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Non-Review Review: Under the Silver Lake

There is far too much masturbation in Under the Silver Lake, of both the literal and figurative variety.

To be entirely fair to writer and director David Robert Mitchell, this is entirely the point. Under the Silver Lake is many things, but a large part of it is a genre hybrid between existential slacker drama, anthropological journey through the eccentric and self-absorbed spaces of Los Angeles, and absurdist investigative thriller. Those sorts of genres lend themselves to excessive self-indulgence and self-importance, the sorts of grand-sounding-yet-completely-empty philosophical treatises on the human condition that seem to have been written by those high on their drug of choice or simply themselves. With that in mind, the amount of literal masturbation in Under the Silver Lake seems pointedly self aware, a tacit acknowledgement of the figurative masturbation.

Lost Angeles.

Under the Silver Lake does have a few good ideas. More than that, it has a couple of legitimately great scenes, moments that demonstrate the same skill with the uncanny that made Mitchell’s It Follows so effective. There are moments when Under the Silver Lake walks that fine line between being darkly, bleakly funny and also being uncomfortably, hauntingly unsettling. However, the issue is that these moments are far too fleeting and far too ephemeral, frequently lost amid long and listless passages in which Under the Silver Lake indulges in well-worn cliché and obvious ideas. Under the Silver Lake is shrewd enough to acknowledge and even try to deflate some of its sense of self-importance, but there’s an awkward seam of self-assuredness that runs through the film.

As much as Under the Silver Lake might brutally and incessantly mock its lead character for his assumption that he can figure out the secret code of the universe, it often feels like Under the Silver Lake is convinced that it has a much more insightful perspective, even as it packages well-worn ideas as profound revelations.

This is all going swimmingly.

As with the heroes of so many of these independent Los-Angeles-set films, Sam is a young and single man who is drifting aimlessly through life as he tries to find a purpose. Sam is living in an apartment complex, recovering from a break-up, spying on his neighbours and generally looking for a way to make sense of the world. Andrew Garfield offers a game performance as this worn-down conspiracy-theorist-turned-gum-shoe, playing into the character’s pathetic nature. Even more than usual for this sort of genre, Sam seems like a barely functional wreck of a human being, albeit not due to alcoholism or trauma or drug addiction. Sam just seems adrift in a looser and more existential sense.

Part of the issue with Under the Silver Lake is the lengths to which the film goes to present Sam and his world as scuzzy and disgusting. The film invests considerable time in Sam’s voyeuristic tendencies, sitting on his balcony and spying on his female neighbours (one of whom feeds her birds while topless) as he takes calls from his mother about the latest delights to be found on TCM. Under the Silver Lake not just candid about how pathetic Sam is, it is also insistent. Discussing masturbation, one of Sam’s acquaintances notes, “Everybody does it.” However, relatively few films devote just as much energy and enthusiasm to depicting the act. Indeed, Under the Silver Lake even puts the audience in Sam’s perspective while doing so.

Doing things by the book.

Of course, Under the Silver Lake is using these moments to make a point about Sam and about some of its central themes. However, there’s an uncomfortable self-indulgence even within these self-aware acknowledgements of self-indulgence. It isn’t enough for Under the Silver Lake to focus upon Sam’s masturbation, the film also introduces an anonymous female companion played by Riki Lindhome, who exists primarily to show up in various fetish outfits from “auditions” (including Germanic maiden and sexy nurse) and to have sex with Sam. There’s a strange disconnect in how the film sees Sam. He is presented as a pathetic and lost young man, but also somebody who can afford a really nice car and who regularly has booty calls with attractive women desperate for his attention.

Moments like this suggest that Under the Silver Lake is not as self-aware as it might seem to be. As much as the film revels in the unsavoury aspects of Sam’s life – his violent impulses, his voyeurism, his scrambled thought processes – the film also seems drawn to him. Under the Silver Lake never seems to find the right tonal balance in its portrayal of Sam. How functional is this character supposed to be? How desperate? How lost? How broken? These aspects of the character vary from scene to scene, Sam often shifting awkwardly between the sort of indulgent angsty-young-male-artist-insert figure so common in films like this and a scathingly brutal parody of that archetype. Under the Silver Lake never finds the right balance, and so it throws off the entire film.

A familiar dance.

This difficulty striking the right balance exists even beyond the characterisation of Sam. Under the Silver Lake spends most of its runtime smirking, but there’s an unsettling earnestness beneath some of its more ridiculous beats. Under the Silver Lake wears its irony like a protective veil, as if this wry detachment might insulate it from criticism. Under the Silver Lake knows how ridiculous and absurd its plotting is, how insane Sam’s apophenia is, how completely hollow any quest for meaning is in a world this chaotic and uncertain. However, this is undercut somewhat by how self-satisfied Under the Silver Lake feels in its more earnest moment, its tendency to treat banal observations about everyday existence as earth-shattering revelations.

