Pynchon's Politics and Anderson's Movie
As we have seen, Doc’s career and dilemmas illustrate consequences of the pleasure principle. In contrast, Shasta Fay’s choices dramatize the reality principle. Her career and her careerist motives are salient in the novel . Anderson drops Shasta Fay’s motives and omits almost all mention of her career from the movie. In their absence, the competition between the two principles and the implicit political contrast between the ex-lovers disappears.
The novel repeatedly mentions Shasta Fay the aspiring actress. The movie retains only two remnants of these references. In the more salient of them, a voice-over describes the end of Doc and Shasta Fay’s relationship with a metaphor borrowed from another scene in the book. After Bigfoot Bjornsen calls Doc to maliciously tell him Shasta Fay has disappeared, Doc drifts into a reverie of the couple’s happier days. In the voice over, Sortilege tells us, “It wasn’t any clearer what had driven them apart. They each gradually located a different karmic thermal, watching the other glide away to different fates.” Anderson has added the first sentence in this quote, and with this addition the image describes a situation the opposite of that described in the novel.
Rather than invoking an unfathomable destiny, the novel simply attributes the separation to Shasta Fay’s ambition. In the first of the novel’s back stories, we learn Shasta Fay was the prettiest girl in her school, starred in high school theatricals, and “fantasized like everyone else about getting into movies.” Like Doc, she is inspired to her career by commodity entertainments. More realistically oriented than Doc, she wants to emulate the actresses rather than the narrated characters. Shasta Fay and Doc remain together briefly, then “Soon enough she was answering casting calls and getting some theater work, onstage and off, and Doc was into his own apprenticeship as a skip tracer, and each, gradually locating a different karmic thermal … .” The forces that drove them apart do not perplex Doc and never did. Their decisions on their respective careers separated them. The metaphoric “karmic thermal” hews closely to the original sense of karma, the emotional causality through which those choices lead to their separation .
The people around Doc and Shasta Fay recognize this causal connection clearly. Doc’s mother Elmina, who does not appear in the movie, expresses her lingering hope that Doc and Shasta Fay may yet end up together. At the same time, she sympathizes with Shasta Fay’s ambition and validates their separation, “She had her career, … It’s hard but sometimes you have to let a girl go where her dreams are calling her.” To the novel’s characters, as to us, Shasta Fays’s choice of career over romance forms such an obvious, common sense corollary of the capitalist reality principle that we barely notice it.
Shasta Fay’s commitment to the reality principle entails a dilemma particular to it for her, just as Doc’s commitment to the pleasure principle did for him. Her realistic choice does not end Shasta Fay’s spontaneous humane, social impulses. Because she has chosen to disavow affection and caring in the direction of her life, she must struggle against instrumentalizing these feelings in her personal life and must attempt to deny them a place in her professional relationships. Pynchon conveys this struggle subtly and intensely in the two extended scenes in which Shasta Fay appears in the novel.
Like Doc, Shasta Fay feels these caring impulses deeply. Accordingly, the choice to subordinate romantic love to the requirements of her career has profound emotional consequences for Shasta Fay. She quickly recognizes the possibility of instrumentalizing her looks and sexuality. After a year in Hollywood, her career seems to consist more of dreams and ambitions than of successes. An encounter between Doc and head shop owner Ensenada Slim gives us a glimpse of these limits. Slim asks if he had really seen Shasta Fay’s car the previous evening, and Doc confirms she dropped in on him. Doc adds that he had thought that when he saw her again, “… it’d be on the tube, not in person.” Slim concurs, “Sometimes I think I see her at the edge of the screen? But it’s always some look –alike.” Shasta Fay’s on-screen roles are scarce, her success limited. As Shasta Fay confronts the economic insecurity of selling her abilities as an actress, the reality principle quickly fosters a calculating employment of her looks and sexuality.
