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Film Review: Under the Silver Lake

Under the Silver Lake (2019; Directed by David Robert Mitchell)

By all rights, I really ought to have loved Under the Silver Lake. Writer/director David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to the smart, creepy, and socially resonant indie horror It Follows is a rambling, ambitious, original, wrily comic amateur-detective ramble through dissolute, disillusioned hipster East Los Angeles. Highlighted by a wonderfully woolly and woozy performance from Andrew Garfield as a drifting deadbeat dirtbag delving into conspiracy theories and tracking down an enticing blond neighbour (Riley Keough) who disappears suddenly and mysteriously, Under the Silver Lake evokes sunbaked L.A. neo-noir detective yarns like The Big Lebowski, The Nice Guys, Mulholland Drive, and Inherent Vice (Thomas Pynchon’s work is a major influence in general). It’s full of unique, wildly inventive ideas, surreal images, screw-loose dialogue, and unexpected pathos (as mentioned, David Lynch is a clear creative lodestar). Despite this stew of influences, though, it’s a film entirely on its own wavelength.

For whatever reason, I couldn’t get on that wavelength with it. I’m hardly the only one. Under the Silver Lake popped up on the occasional Best of 2019 list, usually with a pre-emptively argumentative justification from the admiring critic as to why all of those who critique it as an indulgent, half-wise mess were wrong and just didn’t get it. The AV Club highlighted its most striking and memorable scene in their Best Film Scenes of 2019 list: a meeting between Garfield’s Sam and a figure known only as The Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb), who claims to have written every memorable piece of popular music from the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” to the theme from Cheers to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and disillusions Sam with brutal honesty as to the cynically capitalist motivations behind every piece of popular art that he and the rest of his pop-culture-obsessed generation clings to as personal markers of identity and meaning.

This excoriating moment may well have turned off many a pop-culture critic, but it’s built to throughout the rest of the film in tenuous but charged daisy-chain connections, and melds with the themes clustered around Sam and his self-conception. Post-coitus with an actress friend-with-benefits (Riki Lindhome), he talks about the awakening of his pubescent, self-pleasuring sexuality with a secretly-glimpsed copy of Playboy; the model on the cover is posed beneath the water of a pool, similar to the baby chasing the paper money on a fishing line on the cover of Nirvana’s Nevermind (Sam idolizes Kurt Cobain, has a poster of the late grunge frontman on his wall, claims to have seen the band in concert, and brandishes Cobain’s iconic Fender guitar in defence against the aggressive, violent revelations of the Songwriter) and also similar to a nighttime skinny-dip in the titular East L.A. reservoir that he takes with a grieving young heiress (Callie Hernandez) whose prominent-citizen father Jefferson Sevence (Chris Gann) is believed dead in a fiery car crash. Sam also has a dream-vision of Keough’s Sarah after her disappearance, swimming in the pool of their apartment complex.

Another chain trails off from R.E.M.’s hit rocker “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Sam hears it playing at a 1990s-nostalgia crypt party beneath a fashionable music-art happening, and insists on dancing to it with a recurring scene girl/performance artist known as Balloon Girl (Grace Van Patten), who is of course too young to have heard it before. The song’s famous inspiration (a delusionally violent man infamously shouted the phrase at news anchor Dan Rather while assaulting him in 1986) connects to Sam’s internet-fed obsessions with conspiratorial madness and paranoid belief in hidden messages in pop songs; he tracks Sarah and Sevence through a comic-book artist (Lynchian favourite Patrick Fischler) whose independent zine, also entitled Under the Silver Lake, relates urban myths of a Dog Killer (who is actually on the loose in Sam’s reality) and a murderous Owl Lady who snuffs out those who amass too much forbidden knowledge of the secret order of things, a fate that he fears will befall himself and that Sam begins to worry about too, the more he learns.

Michael Stipe’s line from “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Irony was the shackles of youth” serves as an on-the-nose thesis for at least one of the movie’s core ideas about a young generation adrift and alienated and drugged up. Sam floats into exclusive, hip shindigs, often connected with a local It Band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula (their big song, “Turning Teeth”, is performed by L.A. scene stars Silversun Pickups, who appear as the Jim Morrison-esque Jesus’ backing group). Hipster kids’ worshipful admiration of this rock star Jesus is repeatedly openly expressed with very purposeful irony, popular religious devotion quite literally replaced by mass idolizing of the messiahs of pop culture (very much like Sam’s elevation of Cobain).

