The grotesque semi-collapse of the counterculture that had once sprung forth from the American midcentury continues to preoccupy pundits, historians, and artists, some four decades since its furious vibrations were reduced to mere twitches. Journalist Rick Perlstein documented the political dimension of this process in his exhaustive history Nixonland, illustrating just how quickly and completely the Left’s activist ambitions were toppled between 1965 and 1972, what Hunter S. Thompson dolefully described as the moment “the wave broke and rolled back.” The cultural fruits of the Age of Aquarius—the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—have proven a bit more durable, but they have been perversely terraformed by the empire of commercialism, a process that historian Thomas Frank has dubbed the “conquest of cool”. Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant, offbeat detective feature, Inherent Vice, grapples with the fact of this subjugation, and with the natural follow-up question: where might today’s free thinkers, sensualists, and revolutionaries find refuge from such zombified counterculture?
In the course of investigating the disappearance of California real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, rumpled, pot-fogged private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello uncovers a tangle of disturbing and ever-shifting conspiracies. Although he is the hero of Inherent Vice, Doc—like his film noir antecedents—has little hope of bringing down the myriad sinister forces arrayed against him. The best outcome that he can manage is the rescue of saxophonist and reluctant agent provocateur Coy Harlington from the grasp of distinctly non-groovy powers. Still, Doc learns some disquieting truths in the course of his ambling perusal of the Establishment’s dirty laundry in 1970 Los Angeles. Perhaps most confounding to the detective is the extent to which the language, symbols, and very ranks of 1960s counterculture have been wholly infiltrated and subverted, its “claim jumped by evildoers,” in the memorable phrasing of the film’s chimerical narrator, Sortilège.
Setting is crucial to Inherent Vice’s mood, and to its theme of the corruption of the aforementioned sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll for nefarious, “square” purposes. Adapted from the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, the film is set primarily in the fictional South Bay city Gordita Beach, a rough analogue for the real-world Manhattan Beach. Pynchon reportedly lived in that community for a time in the 1960s, but there is more than authorial familiarity behind its use as a thinly veiled backdrop for Inherent Vice’s far-out tale. Contemporary Manhattan Beach commands some of the highest real estate prices in California, but the Gordita Beach of the film is a sun-bleached, agreeably mazy town of surf shops, head shops, and pizza joints. The contrast between this scruffy period setting and its ultra-gentrified modern corollary contributes to the film’s melancholy atmosphere and underlines an essential aspect of its ethos: anything valuable created outside what Marx and Engels called the dominant ideology will one day be vacuumed up and assimilated by it.
Early in the film, Doc blearily watches a television commercial for Wolfmann’s Channel View Estates featuring LAPD detective and part-time actor Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (a former friend and long time nemesis of Doc). Decked out in an Abbie Hoffman wig, Bigfoot pitches the new development to the hippie set, testifying that the electric ranges and breakfast nooks in Channel View’s kitchens are “out of sight.” This use of countercultural signifiers to hustle products—nay, an entire bourgeois lifestyle—to an emergent youth market embodies the conquest of cool. Compared to the more complex symbiotic phenomenon presented in Frank’s analysis or in Matthew Weiner’s period Madison Avenue drama Mad Men, Inherent Vice portrays this co-option of youth/revolutionary culture as a grasping, colonialist action.
At the time of the film’s events—spring of 1970 per the Los Angeles Free Press headlines—the Manson Family murders had recently been exposed as a kind of congealed nightmare of the “Make Love, Not War” worldview. Yet Inherent Vice presents the perversion of counterculture not as the product of a few deranged malefactors, but an organized effort by a cabal of norms and reactionaries. The film’s aforementioned “evildoers” include institutions and individuals representing a host of right-wing, conformist, and violent forces: developers, the police, the FBI, anti-Communist activists, neo-Nazi bikers, Indochinese heroin smugglers, Orange County WASPs, and, improbably, a drug-dealing, pedophiliac dentist. All have contemptuously exploited the cultural currents of the 1960s for their own ends, in one fashion or another. Even baseball bat-wielding loan shark Adrian Prussia is observed spouting hippie lingo, signaling the extent to which the Age of Aquarius, if it ever existed, is thoroughly over. Doc isn’t so much horrified as he is befuddled by this:
“Was it possible that at every gathering, concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, freak-in, here up north, back east, wherever, some dark crews had been busy all along reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up for the ancient forces of greed and fear? Gee, he thought… I don’t know.”