Shasta Fay’s calculation leads to her allowing Mickey Wolfmann to keep her. But she avowedly employs this rationality more broadly in assessing her relationships to men. In the scene where she and Doc have sex and talk, the talk turns to her connection to Coy Harlingen. Shasta Fay had taken it on herself to ask Burke Stodger for help in finding Coy access to treatment for his heroin addiction out of a basic desire to help. Even then, she had to think over her feelings for the sax player. She weighed romantic and pragmatic considerations, and chose realistically “He was not, could never be the love of her life,” good friend and talented musician though he be. Her choice follows from more than a judicious caution regarding heroin users. She sums up her attitude for Doc, “... I was never the sweetest girl in the business, there was no reason for me to waste half a minute on a sick junkie like Coy … .” She makes explicit the same utilitarian calculation that motivated her relationship with Wolfmann, and implies that if she had considered the opportunity advantageous, she would have cheated on her sugar daddy. Shasta Fay strives to consistently treat her relations to men as business relations.
Shasta Fay’s relationship with Mickey Wolfmann also demonstrates the equivocal emotional outcome for her of her utilitarian deployment of sex and the balancing of the pleasure and reality principles that it demands. In the first chapter of the novel, before Shasta Fay has even told Doc that it is Wolfmann who is keeping her, she describes his wife’s plot to gain control of his fortune and her own ambivalence about the wife’s invitation for her to participate in the scam. Doc asks whether she has had trouble deciding if it would be right or wrong, and she replies, “Worse than that. … How much loyalty I owe him.” Coy presented no temptation worth considering, but a share of Wolfmann’s fortune is another matter. In response, Doc reduces the relationship to its essence, “Emotions aside, then, let’s look at the money. How much of the rent’s he been picking up?” She answers, “All of it,” and in a notably affluent neighborhood at that, in contrast to the “low-rent living space in Hollywood” that she had so recently sought as she started her career. Her entry into an unscrupulous milieu of property owners and exploiters has amplified the dilemma of Shasta Fay’s instrumental ethics. The potential she sees in herself scares her. Her request that Doc investigate the situation resolves her ambivalence in favor of caring. By involving Doc she acknowledges to herself that she loves Wolfmann and recognizes that her affection and care have been subsumed into an unambiguously instrumental relationship.
Opting for the pleasure principle gave Doc an emotionally satisfying career but did not pay the bills. Inversely, opting for the reality principle pays Shasta Fay’s bills, but stifles her fundamental emotional and social impulses, leaving them sublated, co-opted and unsatisfied. Even when Shasta Fay can indulge her impulses to care and protect for their own sake, the oppressive milieu into which her realistic decisions have brought her ensures that the results still harm the people she cares for. Earlier in the conversation in which she and Doc discuss Coy Harlingen’s recovery from his addiction, she infers from Coy’s repeated visits to Chryskylodon that he might still be using and reaches this realization ”With an unhappy look on her face.” She reflects that Coy is incapable of handling addiction or recovery and that he is thus putting his family in jeopardy, as she explains to Doc “… and that’s why I’m worried.” From their first encounter, Coy’s addiction has appeared to her as an opportunity to help, “ … it was luck, dumb luck, that had put them each where they were, and the best way to pay for any luck, however temporary was just to be helpful when you could.” Yet as Doc bluntly lays it out for her, Shasta Fay’s well-intentioned intervention has resulted in Coy becoming a police infiltrator and informant, complicit through his activities in three deaths. Once rationally subordinated to capitalist ethics, the communist impulses of the pleasure principle thwart themselves and serve the forces that oppose them.
The subjective subordination of her erotic impulses to the reality principle also has directly harmful consequences for Shasta Fay herself. As her relationship with Wolfmann ends, Shasta Fay realizes how her prioritization of the reality principle snared her into a perverse devotion to Wolfmann. “Fast, brutal, not what you’d call a considerate lover, an animal, actually but [his wife] Sloan adored that about him … we all did … .” After relating how Wolfmann exploited her sexually, Shasta Fay masturbates Doc and herself to orgasm. At climax, ““You fucker!” she cried – not, Doc guessed, at him, - “you bastard … .” Deciding on intimate relationships in accord with the reality principle could not immunize Shasta Fay against caring and affection. Unavoidably, the reality principle has tainted her feelings, however tender or devoted, and infiltrated them with the selfishness and exploitiveness of capitalist relations. Because Shasta Fay still yearns for some comfort and sustenance within her relationships, her adherence to the reality principle can only disabuse her cruelly and fill her with fury at her exploiter and abuser.
