David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake might be simultaneously the most thought provoking and frustrating film I’ve seen so far in 2019. While it certainly isn’t the film I enjoyed the most (that would be Harmony Korine’s lush and hilarious The Beach Bum), the film that most viscerally excited me (Gaspar Noe’s Climax) or the film that left me most stupefied by its utter lack of clarity and cohesion (Jordan Peele’s Us). But it is the film that seems to have embedded itself deepest into my thoughts and fantasies after my first viewing of it. Mitchell, who is previously known for the equally seductive, stylish and mostly disappointing horror film It Follows, appears to be an artist so deeply invested in theory and logical ideas that he often fails to match his fascinations in narrative cohesion.
The film, which follows the scrappy, unemployed and potentially sociopathic Sam (played by Andrew Garfield) and seeks to unravel a mystery pertaining to a disappeared woman, presents a Los Angeles that is totally awash in slogans, messages, and maybe even clues that ultimately lead nowhere. Under the Silver Lake could be viewed in the context of Baudrillard’s fourth stage of pure simulacra. While the world is full of information, Mitchell suggests, it is utterly devoid of coherent meaning.
Garfield’s Sam is, like the fictional Los Angeles mystery solvers that came before him, a pure encapsulation of his time period’s conception of masculinity. Just like Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Mawlowe was the image of stoic, grizzled 1940s war veteran taciturn or Thomas Pynchon’s Doc Sportello was an embodiment of early ‘1970s adrift and stoned out paranoia, Sam is a manifestation of 2010s, post-digital, late stage capital confusion, boredom, and ineffectuality. He is jobless and seemingly totally indifferent towards the fact that he is about to lose his apartment. His deep knowledge of rock n’ roll music and film noir history are skills that have no tenable place in the labor economy. It’s hard not to imagine Sam reading Jordan Peterson without a shred of irony, and posting paranoiac thoughts on one of 4chan’s many alt-right pages (LA slacker division, perhaps).
Mitchell himself has conceded that Sam is very much an avatar for the treacheries of late capitalism, and the attendant male rage that brews when you are led to believe your whole life that you are entitled to success, a life, and an identity, only to find a world in which wealth is only attained by those who already have had it for generations. Like Walter White, Sam is indoctrinated in late stage capitalism thinking that says being a man means being a provider, or at least, a rich guy. Unlike Walter White, who at least fueled his intelligence and narcissism into a lucrative criminal enterprise, Sam has given up on everything other than slacking and conspiracy obsessing. “Sam could continue reaching for things,” said Mitchell, “But he’s thinking, what’s the point? Even being able to buy a house, for our generation, is like a near-impossible task. So how do you process that? Maybe you go looking for meaning in strange places.”
Though better at seducing women than we are initially lead to believe, Sam’s psychological profile is primarily defined by boredom and confusion punctuated by the occasional outburst of hyper-violence (25 minutes into the film, we see Sam savagely beat young boys for the rather innocuous childhood crime of egging his Ford Mustang, which he loses shortly after in an asset seizure for failing to make payments, a powerful metaphor for capitalism’s decimation of the American dream).
The mystery kicks into gear when the girl (played by an uncharacteristically bubbly but thoroughly characteristically enigmatic Riley Keough) that lives in the same Silverlake complex and whom Sam almost sleeps with suddenly disappears before being found as one of the three female bodies found along with the body of a local billionaire. Sam then drifts through the seductively photographed Angeleno landscape where we meet his odd-ball friends and the beautiful girls that tempt him.
Nevertheless, the mystery doesn’t drive the plot as noticeably as the indecipherable enigmas populating the images seem to halt that very mystery in its tracks, and Mitchell continuously distracts by populating the the film with red herrings and images of dubious fascination. Again one could draw thematic comparisons with both Pynchon’s Inherent Vice as well as its PT Anderson cinematic adaptation in that Under the Silver Lake is a Los Angeles set film noir mystery thriller that meanders and pontificates vastly more than it thrills.
Garfield’s Sam has found himself in a world that bewilders and has ceased to make sense to him. He sees codes and messages everywhere. But like most conspiracy nuts, Sam’s proclaimed knowledge of the world below, his penchant for identifying conspiracy, is really a survival mechanism (research by the psychologist Jan-Willem van Prooijen suggests that unstable self-esteem and control issues are the primary traits of conspiracy theorists), or even worse, a delusional distraction. Sam is off, he seems like he could have PTSD, and his quest for the truth comes off as little more than a flaccid attempt to gain control in an environment that is hostile and unknowable towards him.
In late capitalism, advertising has become an omnipresent, malevolent force. Sam wants to believe that there is deeper meaning in these messages, but meaning eludes him all the more the deeper he gets in his decoding of the mystery.
I found Sam’s age to be relevant here: 33. Sam is an early millennial or late Gen Xer. The codes of sexuality and expression of the millennials he comes into contact with in the film are utterly alien to him. I am 31, and found this to be perhaps the most resonant idea in the movie. I remember a time when the Internet was discussed in Utopian terms: that the accessibility of information would free us. What has proven to be the reality of the post-digital revolution? The more malignant cultural idiom is that, instead of wider access to information allowing the population to be more well-informed and govern itself according to these objective truths, humans tend to use digital information to further curate their own ideologies, inoculating themselves from information that clashes with their own narratives, and often using the shield of the Internet (“in the guise of a fiction, the truth about himself is articulated,” said Zizek on this subject) to revel in the most toxic aspects of their own persona.
