The Lost Counterculture

Inherent Vice brilliantly depicts how neoliberalism co-opted the counterculture.

At first glance, the prospect of “cinematic art” today seems more remote than ever. With the business strategies of the corporate studios organized around generating a few big blockbusters per year, increasingly in the form of endless sequels and spinoffs, making art hardly seems to fit into the logic of Hollywood film production.

This dreary state of affairs was brilliantly satirized in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman. And now Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice provides further hope that another cinema is possible.

Anderson consistently manages to craft compelling films that push beyond what has been done before and what his peers are doing now. Indeed, it is all too common for directors to slip comfortably into continually remaking their “greatest hits” — just look at Wes Anderson, whose cute and cuddly storybook worlds exude the same mix of cynical detachment, conceit, and insincerity while rehashing thematically the central importance of fatherhood in generating meaning in our lives; or the Coen Brothers, who have remade Homer’s Odyssey a dozen or more times at this point, albeit with different quirky little characters.

But each new Paul Thomas Anderson film revolutionizes what we thought possible on the screen. Perhaps this is why his films seem to be best understood only after some time has passed: we must watch them more than once, digest, think.

Inherent Vice is perhaps the most brilliant depiction of the construction of neoliberal hegemony and the harsh end of the dreams of the 1960s generation. It speaks powerfully to the here and now, indicting the nostalgic escapism that yearns for “the sixties” and showing that this epochal world as commonly imagined never existed.

The movie’s immediacy also stems from its exploration of the moment we could begin to detect the emergence of the neoliberal forces that would ultimately generate the 2008 crisis: privatization, deregulation, real estate speculation, and development booms. It is no accident that Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice was published in 2009. And as both the film and book suggest, the hippie ideal contained within itself the very seeds — the “inherent vice” — that would turn it into a nightmare.

A Postmodern Noir

The film operates within the genre conventions of film noir, complete with shadows, fog, dark alleys, a femme fatale of sorts, and a nearly impenetrably complex plot: Doc Sportello, a pot-smoking hippie private eye, is visited by his ex-girlfriend, Shasta Faye Hepworth, who has since taken up with Mickey Wolfmann, a big-time real estate developer. Shasta claims that Mickey’s wife, Sloan, and her own beau — ostensibly her “spiritual advisor” — have plans to take care of Mickey and make off with his money, before herself promptly disappearing. Later, Doc is hired by Hope Harlingen, an ex-junkie with fake teeth, to find out what happened to her husband — Coy, a heroin-addicted Communist turned COINTELPRO informant.

It turns out the two cases are related via the “Golden Fang,” a vast corporation and heroin smuggling ring that on the surface appears to be a tax shelter set up by a cartel of dentists. The Fang also owns a newly privatized mental health facility, where orderlies dressed as Jesus run around with Uzis, and where the “insane” are “cured”: that is, mentally reprogrammed to be dutiful, docile, and obedient citizens.

After being sent to the facility, Burke Stodger, a famous actor, was transformed from a blacklisted Communist to a committed reactionary. Now patients at the facility watch day-long Stodger marathons. Could there be a better, or more hilarious, symbol for the end of the 1960s and the emergence of the new hegemonic ideology?

Inherent Vice clearly fits with Anderson’s recent films — The Master and There Will Be Blood — more than with his earlier efforts (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and Boogie Nights). Whereas the latter were sprawling postmodern interrogations of film, fame, performance, genius, childhood, guilt, and love, the more recent works incorporate these concerns into explorations of revealing moments in the historical development of the United States, resulting in some of the most sophisticated and richly layered films ever made.

In these later films, which are chronologically sequential, Anderson achieves a breathtaking convergence between the ethos and character of an entire era and the subjective struggles of his characters.

In There Will Be Blood, there is the fateful meeting of religious fundamentalism, capitalism, and natural resource extraction — phenomena which clearly remain central to any sane conception of “America,” especially amid the invasion of Iraq — against the backdrop of capitalism’s expansion across the late nineteenth century frontier. In The Master, the search for meaning and purpose in the wake of World War II, and the hollowness of postwar suburbanization, mass consumerism, and the 1950s nuclear family.

Thus it is fitting that Inherent Vice takes place at the moment of flux when whatever “the sixties” was finally came to an end; a time when established symbolic meaning was upended, producing a deep sense of uncertainty and disorientation. Change is everywhere and everything in Inherent Vice.

In one of the first scenes of the film, Sortilege — the film’s possibly hallucinated narrator — tells Doc that he needs to alter his hairstyle: “Change your hair, change your life.” When Doc asks her what style he should adopt, her ambiguous reply beautifully summarizes the film: everyone must adapt, but no one knows what to become, or how to become it.

Most clear is the rapid, violent transformation of the built environment of Los Angeles. When Tariq Khalil, a member of the Marcus Garvey-inspired Black Guerrilla Family, hires Doc to track down one of Mickey’s white supremacist bodyguards, he informs him that his whole neighborhood has been destroyed and its inhabitants cleared out to make way for Channel View Estates, Mickey’s latest real estate development.

Sortilege’s voiceover connects this event for the audience with the “long, sad, history” of urban redevelopment in Los Angeles, including the “Battle of Chavez Ravine” in which Latino residents attempted to resist the bulldozing of their neighborhood to make way for what is now Dodgers Stadium.

Beware the Golden Fang

The complexity of the plot serves primarily to illustrate the relative meaninglessness of the pursuit in which Doc is engaged, and to highlight that what’s “really” happening is taking place behind closed doors. Down dark alleyways, in close huddles at the back of the party, in hidden rooms in the dentist’s office, and in banal office buildings, a huge and immensely powerful corporate entity is, in Kafkaesque fashion, rapidly transforming society, from gentrification and urban redevelopment to COINTELPRO and the sale of heroin.

