Recently I was off work and confined to my home for a period of months and I got bored—there are only so many YouTube videos that appeal and so many games you can complete before the mind starts to wander. During this time whilst standing out on the balcony of my apartment building, I started to witness a strange event involving the neighbourhood cats. First a white cat would take a daily pilgrimage along the back fence that separates my housing development from a factory to a large bush. The cat would disappear below the bush for a while and then emerge carrying a single leaf in its mouth. It would then venture back the way it came with its prize. I witnessed this same cat do this every day, but sometimes if it saw me it would drop the leaf and then scamper away. Then I witnessed a black cat also do the exact same thing a couple of times a day. I started to wonder what this meant, what were these cats doing? What was so special about these leaves? The simple fact is, it probably means nothing. More than likely, some rodent has urinated on these leaves and the cats are bringing them home as some kind of prize in lieu of a dead mouse.
This brings me nicely to the protagonist of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake played by Andrew Garfield, the character is listed on IMDb as “Sam” but doesn’t seem to ever be referred to by his name in the film that I remember. Sam stands on his balcony in his East Los Angeles apartment complex and stares at his neighbour, a middle-aged woman who dances naked with her parrots. Sam is eager for something…anything to happen. He’s about to be evicted and behind on his car payments, and longs for an experience to lift him from this reality. Then he spots Sarah, a beautiful girl who lives below him with a cute white dog and who seems to harken back to the vintage pin ups that Sam idolises in his vintage magazines. Sam and Sarah have a night together where they seem to have chemistry and common interests. Before they can get together again, Sarah disappears, her apartment empty as if she left in a hurry in the middle of the night. This leads Sam on a surreal odyssey through Los Angeles as he attempts to track her down.
David Robert Mitchell’s follow up to It Follows has not been well received. The mainstream critics seem to despise the film, and it has been shuffled around the release schedules constantly. It has been compared unfavourably mostly to the work of David Lynch, Southland Tales and Inherent Vice but of all of them it most represents Inherent Vice in terms of how it is about the theme of how time moves on, often strangely and unpredictably and never without casualties.
Under the Silver Lake is likely to be ignored for a while, but there is a possibility it will develop a large cult following in the years to come, because the simple fact is it may be the most misunderstood film since Fight Club. The kind of generational statement that it feels like could never happen in this safe and sanitised day and age of film production. Similar to It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is loaded with details in each and every frame of the film that can keep people obsessing for weeks over what it is that Mitchell is saying with this film.
To give this context I need to go into some more personal experience, but trust me it will all make sense in the end. During a lengthy research period for a project I was working on, I went down a real YouTube rabbit hole. I found out who PewDiePie was, I found out who Logan Paul was, I went into obsessive mode about certain YouTubers and would spend hours watching all of their videos. After a while I started to observe certain patterns in terms of the content I was consuming. When it came to analysis of pieces of media, though much of the content was very good, consistently it would be inaccurate and more often than not a YouTuber would sound like they were reading from a text-book rather than talking to you as the audience. Once you get through the good ones then you end up on the outskirts of YouTube where people entitle videos things like “The ending of Alien, EXPLAINED” and you start to ask why? But that’s kind of the point, there is no why, it’s just there, its more important to have your opinion out there and getting the clicks than to have any real substance.
Eventually this research lead to Instagram fame and how that works, then a whole subset of cosplayers who have millions of followers. At the end of all this I noticed several things, one was that these new media stars do not seem to interact with their followers or fans much unlike the wave of internet media bloggers from last decade, and the second is that there seems to be no real comprehension of satire or irony. The new media landscape feels more and more like a bubble, and content providers are safe in their bubble as long as the clicks keep coming. The misunderstanding of satire may be why Under the Silver Lake may never find an audience with anyone it’s actually talking about. It’s fitting that during a key scene at a party, a bystander mutters about a twelve-year old new media star “She’s an old soul who has really captured the zeitgeist,” the way in which fame works in the internet media bubble is filled with absurd statements like this, largely met with a shrug, and lost in the onslaught of content.
