Inherent Vice is an American movie released to mainstream outlets on January 9th, 2015. It is based off the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name. The movie itself defies standard categorization: it really is a character study and period piece masquerading as a detective story with a liberal amount of humor interspersed throughout the movie.
The story begins in 1970’s California and centers around a sort-of private eye named Doc Sportello, an often bewildered hippy stoner who comes into contact with his beautiful ex-girlfriend, Shasta, after not seeing her for some time. She approaches him, seeking help with her new love interest, a local property mogul. Without revealing too much of the plot, this event triggers the rest of the story, with Doc “investigating” leads and trying to piece together what has happened to his ex-girlfriend and her alleged beau.
As far the aesthetics are concerned, the movie is indisputably top-shelf. The acting—especially by the two leads, Joaquin Phoenix and Josh Brolin—is excellent. The movie features other prominent Hollywood actors and actresses, like Reese Witherspoon, and they play their secondary roles very well. Also, the music in the movie is awesome. It is a wide ranging, eclectic mix that highlights the late-60’s backdrop of the movie.
The movie’s credits opens with this song. I think it’s lyrics provide insight into the meaning of the movie:
Note these lyrics:
Oh my wild beautiful bird, you will have flown, oh
Any day now I’ll be all alone
I know I shouldn’t want to keep you
If you don’t want to stay
Until you go forever
I’ll be holding on for dear life
Holding you this way
Begging you to stay
Don’t fly away, my beautiful bird
Don’t, don’t fly away
These lyrics are quite fitting for this movie, as the movie is set at the outset of the 1970’s. The revolutionary promise of the ’60’s had died into the political quietism of the ’70’s. The political fervor of the ’60’s had collapsed as the youth of the ’60’s had passed on in age and found the idealism and rage that underlaid their political angst to be untenable to indulge in as they got older. Despite this, they sought to edify and aggrandize their experiences of the ’60’s.
The main character, Doc, is representative of the stereotypical ’60’s radical (hippie): slightly disoriented, superficially self-absorbed, nostalgic, drug-abusing and conflict-avoidant, yet wanting revolutionary change. He is reactive, not proactive and is at the mercy of authority and circumstance. Yet, he is relatively harmless, idealistic and possesses a level of child-like wonder for the world.
Doc’s girlfriend Shasta represents hippie’s memories of the vague promises of the ’60’s. She is vague, ill-sketched but often talked about and obsessed over. Sashta represents the yearning that hippies thought they had for the world. She exists as an abstraction to Doc, a woman whose ability to love is ambiguous to him. She is mysterious, her fancies given towards hobnobbing with powerful men, all the while trying to maintain a level of distance between herself and the world she inhabits.
The interplay between Doc and Shasta shows the interplay between the ’60’s radicals and their ideals. Their perception of the world is necessarily strained through their heavy drug use, revealing the unreliable nature of their narratives and conclusions. The movie is fueled by the unreliability of its own narrative, especially with respects to the true nature of Doc and Shasta’s history.
Still, through this haze of dope and cigarettes, exists the ill-defined dimensions of ’60’s radicalism: a strong level of personal nostalgia dosed with an obsession with personal autonomy, a waning sense of love between men and women and fantasies about power in this world. I would imagine those who lived through the ’60’s and ’70’s would find this movie either mostly entertaining or mostly revolting.
Doc fetishizes his relational history with Shasta (ported out as nostalgia) and has a level of distance with respects to truly loving her. Shasta doesn’t clearly love her new love interest and Doc fears she might—but only because true love represents something negative to ’60’s radicals. When Shasta doesn’t affirm their relationship at the end of the movie, it brings a level of comfort to Doc, as he gets to keep their relationship firmly within in the grips of his gauzy, marijuana-addled imagination.
Idealism cedes to realism
This sort of period piece perfectly captures America as it rolled from the tumultuous and idealistic posture of the ’60’s into the reality of the ’70’s. Desperate for the pastures of the ’60’s—but not really wanting that world—the hippies found themselves forced to change as they got older and the world got older with them. They obsessed over what the ’60’s really meant and what it really stood for—even thought they can’t even truly reiterate what actually happened in the ’60’s.
As the lyrics above show, the radicals were well-aware that their time shall pass, but they didn’t really want to let the period go. Authority and circumstance decided their fate, but that happens for any group of people that allow authority and circumstance to decide their fate. The heedless drug use and empty idealism portended their fate, but that doesn’t preclude the nostalgic idealism of their world.
The promise of the the ’60’s embodied by Inherent Vice is the utopia that progressivism, civil rights and feminism was supposed to have ushered in. The hippies or radicals were meandering about, smoking drugs and waiting for the revolution to happen, in which all that was wrong with the world would be washed away in a torrent of liberal justice.
That isn’t what happened.
The true promise of the ’60’s didn’t lie in promoting social justice, equality or tolerance amongst diverse groups, but that there would be a cessation of the conflict of life. The proliferation of drug use and historical revisionism embodied by nostalgia all serve to evidence that the true nature of the ’60’s was to flee the conflict that is life. The avoidance of truly confronting and dealing with authority figures also represent the inability or lack of desire to deal with the reality of human existence.
Inherent Vice represents the rheumy, nostalgic view hippies and radicals have of the the ’60’s as it passed into the ’70’s. The gauzy, broken promises of the ’60’s were little more than laughing ghosts in the minds of their believers, as they represented little more than the infantile desire to avoid responsibility, maturity and conflict in life.
The utopia they chased has amounted to little more than a world even more consumed with ruthless appeals to authority and more supplication to circumstance.