No one, however, really seems to notice much, in part because the excesses of drugs, sex, and rock are fundamentally an escape. As Sortilège informs us, “American life was something to be escaped from.”

The hippies weren’t so much consciously challenging power as searching for personal happiness. They seemed to believe that by closing one’s eyes tightly enough, or by taking another hit, the evils of the world would dissolve into flowers and sunshine. “People like you lose any claim to respect the minute you pay anyone rent,” one character tells Doc near the end of the film.

This need to “deny reality by telling stories,” as Hope puts it, indicates one reason why the hippie counterculture was recuperated (in the Situationists’ terms) so successfully. While hippies closed their eyes, the forces of reaction lurked just beneath the surface, rebuilding their strength quietly and diligently.

But this recuperation also resulted from the ideological dynamism of capitalism. “Dark crews” at hippie parties, corporate offices, and suburban mansions seized upon those aspects of the countercultural revolution that suited them, adopting the vernacular, dress, symbolism, spiritualism, and sexual emancipation and effectively disguising themselves as fellow emancipated souls.

As Slavoj Zizek writes, “the new capitalism” that emerged in the 1970s “triumphantly appropriated this anti-hierarchical rhetoric of ’68, presenting itself as a successful libertarian revolt against the oppressive social organizations of corporate capitalism and ‘really existing’ socialism”: think Burke Stodger’s anticommunist films plus Sloan Wolfmann’s sexual emancipation and spiritual enlightenment.

“What survived of the sexual liberation of the ’60s,” Zizek continues, “was the tolerant hedonism readily incorporated into our hegemonic ideology.” The result was the emergence of “the post-modern ‘permissive’ master whose domination is all the stronger for being less visible.”

The film powerfully explores this cultural-symbolic transformation. As we see, the hippies and the establishment are increasingly becoming indistinguishable. We first meet Doc’s doppelgänger and nemesis, Bigfoot Bjornson, a cop with a flat-top haircut “of Flintstones proportions” and “eyes that said civil rights violations,” as an actor in a commercial for Channel View Estates. His first line: “Dude, I don’t want you paying rent!” He goes on to explain in mock hippie vernacular that this is because paying rent is “lame” and “a hassle,” the solution to which is purchasing a new home in Channel View, atop of what was previously a working-class black neighborhood.

Adrian Prussia, a loan shark and contract killer for the police, says things like “psychedelic” and “groovy.” Wolfmann’s wife, Sloane, has a “spiritual advisor” with whom she is obviously sexually intimate. As for Wolfmann himself, we are told by one of Doc’s informants that he is “a Jew who wants to be a Nazi.” He also has a closet full of ties adorned with nude images of women with whom he has (presumably) had sex, and opens a private mental hospital whose name is “an ancient Indian word meaning serenity.”

A Relentless Film

Bigfoot is a performer through and through — not just in the Channel View commercial but also as an extra on the show “Adam-12,” which competes with Richard Nixon’s speech at a rally for “Vigilant California” (a reactionary “grassroots” coalition somewhat akin to the Tea Party) as Doc flips through the television channels. Both the speech and cop show contain the same message: there is disorder on the streets, which must be suppressed.

Throughout the film, much like in his masterpiece Magnolia, Anderson highlights how television shapes perceptions of reality, from Bigfoot’s on- and off-screen persona to Coy Harlingen’s apparent disruption of a Vigilant California rally (which, it turns out, was just for the cameras). While the comparison of the rally to “Adam-12” underscores that both are essentially performances, Coy’s “disruption” earns him credibility with left organizations so he may infiltrate them more effectively, meaning Coy is not so much disrupting Nixon’s performance as participating in it. None of it is more “real” than “Adam-12.” Thus representation becomes reality.

We are only exposed to violence twice in the film, and both times it’s quite shocking, very much like a sudden eruption of “reality.” And this violence is in no way cathartic: Doc is not redeemed as a result, no wrong is righted, and we get no release.

One of these eruptions takes the form of Doc and Shasta having intercourse, which is a tormented mixture of regret, frustration, confession, and tragedy. Rather than giving us the Spielbergian satisfaction of uniting the family or couple, this actually illustrates just how deeply troubled the (non)relationship between Doc and Shasta remains, contributing to the film’s aura of inescapable tragedy.

As opposed to an Odyssey-style film of the kind the Coen brothers endlessly remake, in which the main character has to go on some quest to transform himself in order to accommodate the “home” he returns to at the end of the journey, this film focuses on how the world is changing, imposing on everyone the need to become something new — though they know not what. The bottom line is that there is no home, and Doc cannot simply return to his life as a stronger and wiser man (as in The Big Lebowski, among countless others).

The only redemption we get is Coy’s return home, interestingly inverted so that he is rescued from being a COINTELPRO informant and re-enters society. But even at that moment the camera remains focused on Doc’s face, which shows a hollow emptiness, denying us the ability to share this moment of happiness.

At the end of the film, Doc and Shasta literally appear to drive into an abyss: they are apparently in a car, but outside the window all we see is homogenous darkness — no scenery, other cars, etc. — while Shasta mentions how it feels like “the whole world is underwater and we are the only ones left.” Even Sortilege’s narration has disappeared.

It is in this abyss that we have been living since that moment, when those forces we witness in the film — state reaction, the re-establishment of conservative culture, neoliberalism — began to coalesce. They have only become more ascendant, the alienation they produce ever deeper and more profound, while we escape into nostalgia, reflecting back on a period that was never as pure as we remember. American life, it seems, is still “something to be escaped from.”