Unexpectedly, Inherent Vice builds upon this recurrent theme through abundant allusions to the pop mythology of the vampire, and to the Dracula legend in particular. While somewhat unconventional given the film’s genre and tone, such symbolism is fitting in a tale that laments the draining, demise, and resurrection of counterculture into an undead mockery of its former self. This motif is most conspicuous when Coy’s wife, Hope, shows off her reconstructed “choppers” to Doc, and remarks that “heroin sucks that calcium out of your teeth like a vampire.” When the aforementioned licentious dentist, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, turns up dead, he is reportedly found with a pair of puncture wounds in his neck, echoing an earlier shot in which Mickey Wolfmann’s deceased bodyguard is glimpsed with a torn-out throat. (Notably, that man’s killer, who also serves as Adrian Prussia’s muscle, later roughly kisses or bites a captive Doc on the neck.)
These sort of explicit references to vampire lore mingle with the film’s more subtle evocations of the various literary and cinematic iterations of Dracula. Hope, as it turns out, is but one of many ex-junkies to benefit from the questionable charity of the Golden Fang, a mysterious entity that is variously described as an Asian drug cartel, a tax shelter for a consortium of dentists, a New Age sanitarium for recovering addicts, or a legendary smuggling schooner. Much like Dracula’s transport the Demeter, with its hold full of Transylvanian earth, the ship dubbed the Golden Fang slips into the South Bay under cover of darkness and fog, bearing a malign cargo from the distant East. While relating the sordid history of the vessel, Doc’s lawyer Sauncho Smilax remarks sadly that ominous agents “removed any traces of soul she once had; it’s a horror story.” This could just as easily describe the fate of a vampire’s victim, or that of the counterculture and its unholy transmutation into another tool of the Establishment.
Inherent Vice even has its own Mina Murray and Lucy Westerna, after a fashion. Doc is initially drawn into the Wolfmann matter at the request of ex-flame Shasta Fay Hepworth, who glides through his open door as the proverbial troubled femme fatale. Subsequently vanishing along with Wolfmann, Shasta plays the Mina role to the conspiracy’s Dracula: the maiden who falls into the clutches of the creature and provokes a rescue effort. When Shasta eventually returns on her own, such is Doc’s weed-fueled paranoia and eroded sense of reality that he is compelled to inspect the slumbering woman’s neck for telltale punctures. The film likewise features a Lucy in the person of strung-out runaway debutante Japonica Fenway, who is likely too far gone to be liberated from the Golden Fang’s grasp. Mumbling about the “the Great Beast” and declaring her ability to see in the dark, Japonica, like Lucy in Dracula, serves as a dread preview of the fate that could befall the story’s primary female character.
Unlike Dracula, Anderson’s film does not conclude with the slaying of a monster, but with Shasta’s sudden reappearance and Doc’s negotiated exchange of 20 kilos of missing heroin for Coy’s release. The Golden Fang is inconvenienced but not defeated, and several of the film’s mysteries remain pointedly unresolved. It’s tempting to regard this conclusion as unaccountably grim, a concession that the ancient forces of greed and fear will never be bested. However, the fact that the film’s final beats focus on the restoration of Shasta and Doc’s relationship points to a more nuanced message, one that presents emotional intimacy as the means to authenticity in an era of commodified cool. The film’s earlier assertion that the Golden Fang’s business would remain brisk “as long as American life was something to be escaped from” seems wholly inapplicable to Shasta and Doc. Indeed, they appear as content as can be in the film’s final shot, driving blissfully through the sort of low, dazzling sunlight that has extinguished so many cinematic bloodsuckers.