The more innocuous but no less culturally stressful phenomenon is the anxiety that develops when constantly trying to keep up with culture’s rapid forward momentum. As an artist and cultural critic I do keep up with culture: visual art, books, films and music alike. But there is a flattening of meaning when constantly pressured to experience more, and more, and more culture. The tyranny of the new: new music, new films, new YouTube videos, new products, it’s all just products, instantly available and aggressively advertised towards you in both your physical and digital environments. Every Friday on Apple Music, at least five new releases automatically upload into my cloud (if I have already added music by the artists in question in the past). The result? I absorb nothing, I find context in nothing. How can you achieve the kind of passionate fandom that say, hardcore punk rock fans in the 1980s felt, when you don’t have enough time to listen to anything more than once? And the fact that all this information is controlled and distributed by a few corporate behemoths further negates meaning in its purest sense. “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning,” famously wrote Baudrillard.
In many cases, the mystery that forms the crux of the movie seems to only serve the purpose of providing Sam the only clarity he can find in a world that no longer makes sense to him. The two most pertinent scenes in the film could appear unrelated to the primary crux of the narrative. In the first, Sam tries to get clues about the case at a decadent nightclub from a gorgeous former child star turned call girl (the outrageously beautiful Grace Van Patten) who explains her liberated Gen Z polysexual life philosophy to a mystified Sam. Sam is then comforted when he hears R.E.M’s “What’s The Frequency Kenneth”, a soothing relic of his 1990s alt-rock childhood, come on the speakers. He wants to dance! Suddenly, the hallucinogen laced cookie he has eaten prior takes effect, and the effects malignantly alter his perception of the reliably nostalgic alt-rock hit of his youth. The world has become so thoroughly otherworldly and unknowable that even the culture that Sam used to define his teenage identity has come under scrutiny. It can’t be trusted. Its meaning, once held close to Sam’s heart, has been obscured.
The second most notable scene in the film solidifies this concept. Sam’s investigation leads him to “the Songwriter,” who Sam finds in a surrealist nightmare vision of an oligarch’s living space. Behind a gate, a psilocybin hallucination of a mansion in a technicolor field appears before Sam. In the home, Sam finds the Songwriter playing the piano, who then begins to hammer out one pop hit after another, from Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” to The Pixies’ “Where is my Mind,” taunting Sam with his claims that he wrote all of them on spec, offering the terrible, horrifying conclusion that art does not belong to the artists or their fans, but to a corporate, oligarchical class that couldn’t give less of a fuck about personal expression. The nail in the coffin to Sam’s beliefs about himself come when the producer reveals that he also wrote Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit,” and that it wasn’t in fact Sam’s hero Kurt Cobain.
The Songwriter, as it turns out, only put messages (resonant ideas, themes, whatever: love, rebellion, etc) in songs because it’s what people need to believe to feel that their lives have meaning, “What does it mean, that your youthful rebellion was just a sham?” asks the Songwriter. He is capital opportunism personified. The Songwriter’s cynicism reminds me of that David Foster Wallace quote, “An ad that pretends to be art is, at its absolute best, like somebody who smiles at you warmly only when they want something from you.”
When Sam learns that his rebellious slacker identity, that he deliberately cultified in opposition to what he sees as mainstream culture, is still the product of corporate control machinations, he snaps, viciously bludgeoning the Songwriter’s skull with Cobain’s guitar. Mitchell has tapped into a primal contemporary fear: perhaps all the cultural signifiers that we use to define our identities; the arts, songs, books, sports, dreams, desires; are all bullshit. A joke. The back end of a spineless advertising campaign.
Notice I’ve barely mentioned the central mystery. We eventually find out what happened to Riley Keough: something about her going underground with the actually not dead billionaire and his other beautiful brides in an underground bunker in hopes that they will be elevated towards a higher plane, like the Pharaohs, or something. The revelation lands with a thud which feels like a purposeful stylistic choice by director Mitchell. The real mystery of the film has to do with a serial murderer of dogs and a girl on a billboard. Throughout the film, there is an allusion to the mad dog killer, and halfway through the film Sam runs into an ex at a party that he had previously seen posed seductively on a billboard. It is eventually revealed that the dog killer is almost certainly Sam when a homeless man who has proven to be a guide throughout his quest finds dog biscuits in his pocket. Sam tells him that he lost his girl and the pain of losing her and her dog became unbearable. He couldn’t make sense of the loss, and transgression seemed to be the only viable rationale.
In a sense, these mysteries pay lip service to what is ultimately a philosophical treatise. Sam is adrift in a world indifferent to his failures. He will never have a 401K, he’ll never have a house, he probably will die homeless. Everything around him is devoid of sentimental value and meaning: Baudrillardian representations of representations fueling the bottom lines of the top 1 percent of 1 percent that wield all of the world’s economic and political power. Sam is of the first generation of educated white men who find themselves just as ruthlessly fucked as working class minorities, and unable to fuel his rage into productive activity (what could be productive in a country where three corporations net more wealth annually than the entire bottom half of society has ever made in the existence of the United States?), he has turned towards pointless speculation and inexplicable violence.
Mitchell, in a manner equally seductive and frustrating, is ruminating on a culture heavy on information and low on meaning. Sam is the ideal hero of a generation that can no longer connect to the world around them. They grasp for meaning everywhere, either through unraveling mysteries (Sam) or decoding conspiracy (the comic artist, played by Patrick Fischer briefly before the character is swiftly murdered), but the closer they get towards anything resembling comprehension is ultimately fragmented, abstracted, and made, yes, meaningless.