The Southern California Landscape of Inherent Vice

L.A. (once again) plays itself in Paul Thomas Anderson’s hazy, hippie film

Alongside Joaquin Phoenix and Joanna Newsom Southern California real estate plays a major role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest movie Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s psychedelic, 1970s hippie detective novel. Considering the director’s body-of-work, it figures: Anderson has set most of his films (Boogie Nights, MagnoliaPunch-Drunk LoveThere Will Be BloodThe Master) in his home state of California.

Like Anderson’s body of work, Inherent Vice is unusual. It’s often hazy, silly, and hard to follow. These qualities aren’t drawbacks. The film’s haphazardness is by design, underscoring the confusion that occurs when ideals—in this case, countercultural ideals—are been co-opted. Or maybe it’s about how disorienting it is to awaken from a collective dream to face a harsh reality.

As Anderson is one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation, this theme isn’t just stated blatantly. It’s evoked through cinematic means like acting, cinematography, editing, narration, music and, as we’ll highlight in this article, various location settings in Los Angeles. So let’s take a look at some of the movie’s thematic usage of L.A. (Minor spoilers follow)

Gordita Beach (Manhattan Beach)
Although Pynchon is very averse to publicity, it’s known that he lived in Manhattan Beach in the late ‘60s and ‘70s; the region shows up in his work as Gordita Beach. Detective protagonist Doc Sportello (Phoenix) lives in Gordita Beach, which the film depicts as a peaceful community where the counterculture dream still thrives. It’s also the film’s starting point, where Sportello’s ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) convinces him to start investigating the disappearance of land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts).

Channel View Estates (Lancaster)
One of the first places Doc investigates is Wolfmann’s start-up land development, Channel View Estates, which was filmed in Lancaster. A predictor of the ‘70s suburbanization of areas surrounding L.A., Channel View Estates is associated with, as Pynchon writes, the “long, sad history of L.A. land use” as it was once a working-class, black neighborhood that was bulldozed.

Parker Center (Downtown L.A.)
Doc ends up at the LAPD headquarters to meet with the comically conservative police detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). Designed in the modernist International Style by architect Welton Becket but no longer in use, the Parker Center is represented in the film as part and parcel of the monolithic, ultra-authoritarian police culture that will go out of its way to suppress hippies.

The Golden Fang Headquarters (Ambassador College, Pasadena)
At one point, Doc suspects that The Golden Fang, a mysterious entity that may be a heroin cartel or just a dentists’ association, is tied to Wolfmann’s disappearance. The group’s headquarters aren’t located in Pasadena but Inherent Vice production designer David Crank used Ambassador College’s interiors and original furniture to create a ‘70s nouveau riche setting, suggesting wealth is being acquired through shady means.

Chryskylodon Institute (Arrowhead Springs Resort, San Bernardino)
Later in the story Doc is led to the Chryskylodon Institute, a for-profit “recovery” clinic that’s housed in what was once a state-run mental institute where people are now being “de-programmed” to be more “traditional.” Chryskylodon represents what happened to many social services (for example, California governor Ronald Reagan shutting down state-run mental hospitals in 1967). Likewise, the Institute is conspiring to undermine the counter-culture. (In reality, Arrowhead Springs Resort has never been anything other than a resort.)

And Many More Locations…
The Chowder Barge Diner in the L.A. harbor, a mansion in Topanga Canyon, and even City Hall show up. While not all of these locations are thematically or visually symbolic, they all add texture and atmosphere to Inherent Vice, making it a layered adaptation of an even more layered book.

This is not to say that the Los Angeles of Inherent Vice is particularly iconic or realistic—for one thing, the movie’s point-of-view is perpetually druggy—but it does capture the city’s sprawl and the sense that it’s a place perpetually seeking its own identity and constantly in flux. As writer Raymond Chandler knew, the unfixed nature of L.A. made it a great setting for his mystery novels, an obvious influence on Inherent Vice.