“She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had.” Sortilège (Joanna Newsom) is an astrologer, you come to find out in inherent Vice. But her description of the movie’s central object of desire, Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston), is focused on earthly details. “Back then,” Sortilège goes on, “it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe and the Fish t-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look.”
As she speaks, you see dreams, set in the made-up surfers’ utopia Gordita Beach, as a caption marks it, in 1970. Two boys run from behind the camera through a sort-of alley to the water in a shimmering distance, their slender, naked backs silhouetted. Cut to Sortilège, also shimmering, shot from below in close-up, her hair blowing in slight wind. She’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s invention, a sweet embodiment for Thomas Pynchon’s narrator, who may or may not be an extension of Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), a stoner PI who may or may not be thinking of himself in the third person, through the eyes of a woman who may be fictional — more fictional than he is, anyway.
Shasta, who is Doc’s ex at this point, appears in a next scene, arriving on his doorstep on the beach, asking for help in what turns out to be a case, in the sense that she will disappear and he will investigate. Doc, frequently called a “hippie”, wears ’70s Neil Young-style muttonchops and more or less slouches through his adventures; he still yearns for Shasta, who, like Sortilège, is vintage golden girlish, tanned, long-legged, and, despite the narration, long-haired. It’s not clear exactly how she and Doc broke up, how she was “halfway out the door” during a flashback when they run together in the rain, looking for drugs, re-finding one another, briefly. Sortilège narrates this memory as if it’s hers, attentive to emotional detail made resonant in gorgeous lighting and a slow push-in on their wordless come-together, huddled in a doorway while Neil Young sings that he’s “going back to Canada”.
Going back is a theme in Inherent Vice. Doc goes back in his mind to ponder Shasta to save her from the current case, involving real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), his conniving British-accented wife (Serena Scott Thomas), and maybe his lawyer (Benecio del Toro). The latter suggests that neither Doc nor Detective Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) quite understands the history or the significance of the Golden Fang, perhaps a heroin cartel or perhaps a model corporate structure, complete with “vertical integration” with regard to creating consumers. (See also: William S. Burroughs, who famously observed, “The junk merchant doesn’t sell his product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.”)
The junkie and business analogies form a center for Pynchon’s reworking of noir conventions, though it’s arguable that noir is and was always concerned with such analogies, just as it’s arguable that Anderson’s movie draws from Robert Altman’s version of The Long Goodbye. The combinations make for seemingly meandering narrative, Nazis and dentists, LA locations that serve as allusive and impressionistic backdrops, and some comedic notations (mainly in the forms of sex and stoner jokes), and a looking back that’s part generically nostalgic and part knowingly fantastic.
Doc’s status as drug user and business entrepreneur makes him the ideal incarnation for such nostalgia and fantasy, shaped by Governor Reagan’s abuses. Not always admirably, Doc maintains his distance from the entanglements of his several associates (cops and criminals) and objects of investigation, as well as from his own story. The film finds its way to and through this distance by the frankly ingenious means of Sortilège (who shares her name with a kind of cocktail made of whiskey and maple syrup). In another movie, she’d be Eileen Wade or Velda or even Brigid O’Shaughnessy. Here she floats in and out of scenes with Doc, sometimes advising or encouraging him, sometimes providing exposition, as the film shows maps of the “long sad history of Los Angeles land use” or as the camera presses down on the file Doc reads, “as if looking for something he didn’t want to find”.
It’s not that Sortilège serves as Doc’s conscience or even his receding memory. It’s not even as if she becomes another voice in his conversations with himself, a voice that might resemble the one described by the meandering musician and sometime snitch Coy (Owen Wilson), not quite so missing as his wife (Jena Malone) suggests he is when she asks Doc to find him. Coy sits in a diner booth with Doc, discussing the mysteries wafting around them, then concludes, “You know when I first started snitching, I realized how often people ask questions they already know the answers to. They just want to hear it from another voice, like the one outside their head.”
It’s never so clear whether Sortilège is outside Doc’s head. She’s a woman in a noir movie, after all, a whatsit and a secret. But her nuance is of a piece with his combinatory rhythms of lust and sensitivity, vulgarity and generosity. Her observations and memories might be his, or might be those he’d like to have. And she may be someone else, outside his head, telling his story but also hers, even if hers remains, for the most part, unknown.