Mitchell even cross-references his contemporary portrait of disconnected, privileged youth smashing into one another in the gilded cage of their cossetted world with the similar material and themes of a towering literary totem of the American past, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. One young adult compares the sort of parties they attend around the city to those thrown by Jay Gatsby (likely they’re thinking more of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, or even the internet meme, than the character in the novel they had to read in high-school English), but Mitchell includes a more resonant symbolic callback to Fitzgerald’s novel: Sam stops and stares with haunted recurrence at a billboard advertising an optical service, featuring a female model (Summer Bishil) and the tagline “I can see clearly now.” Although it is later revealed that the young woman is Sam’s ex (a breakup with whom may have precipitated his descent into horny, unemployed lethargy and imminent eviction), Sam’s eerie fascination with this figure gazing down on him as well as the optical allusion associates this image with one of Fitzgerald’s key symbols in Gatsby, the faded eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg staring down from a crumbling billboard on the dissipated moral wasteland of Jazz Age America as a stand-in for a judgmental but absent God.

Sam never really sees clearly, his vision clouded by the obscure clues and cryptic messages that he tracks in search of deeper truths. But it’s also clouded by his own lack of direction and unmoored identity, as well as his voyeuristic horniness and general self-involved dickhood. Indeed, this is one of the things that makes Under the Silver Lake difficult to connect with: protagonist Sam is disconnected and adrift largely because he’s a horndog dickweed (as intended, and Garfield embodies this type almost too well), and not as a reflection of a lost generation seeking to remake themselves in the crucible of American capitalism à la Jay Gatsby. The cryptic obscurity that he struggles through is also the cryptic obscurity that we struggle through in watching his desultory adventures; if Sam doesn’t fully grasp what he is a part of as he chases traces of Sarah via indie comics and rich-kid parties and cereal-box maps and old issues of Nintendo Power magazine, then we don’t fully grasp it either as we watch Under the Silver Lake. This is not an incoherent movie, exactly, but any coherence probably lies in the interpretive mind of the viewer, a coherence imposed. The thinking film watcher is often heard to say that they’d like films to respect their intelligence and expect them to connect the dots. Be careful what you ask for, Mitchell snaps back.

That’s probably the point, too. David Robert Mitchell’s point in Under the Silver Lake, to the extent that this labyrinthine movie has one, is that our fragmented post-capitalist reality has become incoherent, and maybe always was. The dots do not connect, no matter how hard we try, no matter how smart we think ourselves. The meanings and the truth must be hidden because those freely offered and conventionally understood to be correct are unsatisfying and inadequate to the task. Paranoid conspiracy theories claim to offer totalizing explanatory paradigms for social problems and political corruption and economic disparities and culture wars and, above all, why you just can’t get laid. They’re frayed bundles of crackpot lies, but their circular logic and self-justifying feedback loops are honey traps for the paranoid and disillusioned mind. Their nonsense is eerily sensical, their questing core seductive. Under the Silver Lake is a movie that grasps and indeed embodies why and how conspiracies theories appeal to certain minds, and even personifies in Sam that certain kind of mind.

At the only half-glimpsed centre of the conspiracy Sam chases in Under the Silver Lake is, as ever, a wealthy elite, insulated by their privilege from the scrabbling confusion and violence, real and figurative, of the wider free-for-all of mass society. Looking down on it and pulling the strings like all-powerful puppetmasters. This elite is the hidden enemy, the unseen devil of insidious influence, the source of all evil: fanciful conspiratorial frameworks have pointed at Freemasons or Ivy League club members as this secret directorial cabal, dangerously anti-semitic ones have pointed at Jews, more mainstream political ideologues point at Hollywood liberals or venture capitalists and hedge-fund managers or inherited-wealth family compacts. Under the Silver Lake summons such figures as metaphorical lords in obscurity. The Songwriter, rapacious secret crafter of all sonic discourse, typifies this elite, as does Jefferson Sevence, whom Sam discovers to have been entombed with luxury and beauty like an Egyptian pharoah. How do we define ourselves in the shadow of these society-dominating giants, as rats scurrying through the sewer or as brave but underequipped champions of identity and truth? Andrew Garfield as Sam is a little bit of both, but far more of the former. It should be a great film that brings all of this close to and even sometimes above the surface. It’s a testament to the incomprehensible rhizomatic character of our times that Under the Silver Lake loses itself in the culture instead of illuminating a path through it.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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