On August 6, 2011, Los Angeles State Historic Park played host to HARD, a music festival featuring acts such as Holy Ghost! and Duck Sauce. A 42-page slideshow available in LA Weekly’s web archives depicts crowds of sweaty, beaming, beautiful young people dressed outlandishly in fishnets and pasties, Egyptian pharaohs’ headdresses, lacy corsets with short shorts, and mock warpaint as far as the eye can see. Following the festival, there was a secret afterparty promoted earlier that day in the lifestyle blog Scenestar.
The next day, August 7, The Los Angeles Times ran a story on a young unarmed schizophrenic man—described variously as a “red-haired, guitar-playing man who was clearly troubled,” a “mild-mannered drifter,” and “a somewhat familiar street person”—who had recently been beaten to death by as many as six police officers. In the story, the victim’s father described his confusion over the police response—based on video and eyewitness accounts, he believed his son was visibly distressed and posed no threat. “They’re people,” the grieving father said of Los Angeles’ mentally ill homeless population. “They’re human beings.” He vowed to pursue answers no matter how high up the LAPD chain of command he had to go, acknowledging, “I know I’ll have a breakdown at some point. It’s coming…But not now. I can’t stop.”
On August 8, Scenestar announced that Green Day would be performing a secret show the following Thursday. In a subsequent review available in OC Weekly’s web archives, a staff critic would note, “It may not be 1994 anymore,” but reported that between songs, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong proclaimed, “To reminisce is to die.”
It could be that none of this is worth noting. It could be that none of this is significant. But I believe that it is.
When we meet Sam (Andrew Garfield), the protagonist of Under the Silver Lake, he is lingering in a daze, alone in a crowd, assaulted on all sides by the idle chatter of the beautiful young people who surround him, staring with unnatural intensity at a pair of young women absorbed in inaudible discussion. Soon, we will find Sam holed up on the balcony of the East LA apartment from which he’s on the verge of being evicted, on the phone with his mother, spinning lies about a job he doesn’t have, chain smoking, and spying on his neighbors through binoculars.
Sam is the kind of man who came to Los Angeles with dreams—and expectations—of becoming someone important, even if he can’t quite articulate what extraordinary qualities he’s meant to possess. Now, believing he’s living the “bad version of the life [I was] supposed to have,” he’s become the kind of man who can be found in one of the few Los Angeles bars that start serving at 6 a.m., the kind of man who will curse out the homeless for daring to ask for change, the kind of man prone to bursts of explosive and excessive violence against those physically weaker, the kind of man who spends months tracking and analyzing the pattern of Vanna White’s onscreen glances in search of an encoded secret message being passed between elite members of the global ruling class.
From his hurried speech to his distractibility to his casual sex with virtual strangers to his elaborate paranoia, Sam’s every behavior suggests he is in the grip of a mental health crisis—based on these symptoms alone, Sam would ably meet the DSM-5 criteria for a manic psychosis. At the story’s outset, he already believes, as he will spit so quickly and passionately it’s hard to keep up, that “there are people out there…more powerful and wealthier than us, that are communicating things, and seeing things in the world that are meant for only them and not for us.”
And once his glamorous neighbor, Sarah (Riley Keough), vanishes on the day they were meant to consummate their acquaintance, Sam becomes obsessively focused on his theory that her fate, and now his own, are linked to a vast and deadly conspiracy that’s solvable only by scrutinizing the specific pop culture ephemera with which he surrounds himself. It’s a classic delusional framework, right down to the inflated self-esteem necessary to believe that you—despite lacking any evident training or skill—are the only person alive equipped to untangle a sprawling web of villainy.
Complicating things slightly, of course, is the fact that Sam is correct. The mystery of Sarah’s abruptly vacant apartment unravels with psychedelic force into a byzantine mass of incident and intrigue that grows only more outlandishly fanciful until culminating with Sam’s discovery of a death cult of billionaires aided by their consigliere The Homeless King in their plan to each be entombed alive alongside three young brides to await their ascension to an enlightened plane of existence. And wouldn’t you know it—the coordinates to this nefarious cabal’s base of operations, the final keys to bring the whole plot to the surface, were encrypted all along in the pages of Sam’s 23-year-old copy of Nintendo Power magazine.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that manic psychotic paranoias tend to be unfounded. But not everyone is as desperately hollow as Sam. Not everyone is able to stoke the burning wreckage of all their dreams and intentions until the flame is powerful enough to reorder the very fabric of their universe in alignment with their delusion.
