David Robert Mitchell’s latest might just be reviled precisely because it prods at the solipsism of the film bros who identify with it.
Anyone who’s spent a day near the art scene knows “that guy.”
You know the one: the straight, white guy who sees a classic movie and thinks it’s brave to call it a masterpiece. “Yeah, it just really gets me,” he says while jutting his chin. He may even call himself an “old soul” because he watched some really obscure film called Double Indemnity in a cinema class. He’s the worst emblem of “I think therefore I am,” and he thinks way too much.
He’s also the protagonist of David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake. One of the main debates regarding the film is whether it’s a love letter to Hollywood or unadulterated hate mail, but you know what? It’s both. It’s a movie that loves the art of decades past, dislikes who makes it, and hates who perverts it. It lures in the over-analytical only to spit them out and shout, “See! It doesn’t matter.”
This audience takes the form of a hopelessly wandering 20-something bro named Sam (Andrew Garfield) who probably compares himself to The Dude from The Big Lebowski when he’s way closer to Winkie’s hobo from Mulholland Drive. In fact, there’s a scene where he walks past a homeless man on the street. He asks for some money, Sam refuses, the man gets angry, and Sam exposes but a few of his prejudices:
I know it’s not okay for me to say this, but I fucking hate the homeless. Everybody says we need to take care of them, but I think they’re fucking bullies. All they do is just float around on the edges, on the peripheries, and watch people eating delicious food, drinking beer, and falling in love. They can’t participate, so they get jealous and they harass us.
It isn’t like he’s much wealthier. He smells like weed and skunk, eye-fucks anything that moves, and is about to be evicted for not paying rent. It’s the summer of 2011. A dog killer is on the loose. A mystical owl-woman is rumored to murder men. But does any of these really matter?
It would seem not to, at least in Sam’s case. One day while peeping on a neighbor, he sees Sarah (Riley Keough), complete with a radio blasting indie pop, a white sunhat, and a dog named Coca-Cola. Sam manages to forge a tenuous flirtation with this Marilyn Monroe/Bridgette Nielson-type and the two spend a few hours together, but when he goes to see her the next morning, she’s gone. Her roommates and belongings are gone too, but more importantly, a personification of pop culture has left him. And that’s just not faaaair!
So he looks for her, taking on the role of makeshift hipster detective in jeans and a t-shirt. He is, just like his ringtone references, the last ninja in a modern wasteland. Each lead is tenuous; each locale is ephemeral. This world is in a late stage of decay and pop culture seems to have raised everyone in it. Even Sam’s mother only features as a voice over the phone, a stereotypical matron defined by her love of Old Hollywood. At the beginning of the film, she calls to talk about 7th Heaven. “Ever since I was a little girl, I admired [Janet Gaynor]. So talented and beautiful…” she trails on.
A similar dynamic raised Sarah too. When she talks her great-grandmother, she calls her a “pretty smart lady” because she’d recite old Coke slogans as life lessons (“Dependable as sunshine!”). The relationships in the film are pointedly shallow, daring its characters to fill their voids with any emotion—no matter how hollow—they once heard through vinyl or saw on a screen. The sentiments are all the same.
But this is the straight white filmbro hipster’s story, and it’d be a lie to say that he cares about relationships nearly as much as he cares about sex. Throughout the film is a fetishization of mass media without titillation, most sex scenes tinged with a fascination of the elite instead of the human body. This is most apparent in how the film portrays Sarah, and while the movie aggressively posits her as a manic pixie dream girl, Sam doesn’t even see her as that. She is, just like everyone, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection.
When the two get high and lie in bed together, Sam isn’t looking at a woman next to him. He’s looking at the movie on TV. When they stare into each other’s eyes, Sam doesn’t see her; he sees a refraction of the movies. When Sam dreams of Sarah by the poolside, he isn’t captured by her beauty. He’s captured by a real-life recreation of the pool scene from Something’s Got to Give. When he’s shown having sex, he’s far more turned on by his signed Kurt Cobain poster. When has a stress-wank later on, he literally jerks off to pop culture, his Playboy, People, and shopping catalogue spreads all shot with the same sickness while an indie record plays backwards à la “Stairway to Heaven.”
That said, the film doesn’t portray anyone as sexualized unless shot specifically from Sam’s eye. It isn’t that the human body or nudity is sexual. It’s that the Sams of the world just have to objectify everything in their paths. There is no justification, no reason, no solution. Does this make the film cynical? Absolutely. Does it make it nihilistic? Maybe even so, but the film’s contempt—of its own world and of its protagonist—is far more aggressive.
