Inherent Vice and Learned Virtue

Inherent Vice, 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson

“It isn’t what you’re thinking, Doc.”

“Don’t worry, thinking comes later”

In translating Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice for the big screen, Paul Thomas Anderson was always going to be taking on a huge challenge.

Pynchon’s work is known for being both high contrast and high concept, like a beatnik James Joyce, assembling a dizzyingly complex cast of characters and peppering them through a bewildering plot.

Anderson takes this densely layered plot and filters it through a fug of 70s nostalgia and heavy dope smoke to leave the viewer feeling disorientated and, for want of a better word, lost.

Private detective and ailing hippy Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is lost too. Lost without his ex-lover, and lost as the doper culture of the 1960s gives way to 1970s cold war paranoia. When the aforementioned ex-lover Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) visits him with a request for help, he is thrown headlong and bumbling into a labyrinthine criminal investigation involving neo-Nazi thugs, billionaire property tycoons and an FBI conspiracy involving Indo-Chinese heroin smuggling (I think – it’s all pretty hazy). He discovers, or rather stumbles through, a web of vice that stretches through all corners of LA society.

In this world, vice abounds. But where, if anywhere, is the virtue? The only character that seems to counteract the drug-addled sex-obsessed populace of the film is Doc himself. And what separates him from his compatriots? He is naïve, inquisitive, and most of all, open-minded.

Joaquin Phoenix and Katherine Waterston

One of the most important discussions in contemporary ethical theory is that of the morality of knowledge, or, as nineteenth century mathematician and philosopher William Kingdon Clifford puts it in a seminal paper, “The Ethics of Belief”.

Clifford’s suggestion is that in order to make a confirmed belief or statement of certainty, we have an ethical responsibility to know all of the facts. If we do not have all of the facts, we are liable to make assumptions and allow bias to cloud our judgments.

This principle, it may seem, is what Doc is fighting to uphold. His investigation is one of relentless questioning and never assuming. The police, by contrast, seem to do nothing but assume.

Doc’s nemesis/friend/opposite in the film is police detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a character who leaps to conclusions faster than a bullet from a gun. When Doc is found lying unconscious next to a dead body, Bigfoot is almost ready to lock him up for murder without even considering any alternative explanation, until Doc’s knight in shining armour, marine lawyer Sauncho Smilax (the scene-stealing Benicio Del Toro), drops in to save him.

Similarly, later in the film, Doc is pulled over by the police in a car driven by a dilettante millionaire’s child, at which point all four passengers of the car are accused of being members of a cult on little more grounds than the fact there are more than three of them – and at least one of the men has shoulder length hair.

For Clifford, this is their inherent vice. The authorities are shown in the film as trigger-happy traditionalists, ready to pounce on anything they consider abnormal without even a cursory glance to the evidence.

Doc and Bigfoot, played by Josh Brolin

So, is Doc the counterpoint; the virtue to the authorities’ vice? Perhaps not. Doc absorbs evidence, breathing it in almost as fervently as he breathes in a variety of illicit substances, allowing it to swirl around in his head until it points simultaneously in a hundred directions and no direction at all.

But he never seems to reach any conclusions, his face constantly creeping towards the dawn of realisation before having it cruelly snatched away from him, like the subsistence of an urge to sneeze, by some other plot development.

Perhaps that is the true message of the film. In uncertain times, moral bankruptcy is inevitable. There is so much surrounding any web of conspiracy that it is almost impossible to escape the paranoia and confusion that Doc so relentlessly feels. And in the face of such certain uncertainty, the only thing left to do is ride the wave, man.

American pragmatist William James once called Clifford a “delicious enfant terrible”. For James, Clifford’s reliance on evidence to become moral was too hard line. Perhaps we need to occasionally allow for intuition and hunches to form our beliefs.

James’s suggestion is, in many ways, the motto of the hippy era. Trusting in our natural feelings allows us a certain freedom and clarity of thought. Let go of your hang ups, and you can understand the true nature of reality. Far out.

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