In trying to sell someone on the merits of Under the Silver Lake1, I tend to fall back on the same phrase:
“It’s a movie that’s having a nervous breakdown.”
Of course, plenty of stories center around characters in psychic crisis, and plenty of those dabble in surrealism to literalize that interior experience. What sets David Robert Mitchell’s third feature apart from these psychosis narratives, however, is the camera’s eye, which seems to function as an active and independent agent in the film, one that’s often in tangible, even dissociative, distress. In early scenes, the camera moves with the sort of frantic, hyper-focused gaze that typifies the experience of mania. But as the story unspools, that gaze will drift into reveries, turning its focus away from Sam during a conversation to examine a tree’s canopy, or scurrying across the floor in an animalistic frenzy while Sam has a casual chat. By the climax, the film’s observing eye begins losing time, with the editing growing choppy to the point of cutting off conversations mid-sentence, compressing whole sequences into just a few jagged shards.
This stylization notwithstanding, Under the Silver Lake does open in a world that operates roughly within the bounds of conventional realism. But once Sam chooses to follow a white Volkswagen Rabbit to Purgatory2, the story sidesteps verisimilitude never to return. Codes appear with mounting frequency and density while any casual acquaintance Sam runs across becomes an essential link in the chain that leads him to the improbably neat resolution of a fringe religion of industry titans. Rather than be transported to a fantastical parallel world, Sam finds his natural world reassembling itself to suit his needs until he’s following a mystical coyote to a chance encounter with a femme fatale who possesses a decoder that can unite and unlock the cultural detritus in Sam’s mind—all of this and more treated with utter straight-faced credulity.
The more frantic Sam grows, the more frantic the world around him becomes, as though he possesses the agency and power of a Chuck Jones character who might tear or crumple the paper onto which he’s being drawn, a man whose interiority is so powerful he can exert that lunatic power over the very material reality of his environment.
In the wake of its ignominious and muted wide release in April 20193, Under the Silver Lake has often been referred to as a new entry in the familiar category of shaggy postmodern LA noirs dense with red herrings and narrative cul-de-sacs that ultimately lead nowhere in particular, a subgenre ranging from the apparently irrelevant identity of the chauffeur’s murderer in The Big Sleep to the deliberate anticlimax of The Big Lebowski4.
These comparisons, however, neglect one fairly significant factor: Under the Silver Lake resolves with uncanny precision and harmony, revealing that no scrap of evidence, however seemingly tangential, was a true dead end. If a postmodern noir denies its audience traditional resolution in order to provoke and disturb, then Under the Silver Lake, with its no-thread-left-dangling5 storytelling, must be one of the rare post-postmodern noirs.
Nobody could deny that Mitchell intentionally utilizes and revises noir tropes—along with the occasional cinematographic flourish, the score is an overt pastiche of the Bernard Herrmann school of composing, implying that Sam’s perspective is heavily filtered through the classic films that seem to be perpetually playing on any available television—and Sam does function as a sort of dirtbag riff on the classic noir gumshoe, with his trials roughly mapping the archetypal journey of the bedraggled private dick beset at all times by missteps and misfortune. Much like Chinatown’s Jake Gittes, Sam loses his car6 and suffers calamitous injury7, but more significantly, Sam serves as a funhouse reflection of the existential state of the noir protagonist, a figure often characterized as a bleak and sardonic womanizing functional alcoholic. They’re qualities that certainly apply to Sam—the key difference being that Sam is devoid of the charisma that obscures and excuses these behaviors in a typical detective. Like one of those “realistic” renderings of a cartoon character that exposes a beloved figure for the grotesque nightmare it would be in real life, Sam is the noir detective made realistically toxic.
If Under the Silver Lake does provide a rich avenue for comparison with its LA noir forebears, it’s in the ways that Mitchell puts his film in conversation with the city’s prior cinematic depictions. In his landmark 2003 feature-length video essay, Los Angeles Plays Itself, film theorist Thom Andersen identifies two different modes of use for a cinematic Los Angeles: the city can be either a character, or a subject. While the city’s specific culture has served as a character in LA stories for a century, Andersen believes it wasn’t until the mass disillusionment of the 1970s that Hollywood attained sufficient self-awareness to view the city’s culture as a potential storytelling subject, one with enough accrued meaning and significance to merit cinematic analysis.