It’s kind of disgusting at points. It’s also gleefully obnoxious. In that way, Under the Silver Lake is a satire in how it sneers at its protagonist, just as much as it is a noir parody. It’s also a pathetic comedy in how scared Sam is of every woman in his life, like a mirror-universe version of the gynophobia explored in Enemy or sex-tinged solipsism that controls the similar protagonist of Eyes Wide Shut.
Under the Silver Lake, however, makes a point to position itself in mid-2011, its period made visible in news broadcasts and old social media apps. It wasn’t too long ago, but its intentions are clear in how it takes place when retro-hipster culture reached its apex. It was right before the tail end of the Millennial generation and the introduction of Generation Z veered more towards social consciousness. It was also, according to the film, one of the points in which audiences like Sam reached their breaking point.
Social media blew up, analog media took a backseat, and, in the eyes of the Sams of the world, yesteryear’s culture started to fade away. Then that audience started to latch onto it more and more until it totally snapped. “There’s an entire generation of men obsessed with secret codes,” a friend (Topher Grace) says at one point as they diddle away in front of a 1985 Nintendo. It isn’t until the end of the film that Sam resorts to the Internet for his search for Sarah, only to find that it’s entirely useless in his even-more-useless pursuit.
But he does reach his 8-bit princess at the end, and what does it add up to? Nothing at all. All of Sam’s more pressing matters—a dog killer (whom he’s implied to be), a mystical owl lady, his living on the verge of homelessness—have fallen away for the sake of some second-rate Pynchon fantasy.
It turns out that Sarah isn’t dead, kidnapped, or what have you. She’s in a bunker under the Hollywood Hills with a Heaven’s Gate-type cult. When Sam finds the location, he has to beg to reach to Sarah. They chat over videophone. It’s desperate on his part, disconnected on hers. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” he yearns. And she pauses, with a confusion in her ocean-set eyes: “Really? You barely know me.”
He begs her to come out, but it turns out she’s locked inside the bunker for God knows how long. “Well, there’s no getting out now, so I might as well make the best of it… I said I’d make dinner tonight. I have a million things to do.”
Sam, meanwhile, has nothing.
And as she hangs up, the cult leader retorts, “This isn’t a world that anyone with any sense spends any time in… or worrying about.” It’s maybe a little sad, but it’s far more pathetic. It’s what Sam deserves. He’s a loser who’s lived through others’ art—a succubus, just like how his privileged self hates the homeless.
And so he wanders out of the tunnels like a hungover bro out of a frat party. He ends up back at his apartment, makes the acquaintance of the woman he was ogling at the beginning, and as he lie in her bed, he looks back into his apartment knowing only to keep quiet thanks to a “secret” message left by the elites. More hollow intimacy, more self-importance, less self-awareness, less family. Does he learn something by the end? Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. He’s as unable to grow as he is unwilling to learn, stuck in the world of decay that he inadvertently encouraged for his whole life.
It’s a movie that loves the art of decades past, dislikes who makes it, and hates who perverts it.
“Why do we need another story about some straight white filmbro?” you may ask. I thought the same thing when I first saw Under the Silver Lake, but it’s become clear that that isn’t its purpose. It’s to ruminate on the past that our culture has enabled since the turn of the 20th century. Some of that will be lost on viewers. Hell, there’s been a subreddit dedicated to decoding the movie for months, and it feels just like the stuff Sam would write. Even if some discoveries have merit, they’re utterly superfluous.
When I saw the movie at Cannes last year, that’s kind of what our audience got—at least the straight white guys. After the screening, I saw two young men and one young woman walk into the blinding sun together. Both of the men seemed let down, but she seemed a little more electric.
“What did you think?” the first guy asked.
The other guy shrugged. “I don’t know. It just seemed kinda anticlimactic.”
The woman shrugged astutely. “Were you expecting them to have sex at the end?”
The guys looked at each other. The second one furrowed his brow as if he was getting defensive. “I mean, yeah?”
I rolled my eyes at them just like I did to Sam for 139 minutes. Then I rushed to the over-capacity McDonald’s facing the Croisette.
It took a while to really sink in, but that’s what Under the Silver Lake wanted. Is it a flawed movie? Sure. But it’s also a spectacular middle finger of a film, and that’s just what Mitchell thinks we deserve. And maybe we do.