Paul Thomas Anderson’s Los Angeles: Inherent Vice (2014)

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    Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson) and Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s  Inherent Vice  (Warner Bros., 2014)

Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterson) and Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (Warner Bros., 2014)

In Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), director Thom Andersen observes: “If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fictions for their documentary revelations” (Andersen 2003). Andersen suggests that a secret history of a city, one not readily accessible through documentaries or non-fiction writing, can be gleaned from the fictional films set in that city. His film—a documentary, a video essay, and a piece of film and social criticism—was not officially released until 2014, only shown previously at festivals and special screenings. Andersen’s film is an intricate history of the enigma that is Los Angeles, revealed through the film’s produced there. “The most photographed city in the world,” according to Andersen, reveals through moving images what a real world often obscures. Almost by coincidence, Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s L.A. noir Inherent Vice was released the same year; Thom Andersen’s film appears to anticipate a film like Inherent Vice, as Paul Thomas Anderson’s film offers a history of Los Angeles through evoking other films set in the city.

In many cases, films that are not historical films—films that are not chiefly concerned with real historical figures or a real historical event—can still perform the same functions as a historical film; films that are set in the past but belong to other established genres, such as Guillermo del Toro’s El Laberinto del Fauno/Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), can nevertheless engage with an audience’s relationship with the past. Inherent Vice draws upon both a cultural memory of America during the 1970s and a fandom of film noir and New Hollywood films (roughly 1967-1980) in order to tease out and encapsulate a history of Los Angeles that is relevant to the present day. An analysis of the film, therefore, can be part of a useful examination how historical films inform the development and revision of other genre codes and conventions, opening up the conversation to a new set of questions about how cinema critiques historical memory and renegotiates our relationship with the past.

First, it is important to consider a few workable definitions of historical films. Jonathan Stubbs writes that historical cinema “attempts to engage with and construct a relationship with the past” (Stubbs 2013, 35). Adding to this, Robert Burgoyne notes that historical films “establish an emotional connection to the past” and “awaken a powerful sense of national belonging or a probing sense of self-scrutiny” (Burgoyne 2008, 1-2). Inherent Vice does establish an emotional connection to the past, and, while not necessarily awakening a sense of national beloning, encourages a sense of national self-scrutiny.

Additionally, Robert Rosenstone provides six key elements to mainstream Hollywood historical films that Inherent Vice engages with in different ways:

·      Historical films they tell the story of the past with a beginning, middle, and end. 

·      They insist on history as the story of individuals.

·      They offer history as the story of a unitary, closed, and completed past.

·      They personalize, dramatize, and emotionalize the past.

·      They give us the look of the past, of buildings, landscapes, costumes, and artifacts.

·      They show history as a process—the world on screen brings together things that, for analytic purposes, written history often splits apart (Rosenstone 2006, 47-48).

While Inherent Vice does not meet the first three criteria, the latter three are met in many striking ways: a real past is dramatized, the film’s mise-en-scene brings that era to life, and the history the film obliquely refers to is organized in a way that presents a picture of 1970s Los Angeles that can be more complex than the written historical record. The final criterion is very curious as it touches on another point made by Stubbs: historical films also acknowledge, explicitly or indirectly, other historical texts—historical writing or documentaries, for example (Stubbs 2013, 32). By this standard, Inherent Vice is in dialogue with Mike Davis’s book City of Quartz (1990)—an architectural history of Los Angeles—and other films, both narrative and documentary, that are either set in Los Angeles or concerned with the same time period.

The relationship between Inherent Vice and the historical film genre becomes more clear when one contrasts the film with other Paul Thomas Anderson films. The film, according to Jonathan Romney, is the end of an Anderson trilogy that began with There Will Be Blood (2007) and followed by The Master (2012), Anderson’s own version of Neil Young’s “Ditch Trilogy”; PTA’s last three films serve as an assessment of the present through fictional treatments of historical pasts: the rise of petroleum companies in the American southwest at the dawn of the twentieth century (There Will Be Blood), the fate of many traumatized veterans after returning home from World War II (The Master), and the moment when America’s love affair with the 1960s counter-culture began to sour (Inherent Vice) (Romney 2015, 18). At first, PTA’s trilogy appears to be applying a form of cinematic historiography known as “presentism”: the use of the past as an allegory for the present day. This observation makes sense in the case of There Will Be Blood and Inherent Vice, as both films feature corporate greed reshaping the American social order, a relevant topic in an American reeling from the effects of the George W. Bush presidency. The Master, however, contains a scene early on that elevates the function of the film (and the rest of the trilogy) beyond mere exercises in presentism. The film’s central character, an alcoholic, World War II veteran drifter named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), enters a rehabilitation program before being discharged. The mise-en-scene in this scene directly references John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946), a noir documentary film about traumatized veterans, banned for thirty years after its initial release. The trilogy explicitly acknowledges an indexical relationship between cinema and the history of the twentieth century and how history is encoded in the film form. Inherent Vice follows this pattern by providing an extra chapter to the extensive written history of Los Angeles through the process of cinematic citation.

