Under the Silver Lake. David Robert Mitchell. 2018. ⭐️
Under the Silver Lake is a Boring Ass Movie in an Ambitious Failure's clothing. Quick recap: it concerns Sam, a bro who ambles around a fictional-ish Los Angeles staring at posters people have put up warning of a serial killer who kills dogs. Sam also dodges calls from his mom, a nice-sounding woman who wants to talk to him about movies and see if he’s doing okay. Sam meets a really hot chick named Sarah after she notices him using binoculars to watch her sunbathe. During their subsequent star-crossed meet cute, Sarah sweetly asks Sam if he was, earlier, as he gazed at her from afar, masturbating? She smiles, she laughs, they smoke weed, they make out, her friends show up, Sam leaves. He can’t wait to see her again, but he never sees her again. Is something sinister afoot? Sam’s about to find out.
Here’s my analysis: UtSL nails an aesthetic vibe a teenage version of myself hoped for from Dude, Where's My Car? Alas, it's ultimately a similar dead end wannabe "cult classic." Takes Pynchon, deconstructs into self-help. Weird choice given that UtSL puts a bullet through a Hot Naked Girl's chest, shows blood flowing out the wound, like Sam has to see his teenage jerkoff fantasy get literally murdered so as to get over an ex? Fuck this movie.
In Hitchcock violence has consequence and the fucked up things that happen to people, you feel fucked up and weird watching.
When you read Pynchon you're given a new way to see, not a tedious and definitive articulation of Power's nature and purpose.
Lebowski's pointless stoned existence is cast as mythic, heroic. Garfield's pointless stoned existence is this is a guy who projects his self-loathing onto homeless people, his mom pays his rent, and his only friend is a peeping tom. Which is to say, Garfield's pointless stoned existence is simply pointless. It isn't interrogated or interpreted, it's just placed there (I guess?) to make a boring point about how... pointless... everything... is? "Cool story, bro."
Fear is integral to Lynch's mysteries and rooted in his skillful portrayal of a complex, confusing, and disturbing vision of Evil.
The protagonist in Paul Thomas Anderson's filmic treatment of Inherent Vice is driven by impulses toward kindness and love much more than a paranoiac desire to connect the dots. The people Doc interacts with are people, be they acquaintances, strangers, or loved ones, they're all full-on humanity possessing people.
The "people" in Sam's universe are visual objects first and information providers second and absolutely nothing else besides.
What I'm saying is the great cinema that UtSL is in shallow conversation with is so vastly superior to UtSL it's absolutely wild that favorable comparisons are being made. This brings us back to Dude, Where’s My Car?, the tale of Jesse and Chester, two stoned jerks whose dopey misadventure brings them into contact with 1) The staff of a titty bar called Kitty Kat Club, who instinctively have wet T-shirt contests in celebration of Jesse and Chester’s presence 2) A trans woman who exists solely as an object of mockery and disdain 3) A group of extraterrestrials who, when they’re not offering to suck Jesse and Chester off, repeat the phrase “We’re hot chicks” ad infinitum 4) A blonde bombshell with a heart of gold named “Christie Boner” 5) Jesse and Chester’s girlfriends, Wanda and Wilma, who, by movie’s end, are wearing magical necklaces that make their boobs bigger… This is UtSL’s antecedent… not Mulholland Drive, not Vertigo, not Southland Tales, not even Ready Player One… but Dude 👏 Where’s 👏 My MOTHERFUCKING 👏 Car? is the spiritual successor of this bro exercise in controlled nonsense.
It could've worked, maybe. The visual aesthetic of UtSL strikes me as post-Instagram, a riff on the ever growing falseness of images A.K.A. the ever growing falseness of human social relations in an image saturated collective consciousness. The score is awesome. The movies it’s ripping off are dope. It’s so much better than Dude, Where’s My Car?, except it isn’t. I expected the film's obsession with horniness to go somewhere weird, until it didn’t.
The first sign of trouble is “The Songwriter”, an old guy playing piano jeering at Sam going on about how he wrote every pop song ever (even **gasp** “Smells Like Teen Spirit”). “Rebellion” has always been a corporate confection, another tool the powerful use to keep the rabble down. The scene is so ridiculously “obvious” it’s basically if Forrest Gump was late capitalist and jaded. It’s also the unfortunate moment when Sam’s quest starts to take on urgency and moral heft, and as far as that goes, I can’t imagine dreaming up a scene that shits the bed as badly as Sam’s showdown with The Songwriter.
I mentioned this above, but the billionaire's daughter getting shot in the chest, her death being a visual allusion to the first image Sam ever jacked off to, is truly awful. Up until that moment the movie is dreamlike, Sam seems delusional at best, creepy at worst. We have no idea if he’s onto something or if he’s just a loser. A big part of the fun, the humor, is watching it unfold and wondering if Sam is out of his gourd. It also creates a natural affinity between Sam and the audience… we’re just as confused as he is. A bullet blasting through the heart of an innocent young woman 100% extinguishes this productive ambiguity. Sam is entangled in a battle against evil. We never find out why she got killed, cuz that doesn’t matter, her life doesn’t matter, she’s just an information providing visual object incapable of existence independent from Sam.
