Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson and The California Dream

While Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Inherent Vice, was based on a novel by Pynchon, what it really reminded me of was Didion: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.” This is one kind of California dream, where sex, drugs, fame, mysticism, the American promise, and the zeal of the converted all converge into a bright haze. There are of course echoes of another writer of Los Angeles, Raymond Chandler, in the form of an is-he-or-isn’t-he corrupt cop known as Bigfoot, a drug dealer-cum-pederast, and elusive gold diggers and lost lovers.

In the end, though, it is 100% Paul Thomas Anderson and his myriad ways of distilling and illuminating the beating heart of his Southern California (he grew up in the San Fernando Valley). In many of his films, he tries on several versions of the California Dream, and in doing so, affirms his love for the place but also his sharp historical eye: has California ever really changed? In Boogie Nights and Magnolia, dreams of fame, self-actualization and a stable family are attained through a depressing/hilarious combination of improvisation, betrayal, ambition, and tough risk-taking. In There Will be Blood, the Dream is oil, which Mr. Anderson treats like the California sunshine: abundant, gleaming, shiny with promise. The Dream is also the one between fathers and sons and the false promise of immortality and a permanent legacy. In Inherent Vice, the dream is of an untrammeled, true individualism and freedom: a freedom from establishment culture, from want(of money), from family obligations, from the chains of love. In all these films, California is a place of promise, but also a place, as Didion writes, where “we run out of continent.” At the end, Dirk Diggler, Doc Sportello, and Daniel Plainview have to face the hard, finite, edges of themselves and of others.

Inherent Vice, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 148 min. Ghoulardi Film Company, et al., 2014.