If there was a single, simple question that has been asked on this blog, it would probably be: how do people differently read movies? I have written several times before about how an individual’s enjoyment of a film is dictated by their own experiences, or what they had to eat on the morning they went to the cinema. Mark Kermode is a legend of film criticism, and even though his views are becoming old, he is still of significant importance in the movie discourse in Britain. I am writing this review as almost a reaction to his BBC Radio 5 Live one, which you can watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pcl3GAOyJSk
Under The Silver Lake is the third feature from American director David Robert Mitchell, his previous being It Follows (2014), a highly acclaimed pseudo-horror movie that earned him a bigger budget this time, and the ability to attract big star Andrew Garfield. He stars as layabout Sam, who is first introduced as a peeping tom, spying on his attractive new neighbour (Riley Keough). Inexplicably (though a key thing to remember is how good looking Garfield is), they quickly start a relationship, but she disappears the day after, which causes Sam to search for her, almost in sexual frustration at first. The more he looks around, the more he gets lost in a strange series of events in the underbelly of Los Angeles. And if you haven’t seen the film, trust me, you don’t want to know any more than that.
To put it crudely, much as the film does, there are two lanes that you can go down with this one. One takes the Mark Kermode road where the film is utter sexist nonsense, and the other takes you on a road of weird sub-reality paranoia. I took the second road, and with trepidation, as the film takes a little while to settle you in because some of it is properly bonkers. In an early scene Sam is confronted by a dead rodent that seems to be trying to communicate with him, and from there I was asking myself, how much of this is actually grounded in reality? There are definite dream sequences, where Mitchell flexes his horror muscles, and it’s unclear when these sequences end. It would be wrong to say that the entirety of the film is fantasy, because it’s more dreamlike filmmaking, in the same vein of a David Lynch production, and the Lynchian references are frequent. Often the film has call-backs to Lynch’s style, and themes, in a kind of a mix between Blue Velvet (1986) (Sam’s wandering suburban investigating) and Mulholland Drive (2001) (the false hopes of an eerie Hollywood setting). Patrick Fischler even makes an appearance as a complete crackpot, his eyes the same wideness they are in the diner scene from Mulholland Drive. Lynch is not the only reference Mitchell uses, the film is cluttered with pop culture, and technically the film resembles a Hitchcock piece, we’re talking Vertigo car follows and Rear Window long shots, and the female characters have the overtly sexual, mostly blonde look from Hitchcock movies as well.
The women in the film have been a talking point because they are solely presented as objects of desire, ignorant and all willing to have sex with Sam. However the world is viewed through the eyes of Sam, who is a leering, undesirable pervert, and Garfield plays that well – his dorky run in particular is hilarious. The only issue that comes with this, is that Garfield is a handsome chap, and has a good physique that can’t be hidden, despite their attempts to give him a bit of beer belly. For the most part, this doesn’t deter from the female characters being projections by Sam, we see the film through his eyes, not the directors and it’s clear from the outset that he’s not a good guy. An unsympathetic protagonist is totally captivating to me, and I think it would be easy to dismiss the film because it is not straight down the line with its political standpoint. A lot of the film is played for laughs, and though the screen I saw it in stayed pretty quiet, there are plenty of moments when I was thinking, should I be laughing at this? Mitchell is unapologetic and self-referential, with the autobiographic nature of the film painted right there for you to see, so the increasing ridiculousness of the story turns somewhat endearing. Sam’s postmodern poking at the culture beast, finding meaning in randomness, going on a never-ending adventure into the Illuminati void is both sickening, and understandable, Mitchell mocking this pursuit whilst creating an absurd romanticism around it.
Subtleness is tossed out of the window here, and the film is obvious and open in its message, or the distraction of the message. Much of the plot is delivered aggressively through Sam talking to himself, or news programmes on the TV in the background, and this can be off-putting. You just have to go with it, and take the road that Mark Kermode avoided, understand that the film is about Sam’s inadequacies and the fallacies of conspiracy hunting, mainstream media shunning and boredom of the modern white man. Is it toxic masculinity, white privilege or the capabilities of an intelligent loser with a lot of time on his hands? Or all three? What it certainly isn’t, is boring. David Jenkins, the editor of Little White Lies, wrote in his review that as much as you might be outraged by the film, you can’t help but admire Mitchell’s ability to get this story funded, and have the bravery to go through with complete conviction in his vision, and I agree with that. As a film lover, you must be happy for this film’s existence, where we live in a cycle of dull Hollywood biopics, endless superhero movies, and remakes, Mitchell has created something that is reflective of RIGHT NOW, as putrid as that is. And whilst I’m trying not to spoil anything, my instant take away is that for the majority of the 139 minute runtime, Sam might just be masturbating, deluded in his quest to save womankind from the patriarchal movie industry, worried about being forgotten in a new ambivalent, melancholic and distant society that is STILL obsessed with pop music and being the brightest star in the room.
Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?
Yes, but go in as blind as you can, and enjoy the ride without other thinking it too much.
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