About an hour into Under the Silver Lake I had to take a break, I suddenly cottoned on to what it was David Robert Mitchell was saying. Up to this point I had been annoyed by the film, its weirdly paced, it has no regard for three or five act structures and Andrew Garfield is almost too passive a presence to focus the entire film on. Around the point where Sam follows his trail of clues to an underground party and encounters three characters standing drunk at Hitchcock’s grave, I suddenly got what the point was, and then had to go back and realign my thinking about the films first hour and prepare myself for what was to come. Simply put, the mystery in Under the Silver Lake, isn’t the point, the point is that there is no point.
After the initial set up, there are clues upon clues, upon red herrings and McGuffins and hints at something awful going on somewhere. Sam is obsessed with a local free fanzine where a comic artist details his struggles and some awful secret which is where the film takes its title from. There is somebody going around and killing local dogs in the local area. There is a new shock band based around a Jesus figure accompanied by vampires which the hipsters seem to love. There are also glyphs and codes left by a mysterious homeless network which Sam finds a leaflet about. All of these events leak into Sam’s brain, and he follows these clues no matter how tenuous, to try to find Sarah. There is a point in the film where you start to think this might be the worst written film of all time, because none of these clues lead anywhere that seems to have the remotest connection with the initial set up. Then a sequence occurs where “The Homeless King” leads Sam through a series of connecting tunnels seemingly towards some huge revelation only for Sam to arrive behind the refrigerators in a local convenience store. Never has a metaphor been barked so loud, and this is perhaps the most on the nose portion of the film.
After this Sam goes into overdrive, convinced that there are messages in all forms of media, playing vinyl records backwards and forwards, writing down codes from song lyrics and finding maps in old issues of Nintendo Power. All around Sam the characters he encounters hammer the messages home. Topher Grace plays a hipster character who thinks nothing of flying a camera drone down to spy on an attractive neighbour, technology allowing the disconnect between right and wrong. Sam meets an out of work actress in a club and they dance to “What’s the frequency Kenneth” by REM, Generation X’s anthem of malaise still relevant even now. Sam is surrounded by artefacts from a past he wasn’t old enough to live through, Kurt Cobain posters, Nintendo, old issues of Playboy, and I believe this is absolutely intentional.
You see Under the Silver Lake is a mystery about how there is no mystery anymore. To bring it back to YouTube again, you have a generation clutching at straws of the past, repackaging and recycling what has already been said in other forms by previous generations and presenting it as new and not wanting to deal with any criticism or voice of dissent. There is perhaps nothing new or shocking anymore in media and so there is nothing left to achieve.
The message couldn’t be shouted louder than when Sam follows a trail to a creepy mansion with an evil old man who claims to have written every popular song there has ever been and then tries to kill him ending in a shock of gore. As a character says during the film “We crave mystery because there’s none left” Sam represents a cry for help by Millennials, Generation Y or whatever label they are using this week for anyone under thirty. In a more meta sense he represents us the viewers of the film looking for mystery and trying to understand where this is going. Sam is so desperate for something new, something to give his life meaning and purpose after a possible hinted heartbreak that he starts to see patterns that just aren’t there, it’s just denial of a slow-moving nervous breakdown filled with distractions.
He has no connection to the dog killer (he might possibly be the dog killer as he shows violent tendencies) it’s just another event around him probably perpetrated by a generation desperate for attention and what could be worse than killing a dog? The dog killer might even represent the outrage culture we currently live in based on the way that the background characters seem to unite behind it as the latest slacktivist cause. People who are looking to get worked up about something, just to feel anything. The actual danger and mystery that is around Sam he seems fairly passive about, and when the actual location of the missing girl is discovered; it’s not all that earth shattering, it’s just another quirk of the rich in a city filled with them, another experiment in experiencing something new no matter the cost. Sam goes back to his life, back to his passive existence and back to try and deal with the problems he doesn’t want to face as a billboard nearby showing clear vision contact lenses is pasted over with a grotesque fast food clown. He seemingly finds a new mystery, an even more banal one to keep himself distracted.
There is no mystery about the cats outside my home, it’s a simple explanation likely rooted in nature and the patterns already understood by scientists worldwide. Following any more clues will likely only lead to disappointment, and Logan Paul is just doing Jackass crossed with Eminem after all.