What history (or whose history) is in Inherent Vice? Not Paul Thomas Anderson’s. He was born a week after the central events of the story. Thomas Pynchon? He lived in Manhattan Beach during the counterculture (the setting of much of novel and film, renamed “Gordita Beach”), though his elusive nature leaves much to speculation. The United States during the 1970s? Though Inherent Vice refers to a real past, the film itself does not depict a literal history. The war in Indochina is referenced, footage of Richard Nixon is shown, and the role that Topanga Canyon played in the L.A. music scene is acknowledged, but it is still a work of fiction in the strictest sense. Los Angeles? Inherent Vice is a story of Los Angeles, to be sure, but specifically the film touches on other works about the city—films and written texts. I would like to start  by exploring the ways that Inherent Vice uses other films, in particular noir cinema, as prominent inter-texts in revealing a hidden history of the city. Next, I will highlight the was that Inherent Vice is in dialogue with Mike Davis’s book City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles, an eerily prophetic architectural history of L.A. that functions as a sharp critique of late capitalism. Davis identifies four major groups of Los Angeles intellectuals that have shaped the city’s history since the end of the nineteenth century, and each are featured in Inherent Vice in varying degrees: 1) The Boosters, 2) The Noirs, 3) The Mercenaries, and 4) The Exiles. Overall, I would like to consider the ways that the film uses cinematic citation and other histories of Los Angeles to collapse time between the present and the past. 

Los Angeles (and its alter ego, Hollywood)

Volumes can be written about the cinematic citations that abound in Anderson’s films: Robert Downey Sr.’s Putney Swope (1969) in Boogie Nights (1997), Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993) in Magnolia (1999), Jacques Demy’s The Umbrella’s of Cherbourg (1964) in Punch Drunk Love (2002), and the films of John Huston in both There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012). For Inherent Vice, Anderson has talked about its references to Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), the television series Police Squad! (1982) starring Leslie Nielsen, and Alex Cox’s L.A. punk rock dystopia Repo Man (1984), in particular a similar use of nighttime lighting. I would like to focus on some of the some of the citations that are not often discussed, but which do play an important role in the film’s presentation of Los Angeles: the film’s noir texture, references to the minor cinema of Los Angeles, and a subtle filmic dialogue with the Los Angeles world of Anderson’s earlier films.  

Lt. Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen: "that little, evil, shit-twinkle in his eye that says 'civil rights violations.'"

Lt. Detective Christian F. "Bigfoot" Bjornsen: "that little, evil, shit-twinkle in his eye that says 'civil rights violations.'"

The film’s two central characters are the hippie private detective Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) and the square, right-wing cop Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Doc, according to Anderson, was modeling on Neil Young and the Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg; Phoenix, viewed the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (2009) to prepare for the role, through which he modeled his look and mannerisms on Ellsberg (Romney 2015, 22). Bigfoot, by contrast, is a buzz cut police detective with a “John Wayne walk,” a “flattop of Flintstone proportions,” and whose speech and mannerisms recall Sterling Hayden’s noir performances.

In an interview with Cineaste, Anderson points out several film references in the novel that do not appear in the film, in particular the films of John Garfield (1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, for example). He goes on to note that what is reflected in the film is a clash between the old and the new that was mirrored in Hollywood politics at the time. “Here are all these new…young filmmakers. But the old guard is very much alive, and very much around. Yes they’ve peaked and are on their way out, but they are still not ready to go quietly” (Sauvage 2015, 20). This is an interesting point to consider when contrasting Doc and Bigfoot, a nod perhaps to Old Hollywood vs. New Hollywood; Bigfoot likens himself to Fatso Judson (Ernest Borgnine) in From Here to Eternity (1953), for example. This odd interplay between New Hollywood and Classic Hollywood permeates the film, helping to underscore the film’s discourse on the historical moment through cinematic citation. 

