Inherent Vice: What You Need to Know about the Historical Times

The comedy-tinged mysteries investigated by “gum-sandal” California detective Doc Sportello in Inherent Vice take him into the realm of the nefarious Golden Fang—which is both a schooner headed for San Pedro and a boundless, interconnected organization which has its teeth in the international heroin trade, the rehab business and apparently dentistry, among other things.

But they also plunge him into the dark gap between the 1960s and 1970s, between an idealistic vision of America and the modern consumer sprawl with which we are all so familiar.

As Doc chases femme fatales through the intertwining questions of what happened to corrupt land developer Mickey Wolfmann, what happened to surf-rock saxophonist Coy Harlingen, and how his former client Crocker Fenway is connected to the Golden Fang, he ultimately solves them all.  But at the core of his being, he is perhaps not so much trying to figure out “whodunnit?” as “what the hell happened?”

“There’s a sadness underneath Doc’s investigations,” says Paul Thomas Anderson, “a feeling that the promise that people felt in those times was being ripped off. And that’s been a persistent theme of Pynchon’s work since the beginning.  As I made the film, I was trying to be a surrogate for Pynchon’s concern for the American fate.”

The epigraph of Pynchon’s novel was drawn from a famed splash of radical graffiti scrawled during the May 1968 protests in Paris: “Sous les pavés, la plage!” (“Under the pavement, the beach!”)

Indeed, Doc Sportello’s mythical beach home of Gordita Beach, with all its longing and joys, seems to be increasingly colliding with forces as unyielding as concrete.

That was a reality in 1970, as many watched the back-to-nature California dream gradually being overtaken by land developers.

At the same time, the fun-loving, homegrown dope scene was giving way to bureaucratic heroin cartels with global reach; the mental institutions were being emptied in favor of for-profit “recovery” centers; and an era of spirited political activism was being routed out by covert networks of spying, infiltration and dirty tricks.  Even on television, cop shows were out-gunning comedies.  A generation watched in dismay as peace, love and understanding squirmed beneath the weight of greed, surveillance and darkness.

Pynchon refers to the `60s as “this little parentheses of light” and the film, like Doc himself, is entranced by that light, but the story also takes place just beyond the closing bracket of those parentheses, in a time of upheaval and dislocation.

  • In 1967, Ronald Reagan, former SAG president and anti-Commie crusader, began an eight-year reign as California’s governor.  That same year, the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act made institutionalization of the mentally ill vastly more difficult, doubling the number of mentally ill in the justice system within a year.

In 1968, Richard Nixon was elected in the wake of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy and a   season of police-protestor confrontations, presaging the Watergate era of wiretaps and secret-keeping.


  • In 1969, Charles Manson’s cultists committed the gruesome murders of actress Sharon Tate and six others in a brutal killing spree north of Beverly Hills.


  • Also in 1969, a free rock concert given at California’s Altamont Speedway resulted in the death of a teenager beaten by Hells Angels hired to provide security.


  • In April 1970, President Nixon sends U.S. troops to Cambodia.  A civil war began in Cambodia between Communist and non-Communist forces.


  • In May 1970, unarmed students protesting U.S. involvement in Cambodia were shot by police at Kent State University, with four dead and nine wounded.


  • In 1972, Alfred W. McCoy published The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, in which he presented evidence of CIA complicity in the Southeast Asian opium and heroin trade, controlling at least 70 percent of the worldwide market.


Pynchon writes in the novel of Doc seeing signs of this change everywhere he goes in Los Angeles.  His paranoia might be heightened by his dope-smoking, but he is also detecting omens.  He asks: “Was it possible, that at every gathering—concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever—those 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?”

Amid all the jokes and sexy lightness of “Inherent Vice,” Anderson too raises that question of how those ancient forces—so palpable at the brink of the 1970s—have become the commonplace signposts of our own times.

Through Doc’s quest to right the wrongs in his immediate vicinity he also poses a very timely question: whether we still believe, decades later, in at least the attempt at transcendence?

“Do we still have that sense of a lost American promise that can be reclaimed?” Anderson wonders.  “I hope so.”