There are going to be many that hate Under the Silver Lake, taken as a traditional film it’s a frustrating experience. I don’t know if the statement Mitchell is trying to make really should have taken two hours and twenty to get there. I feel like it’s so daring and so clever in what it’s saying and how it goes about it that it can’t be ignored. Repeat viewings are likely to reveal more meaning and more statements about our culture as it’s so densely packed with detail in the set design and the dialogue, and with the right mindset it’s even fun. More than anything that has been made so far this decade it truly represents a generation old before their time, who have been let down by previous generations, and is the kind of sprawling artistic statement by a talented filmmaker given absolute freedom that there should be more of.
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Do you think Riki Lindhome was the “cat burglar?” First time he sees her she’s in a costume for a role. It would be plausible if she was who he was seeing in his apartment. I had thought she scratched and defaced his car too until we see the kids down the street.
The movie is pretty dense and I actually stopped it around the time he confronted the little kids, but then I gave it another shot from the beginning and loved it.
I have not seen any review or essay or article that understands or reveals the truth about this film. This essay is a noble attempt but also misses the mark. Here is a clue – go back and watch the scene Millicent.
I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your review of Under the Silver Lake. The very best writers for me are those who take me inside their head and tell a story not just about the subject matter at hand, but about something in their life and how it relates to the subject. Your review was outstanding and I have been following you since finding it a few weeks ago.
Just saw the movie last night. Enjoyed this article and both comments very much! As a 49-year-old X’er, I just thought it was cool to finally have a film worth talking about again.
Thanks for this article. This is the only one I’ve seen that I think really begins to take in the meaning of the film. I thought at the end, when the female lead mentions to Andrew Garfield’s character, that maybe he ought to try and get a dog and find some unconditional love, that this was a rebuttal of so many Millennial (my generation 😉 attitudes in which they seek adulation as a replacement for that, and feel an existential need to “be” someone or something in our collective cultural consciousness. This leads people down a life’s path that may have become obsolete by the time they are on it. I feel that all of these older, well-revered pop culture references in the film (Kurt Cobain, old films, old Hollywood score, both R.E.M. tunes, etc.) juxtaposed with clearly Millennial aged characters, & the fact that all of this took place in L.A., underscores the point that up & coming generations may be chasing antiquated ideas about fame & notoriety that have outlived their usefulness. The scene of the 12 year old YouTube star with an “old soul,” I think exists in large part to show this changing attitude as to what constitutes cultural relevancy. I think it is no coincidence that it is immediately followed up by a scene in which Garfield’s character and the female who played Sevence’s daughter, are both seen alone in a hallway, isolated from the party around them. They are looking at a work of art and she asks Garfield’s character, “do you know who painted this?” She says it was Janet Gaynor the actress, and he replies, “my mom loves her.” The idea that fame, notoriety & relevancy will transcend generations or cultures, has essentially become void in our modern age due to the current digital world & ways in which we absorb content. Also, this scene further showed Garfield’s character’s inherent need for maternal admiration as fulfillment. His mother is the only contact he has with a world outside of L.A.. At the end of the film, he goes back to his apartment and finds a package addressed from his mom. He then goes to the much older woman’s apartment who had been topless on the rear patio earlier in the film, knocks on the door, and they have sex. Garfield’s character deals with some element of an Oedipal complex. This becomes all the more telling given that it takes place in the final scene, and his sense of fulfillment may lie within that complex.
Now to bring up the dog killer – I believe the answer to this lies in the line I mentioned before, spoken by the female lead near the end of the movie, that maybe Garfield’s character should just “[get a dog and find some unconditional love]”. I agree with the above article that it in part, exists to highlight our collective outrage and movement culture. But I think specifically, the female lead tells us the dog represents unconditional love. Garfield’s character lives alone in a city in which he is not from, in a city that is defined by a lust for fame, & with no apparent attachment to anyone. I believe that the dog killer is a metaphor for those of us who choose this life of chasing adoration, which requires isolation, over a life in which unconditional love can be accepted as enough. The fact that no one could find the “dog killer” may have been an indictment on the Hollywood/L.A. culture, and more specifically, the Millenial generation as a whole.
Nice article, very much enjoyed it. I agree in the analysis that the message of this movie could have to do with a loss of meaning, a point with no point per se, but I’m mostly enraptured by the richness of the material. The content itself is so beautiful and it’s obvious all of the cast and crew took great pride in their work.
I’m also somewhat perplexed nobody has compared this to Fellini. It really is the same great existential stuff and I’m happy to see it again.