Tuesday 19 March 2019

Signs and blunders: "Under the Silver Lake"

It wasn't always like this. After making Stranger than Paradise, the ramshackle, micro-budgeted roadtrip that inaugurated the modern American independent cinema, Jim Jarmusch returned with Down by Law, a movie that confined its characters to a single prison cell. Yet as money began to flood into the indie sector, and wider audiences were reached, the temptation to swing for the fences with the follow-up to a breakthrough work became too great to resist. We can see that urge in Spike Lee going from the scratchy, intimate She's Gotta Have It to the state-of-the-nation musical School Daze, though one could argue the latter film developed logically from its predecessor's Technicolor dance sequence, and paved the way for the landmark Do the Right Thing; it was central to Steven Soderbergh's haphazard progression from the cool minimalism of sex, lies & videotape to the wild Expressionism of Kafka. The process has become time-honoured, yielding as many misses as outright hits. Most would be thankful that Paul Thomas Anderson overcame his disappointments on Hard Eight to arrive at the jubilant Boogie Nights, yet Richard Kelly similarly went for bust in leaping from the whisperingly suggestive Donnie Darko to the carnivalesque Southland Tales, and look where that got him. Next up at the plate: David Robert Mitchell, who follows 2010's atmospheric coming-of-ager The Myth of the American Sleepover and 2014's bristling horror parable It Follows with his own jejune blowout Under the Silver Lake, in which shaggy-haired slacker Andrew Garfield is beset by two-and-a-half-hours' worth of conspiracies and coincidences in latter-day L.A.

Mitchell's previous, entirely self-contained films were very selective in what they ruled in and out. Silver Lake, vastly more voracious in what it sees and references, sets forth multiple mysteries for Garfield's accidental private-eye Sam to investigate. There is the disappearance of the lissom blonde neighbour (Riley Keough) Sam peeps on from his balcony; a secondary vanishing act involving a prominent businessman; and a third line of inquiry circling a figure referred to as the Dog Killer, whose existence is set up by some mumbo-jumbo about a studio-system outcast who shot himself on camera in protest at the attention afforded to a Rin Tin Tin-like pooch. It is quickly established that multiple elements are in play here. Warnings encoded in the pages of comic books, old hobo symbols, back episodes of Wheel of Fortune, details on the dollar bill, the lyrics to R.E.M.'s "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?": everything is lingered over and dwelt upon at length, and there is always some towering, nefarious subterfuge going on just out of shot or behind the reality our hero-surrogate is presented with. This means the foreground turns into a sushi-bar conveyor belt of red herrings, some of which prove tastier than others. The approach generates a whole lot of movie - shot by shot, sequence by sequence, we catch Mitchell borrowing from Lynch and Hitch and Marty and Bob (Altman), most of the good ones - and yet the film's eyes are substantially bigger than its belly, leaving a lot of its raw visual and thematic material undigested, possibly indigestible. It's not a spoiler so much as a warning to note that none of the aforementioned mysteries will be cleared up with any degree of clarity.

The sprawl is such that it might be instructive to try and pin down what connects Silver Lake to its predecessors in the Mitchell canon. From Sam's opening gawp at his topless and semi-clad neighbours, the new film appears to share It Follows' (naggingly conservative) fascination with sex, and its capacity to warp, corrupt, derange. (The Lynch comparisons write themselves.) Garfield's knight errant seemingly sets out on his cherchez la femme mission because he felt he was onto a sure thing; his obsession will carry this feckless soul from sunny L.A. poolside to the city's darker fringes, from a position of peeper-power up top to the cavernous depths of the Earth, where he will be revealed as basically powerless. An early snippet of dialogue pertaining to the male gaze suggests Mitchell isn't wholly behind the curve when it comes to recent developments in film and social studies, but he has a funny-strange way of showing it, repeatedly turning his camera onto women in states of undress. (Being a big-shot auteur means you can persuade more actresses to pop their tops.) Only one moment of voyeurism is effective enough to justify the clanging shot of minor characters lolling against a tombstone marked "HITCHCOCK", and it comes when a pal of Sam's pilots a drone towards the open window of a lingerie model who removes her shirt only to break down in thoroughly unerotic tears. Somewhere in Silver Lake, there's a cautionary tale about the dangers that follow from falling down any rabbit hole: the risk of not seeing what you want to see or, worse, seeing nothing very much at all. 

That film would surely have gone more forcefully after what Sam's pal labels "an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes..."; it would have cleared more space for us to notice how our notional hero gets stinkier, less mobile and less likable the further he pursues whatever it is he's pursuing, and starts lashing out at anybody he feels stands between him and his ill-defined goal. The trouble with the Silver Lake we have is that, at some point, Mitchell seems to have realised that those mewling fanboys are precisely (and almost exclusively) his core audience - or not to have noticed that he's one himself, instantly squishing any distance between filmmaker and intended target. Vast stretches here depend upon the viewer sharing the utterly suggestible Sam's fascination with babbling gibberish, and you sense Mitchell, too, getting carried away with this madness - tossing in theories, piling on conjecture, panic-buying every urban legend he can - and then self-evidently struggling to cut it all back into coherent shape. The film's paranoiac, throbbing-veined mania is meant to be intriguing and alluring - "Crazy makes for good sex", says that pal, of a woman, naturally - but Under the Silver Lake's narrative designs struck this viewer as inseparable from the moment of Pizzagate, the anti-vaccination movement and Brexit: they're born of a time when supposedly mature and rational human beings have been invited to disregard anything so dull as established, linear facts in order to feel like the chosen ones. (The pictures coming in, these past few days, from Nigel Farage's "Leave Means Leave" march reveal a more banal reality.)

This monument to contemporary cuckoodom has been assembled by a creative with a legitimate big-screen sensibility for the express purpose of being deconstructed and obsessed about on certain Internet forums for months and years to come - but as with so many of the topics currently sucking time and energy online, I'm not so sure there's all that much in the way of substance to get obsessed about here; that all the film is, ultimately, is a mystery premised on the search for mystery, a clever concept that, in practice, generates only partially satisfying results, at best. Among these 139 minutes' fleeting, minor pleasures: Garfield's rabbity run and sulky teenage trudge, which are exactly those your common-or-garden incel might use to haul themselves up from their parents' basement upon reading Marvel have greenlit another female-led superhero movie, and one throwaway line of Hollywood chatter, pertaining to the youngest person ever to have written, directed and sound-designed their own sitcom ("She's twelve, but she clearly has an old soul"), which indicates Mitchell hasn't completely lost his bearings. Yet all other referents would point to the fact you'd do better tracking down the seasoned Jonathan Nossiter's far less self-consciously cult indie Signs & Wonders from 2005, a film that shaped its maddening, overblown chaos into an appreciable critique of late capitalism, rather than - as Mitchell's swing-and-a-miss proves - something wearyingly symptomatic of its indulgences.

Under the Silver Lake is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via MUBI.

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