Rather than choosing a lane of either character or subject for his use of Los Angeles, David Robert Mitchell fuses the two modes, characterizing the city as a surreal playground teeming with desperate dreamers—most often women—striving towards recognition and acceptance, while simultaneously analyzing it as a demonic force intent on sacrificing these innocents to the avarice of rich and powerful men.
Andersen identifies another dichotomy within the filmic landscape of Los Angeles, classifying directors who come to LA8 as transplants before taking up the city as a subject as either high-tourist or low-tourist. High-tourist directors, in Andersen’s estimation, paint the city with affection and generosity of spirit, while low-tourist directors tend to depict it at best as anonymously bleak, and at worst as craven and vile.
David Robert Mitchell, born and raised in the Detroit suburbs in the 1970s and transplanted to LA after the 2010 release of his acclaimed microbudget indie debut, The Myth of the American Sleepover, would almost certainly be best slotted into the low-tourist category9. Rather than take aim at the city’s corrupt institutions, however, Under the Silver Lake sets its sights on the surreal cultural geography of Los Angeles at the dawn of the millennium’s second decade. Mitchell paints his LA as an uncanny landscape populated by willfully eccentric young people10 cultivating outlandish personal brands while chasing their bites at the apple of “influencer” status. It’s a world where dreamlike images—in each of her appearances, the character identified as “Actress” (Riki Lindhome) is wearing a different incongruously cartoonish outfit, in one case a dirndl and in another an eroticized nurse’s uniform—are revealed to be routine features of the LA lifestyle; “it’s for a role,” she says, no further explanation required.
It’s this offhand comfort with the bizarre that makes it so difficult, for both Sam and the audience, to make sense of some of the story’s most notable flourishes. When a figure significant to Sarah’s disappearance is perpetually dressed in a cheap pirate’s costume, it’s impossible to discern whether this garb is meaningful—in 21st century Los Angeles, it’s equally plausible that this costume could be a job requirement, a personal branding affectation, or a sign of deviant lunacy11.
This is the culture, one that somehow combines all the most alienating aspects of the uncanny, the surreal, and the absurd12, into which David Robert Mitchell found himself immersed in the summer of 2011, a man in his mid-30s adrift in a city that prizes glamorous youth, at the far edge of an America gasping in the waning days of Obama’s first term and the attendant hope hangover, the end of the recession and the dawn of Occupy Wall Street, the aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death and the earliest rumblings of Donald Trump’s birtherism campaign. As he absorbed all this and more, “there was a feeling…of a shadow rising,” Mitchell would later observe to MUBI Notebook’s Annabel Brady-Brown, “and it’s nightmarish.”
And so, in an addled and supersaturated headspace he has since described as “obsessed…a near crazed state,” he began work on the screenplay that would become Under the Silver Lake. “It was a little intense,” he said later. “Drinking way too much coffee. My wife was like, ‘You’re a little bit crazy right now.’”
This intensity of emotion—not to mention the self-described hypergraphia—is evident in the heightened style of Under the Silver Lake. And as the story unfolds, its observing eye becoming increasingly frenzied, the script seems to develop a sort of emergent self-awareness, as though the story itself possesses an independent consciousness that allows it to warp when convenient or necessary. And nowhere is this narrative agency more evident than in the tendency for tertiary characters to bubble to the surface in order to comment directly and excessively upon the story’s thematic underpinnings, rendering any potential subtext as throbbing neon text.
Most notable among these figures is the character identified as “Bar Buddy” (Topher Grace), who seems to exist for no other purpose than to overexplain the story’s themes and significance. In one appearance, as Sam complains of burnout, Bar Buddy tells him, “Our little monkey brains, they’re not comfortable knowing that they’re all interlinked and routed together now in some kind of all-knowing alien mind-hive, and that shit is a straight-up cesspool for delusion, for fear.” Later, as he watches Sam attempt to codebreak lyrics to a pop song13, Bar Buddy observes of the modern world, “we crave mystery ‘cuz there’s none left.” Where so many artists might leave these notions as subtext, providing an opportunity for the audience to form their own connections and experience the satisfaction of connecting story threads, Under the Silver Lake seems to immunize itself against analysis and so wall itself off from external meddling—if the story analyzes itself in real time, then any prospective commentary will be necessarily redundant14.