Inherent Vice  (2014)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Punch Drunk Love  (2002)

Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Consider the film’s opening scene. The film’s opening shot of Gordita Beach, shot through an alley between two beachside houses, evokes the legacy of Venice and Redondo Beaches during the era, the former immortalized by music of The Doors. Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), Doc’s friend and the film’s narrator, first appears, and she is backlit by the warm California sun, her face shadowed in a low angel shot reminiscent of 16mm film stock from the era. We soon find Doc on the couch in his beachside bungalow at night—bathed in a blue light from off screen. The couch is red, and the pillow that supports his head is white. His ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), dressed in “flatland gear,” pays him a visit—a “secret rendezvous” to ask Doc for help regarding her involvement with the Wolfmann. Some would argue that this appearance of red, white, and blue is a nod towards American symbolism. Others may perceive this color pattern as an evocation of the Los Angeles world that Anderson previously created, in films like Punch Drunk Love (2002), for instance, which is permeated by red and blue throughout. The appearance of these colors, however, can be read as performing both functions. This red, white, and blue color theme continues throughout the film, underscoring the film’s critique of the historical moment and bringing the film into dialogue with Anderson’s earlier work; the film presents itself as a welcomed return to L.A. after spending over a decade away with There Will Be Blood and The Master

A memory of noir films also figures into this clash between old cinema and new cinema. A particularly striking example, however, is a scene whose use of fog and shadows visually references The Big Combo (1955). Doc meets Jade (Hong Chau), an employee of Chick Planet Massage (a front company for Wolfmann and the Aryan Brotherhood), at the Club Asiatique in San Pedro (“Golden Fang territory”). The two talk in secret behind the club, shrouded in thick fog off the Pacific Ocean. She introduces Doc to a mysterious figure that reveals information on the Golden Fang’s smuggling operation; the figure, we later discover, is Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), an ex-junkie working undercover and presumed dead by his family. The scene recalls the ending shot of The Big Combo, in which Detective Leonard Diamond (Cornel Wilde) and Susan Lowell (Jean Wallace) are framed in a foggy airplane hanger as backlit shadows by cinematographer John Alton. 

The Big Combo  (1955)

The Big Combo (1955)

The independent cinemas of Los Angeles also feed into Inherent Vice’s history through cinematic citation. There is a moment when the film dissolves to a map of the southland (bordered by the 405, 91, and 105), along with Sortilege’s voice-over presenting a history of this region as one of displaced people. As the map fades away, the viewer is treated views of impoverished L.A. neighborhoods. There is a moment where children run alongside the car in a moment that recalls Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978). A year before the events of Inherent Vice, the iconic Los Angeles funicular on Bunker Hill, “Angel’s Flight,” was torn down by the community redevelopment agency. Sortilege describes this event: “Mexican families bounced out of Chavez Ravine to build Dodger Stadium. American Indians swept out of Bunker Hill for the Music Center. And now Tariq’s neighborhood bulldozed aside for Channel View Estates.” The Tariq in question is Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams), a former member of the Artesia Crips who, after being released from prison, discovered that his old neighborhood had disappeared: “just a ghost town with a big sign that said, ‘coming to this site soon,’ with a big ass ugly picture of some houses. And guess who the builder is? Wolfmann.”

Inherent Vice also takes place right before the downtown boom, what Mike Davis refers to as “Chinatown revisited” (Andersen 2003). This was also known as the skyscraper boom, from 1973 to 1986, in which Richard Riordan, the future mayor of Los Angeles, was the prime fixer: “a publically financed civics project that had generated a windfall profit for a wealthy ring of insiders.” In the film, Los Angeles in 1970 becomes a grotesque realization of development plans dating to the 1920s—plans that would eventually translate to the building of the Los Angeles freeways system and the lackluster efforts to revitalized the region’s public transportation system in recent years despite overwhelming public support. These plans play a crucial role in Robert Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) and in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and in both films, as well as Inherent Vice, the secret about who really rules L.A., a question central to Davis’ City of Quartz, is hidden in plain view. Chinatown set a precedent, as Thom Andersen points out, for films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Inherent Vice: period films about Los Angeles would “replace a public history with a secret history” (Andersen 2003). By the time Inherent Vice was released, it was no longer clear how secret the history really was. 

