Paranoia at the Picture Show

Conspiracy and Crisis in Inherent Vice

by Sam Samore

Illustration by Natalie Kassirer

published February 27, 2015

At the center of Inherent Vice, the latest feature film from Paul Thomas Anderson, lies the impenetrable Golden Fang. At turns a red-sailed ship, an Indo-Chinese heroin cartel, the office for a syndicate of dentists organized for tax purposes, and a rehab institution, it seems as if the entirety of 1970 LA—its hippies and dopers; its cops and gangsters; even, perhaps, its movie stars (one Burt Stodger, in particular)—rests in the shadow of this mysterious organization. Yet another golden figure loomed over us last weekend, one whose most discernable features are its sculpted pectorals and impossibly tight glutes. Oscar: what hides behind your near featureless face? What mysteries do the ballot boxes hold?

Based on the 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice sets off when hippy P.I. Larry “Doc” Sportello’s ex-lady, Shasta Fay Hepworth, drops by his Gordita Beach bungalow with an eerie case. She fears her current boyfriend, real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann, is going to be kidnapped by his wife in a scheme to take his money for herself. Simultaneously, Doc discovers via cryptic note the “Golden Fang” and, enveloped in the cloud of smoke from the joint perpetually dangling from his lips, realizes that the players in the case extend far beyond his original imagining. His foil throughout is the brutal Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin, a member of the LAPD who, more than once, is referred to as a “renaissance detective” by the LA Times.

On November 27, 2014, two weeks prior to Inherent Vice’s release, A.O. Scott, head film critic for The New York Times (and renaissance critic in his own right), published the transcript of a panel titled Is Our Art Equal to the Challenges of Our Times?, with an accompanying article. The article, and the impetus it describes for the organization of the panel, rests on a sentiment that has, as of late, floated on the public electro-mental air streams: that in every sector, and at all scales, we live in a moment of “political impasse, racial tension, and economic crisis,” lending the present an ominous atmosphere. He writes, “We are in the midst of hard times now…For the past few years, like a lot of people, I’ve been preoccupied—sometimes to the point of obsession, lost sleep, free-floating dread, and active despair…” He wonders if the art of our time adequately deals with these issues, a question which he readily admits is age-old. All the same, something particular about now drives Scott to ask it again: a sense of uniquely harrowing times along with a lack of artistic response.

The word crisis pops up with alarming frequency on our digital feeds—the crises in Ukraine, in Syria, in Libya, the Ebola crisis. There are specific happenings as well—the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the killing at the Charlie Hebdo offices, the killing of three Muslim students at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not to mention plane crashes and disappearances, unidentifiable hackings, the never-ending emergence of the next “____gate”—all augmented by the fear that every phone call, Google search, and sidelong look, is watched carefully by the NSA. It is a frightening world, and the modern media give us unprecedented access to it. The dearth of art engaging these issues may stem from a refusal to fully acknowledge them in everyday life. This reaction—or lack thereof—is a defense mechanism, and often a luxury, that writes off the reality we are presented with. In a panel whose membership ranges from J. Cole to Ken Burns, no cohesive answer to Scott’s question is revealed. But if any recent film has animated the climate of crisis, it is Inherent Vice—no more so than during Doc’s immediate response to the first clue that gives him a dose of Scott’s “free-floating dread.” It is a short note:



Paranoia: the irrational fear that seemingly unrelated events and entities may not be so. Unsurprisingly, given Pynchon’s fascination with paranoid conspiracy, Inherent Vice is a film that calls into question the notion that anything might be seemingly unrelated. In many ways, this is a product of the period in which it is set; 1970 LA may indeed have been a particular spatial-temporal point that resonated at just the right frequency for unusually high levels of interconnectivity. It originates, perhaps, from hippy drug culture. Sortilege (played by a dreamy Joanna Newsom)—the flower-child astrological prophet who narrates the film and provides advice and occasional companionship for Doc—describes the effects of LSD: “Doc and Denis hadn’t dropped acid for years in this town without picking up some kind of extra-sensory chops, and the truth was, since crossing the doorsill of this place they couldn’t help noticing what you would call—an atmosphere.” After the Manson murders, whose specter lingers in Inherent Vice, the atmosphere turns ominous. Were the hippies—supposed proponents of peace, love and subversiveness—actually murderous cultists? Or worse, working for the government? At one point, Doc and his friends are pulled over by a nervous young policeman who states that “any gathering of three or more civilians is now considered a possible cult…criteria includes males with shoulder length hair or longer”; another of the increasingly difficult-to-track characters, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), is a surf music saxophonist heroin addict turned FBI mole and informer.

Anderson masterfully reconstructs for modern viewers the presence of these forces. The mise-en-scène is frequently defined by a hazy smokiness that literalizes the lack of discernible boundaries, suggesting that ideas and identities might float between people with ease. Dialogues are frequently shot from a distance with a camera that moves, slowly and steadily, ever closer to the subjects, as if we are invited to lean in and eavesdrop on whispered conversations. It is an investigative camera, sneaking into the scene in the hopes that it might catch the word that acts as a key to the entire incomprehensible film, not to mention the world in which it is set—or, by extension, the world in which it exists. That is to say, the paranoia of connectivity in Inherent Vice is not simply a product of the seventies, but also a response to a contemporary phenomenon, best encapsulated by a common joke: “thanks Obama.” The meme mocks the idea that even the smallest disappointment can be pinned on our President, but it is also indicative of a current state of mind: large, faceless, entities govern our daily existence, and the easiest coping mechanism is to arbitrarily assign a face to blame.