This all leads to the resolution of the film's central mystery "Where is Sarah?" being stupendously, insultingly stupid. She's one of the Hot Young Wives of a middle-aged billionaire bro who thinks he's a Pharaoh? That’s the evil force? That a chick Sam wants to fuck is, instead, fucking a different dude? Are you kidding me?
Believe me, I'm down for a flick about delusional horniness being an empty driving force in the lives of men, but UtSL provides no critique, only a shallow rendering that ends with Sam’s lite redemption. He gets to walk free knowing The Secrets of The Powerful. He has a cathartic moment talking about how he wants to get back with his ex. The Homeless King assesses him as morally upright and spares his life. And, finally, Sam leaves behind the Loserdom symbolized by His Shitty Apartment.
Which is to say: nothing happens. For awhile I hoped, "This is gonna lose track of what it's about and then things will get interesting," but in the end it’s apparent that that was never in the cards. This movie, despite its superficial gloss of weirdness, is conventional. The shaggy dog energy was pure affect. The point is Sam needs to Learn Some Lessons from his Stupid Adventure Trying To Track Down The Hot Girl Who Ghosted Him. What are the lessons? Who cares! Why should a movie have anything to say about the living of life? Just be visually compelling. Lace in some cultural references. Hire someone good to do the score. Hot chicks. Yeah, that’s the stuff.
I’m struggling with how to end this review. If I’m giving UtSL as much credit as I possibly can, here’s what I say:
“It’s obviously about his being unable to get over an ex, how that makes his relationship to women fucked, how he only sees women as either 1) not good enough or 2) perfect in every way such that she’ll complete his life. It’s a movie about how fucked up that is!”
Okay. If that’s the case, it still sucks. Cuz if that’s the thrust, then it can only end one of two ways… either he remains a shitbag or he gets better.
Remains a shitbag makes a lot of sense cuz then he can just be The Dog Killer. You could keep the stupid scene with him FaceTiming Sarah, cuz it (and everything else) can easily be read as the insane, fucked up fantasies of a delusional, dog-murdering sociopath. Then, if the movie wants to have a moral center, some truly awful shit could befall him and FIN. Or, if the movie wants to be nihilistic and demoralizing, he continues having his cake and eating it too and we feel miserable about the state of things.
What the movie actually tries to sell us on is “he gets better” and it’s a complete miss. Like the scene where he encounters the ex, if from that moment on the entire story, the search for Sarah, all the clues, everything, had just completely fallen off the map, cuz he realizes this thing he’s doing is stupid and shitty, if it plays out that way you’ve got the basis for a meaningful conclusion.
From there you can go a couple directions.
One would be he resumes his pointless existence with a melancholic self-awareness that he’s been fucking up, and he just resumes doing boring shit, maybe tries to watch his mom’s favorite movie and has a muted emotional breakdown, then UtSL ends. Or he tries to kill himself and fucks that up, too. Who knows. There’s plenty of “real” directions the movie could’ve taken after the scene with the ex that would’ve worked just fine, or even beautifully, or maybe still would’ve sucked, but not as bad as the actual ending.
The other approach is the paranoiac absurdity continues but takes a series of crazy left turns. This approach would require the successful execution of strange and surprising ideas. I have no reason to believe UtSL could’ve possibly hoped to pull off such a turn. But even fucking that up severely would’ve been better than what we got, which was utter dogshit.
The ideas I unfurled in the last few paragraphs… I came up with them in less than an hour. Pushing a piece of writing further isn’t exactly rocket science. It’s actually easy, not to mention fun. Yet that didn’t seem to happen. David Robert Mitchell’s description of writing UtSL:
I was on a streak. Sometimes I find myself in a moment in my life when I had a bunch of ideas, and I wanted to churn out a bunch of stuff. And I was finishing one script, and I feel like maybe I wasn’t completely happy. I felt like I was trying too hard. And I was craving a certain freedom.
My wife and I were talking one day about, what do we think is actually happening in those big houses up in the Hollywood hills? And then about the idea of mysteries. And I had a few images and feelings very quickly. Within a day, as I was writing the other thing, I kept stopping because I imagined the songwriter and a bunch of other key pieces. They all just came to me, and I literally sat down and just wrote them really quickly, right then.
I stopped, because I was like, “OK, I have to finish the other thing.” And then as soon as that was done, I jumped right into writing Under the Silver Lake. And I was like obsessed. It was a near crazed state that I don’t normally get in, it was a little intense. Drinking way too much coffee. My wife was like, “You’re a little bit crazy right now.” But, it wasn’t like a scary crazy, just a little intense.