The movie omits Shasta Fay’s career, just as it omitted Doc’s. This omission removes the history of motives and decisions that give emotional depth to her character and political complexity to her emotions. Only two pieces of the characterization we have discussed reappear. In the first scene of the movie, as in the novel, we hear Shasta Fay’s unhappy perplexity at her willingness to consider betraying Wolfmann. In the scene of Shasta Fay and Doc’s sex, we hear of Wolfmann’s brutality as a lover. But we do not hear her fury at him. Without the history behind her mercenary decisions and her charitable friendship with Coy, what remains is an inexplicably thoughtless and selfish young woman of whom we know only that she has rejected and hurt Doc. To flesh out her character, the movie, as it did with Doc, adapts and adds material to elaborate Shasta Fay’s feelings within her relationship to Doc, but at the same time to confine and focus them there. Anderson concentrates this revision in two short scenes, which together last barely three minutes and come late in the movie. Although very brief in comparison to the scene in Doc’s apartment, they convey much about Shasta Fay’s feelings toward Doc and her desire to reestablish their relationship.
The first very brief scene follows directly on the scene in Doc’s apartment and shows Shasta Fay’s delight in their reunion. In the scene’s thirty seconds, Shasta Fay and Doc walk along the beach. This scene adapts the final paragraph of the chapter in which they talk and have sex. In that paragraph, Shasta Fay leads the way from the apartment to the beach, where they walk in the dark and the rain. Doc trails her, seeing, “the nape of her neck in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of.” Her bearing is actorly and generic, and shemanipulates the posture of separation to create attraction. For Doc’s part, he “followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did.” Shasta Fay’s trail leads to neither past nor future and disappears before his eyes. Doc himself empties out bleakly, “The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.” He confronts the ambivalent outcome of his career, that, as Shasta Fay has suggested, he has like Coy Harlingen become an agent of the police and, as he infers himself, of the property-owners behind them.
The movie takes this scene centered on Doc, suffused with his dejection at their irrecoverable romance and his dismay at the ethical precarity of his profession and transforms it into one devoted to Shasta’s Fay glee that they are reunited. Free of dialog, the scene is the most carefully and strikingly choreographed in the movie. The camera follows the couple down the beach in the light of day in relative close up, Doc on the right in the foreground with his back to us, Shasta Fay to the left in the midground and facing Doc and the camera. Their motion and the motion of the camera brings them closer, separates them, lets her leave the frame to the left and return. This pattern evokes the difficult history of their relationship. Shasta Fay’s face forms the expressive center of the shot. Her gaze repeatedly turns and returns to Doc. She smiles and smiles as the sight of him. As they move to the left of the frame again, Doc turns about and walks down the beach backwards. At this familiar frivolity, Shasta Fay’s smile bursts into a grin. She circles him, reversing their original disposition. Doc walking backwards and facing backwards deftly reverses the sense and feel of Doc’s orientation to the past in the novel. Doc can confidently advance while looking back, and Shasta Fay savors the intimacy her initiative has restored. The simple but elaborate motion and Shasta Fay’s radiant smiles convey clearly her desire to restore their romantic relationship.
The second scene closes the movie and reveals Shasta Fay’s desire as more trying and less happy for her. It traces the tension in Doc and Shasta Fay’s reunion to an ambivalent conclusion. It adapts the final scene of the novel so thoroughly that it becomes in effect a new one. The conclusion of the story transforms from a vision of Doc’s political solitude and longing to a portrait of Doc’s unsettling assertion of dominance and independence in his relationship to Shasta Fay. In the novel, Doc drives south on the Freeway through a thick fog. With the vision of all the drivers on the road almost fully impaired, they form a spontaneous caravan on the highway. Doc thinks, “It was one of the few things he’d ever seen anybody in this town, except hippies, do for free.” Doc drives on and imagines how the fog might last for days and the small and great adventures that could result. The final imagined outcome, in the most noted words of the novel, is “For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.” This tender, nihilistic yearning ends the novel on a subdued visionary note of revolution.
