' ' Cinema Romantico: Under the Silver Lake

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Under the Silver Lake

Even if skunks are indigenous to Silver Lake, the infamous hipster urban empire giving David Cameron Mitchell’s neo-noir its title, their smell comes more to epitomize Sam (Andrew Garfield), a self-appointed private eye, of sorts, who in “Under the Silver Lake” gets sprayed by a skunk, a lingering sensation not un-obviously defining his foul nature. If such repugnancy is liable to put off some viewers, that is entirely part of the point, Garfield’s hands-in-his-pockets moping betraying raging narcissism and just plain rage. If his name is meant to evoke Sam Spade, he is more akin to that untraditional heir of Sam Spade’s, The Dude of “The Big Lebowski”, though The Dude was more a product of the counter-culture while Sam is bred on pop culture, emblemized in the Playboy issue he stole from his father as a kid and still keeps on his night stand, a totem of arrested adolescence and his penchant for viewing women strictly as objects. Indeed, there are no real female characters to speak of in “Under the Silver Lake”, even if there are plenty of female actors, blatantly evinced in their character names, monikers like Balloon Girl and Yellow Miniskirt. To paraphrase The Dude talking about impresario Jackie Treehorn: Sam treats objects like women, man.

The only female character who earns a normal name is Sarah (Riley Keough), and who Sam only meets because he happens to be spying her, her and Topless Bird Women, that is, as these two shout at one another across apartment complex’s common area, a moment Garfield plays with an OMG open mouth that looks very much like a little kid having just stumbled on his dad’s adult magazine collection. She spots him, however, and they hang out later that evening, and though they make plans to hang out again, she up and moves out of the apartment complex that very night. If it seems innocent enough, Sam is programmed to see conspiracies everywhere, seen cataloguing Vanna White’s eye movements on Wheel of Fortune, convinced she’s imparting some secret code. When Sam questions his apartment manager (Rex Linn) about Sarah’s move, the manager doesn’t tell him to mind his own business but explains it’s perfectly normal, a moment Linn plays with a hysterical weariness, truly evoking a Boomer fed up with these supercilious Gen Z snots thinking Everything Is Not What It Seems. Not that Sam will be stopped. After all, he keeps sluffing off the rent his manager wants, not because he doesn’t have money, even if his car is repossessed, because he still throws it around regularly, but from some sense of entitlement. And though he hardly knows Sarah, which is comically pointed out to him much later in the movie, he feels entitled to her salvation too.

R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”, heard midway through, becomes the anthem for Sam’s quest: “I’d studied your cartoons, radio, music, TV, movies, magazines,” sings Michael Stipe. The clues to finding Sarah, Sam is convinced, are strewn about pop culture, which is everywhere, if only you know where to look and what you’re hearing, unseen code contained within song lyrics, maps on the backs of cereal boxes showing you the way, his investigation spurred along by a prominent Silver Lake conspiracy theorist holed up in a mansion as bunker truth-telling zines like Jerry Fletcher so many summers ago. The zines feel like a throwback to another pop culture era, as are many of the myriad references here, which is why R.E.M. pops up in the first place, heard at some underground club’s aptly named “Old Music Night.” Then again, if pop culture is the answer, Mitchell takes great care to also peel it back as a lie, brought home clearly in a wigged out sequence where Sam confronts a wrinkled songwriter. If this moment, while set up, feels wholly invented by the director to make an explicit point, its absurdity is still true to the film’s overriding spirit, the songwriter cackling with evil glee as he pounds out notes to various generational anthems he claims to have written, none for anything more than money, deliberately portraying these cultural capstones as mere melodies in the name of capitalist avarice.

The payoff of Sam’s winding investigatory road might feel perfunctory in and of itself, yet the very idea that Sam’s conspiracy theories prove at least partially true still soften so many of the punches to pop culture’s gut. Even the myriad references seeming to elicit mere dead ends come across like buried references for repeat viewings, a chance for the self-impressed paranoids “Under the Silver Lake” purports to take to task to contrive Fan Theories, eternal “No, you don’t understand…” explanations upon explanations. It’s a contradiction that “Under the Silver Lake” can’t quite overcome, though it’s a contradiction “Under the Silver Lake” also embraces, brought home in the closing shot, a virtual sneer on Garfield’s face crystallizing the character’s sense of entitlement and superiority. In the end, the movie sprays skunk on us.

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