There is certainly something to be said for playing with the idea of apophenia and conspiracy theory in this day and age. After all, conspiratorial thinking has a long and rich history in the United States, exploding into the mainstream of popular culture during the nineties thanks to the work of Oliver Stone and Chris Carter. In recent years, that vein of popular thinking has largely turned toxic, leading to racist fearmongering like “birtherism” or political radicalisation like the “MAGA bomber” or even to violent incidents like the “Pizzagate” shooting. So much of pop culture lies with artists making sense of the culture with which they came of age, and so it makes sense for David Robert Mitchell to wrestle with the legacy (and ensuing insanity) of conspiracy theory in the twenty-first century.

Sam, I am.

Under the Silver Lake tries to explore why this sort of conspiratorial thinking would appeal to people, particularly to a generation that seems so lost and listless. Sitting in a bathtub, trying to wash the (literal) stink of failure and disappointment off himself, Sam laments, “Is that random? Is there a reason, like a pattern behind it? And if it is, maybe there’s a reason behind it, that pattern?” Sam is trying to make sense of the world around him. His best friend opines on the subject, “We crave mystery because there’s none left.” These are interesting ideas, but they only scratch the surface. Under the Silver Lake runs two hours and twenty minutes. It needs more insight than that.

There are moments when Under the Silver Lake comes close to big ideas. At one point, Sam confronts a mysterious songwriter in his luxurious mansion. Playing his piano as he monologues, the figure muses, “There is no rebellion. There is only me earning a paycheck.” He boasts, “Your art, your writing, your culture, is the shell of other men’s ambitions. Ambitions beyond what you will ever understand.” Again, the scene is ridiculous on its face, heightened to the point of absurdity. Jeremy Bobb adds an uncanny quality to the sequence, buried as he is under pounds and pounds of make-up. However, there’s also an earnestness to the sequence, a sense of existential anxiety over the struggle between cynical commercialism and artistic endeavour.

He’s certainly got drive.

This is somewhat undercut by the fact that this all comes packaged with the genre as standard. Under the Silver Lake owes a massive debt to the private detective movies of the seventies, like Chinatown or The Long Goodbye. This is obvious in a number of respects. Mike Gioulakis’ cinematography captures the bright colours associated with Los Angeles on film, from the deep blue of the endlessly clear skies to the lush green of palm tree leaves against an otherwise dried-out environment. Similarly, Richard Vreeland’s score consciously evokes the work of Bernard Herrman to give the film a consciously old-school feel, with Mitchell often juxtaposing that more traditional score against Sam’s decently modern antics.

However, perhaps because of the ubiquity of these films and the manner in which they have been reiterated and reconstituted across popular culture, Under the Silver Lake more overtly evokes more modern pastiches of the genre like The Big Lebowski or Inherent Vice. What these later films understand is the context of so many of these seventies dramas, the hangover following the enthusiasm and potential of the sixties, the realisation that youthful enthusiasm will often (and perhaps inevitably) be swallowed by the establishment where it is allowed to fester and rot. Under the Silver Lake is just more overt in acknowledging this anxiety, more direct in articulating this dark thought simmering in the back of the collective consciousness.

Entering a period of reflection.

The biggest issue with Under the Silver Lake is that very few of its earnest moments carry that same sense of power or import. Instead, Under the Silver Lake invests a great deal of earnestness in incredibly rudimentary and obvious ideas. An early conversation between Sam and a fellow conspiracy theorist includes an extended montage about how so much advertising is coded in sexual terms; the only problem is that none of this seems particularly subliminal. Under the Silver Lake is a movie that things the height of cleverness is having Sam dance and mime along to What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?, a song about signals and codes obvious only to the narrator. (It was inspired by the shooting of Dan Rather by a man who yelled the song’s title, without any explanation or context.)

Again, Under the Silver Lake is frustrated not so much the underlying ideas as the execution. A lot of its tropes and clichés are so well-worn that they seem faded even before they are employed within the film’s sun-bleached surroundings. Under the Silver Lake treads on familiar clichés like the vacuous nature of life in Los Angeles, where everything is vacuous and reality itself seems hollow; an escort service that employs young actors so that it might sell the fantasy of celebrity, a pretentious indulgent art show where the invitation is a drug-laced cookie, the faux intellectual sophistication of a chess party juxtaposed against the superficiality of the models serving the champagne. There’s very little cutting insight here, just reiterations of stock criticisms of Hollywood’s superficiality.

Never too far a(Gar)field.

(Perhaps the most astute observation that the film makes is the underdeveloped implication that Los Angeles and Hollywood is built upon the graves and tombs. The aforementioned laced cookie party takes places in catacombs beneath the city; Sam watches a new from from a graveyard; Sam’s apartment is decorated with posters from a Hollywood that is long-gone. Indeed, Sam’s investigation into the disappearance of his attractive young neighbour develops from news reports of an exploding car towards something that might best be described as a necropolis. Death is everywhere in Under the Silver Lake, albeit in a much less concrete form than it took in It Follows. )

Under the Silver Lake is an indulgent mess of a film, its moments of self-awareness constantly undercut and undermined by desperate grasps at earnest profundity. There are moments when Under the Silver Lake works remarkably well, but they are nowhere near as often as the film would like to think.

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