This tendency for over-explanation reaches its apotheosis in Sam’s encounter with the character identified as “Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb), an impossibly old, malevolent crone who professes to have written every hit single of the 20th century from “Earth Angel” to “Where Is My Mind?,” and even implies he may have ghostwritten compositions for Johann Sebastian Bach. Serving as a fever dream avatar of all the contemptuous greed that powers the global entertainment complex, Songwriter makes literal all of Sam’s amorphous anxieties, sneering, “Everything that you hoped for, that you dreamed about being a part of, is a fabrication. Your art, your writing, your culture, is the shell of other men’s ambitions.” This last sentence is jeered directly into the camera, and so directly at the viewer.
This story’s hyper-indulgent lack of subtlety is, at least to my mind, one of its most notable charms. But in these flourishes, the film seems to evince a sense of anxiety as to its own integrity. By Scotchgarding itself against commentary through over-obviousness—say, by giving Sam a literal white Rabbit to follow—the film ensures that nobody could accuse it of attempting subtlety, and so any unsubtlety must be excused as a feature rather than a bug. Once again, this feverish story seems to be just as much in crisis as its protagonist, leaving its observing eye as an invisible co-protagonist, one powered by the headspace of a creator overdosing on his cultural moment, probing the Southern California summer of 2011 with the same deranged intensity as Sam himself.
It could be worth noting that I experienced a manic psychosis in the summer of 2011. It could also be worth noting that subsequent to this, I chose a line of work that involves obsessively studying cultural objects, scrutinizing these works in search of meaning and significance, sometimes even creating order where there may be none if it serves my own needs.
Or it could be that this is not significant. But I suspect that it is.
Following a secret solo show by a member of Jesus & the Brides of Dracula15, a performance held in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery16, Sam follows a young performance artist credited as “Balloon Girl” (Grace Van Patten) to the subterranean Crypt Club for a dance party she describes as “Old Music Night.” In a sequence shot with fish-eyed, heart-racing adrenaline, Sam flings his body around with wild abandon as he sings along to the music of his youth, the only partygoer17 who can recall the release of Norman Cook’s “Brimful of Asha” remix, the only one who knows all the words to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
This latter song is one of the few needle-drops conspicuously included in Mitchell’s shooting script, where 11 lines of Michael Stipe’s lyrics are quoted directly, and Sam’s body language is compared explicitly to Stipe’s. And if, as Sam’s friend Allen18 (Jimmi Simpson) has told him moments before his descent into the crypt, “There’s a message in the music,” it seems to me it could be worth considering the meaning and significance of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”
The song’s generally agreed-upon meaning and significance comes from a quote attributed to Stipe attesting that it’s sung from the perspective of “a guy who’s desperately trying to understand what motivates the younger generation, who has gone to great lengths to try and figure them out.” But the song is fraught with pockets of additional code and symbol, a web that’s unusually knotted even for a band whose lyrics often rival “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for density of reference and “Ballad of a Thin Man” for obliquity.
For one thing, the title words are not enigmatic nonsense, but rather a specific reference to an incident eight years prior to the song’s release when a disturbed young man shouted them after attacking news anchor Dan Rather on the street. According to various accounts, this young man believed himself to be a time traveling secret agent whose brain was being implanted with encoded messages from the NBC network. For another, Stipe sings in the second verse that “withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy,” and while the comment resonates with the defensive posture of a depressive and isolationist mind like Sam’s, the phrase originated in Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” a pack of cards that evolved from a prior pack called “The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts,” both of which encourage an approach to problem-solving based on attacking issues from unique and unexpected angles. In the song, the phrase is attributed to an unidentified “Richard,” an allusion to filmmaker Richard Linklater, who spoke the words in his 1990 breakthrough feature Slacker, a film that portrays Gen-X America as a mosaic of paranoids, schizoids, and conspiracy theorists, their synapses fried by the culture of pre-millennial society, a film in which one character, identified as “Has Faith in Groups” (Sarah Harmon), accuses another, identified as “Based on Authoritative Sources” (Robert Pierson), of pulling “in these things from the shit you read…just [pasting] together these bits and pieces…I’m beginning to suspect there’s nothing really in there.”