I would share my pages with her. Whatever I wrote that day, I’d share. We would kind of laugh about it and enjoy it. We both kind of felt like, oh this is pretty cool. Something really fun. I just enjoyed the hell out of writing, like, “I’m going to write whatever the fuck I want!” That was where it really came from. And I finished it, I was really happy with it.
I’ve been writing for awhile, and for as long as I’ve been at it, I’ve also been encouraging other people to write. A big part of being encouraging is talking to people about their frustrations and sharing (if you have any) relevant thoughts of your own. I often refer to Sontag:
The writer must be four people:
1. The nut, the obsédé
2. The moron
3. The stylist
4. The critic
The Nut supplies the material; The moron lets it come out; The Stylist is taste; The Critic is intelligence.
A great writer has all 4—but you can still be a good writer with only 1 and 2; they’re most important.
Sontag emphasizes 1 and 2, but I like to emphasize 3 and 4. Don’t get me wrong, it makes sense to focus on 1 and 2. People are often critical of their creativity, which then stifles their ability to write stupid shit without a care in the world. Mitchell, it seems, was stuck in a pattern of writing things while feeling bogged down by The Stylist or The Critic, and with UtSL he was able to unleash The Nut and The Moron. Good for him, that’s cool as hell. But he should’ve done more. It’s common to have a protective feeling about shit we write that unlocks within us truth. Like if we fuck with it too much, try to hard to improve, try to make it perfect, we’ll kill the special energy. This can happen, it happens, I’ve seen it happen, I’ve done it myself. But that attitude is some fear shit and it’s wrong.
One of the best moments of my education came during avant-garde poetry class. Teacher passed around a handout, asked someone to read it. Nobody wanted to, which used to make me anxious, so I filled in the void and became the person who read aloud “The Baby” by Donald Barthelme. I highly recommend reading it out loud, right now. If you don’t want to, that’s chill, but just FYI, I’m about to ruin the story, so you might as well read it, but also it’s fine if you don’t. “The Baby” is about a baby who tears pages out of books and her parents struggle with discipling her. The more they discipline, the more pages she tears! A sticky wicket, but then!:
I solved it by declaring that it was all right to tear pages out of books, and moreover, that it was all right to have torn pages out of books in the past. That is one of the satisfying things about being a parent—you’ve got a lot of moves, each one good as gold. The baby and I sit happily on the floor, side by side, tearing pages out of books, and sometimes, just for fun, we go out on the street and smash a windshield together.
That phrase, “You’ve got a lot of moves, each one good as gold,” I’ve repeated it countless times. I’ve tweaked the phrasing, not intentionally, but in my brain it goes, “You’ve got a million moves, each of them good as gold.” When you’re making art and you access inner truth, the resulting art object might become precious to you, and you treat it as such, because you want to protect it, but you’re fucking up, because when you try to keep it under tight control, you’re desecrating, and you don’t have to, it’s so much stronger than you realize, you can do anything you want with it, it’s going to be fine, you’ve got a million moves, and each of them is good as gold.
The failure of UtSL is, in my opinion, a failure to recognize that different choices could’ve been made, a failure explore the multitude of avenues that might’ve been fun to walk down.
I’m sitting in my parents’ living room. TV on mute. A guy is interviewing Tony Hawk. I used to play Tony Hawk on N64. Got good at a trick called CHRIST AIR. There was a Goldfinger song on the soundtrack. Since those days, many days have gone by. I’ve made mistakes, done shitty shit, become embroiled in wack delusions, and fucked up a lot. I’m better now. I’m not consistently making my life shittier via making consistently shitty decisions. I’m not doing that and I haven’t done it in awhile. This movie, I’m hard on it because I want people to know life can change. My favorite movie, Magnolia, I read once it tries to heal its audience and that that’s really fucking cool. Under the Silver Lake don’t heal shit. And fuck that. But the other reason I’m pissy is cuz even though I’m not a fuckup like Sam, I feel just as lost and stuck. Not in the same stupid ways, but. Not nearly as lonely, but. Just scared to do anything real, you know? Always retreating into the comfort of my racing mind. Always avoiding the howling winds of the gorgeous Earth. And that’s not how life should be, you know? I know what I know, but I wanna know it more. I wanna feel it when I breathe. In the interview about the movie Mitchell said it’s set in 2011, like you can’t really tell it watching, but that that was the feeling he wanted to capture. That’s the year I quit drinking booze. It’s been quite awhile since I quit. I remember tripping on shrooms listening to Jeff Mangum sing:
I took my tongue out twice
removed it from my face
across the bridge
across the mountains
I threw a nickel in a fountain
to save my soul
from all these
and all the drugs
that I don’t have
the guts to take
I’m always sober
always heading toward
I felt like Jeff was talking to me, but I knew it was just a recording of a song playing in a small house in Idaho, but I also knew it was bigger, it was something I was supposed to hear at that exact moment in my life. It was huge. I guess that’s my shittalk. Why didn’t you try / to be more / bro? St. Luke wrote, “No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ and that’s cuz the Kingdom of God is inside of you, right now, as we speak, it’s there, waiting.”