Thomas Pynchon, one of America’s finest living authors, is a well-known chronicler of the tragicomic dark side of American society, culture, and politics. His very funny and provocative book, Inherent Vice, was published in 2009, during the first two years of the Obama Administration.
I argue that Inherent Vice, though set in the groovy sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene of 1970s Los Angeles, should be viewed as a subtle yet sharp critique of President Obama and his administration.
Remember Obama’s campaign promise of “Hope and Change”?
Obama promised to end polarization in America; to unite the blue and red states. To make America transcend the racial divide. And to restore people’s confidence in the American government by reining in law enforcement authorities and the national security agencies, whose powers have grown exponentially since 9/11.
Pynchon has written extensively on government control and interference in the private lives of Americans. In this post, suggest that within the first two years of the Obama Administration Pynchon realized Obama had no desire to regulate and restrict such government agencies. In response, Inherent Vice foreshadows Obama permitting American law enforcement and national security agencies to double down and spy upon the lives of millions of Americans via various modern technologies; especially members of those American groups who opposed Obama, his administration, and the Democratic Party.
Pynchon, through Inherent Vice, holds a mirror up to Obama and his administration for the apparent illegal actions of his government. The film, adapted for the screen and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, faithfully captures Pynchon’s ingenious reworking of the classic private eye noir film. Its part Philip Marlowe, part Chinatown (1974), part Altman’s The Long Good-bye, with a pervasive whiff of weed a la The Big Lebowski.
But at its core, the film is all Pynchon. It casts a deeply realistic and paranoiac view of excessive government power, the government’s penchant for spying on its own people, and the system’s corruption.
The hero is Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a thirty-something laid back hippie. He’s a pot-smoking private investigator, a gumshoe (or, more appropriately, gum sandal) who lives and works in seedy south LA, near Gordita Beach. Doc is every man: he is a working stiff. He lives alone in an apartment near the beach and shares a simple office with a pill-dispensing doctor. Doc also wears a weird Afro and has huge, mutton-chop sideburns reminiscent of Neil Young in the 70s. Despite his appearance, Doc has a strong moral code. He is an individualist, street smart and resourceful. He is very loyal to friends and family, and often does his PI work pro bono. He is incorruptible. And he is very cynical and wary about the federal authorities.
To simplify a complex and many-layered plot, Doc is approached by an ex-girlfriend, Shasta. Once also a stoner chick, she has now apparently gone a bit upscale in order to search for her missing lover, a high-rolling multi-millionaire real estate mogul named Mickey Wolfmann. (No relation.) But then Shasta disappears and Doc embarks on a noble quest to find both Wolfmann and Shasta, for whom he still holds a torch. (Or, more appropriately, a doobie.) Doc suspects the pair may have been kidnapped by The Golden Fang, which may be a shady Asian drug syndicate or a front for coke-snorting, tax-evading LA dentists.
Throughout the film, viewers learn that Wolfmann, a lapsed Jew, conversely and perversely surrounds himself for protection with anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, Aryan biker-types who may or may not also be involved with supplying arms to local black militant, Nation of Islam ex-cons. They, in turn, are being stalked by a gun-toting white American vigilante group. The vigilantes are working together with the neo-Nazis, and may or may not be outsourced, private contract killers for the federal government. (Got all that?)
To further complicate matters, Doc is also retained by a young mother, Hope, also a recovering heroin addict. Hope has a young daughter and believes her husband, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a drug addict and saxophonist allegedly dead due to overdose, may in fact still be alive and hiding in plain sight as an informant for the FBI … or some other shadowy federal national security agency.
Notwithstanding this panoply of psychotic sociopath’s, the real villains of this film (according to Pynchon and Anderson), may be the Feds themselves. They are portrayed as the puppet masters pulling strings behind the scenes. They are the FBI and Homeland Security; strait-laced, clean-cut, God-fearing, black suited, crew-cut, Mormon types. And they appear to be behind the infiltration of civil rights, black, and other dissident groups; kidnappings of prominent businessmen; contract killings of LAPD detectives and leaders of non-conforming groups; and the apparent development, sale, and distribution of illegal street drugs.
Though Inherent Vice is, at face value, a wacky sex and drug-infused fiction, it hits dangerously close to home … especially to the White House and President Obama.
As citizens we have learned, through the revelations of former security analyst and contractor Edward Snowden, that the national security forces under Obama monitor our phone conversations, texts, and emails. And that’s not just Americans, but the phone conversations, texts, and emails of foreign leaders, too. Those we count as both friends and foes.
Under Obama, these same national security forces have infiltrated—through electronic wire-tapping and surveillance, and on-the-ground informants—many local American groups. That is, not only local Muslim groups but also Tea Party groups, Republican’s, media groups, and any other political and community groups opposed to Obama and the Democrats. Add to that the serious allegations that the independent Internal Revenue Service has been compromised by the Obama Administration into auditing, for political purposes, charitable and non-profit groups including the Tea Party, Republican’s, and other conservative and anti-Obama PAC groups. Their link? All seem opposed to Obama’s political agenda.
Note the very words of the title. “Inherent vice” is a legal concept which implies that the thing itself contains the seeds of its own destruction.
I highly recommend Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, both the book and film, because it reflects Pynchon’s prescient observation that the Obama Presidency, at its outset, contained the seeds of its own destruction.
How wonderfully ironic that Hollywood, one of Obama’s most solid bases, would in turn expose the inherent vice of his Presidency.