The movie, instead, places us face to face with Doc and Shasta Fay in a tight close up as they apparently sit in the front seat of a car, although the vehicle does not seem to move. From the final scene between Doc and Bigfoot Bjornsen, a voice over bridges to this scene, as Shasta Fay reminds Doc of the day they ran through a rainstorm and then cuddled in a doorway, the scene which contained the image of the “karmic thermal.” We cut to the close up of the couple in the car, and Shasta Fay draws the parallel between that situation and the one we are watching, “Just us – together. Almost like being underwater – the world – everything – [she shakes her head] gone someplace else.” Her imagined disappearance of the world closely resembles Doc’s imagined ending in the novel, but here the world vanishes to make the lovers’ intimacy a world in itself, a conventionally romantic vision. Doc looks at her, then away and suggests that Sortilege was simply attempting to set them up (a claim inconsistent with the story’s chronology). But Shasta Fay insists on the cosmic nature of their relationship, “She knows things, Doc, things about us maybe we don’t know.” Doc looks at her, ahead, away to his left, up to his right, and finally responds, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together.” In both the novel and the movie, Shasta Fay said the same to him after they had sex. The symmetry makes the ambivalent balance between their past experience and their present desire the dramatic resolution of the story. Shasta Fay replies “Of course not,” but with a grin, where Doc had responded with these words solemnly in the earlier scene. Doc sighs. Shasta Fay looks down out of the corner of her eye toward him, her brow furrows, and the screen goes dark. This conclusion concentrates the substance of the story into the mutual expectations and disappointments in a love vexed by a woman’s inexplicable infidelity. Doc has turned the tables and asserted his dominance in a continuing contest to set the terms of the couple’s relationship. The reformulation of the resolution to this wary negotiation of a conventional romantic transgression removes the sense of the story far from the novel’s inclusive social aspiration to a fresh start where cooperation and care do not such forbidding odds. The dynamic interaction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle within and between the characters has become an exemplary power struggle in the battle of the sexes.
In adapting Inherent Vice for film, Paul Thomas Anderson eliminated a network of political themes that integrate the novel from its surface through its substance. This revision does not merit criticism in and of itself. Movie makers adapt literary sources when they find in them material suited to their own concerns. In Inherent Vice Anderson found much that appealed to his interest in men’s emotional devotion and women’s disruptive impact on them. Even Anderson’s reduction of the complexity of Pynchon’s writing cannot be faulted. The movie does evoke much that the brevity of its form cannot explore at length. Anderson’s reworking of the story troubles me on another level where the political themes themselves contribute to a broader theme.
The movie’s viewers and reviewers saw the movie foremost as a representation of the 60s. They differed on the appeal of the image of that period according to the view of those years they brought with them. Yet regardless of whether they find those elements attractive or objectionable, Anderson has constrained the range of elements and of the discussion. As Anderspm depoliticizes the story and deradicalizes its characters, he impoverishes our image of the 60s and forecloses our connection to deeply important experiences of those years. A story whose symbolic appeal derives from its representation of an ideologically loaded history reduces those years to hair styles, clothes, drug use and sex. Dressed in those stereotypical elements, Anderson’s story reduces the revolutionary theme of the pleasure principle to the conventional erotics of the romantic couple and this reduction allows the capitalist reality principle to dominate the production of a story based on its marketability.
Pynchon values the 60s for what he calls the “prerevolution.” He has written about those experiences for over 40 years and has given increasingly detailed consideration to the prerevolution’s virtues, failings and defeat. Inherent Vice dramatizes roots and contradictions of radical political aspirations central to the 60s and frighteningly depicts the most determined opposition to those strivings for freedom. The cold-blooded repression of those aspirations permeates the themes, structures and characters of the story. The aspiration to freedom, to humane self-realization in love and work collides in manifold ways with the interests of the owners of real estate and corporations and with the governments that enforce their interests. Ultimately, to defend himself and those he cares for against those brutally repressive interests, Doc Sportello must kill. That vision of the complex conflict between the forces of liberation and repression deserves serious reflection as a lesson of the 60s. In obscuring this vision, Anderson contributes signally to the ongoing conservative, commercial denaturing and trivialization of the 60s. His movie gives a romantic story set in the 60s rather than Pynchon’s story about and of the 60s. Anderson’s movie silences experiences of the 60s that we should hold on to and cherish.