It could be that none of this is worth noting. I suspect that it is, but I’m also open to the possibility that the specific choice of “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” is significant only for its use in dividing Sam from his fellow revelers, as Mitchell writes in his unusually novelistic screenplay, “by age and the ever shifting tectonic plates of pop culture” but united for a few blissful moments by “the heavily tremoloed chords–using their power to remain unique and alive.”
On the social news aggregator Reddit, there is a community (or subreddit) in which commenters—or redditors—attempt to identify and decode the innumerable riddles they see in Under the Silver Lake. It’s an unusually active and impassioned fandom considering how far under the cultural radar the film has flown thus far, with redditors engaged in a vigorous ongoing investigation into what they perceive to be an interlocking series of onscreen codes and ciphers that may ultimately correspond to mysterious geographic coordinates. Parallel to this overarching investigation, redditors will note and solve tangential codes19 or develop their own hunches, ranging from the inane20 to the profound21. The redditors have a sense of humor about their quest—they’ll laugh at the idea that the contents of an unflushed onscreen toilet might correspond to symbols in the hobo code, a series of hieroglyphs that’s been used since the early 20th century to pass messages between American itinerants—and then they’ll go ahead and try to decode it anyway. It’s worth a try, and with Google never more than a pocket away, they can identify and crack codes at speeds unthinkable even a few decades ago.
In 1966, when literary theorist Kenneth Burke attempted the (somewhat grandiose) task of defining humanity, he opened with an assertion: “Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal.” And though we often think of a symbol as a single, unambiguously cryptic unit—be it a typographic character or a thematically weighted object in a story—virtually every communication we receive in our daily life can be considered a symbol worthy of interpretation. From an ambiguous facial expression to a passive-aggressive note, we are buffeted at all times by signals that require sorting, organizing, and deductive reasoning. In an era of global high-speed Wi-Fi, the 24-hour news cycle, and a perpetual stream of tweets, we are presented with more symbols in an hour than we could comfortably process in a day—“Our world,” as the character identified as “Comic Man” (Patrick Fischler) tells Sam22, “is filled with codes, pacts, user agreements, and subliminal messages.” And in the 21st century, when a simple text message might be responded to with words, a cryptic emoji, or an ironic GIF, mental burnout isn’t just a risk, it’s all but universally accepted as the price of existence.
Where in a pre-internet world, Sam might have been able to deduce the meaning of a crucial clue—the acronym NPM—using the power of reasoning, with Google at his disposal, he can bypass his own hunches and tap straight into a theoretically bottomless pool of knowledge. Yet rather than providing clarity, Google instead buries him in noise with no signal to be found—the reference site Abbreviations.com lists 29 potential meanings for NPM, from Network Power Model to NASDAQ Private Market to National Poetry Month. Nintendo Power magazine is notably not among the results. In outsourcing our problem-solving duties to the churning digital sea, we’ve opened a Pandora’s box, releasing the howling chaos of an unmitigated flow of data and disinformation.
It’s easy to feel skeptical perusing the Under the Silver Lake subreddit—the notion that David Robert Mitchell intentionally encoded layers upon layers of specific and meaningful messages into every level of his film from plot to set design strains credulity nearly to the breaking point. But personally, I absolutely believe there are rich undercurrents of symbol and significance within the film—I just suspect that rather than intricate knots dropped like bread crumbs for the viewer to untangle, the vast majority of those currents are the explosive and surreal articulations of an overwhelmed psyche. If this film represents—and embodies—a mind in crisis, a story generated in a burst of semi-automatic writing, then it would stand to reason that this mind could have snatched connections and images from the subconscious depths with such intuitive swiftness that the film’s symbols could well operate on something closer to dream logic, a concept map with a distinct unifying order but one best interpreted on an emotional rather than an intellectual level. Dreams often feature objects and images worth considering, but chasing down a schematic interpretation (like, say, those provided by the 1986 reference volume The Dreamer’s Dictionary, which dictates that dreaming of a fierce dog is a warning to be wary of untrustworthy acquaintances) is likely to send you barking up the wrong tree.
