Skip to main content

There is no rebellion. There's only me, earning a paycheque.

Under the Silver Lake
(2018)

(SPOILERS) I was aware that David Robert Mitchell’s shaggy dog amateur detective stoned-out neo-noir conspiracy movie had received very mixed reviews, to say the least, so I embarked upon it with limited expectations. But I liked it a lot, with some reservations. In much the same way that I liked the oft-reviled Southland Tales, admiring Mitchell’s ambition but not always where it took him. I’m dubious that Under the Silver Lake is rich and rewarding enough to warrant a dedicated subreddit pouring over interpretations of its themes and subtexts, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the dedication. And it’s surely the best reward Mitchell could have received. Well, aside from a hit movie.

The writer-director has been guarded about revealing too much, but he has expressly advised that Under the Silver Lake is structured entirely from the point of view of Sam (Andrew Garfield). Which is to say, if it wasn’t entirely obvious, that he’s an unreliable narrator, so his encounters, thoughts and insights, as he ostensibly attempts to track down missing neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough) against a backdrop of a dog killer on the loose, are not necessarily to be trusted.

At the extreme end of that trope, this could make the entirety of the movie a fever dream. The variant is that we pick and choose what’s plausible in an attempt to sift through the manner in which his pop-culture obsessions may be feeding into a warped interaction with and understanding of the world around him. We’re privy to straight-up hallucinations at various points (women barking like dogs, the guy in a dress eating a pooch) and many more surreal incidents that invite the reading of a warped perspective on Sam’s part. As a consequence, The Long Goodbye/ The Big Lebowski trappings (noir detective work, in this case done by an amateur) can only stretch so far if our thinking about this case is not to be deemed very uptight.

Whether that’s the most interesting choice Mitchell could have made is really the crux of my issues with the movie, since the brand of “protagonist is really the killer” twist Under the Silver Lake intimates at is possibly the least imaginative option available, whatever enticing incidentals or commentary it may deliver along the way. The first shot, of the reversed “Beware the Dog Killer” warning painted across a shop window, with Sam straying into frame, is pretty much an announcement of his likely culpability, and when a squirrel “falls from the sky” and is splatted in front of him, it’s pretty clear where Mitchell is leading us.

So too with the Hitchcock references (culminating in the reveal of a Hitchcock plinth), underlining Sam as voyeur in the Rear Window/ Vertigo/ Psycho vein, and so objectifying and obsessing over the focuses of his attention; his masturbatory habits initially appear gratuitous on the director’s part, until it becomes obvious (with his photo of Sarah, a Playboy and a lingerie catalogue as unsuccessful aids to stimulation) how detached he is.

It’s easy to infer a line by which – as many have – Sam resorted to killing his ex’s dog on losing her (he still gazes at her billboard) and then graduates to killer outright; his trip to the reservoir with Callie Hernandez’s Millicent apparently results in her being shot by a gunman, but her presentation during this sequence intentionally echoes the cover of his Playboy. Conversely, we’re explicitly shown Sam beating to death the Songwriter (Jeremy Bobb under shrouds of prosthetics), but is that likely to be any more real than his hallucinations? He doesn’t respond to the act as if it’s the first time he’s killed someone – but then a full-blown sociopath possibly wouldn’t – which would be supportive, but on the other hand, this Tavistock-esque (or Donald Campbell-esque?) writer of popular songs designed to influence the populace claims to be responsible not just for the likes of key tracks by Nirvana, Harold Faltermeyer and The Pixies (Where is My Mind, naturally), but also Beethoven. So maybe the entire episode is a figment of his imagination.

It’s clearly Mitchell’s intention that we interrogate Sam’s lack of perspective more and more as the movie progresses. Our protagonist berates the homeless while having just one day left in his apartment before he becomes one himself, and those very homeless comment on how badly he stinks (typically an insult levelled against their number). In tandem with this, suggestions of the picture’s own problematic depiction of women doappear to be getting confused with the protagonist’s perspective (particularly when one considers the scene of the drone used to spy on a model, the idea of which suddenly becomes unappealing when she’s revealed as distraught). On the other hand, Mitchell is clearly using male gaze tropes throughout, even as he comments on them.

Sam: I got thinking, why do we just assume that all this infrastructure and this entertainment and open information is beaming all over the place all the time into every single home on the planet is exactly what we are told it is?

