The New Cult Canon: 'Under the Silver Lake'
David Robert Mitchell's dense, allusive L.A. noir has the power to turn its viewers into obsessive conspiracists.
“There is no rebellion. There’s only me earning a paycheck.” — The Songwriter, Under the Silver Lake
This has been a rough few years for Occam’s razor, the problem-solving principle that argues for shaving off unlikely explanations when trying to reach a conclusion. We live in an age where a conspiracist could be elected president, buoyed by a phony public crusade to delegitimize his predecessor—a time when a D.C. pizzeria was the suspected site of a child sex ring, when QAnon followers await the coming of John F. Kennedy, Jr., when vaccines are seen as responsible for infertility and magnetism or a delivery system for 5G tracking microchips. These feel like massively destabilizing times, when too many of us are drawing from a poisoned informational well. In this environment, outrageous fictions are reinforced and expanded-upon, like rolling katamari balls of horseshit.
Conspiracy theories are not exclusively or historically right-wing, of course, and they tend to coalesce around one common theme: That the world is controlled by corrupt elites, who oppress non-elites from the shadows, speaking in codes only they understand. There are boring, straightforward explanations for why the powerful remain in power and outsiders remain on the outside, of course, but it can be tantalizing to imagine more sinister forces at work and go looking for the skeleton key that will unlock some vast chamber of secrets. It turns us into amateur sleuths—which is vastly more appealing than marinating in our own feebleness.
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David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (2018) has excellent news for conspiracy theorists: You’re right. Inexplicable disappearances and deaths are mostly explicable, and there are hidden messages in everything from song lyrics to cereal boxes to bathroom stalls. The film also has terrible news for conspiracy theorists: You’re right. Even the things you care about the most in the culture—that seem the most personal and from the heart, and that deepen your feeling for humankind—are cynical and inauthentic, manufactured in a bread-and-circuses scheme to hold you down. Mitchell’s dense, witty, marvelously allusive take on the California neo-noir isn’t the first cult item to speculate about a larger system that governs our lives—two major studio hits, The Matrix and Fight Club, spring to mind—but none have been as rigorous or eccentric, or as keyed-in to real-world conspiratorial thinking. Under the Silver Lake has the power to turn you into a screen-pausing, web-searching, clue-sniffing lunatic.
Now just three films into his career, Mitchell has gotten steadily more ambitious with each, though all are defined by a keen attention to detail. His low-budget debut, 2010’s The Myth of the American Sleepover, feels like an unofficial companion to the cult TV favorite Freaks and Geeks, both ensemble pieces about coming-of-age in suburban Detroit, though its hang-out vibes and compressed time frame owe even more to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Mitchell’s brilliant 2014 horror film It Follows is like if the world of The Myth of the American Sleepover were invaded by a relentless supernatural force, but his technique took a great leap forward, with Kubrickian surveillance pans, chilling use of offscreen space, and a sound design that pulses with menace. Under the Silver Lake shifts gears completely, fashioning a ‘70s-style postmodern noir that doubles as a semi-surreal L.A. slice-of-life.
As Sam, a 33-year-old layabout in the city’s boho Silver Lake, Andrew Garfield summons every bit of his star charisma to play an almost heroically unsympathetic lead, the type of guy who can talk to his mom on the phone while smoking a cigarette and spying with binoculars on his always-nude neighbor. That’s a movie-reference two-fer: Sam’s courtyard peeping evokes Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window—a nod so obvious that Mitchell sticks the poster in his apartment—and the ladies next door to Elliott Gould’s laconic Phillip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, perhaps this film’s closest antecedent. Sam has some of Gould’s unbathed indolence, but no one is going to call on him to solve a mystery. Or much of anything else. He’s facing eviction from his shitty apartment, but there’s no indication that he’s ever worked a day in his life.
With a bleak future in front of him, Sam is both gifted and cursed to get caught up in a mystery that will so thoroughly consume him that he won’t have to worry about immediate concerns like paying the rent. After staring none-too-discreetly at the beautiful Sarah (Riley Keough) by the pool, Sam enters into a courtship with her so brief that it doesn’t get much further than a date where they hang out at her apartment, smoke a little weed, and watch How to Marry a Millionaire—a film that so obsesses her that she has Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall dolls on her dresser. The next day, Sam is shocked to learn that Sarah has moved out without saying a word. After shimmying through a window into her apartment, Sam discovers an odd symbol on the wall and later witnesses another young woman removing the sole remaining box from Sarah’s closet. Naturally, he follows her around.
Tugging that loose string starts the unraveling. The stranger and her friends—who, in a particularly hilarious sequence, he tracks on a paddleboat rental—eventually take off in a white VW Rabbit convertible, a funny choice for a car until you realize the sly nod to Alice in Wonderland. Sam’s trip down the VW Rabbit-hole leads him to many signs and wonders: A goth-pop band called Jesus and the Brides of Dracula that may tuck secret meanings into their lyrics, a sex-work ring organized around Hollywood never-will-bes, a ‘zine writer who fathoms the truth behind a string of area disappearances and murders, a perhaps-not-mythical naked seductress who wears an owl mask and carries a stabbing knife, a series of secret parties and underground bunkers for the hip and wealthy, and codes that might be cracked by a cereal-box map and the first issue of Nintendo Power magazine. Oh, and there’s also an alleged dog killer at large.
