Genre revisionism in these post-Tarantino days is about as close as you can get to armchair activism without having a Facebook account. It wasn’t always this way. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, reverse engineering the symbolism in a genre film meant subverting the expectations that decades of studio programming had groomed. It meant unpacking the myths that were sold to the “masses” – who were rather falsely assumed to have swallowed the illusions whole. Audiences may not have believed the myths, but they enjoyed the comfortably structured fantasies and accepted them, and to the counterculture who saw that acceptance culminate in racism and violence, this was a dangerous delusion. Genres were stand-ins for conventionalism, which was itself a stand-in for authority – albeit one that seems quaint and almost benign in retrospect. The remedy, it was believed, was to respond in the same language – with Westerns featuring cowboys as mercenaries (A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) or as butchers of Indians (LITTLE BIG MAN) or gangster films about criminals who were less objectionable than the authorities they fled from (BONNIE AND CLYDE). These winks of subversion would later fall under the umbrella of “culture jamming.” But the sad truth of the matter – from a political though not an aesthetic point of view – is that disrupting people’s fantasy lives is not always the same as changing their behavior.
As the ’70s ground on, the counterculture began to lose faith not only in the masses, but also in its own ability to sway them. Appropriating the private-eye form, as exemplified by THE BIG SLEEP (1946), was not so much a comment on Establishment-thinking than it was on the failure of the ‘60s to change the it. Before THE LONG GOODBYE (1973), Robert Altman had made his reputation on genre revisionism at the highest levels: an opium-dream Western (MCCABE & MRS. MILLER) and a black-humored service comedy that both deflated the Korean War and prefigured ANIMAL HOUSE (M*A*S*H). But it was the act of adapting Raymond Chandler in the present day and casting Elliott Gould in Bogart’s five o’clock shadow that incited charges of cultural vandalism against the director. Scrunched into a conservative black suit and putzing about in a ’48 Lincoln, Gould’s Marlowe was no flower child. (As the only character who smokes, the smog in L.A. may be wholly his creation.) But he’s an outsider and an idealist – just as the hippies had been.
Marlowe is also a smartass. He mumbles asides to the audience, much like Warren Beatty’s McCabe, and we’re about the only ones who listen to him. In a crucial break from the film noir tradition, in which the shamus is the point-of-view character, we see a conversation at a Malibu beach house between the femme fatale who hired Marlowe and the missing husband she hired Marlowe to find. The detective’s reflection is in the window, but he isn’t spying on them; he’s been shooed away. Loitering by the sea in suit and tie, he’s simultaneously a bum and overdressed. Marlowe’s stoned-yogi neighbors are the closest thing that the hippie counterculture has to a cameo in the film. They’re polite zombies – totally detached from the world, and thus, from one point of view, as complacent as the gangsters or crooked cops. Altman set a new pattern in how THE LONG GOODBYE ends: The mystery is solved, but only after revealing the private eye’s own stoogey complicity, and without the reset that once implied the triumph of justice. Marlowe is outclassed by money. His only accomplishment is functionally redundant: He kills a dead man.
In THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998), the Marlowe stand-in is such a loser that he isn’t even a detective. But the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a flower child, or at least he once was. By 1991 – which the Coens arguably picked for a setting because it is the time period that is probably least worthy of Sam Elliott’s myth-making opening narration – he’s just a weedy burnout. Sandwiched between FARGO and O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, LEBOWSKI is from one of the Coens’ most humane periods; there are affectionate underpinnings to their patented faith in futility. Vague intimations of his prehistory as a campus radical inform Bridges’s lovable lump with an almost tragicomic air. The Dude is a ’60s holdover, like his fellow-loser, the Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman), and he’s surrounded by other products of ’60s swinging that have been filtered through the Reagan Era, such as a pornography magnate (Ben Gazzara) and an arch feminist (Julianne Moore). They’ve taken the “free” out of free love by making it sleazy and academic, respectively. (The Dude is all for casual sex; but for Moore’s postmodernist – a walking vagina dentatus – sex is coldly clinical.) If Gould’s Marlowe was, as he was told, the only one who cared, the Dude’s implied political conscience has been drowned in White Russians or knocked down like so many bowling pins. Ironically, these quirks have made him a cult hero: an icon of hippie quietism. Altman, having watched the counterculture fall apart, took a tragic view; the Coens, a generation later, regard this with sarcasm.