Likewise, his perspective on the vast conspiracy Sam thinks he has uncovered. Are we take it that conspiracy theorising is merely a symptom of Sam’s sickness (as in, it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong with him, most likely that he is a serial killer)? His Wheel of Fortune “insight” appears to have occurred some time in the past; whether that was before or after he began killing dogs is unclear. Naturally, Sam lives in Number 23, so he cannot escape synchronicity (and yet, he makes no comment on the importance of that number).

Mitchell’s having a lot of fun with the tortuousness of the conspiracy side, and part of the fun is exactly that: it will drive you crazy, the further you dig into the minutiae. We meet Patrick Fischler’s author of the titular comic, able to provide a guided tour of conspiracy lore, including the Owl lady (see also Moloch, Twin Peaks, Bohemian Grove, the Mothman) while presenting a more benign variant on Sam’s obsessing. I’m sure Mitchell’s a big fan of Robert Anton Wilson, as the kind of gonzo approach to the rabbit hole, and reality becoming more and more pliable the more one interrogates it via essential interconnectedness and synchronicity, is exactly his thing.

That the conspiracy is both bizarre and mundane is really rather the point. For one thing, any conspiracy built up in one’s head is likely to be a let-down if held up to the harsh light of the actual version of events (as is any thinking of such an involved, intricate nature, something that can be seen very clearly in speculation over fictional narratives – just look what happened with Lost). That Sam should be led to an ascension cult of the rich has just enough relation to actual ideas (ongoing attachment to Egyptology, not least in mass-media symbolism, the idea that the elite are heavily into the practice of occult and black arts). Yet the reality of Sam sitting in a tent speaking to Sarah, who is on the phone down below, is entirely deflating and somewhat ludicrous. As is the idea that, in order to fake his death, Jefferson Sevence had all of his teeth, some of his skin and “all of the organs he can live without” removed.

I note some on subreddit insist there’s an actual conspiracy to be unearthed in the movie, and again, Mitchell must relish that kind of impact, particularly when he’s revelling in the absurdity of Sam overlaying a cereal packet map on the Legend of Zelda from Nintendo Power Magazine issue one. Not dissimilarly, Sam making his way out of an underground bunker into a supermarket fridge. You can see traces of a range of conspiracy fiction in Under the Silver Lake, from Flicker (old Hollywood becoming a realm of mythical import), to In the Mouth of Madness, True Detective, Foucault’s Pendulum, the dreamlike half-reality Hollywood of Mulholland Dr, and even The Da Vinci Code.

I’ll admit to not being entirely convinced by the theory that the topless older woman Sam sleeps with at the end is his mother, and less still that events leaves him with any degree of “mature” perspective on his experiences (we’d have to know exactly what he’s supposed to have done, rather than have inferred it, to gain that). If Sam is a killer, the woman might well become his next victim.

Comparing Under the Silver Lake to Southland Tales is probably inaccurate to the degree that, for those convinced of its merits, it invites poring over more in the manner of Donnie Darko or a Damon Lindelof project. The reflex of that, however, is that Mitchell’s film is all about the futility of such analytic processes, that that way lies madness. I can quite see why Under the Silver Lake has been labelled a folly by some – it’s very much on the indulgent side, and the unreliable narrator trope really has been done to death at this point – but even given those criticisms, it has probably embedded itself in my brain like no other film in the past year. 



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You are, by your own admission, a vagabond.

Doctor Who Season 10 - Worst to Best
Season 10 has the cachet of an anniversary year, one in which two of its stories actively trade on the past and another utilises significant elements. As such, it’s the first indication of the series’ capacity for slavishly indulging the two-edged sword that is nostalgia, rather than simply bringing back ratings winners (the Daleks). It also finds the show at its cosiest, a vibe that had set in during the previous season, which often seemed to be taking things a little too comfortably. Season 10 is rather more cohesive, even as it signals the end of an era (with Jo’s departure). As a collection of stories, you perhaps wouldn’t call it a classic year, but as a whole, an example of the Pertwee UNIT era operating at its most confident, it more than qualifies.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)
In conception, Diamonds are Forever was a retreat to safer ground for the series following the “failure” of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the end, it proved to be a significant break in tone and humour from what had gone before. More playfulness was evident in the heightened characterisations and settings, but simultaneously more boundaries were pushed in terms of sex and violence. Las Vegas lends the film a tarnished, glitterball quality that would quite accurately predict the excess and decadence of the coming decade. And presiding over the proceedings was a greying Bond, somewhat gone to seed and looking noticeably older than the near-decade it was since his first appearance. Somehow, the result is as sparkling and vital as the diamonds of the title, but it is understandably a curate’s egg. In many respects it bears more resemblance to the camp affectations, eccentricities and quirks of the television series The Avengers than the more straightforward…