It requires multiple viewings (and a reliable internet connection) to unpack the mysteries of Under the Silver Lake, but for many critics at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival even the first viewing proved to be an obstacle—it turfed out so badly in the competition slate that its distributor, A24, sat on the film for almost a year before burying it in theaters. Cult favorites tend to sprout from such seedlings of misfortune. Pity those who couldn’t recognize Under the Silver Lake as a wildly entertaining enigma right away, but Mitchell seems to have deliberately conceived the film to deputize viewers to access their inner Sam and search its universe for clues. And if you’ve visited the sub-Reddit on the film, it’s clear that he’s wildly succeeded. Among the juicier threads:
A breakdown of the various codes and cyphers, including the Copial Cypher (as referenced in a TV-news chyron tucked in the corner of the screen, and found in graffiti), Morse code (as written on the coffee shop menu at the beginning of the film, also deep in the background), the geocoding system What3words (which is a key part of a location late in the film), the Hobo code (which is at least cited outright), and the Zodiac code (as seen under the Betty, Marilyn, and Lauren dolls).
The significance of a football scoreboard with the numbers “7-5-1.”
Evidence that Sam is, in fact, the dog killer.
A rhetorical question it may be tempting to ask: In an era where audiences expect “Easter eggs” tucked into the biggest blockbusters, isn’t this just a more sophisticated version of the same phenomenon, flattering puzzle-solvers and scholars of Golden Age and ‘70s Renaissance Hollywood in the same way Marvel films flatter comic-book geeks? Yes and no. The film is fun to sort through as a visual acrostic, like something that might pass through Will Shortz’s editing desk, and that’s not the type of pleasure that gets associated with art. But there are substantive reasons for Mitchell to situate viewers in Sam’s psychic space: We’re all searching for some larger explanation for how the world operates, especially in those humbling times when access to the secret rooms of wealth and transcendence. What do they know that we don’t? And the fantasy of exposing the conspiracies of the super-elite allows us to imagine that maybe their whole system will collapse. Wouldn’t that be satisfying. No wonder so many buy into this kind of thinking.
The dramatic centerpiece of Under the Silver Lake suggests something even more sinister: That the commercial art we care about the most is inauthentic, a cynical formula used to oppress the have-nots while fortifying the chambers of the haves. After following various bread crumbs to Griffith Park—remember he’s damnably successful as a sleuth—Sam finds his way into the depths of a crumbling Hollywood Xanadu, where grotesque old man credited as “The Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb) sits behind a piano, playing medleys of popular songs like “I Want It That Way” and “I Want to Know What Love Is.” The Songwriter claims to have written all of these hits and many more, including “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is a stab in the heart to Sam, who has a Kurt Cobain poster in his bedroom. “When you were 15 and rebelling,” he says. “You were rebelling to my music.”
Now we know with 100% certainty—or maybe 99% certainty now— that Kurt Cobain wrote “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” not some cackling old demon behind a piano. Yet a scene like that does trigger the worry that much of our engagement in culture, with its unavoidable ties to corporate profit, cannot be as personal and unmediated as we wish it to be. The Songwriter is the voice of a generation (or two) if you think of him like David Geffen, whose label signed Nirvana (and Sonic Youth), and if you have a Cobain poster on your wall and your identity is shaped by that music, then your identity is also tied to the king-making elites who made millions off the band. That’s a compromise that we make unconsciously (and necessarily), but the more you think about it the harder it becomes to think about a consumer choice as an act of rebellion or a wedding song as written just for you. Even when Taylor Swift went off into the woods to make stripped-down, intimate pandemic music, the result still found its way into a bank commercial.
Sam is crushed by such discoveries, which leave him feeling that much more alienated from the world around him, though it’s worth noting that Under the Silver Lake, in the proud tradition of L.A. noirs, appreciates the eccentricities of place as much as it condemns it. It seems very much like the work of a Michigan transplant, trying to comprehend the undercurrents of this foreign city where success breaks the E-Meter and anything less can’t pay the rent. The film wasn’t made for the red carpet at Cannes or anywhere else. It was destined to stand bitterly outside the velvet rope forever, guessing at the codeword that will get it inside.
Next: Trouble Every Day
Previous NCC entries: The Counselor, Speed Racer.
Really happy to see "Under the Silver Lake" getting some much needed coverage. It's an amazing movie and one that simply did not get enough respect when it came out in 2018.
This is a great piece! I am unfortunately one of those people who is not really into this movie - I find it to be far too impressed with itself, to the point where I was basically rolling my eyes by the time they reveal there is in fact a naked owl-faced murderess - but your writing on it makes me wish it worked for me.
That songwriter scene though is undeniably a powerhouse and frankly works just as well outside of the context of the film.