The gut response to Inherent Vice is one of confusion. On first viewing, the plot is nearly impossible to follow, and it may seem like little more than a stoner conspiracy theory. But ultimately, it is only via paranoia that Doc is able to understand the injustices that plague his world (the destruction of minority communities for upscale development, police brutality, and the collaboration of government on both fronts) and address the ones he’s capable of impacting. Today, drawing connections between the US government, heroin cartels, and Hollywood stars seems less ridiculous in a world where, say, the US contracts out its prison system to private companies whose investors run the very universities from which many in the film industry come. Besides a literal translation of interconnectedness from the film to reality, however, Inherent Vice’s paranoia provides a model for confronting crises—recognizing them in all their manifestations—that addresses the lack with which Scott is concerned.


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is notoriously susceptible to period pieces. Of the eight Best Picture nominees this year, only four films take place in the last 15 years, and only four are about fully fictional characters. Richard Brody, who runs the New Yorker film blog, sarcastically suggested that The Academy establish a separate category for British biopics in order to leave room for other varieties of films. Inherent Vice, though, despite its historical lens, is evidently not Oscar bait.’ It was nominated for only two awards: best adapted screenplay and best costume design, and it won neither. No one considers this a snub, as opposed to a film like Selma, which seems to push all the Oscar buttons, yet earned the same number of nominations. Clearly, Inherent Vice, as a period piece, falls in a different category than films like The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, winners of Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor, respectively. The most obvious difference is that these films interpret real events; they unearth stories, forgotten by most, that we are all expected to suddenly realize are ‘important.’ On the surface, Inherent Vice lacks this claim to relevancy. Doc Sportello never existed, and if he had, it’s likely no one would have thought to write a film about him. Unlike Stephen Hawking or Alan Turing, a real Doc Sportello wouldn’t be, in the traditional sense of the word, a hero.

The popularity of biopics in the Academy is in their appeal to an imagined indexicality: these films reflect back to us real-world events. These true stories remind us that brilliant people existed, and may even inspire us viewers to strive towards our own brilliance or some political goal. Inherent Vice, lacking a real person to latch onto, leaves the viewer less comfortable. It brings to the fore ambient, alarming aspects of our own world without offering a narratized, easily digestible version of how a historical figure solved the problem, leaving less a triumphant taste in the mouth and more a sour one. In this way, it resists easy allegiances with faceless entities, the Oscars included. In biopics, the Oscars find a temporary mask; Inherent Vice provides none.

Regardless of potential explanations for Inherent Vice’s status as a square peg in the Academy’s round hole, the big prize of Sunday did not go to a historical film. Instead, Birdman received the Best Picture award, its subject one that the Academy loves more than history: Hollywood itself. Both Birdman and Inherent Vice feature characters struggling with their relationship to Hollywood. In the former, it is Riggan Thompson, the 80s megastar whose fame has faded. In the latter, the role is filled by “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, a detective who moonlights as an unsuccessful actor, unable to break into Hollywood, and excluded from the luxurious life of debauchery that the rest of the fictional LAPD enjoys in return for their cooperation with the likes of Mickey Wolfmann. Inherent Vice makes clear that Hollywood is complicit in the machinery of the Golden Fang, and outside of the film the institutions of governance and commerce are inextricably involved in the machinery of the real-world’s Golden Statue. Take, for example, the most famous event of last year’s Oscars: Ellen DeGeneres’s record-breaking selfie, taken using a Samsung phone. On March 3, 2014, The Wall Street Journal wrote that Samsung specifically negotiated to have their phone placed strategically throughout the ceremony. Samsung’s media buying firm, Starcom MediaVest, boasts Walt Disney Co. as a client—ABC, the network that airs the Oscars, is a unit of Walt Disney. 

Bjornsen, ridiculed throughout much of the film, is ultimately a tragic hero: shut out of an institution he loves, yet unwilling to compromise his bizarre values. Birdman offers a more palatable mode of heroism for the members of the Academy, one where Riggan is allowed to remain both insider and outsider, both noble artist and critically acclaimed star. Inherent Vice may have been one of the most relevant movies at Sunday’s ceremony, but it seems likely that Birdman most pleased the members of the Academy. Their median age is 62, and Inherent Vice’s trippy paranoia, or “free-floating dread,” must have lasted too long after the fact, not unlike a brownie you might purchase on Gordita Beach. It is a film where paranoia is the lens used to focus on the world, rather than a pathological condition. The after-affects may have even colored Sunday’s awards. This writer, for one, was left too scrambled by the realization that a rehab facility in Inherent Vice is identical in appearance to the eponymous hotel in quadruple-winner The Grand Budapest Hotel to think comfortably about odd connections any longer.


SAM SAMORE B’17 is only maybe a little bit paranoid.