It’s comforting to imagine that all the idiosyncrasies and contradictions in our favorite art could be solvable, that every answer could be obtained with just the right amount of effort or force. We want the world to operate on a familiar sense of order. It can be so distressing to recognize, and so difficult to accept, that the rhyme and reason to the things that matter to us may actually run on currencies far stranger than anything we can conceive of.
If one thread in the mystery at the heart of Under the Silver Lake is most often cited as a red herring, it must be The Owl’s Kiss, the name given to a nude woman23 who commits nocturnal assassinations wearing the taxidermied face of an owl. Initially a paranoid conjecture made by Comic Man, she will soon appear in the flesh to murder him for unidentified reasons, later briefly menacing Sam at home before vanishing from the story never to be spoken of again, Mitchell’s equivalent of the chauffeur’s unsolvable murder in The Big Sleep. Our only hint of the potential significance of The Owl’s Kiss comes packed within the pages of Comic Man’s conspiracy theory zine, where he writes of his suspicion that “she may be a member of a longstanding American cult with origins in trade and finance.”
Comic Man’s theory is partially derived from what he perceives to be subliminal owl imagery hidden on U.S. currency, but he fails to mention the other prevailing significance of the owl to the real-life cult of power: as the symbol of Bohemian Grove, the mysterious and clandestine society of (male) global power brokers that meets annually in the woods near Sonoma at a location so private it’s omitted from any map of the region. Much like Under the Silver Lake’s billionaire death cult, whose compound is redacted on satellite imagery of Los Angeles, whatever goes on at Bohemian Grove—most famously an extravagant ritual centering on the burning of an effigy before a massive owl statue—is not of the general public’s concern.
One of the few detailed eyewitness reports to emerge from Bohemian Grove comes courtesy of British journalist Jon Ronson, whose book Them: Adventures with Extremists profiles prominent figures united by their belief in, as Ronson puts it in his introduction, “an internationalist Western conspiracy conducted by a tiny, secretive elite, whose ultimate aim is to destroy all opposition, implement a planetary takeover, and establish themselves as a World Government.” Ronson’s book climaxes with a convoluted clandestine mission to Northern California where he manages to sneak into Bohemian Grove in hopes of witnessing what many—including Alex Jones, who accompanies Ronson on his mission24—believe to be demonic cult rituals.
Ronson manages to witness the effigy burned before the owl, which he characterizes—along with the rest of the Bohemian Grove rituals he observes—as an overgrown fraternity pageant enacted by men looking to leave behind their world-shaping responsibilities and indulge in a few days of cathartic jackassery. Alex Jones, on the other hand, sees the rituals as “bizarre Luciferian garbage” enacted by “the people who make the movies our children watch. They’re at the top bringing all that stuff down on us.”
This difference in interpretation can be traced to the fairly significant X-factor that Jon Ronson is not a bellowing conspiracy theorist who seems viciously mentally unstable, and Alex Jones is. But anyone who’s fallen down the digital rabbithole of facts and theories about Bohemian Grove and its role in the planning of events as significant as the Manhattan Project can attest to the semi-illicit charge that comes with envisioning this shadowy coterie meeting in the woods to orchestrate the events that define history. Belief in conspiracies can serve a paradoxical psychological function—even as they provide evidence that we’re powerless, they lend a sense of stability to an unstable universe. Our lives can so often feel chaotic and insignificant, and as you sense yourself tumbling out of control—out of the life you believed you were supposed to have—it’s comforting to point at a mysterious and powerful force manipulating your destiny. You may be no better off, but at least you have a symbol to rail against, and thus remove any obligation to feel responsible for your own lot in life.
The one figure in Under the Silver Lake who most embodies a sense of misplaced blame for his own misfortunes turns his aggressions not against those in power but against the most innocent figures imaginable. Yes, it’s time at last to talk about The Dog Killer.
This culprit of a spree of canine homicides running beneath the surface of the plot—the one classic literary symbol in Under the Silver Lake, the one plot element that exists solely to draw attention towards the story’s themes and meaning, the only ambiguity to go untouched by the story’s anxious over-explainers—is, we learn in Comic Man’s conspiracy zine, most likely acting in tribute to an aspiring silent comedy star of the early 20th century. Faced with the impossibility of achieving his dreams, this would-be Chaplin directed his energy towards a festering jealousy of trained showbiz dogs, displacing all of his disappointments and failures onto these creatures that he believed to have taken the glory that was rightfully his. Finally, after declaring that “No one will ever be happy here until all the dogs are dead,” the failed star took his own life, achieving belated notoriety for inspiring the present-day rampage by the unidentified Dog Killer.
