie is the first adaptation of a Pynchon novel by a major film studio. Set in Southern California during the Manson Family trial in 1970, the film follows the escapades of private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix). Doc is a pot-smoking hippie who paradoxically combines the carefree attitude of Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski with the typical anxiousness of Pynchon’s earlier protagonists (think of V.’s Herbert Stencil, The Crying of Lot 49’s Oedipa Maas, and Gravity’s Rainbow’s Tyrone Slothrop).
Doc is employed by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), to uncover a conspiracy targeting her billionaire boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). However, getting from point A to point B proves to be impossible without encountering a mind-boggling amount of information and sub-plots along the way.
Anderson’s adaption is impressively loyal to its source material. The film does a superb job of capturing Pynchon’s paranoid tone throughout its convoluted and disjointed narrative. Anderson’s decision to use the character Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) as a narrator also allows for Pynchon’s unique voice to further enhance the film’s unconventional tone.
The seemingly endless number of characters also reinforces the complex, interconnected network of a Pynchon novel. Notable cameos include the reclusive author himself as well as retired adult film actress Michelle “Belladonna” Sinclair as Clancy Charlock. Pynchon fans may recognise Sinclair’s role as paying homage to one of Pynchon’s most controversial female characters: the masochist and retired adult film actress Margherita Erdmann from Gravity’s Rainbow.
Anderson claims that these devices force the viewer to get “completely tangled up in the many loose ends and overwhelming information”. But although it is a faithful adaptation, with many nods to its predecessor, such an approach risks alienating mainstream audiences who may not be as open to embracing its eccentric incoherence.
Order and paranoia
So what’s all this frantic confusion and paranoia even trying to accomplish? Primarily, it is aimed at systems of control. Pynchon’s protagonists are culturally, politically, and spiritually disenfranchised within these systems. And their attempts to subvert them often only enhance their own powerlessness.
Control is imposed by many forms of bureaucratic power within Inherent Vice. These include gentrifying real estate developers, the Los Angeles Police Department led by Doc’s long-time nemesis Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), the mysterious Golden Fang syndicate, and Nixonian right-wing groups such as Vigilant California.
Their opposition are those on the fringe of such systems, a variety of Manhattan Beach-type denizens: irreverent surfer bums, strung-out jazz musicians, starry-eyed prostitutes and, of course, hippies.
But Pynchon was wary of the counterculture’s “resistance to power”. Entering the 1970s, the vestiges of the once formidable countercultural movement were now being freely exploited by the system in the form of global capitalism and straight-laced conservatism.
Doc’s role as a perpetually stoned detective offers a possible solution for combating the impulse to control and order. He is incapable of separating legitimate connections from his own “paranoid hippie monologue”. This helps prevent him from fully adopting or resisting a cohesive meaning at any single moment. So in a way, the confusion that audiences will inevitably encounter mimics Doc’s perpetual state of stoned incoherence.
Appraising the haze
Towards the end of the film Sortilège explains the meaning of the titular phrase “inherent vice”. It is a term in an “insurance policy [that] is anything that you can’t avoid. Eggs break, chocolate melts, glass shatters”.
The film suggests that inherent vice refers to the inevitable defects within human relationships. But an inherent vice is also present in detective fiction’s quest for meaning and narrative stability.
As the film closes with Doc driving off into the fog, he ponders the merit of actively seeking out answers or meaning. The novel suggests that he could also wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead”.
Anderson leaves the audience in a similar dilemma. Placed within the heady brain fog of a marijuana-like stupor, viewers must make a decision. They can either choose to impose their own meaning on Inherent Vice or, like the dying counterculture, embrace the film’s cerebral haze and go along for its “far-out” ride.