The Doper, The Fuzz, and The Wolfmann

The notion of “Los Angeles Intellectual,” according to Mike Davis, is almost instinctively dismissed, as Los Angeles is seen as “unlikely to produce homegrown intelligentsia” in contrast to New York City or San Francisco. Yet, since the 1920s, the cultural industry, and later the aerospace industry, invited a myriad of talented writers, scientists, engineers, and other visionaries (Davis 1990). The first group, The Boosters, arrived during a period that historian Kevin Starr refers to as California’s “Progressive Era” (1880-1920). These were mythmakers who constructed Los Angeles as a narcissistic mirror for Anglo-Americans looking to escape the growing progressive politics of the East Coast by fleeing into the West. The Noirs, by contrast, were the debunkers of the Booster myths, often operating from a Marxist critique of middle class idealism. The Mercenaries were those who raised the city’s profile through scientific, medical, architectural, or mechanical innovation—elevating, among other things, Pasadena’s California Institute of Technology (Cal Tech) to prominence. Lastly, The Exiles were immigrant intellectuals who used Los Angeles as the site for charting the fate of Modernism, amongst whom included the Frankfurt school (Adorno, Horkheimer, and others), musicians such as Arnold Schoenberg, and architects like Rudolph Schindler and Richard Neutra, who built homes that would later feature in films like L.A. Confidential (1997). With the exception of The Exiles, Inherent Vice’s characters fall into these categories in varying ways, and reading them in this fashion is useful for understanding how Anderson’s film interrogates the city’s past. 

Sportello embodies The Noirs in a peculiar way. He is another entry in the list of unconventional takes on Marlowe; Doc is a private investigator who lives in Gordita Beach, a fictional recasting of the Manhattan, Redondo, or Venice Beach, and his ubiquitous joint smoking throughout the film casts him as something of a precursor to the Coen Brother’s Dude character (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski (1998), though in many respects he is an homage to Elliot Guild’s portrayal of Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). Bigfoot, on the other hand, embodies The Boosters, and when viewed alongside the film’s nefarious real estate developers—Mickey and Sloane Wolfmann—recalls the legacy of the Arroyo Set: a group of Booster writers who glorified Los Angeles as a promised land for Anglo-Americans, leading a Mediterranean version of New England life “on the ruins of an innocent but inferior ‘Spanish’ culture” (Davis 1990). This group wrote the script for the great real estate speculations of the early twentieth century, and the Wolfmanns and Bigfoot reap the benefits of their pioneer work, seen especially in Bigfoot’s appropriation hippie culture in advertisements for the Wolfmanns’ Channel View Estates (“his latest insult to the environment.”).

The Mercenaries in the film are corrupted by the same power stemming from the real estate development and land speculation of The Boosters. They are embodied by Chrysklodon mental institution in Ojai and by the nefarious shadow organization The Golden Fang. “Beware the Golden Fang,” a line repeated throughout the film, “is a slogan that should never get old,” according to Anderson (Sauvage 2015, 20). The slogan draws each of the three groups together to a historical moment that Anderson hones in on in the film: a time when Los Angeles would be taken over by “real-estate developers, the mysterious syndicates such as the Golden Fang, and Civil Rights bashing law enforcement, with the promise of the past fading or gone” (22). This is a moment that Alan Yuhas describes as the point where “American let capitalism off the leash and let it fly towards its logical extreme: exploitation and entrapment,” and the insidious consequences of development, a recurring noir theme, impacts the lives of the characters (Yuhas 2015).

Salvatore Settis notes that a city can die in three ways: through military invasion, through being swallowed up by another empire, or through losing its memory of itself (Settis 2015). For the third way, Settis uses Athens in the wake of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity as an example, a city whose citizens were not massacred nor did they cease to be Greek but who reached a point where they could no longer identify the temples they had built. In contemporary terms, Settis points to Venice as a city at risk of losing its memory of itself, so it seems reasonable to ask whether or not Los Angeles is vulnerable. If we borrow Settis model for measuring a city-at-risk and apply it to Los Angeles, we find some interesting contradictions that Los Angeles Plays Itself and films like Inherent Vice further highlight. What if cinema died? Or realistically speaking, what if the major Hollywood studio networks buckled under the weight of their excess, collapsed and fizzled out, and the world of American cinema was diffused across the country? What would happen to the Los Angeles area when, since the beginning, Hollywood has served as a memory machine for the region? After all, the pictures provide evidence that a Bunker Hill did exist.


Works cited:

 Burgoyne, Robert. The Hollywood Historical Film. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. New York: Vintage, 1990.

Romney, Jonathan. "Strange Daze." Sight and Sound. February 2015. 

Rosenstone, Robert. History on Film/Film on History. London: Peason, 2006.

Sauvage, Pierre. “Beware the Golden Fang: Interview with Paul Thomas Anderson.” Cineaste. Vol XL, No.2. 2015

Settis, Salvatore. “If Venice Dies.” Italian Studies at Oxford Lecture Series. Oxford, England. June 9th, 2015.

Stubbs, Jonathan. Historical Film: A Critical Introduction. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Yuhas, Alan. “What Inherent Vice Tells Us About Modern America.” The Guardian. 2015.