The Dude may be what became of Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), the hippie P.I. in INHERENT VICE (2014). Made with the most hindsight out of any of these films, INHERENT VICE is based on a 2009 novel by Thomas Pynchon, who lived through post-Manson Family Los Angeles, and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who was born into it (the same year the movie is set: 1970). It’s a pastiche not merely of private-eye lore, but of ’60s conspiracy theories. The shadowy organization behind everything is a cartel called the Golden Fang that uses its profits from selling drugs to build posh rehab clinics, taking advantage of then-Governor Reagan’s policy of defunding public healthcare. (An alcoholic in THE LONG GOODBYE is also preyed on by a corrupt shrink. Think CUCKOO’S NEST: The inmates aren’t the crazy ones.) Of course, the cartel is aided and abetted by the Establishment. When a member of the business community goes rogue by divesting himself of his riches to make affordable housing for the poor, he vanishes. Doc is hired to find him.
Doc’s eventual failure makes explicit the reason why neither Marlowe nor the Dude before him were able to succeed. INHERENT VICE hits home one of the key premises that puts the “neo” in neo-noir: The mid-century margins plumbed by Chandler are moved to the center. Marlowe used to be polite society’s rep in the underworld of crime: the lone, liminal figure at the edge of two discrete realities. But, in the post-counterculture detective story, criminality belongs to an overworld. Corruption comes top-down, and doesn’t stop when the two-bit chiselers are tossed into jail; they’re pawns, just like the gumshoes naive enough to think they can fight the powers-that-be. (It’s worth noting that in each of these three movies the detective is duped and/or scapegoated.) Even Doc’s sparring partner in the L.A.P.D., Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), is too small to beat the cartel. Toward the end, in one of Anderson’s waking-dream sequences, Bigfoot devours weed like slop in a trough, driving Doc to tears. Implicitly, this is Bigfoot’s acknowledgement that dirty hippie and reactionary cop are on the same side: the losing side. Small victories are possible, but this alliance between commerce and crime will not disappear. The Golden Fang has its teeth in everything.
To tie things together, much like the Dude’s rug did his room, the private-eye genre must have spoken to Altman and his successors because, of all Old Hollywood genres, it was the one that truly lionized the outsider. The Westerner may have been an individualist, but he lived in another time and place; Bogart’s Marlowe carried that code of honor into the urban present, armed with modern weaponry: cynicism and wit. Chandler’s dirty little secret was that being a detective was the active form of being a writer, or, by extension, an artist. So when artists began to see themselves failing to move hearts and minds, the metaphor was reversed even as the counterculture paranoia was retained. The title INHERENT VICE refers to the internal properties that condemn an object to inevitable decay; things fall apart from within rather than because of external pressures. But the hipster private eye’s failure is two-fold: Marlowe, the Dude, and Doc cannot make society live up to their ideals. This is society’s failure, but it’s also their own.
Rather than give in to this ethos of defeat, however, I will say that these three movies point to the versatility of genre to express a period’s self-image both from its own time and at a remove. And it’s no coincidence that these films are all set in Southern California. Obviously, that was Marlowe’s fictional home turf. It’s also where the dreamers – the artists, oddballs, and revolutionaries – have gone to live their dreams because that’s where dreams are made. It’s a place where even if artists cannot be active in Chandler’s sense, they can still come away with a tan. While on the surface these movies paint a hopeless picture, the hopelessness is squeezed into a rubric that was itself Hollywood-born. There is an irony to the endurance of this hipster-private-eye subgenre, and it might be cause for hope. While we may no longer believe that a mystery solved is justice served – as one could reading vintage Chandler – and even if we accept that, at root, society is corrupt, we still identify with the outsider, the detective, the dreamer.