No matter what anyone—or any redditor—might argue, it’s impossible based solely on textual evidence to know the Dog Killer’s identity for sure. There is ample evidence to suggest that Sam is, as many believe, the culprit, whether consciously or in some sort of dissociative fugue. But with the mass of contradictory clues—Sam carries dog biscuits in his pockets for reasons that, along with his past history with and feeling towards dogs, change depending on who’s asking—and total absence of anything resembling a smoking gun, there’s simply not enough evidence to make an armchair conviction. This plot thread is, in the truest sense of the term, a shaggy dog story.
And so The Dog Killer must be read as a symbol for all the entitled and enraged dreamers—and specifically, we might infer, the male ones—who came to Los Angeles with a chip on their shoulder and allowed that chip to rot into debilitation rather than work to reconcile their own shortcomings. It’s a cynical metaphor at the heart of a film that often feels weighted towards the cynical, if not the outright nihilistic25. But it’s this cynicism, at least by the reckoning of Thom Andersen, that lies at the heart of the modern Los Angeles film. “Cynicism has become the dominant myth of our times,” he states towards the end of Los Angeles Plays Itself. And so, he claims, the modern Los Angeles film, giving up the present for lost, turns its attention to the past, telling period tales that allow the opportunity to examine a glamorous time gone by, one that may well never have even existed, and search for the original sin, the moment that Los Angeles, and so America, lost its way.
Under the Silver Lake is a period piece, produced at over a half decade’s remove from the world it depicts, and released into a world that sometimes feels so removed it may as well be another dimension. But unlike his clear forebear, 1974’s Chinatown, which looked almost half a century into the past in search of the moment paradise was lost, David Robert Mitchell wrote his story from within the eye of the storm. Perhaps he felt his feet perfectly straddling the fault line between the last spasms of Edenic hope and the great rising shadows. Perhaps he had the foresight, whether conscious or not, to bottle that feeling, capturing a roiling and screeching epochal frenzy with all the phantasmagoric explosiveness of a lucid nightmare.
“Good intentions are futile.” Or so, Andersen claims, goes the moral of the modern Los Angeles story. “It’s better not to know.” It’s better to remain blind to the forces operating just beyond your grasp, whether they use and abuse you, or, perhaps even worse, regard you with cold indifference. It’s better to be one of those sweaty, beaming, beautiful young faces, dancing and dreaming, happy and oblivious, remaining, at least for tonight, unique and alive.
It’s often a difficult task; few films in recent memory have inspired such visceral and widespread revulsion, and even fewer have indulged themselves in quite this level of gaudy excess on every dimension from a baroque production design that can evoke Fellini one moment and Jodorowsky the next to a runtime of nearly 2 1/2 hours.
Or at least a secret rooftop party by that name.
Mitchell completed the screenplay in 2012, but put it aside as an unfeasible second feature. Following the massive success of his sophomore effort, 2014’s low-budget teen horror flick It Follows, boutique indie distributor A24 acquired Under the Silver Lake in May 2016, five months before the start of principal photography and two years before its premiere at Cannes in 2018, setting a wide release date for one month following the festival. Two weeks before that scheduled date, A24 pushed the release back nearly half a year to December 2018. One month before that rescheduled release, A24 again pushed the release back, this time to April 2019, finally releasing it on VOD and in only a handful of theaters. The distributor has, of course, been cagy on their reasoning, and so whether this was a fiendish conspiracy to sabotage the film or a skittish distributor having no idea what to do with a product that proved more divisive than they initially expected can be left to the theorists.
Comparisons to Paul Thomas Anderson’s own SoCal noir-fantasia, the Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice, were perhaps inevitable given that film’s recency, as well as the comparable plot engine of a vanished object of the protagonist’s affection. On the foundational levels of tone, style, and story, however, the films bear little similarity—if anything, Mitchell’s film could be compared to Pynchon’s frenzied and farcical 1966 postmodern mystery The Crying of Lot 49, but even then, both Pynchon and Mitchell are focused so intently on the specific anxieties of their time and place that any resemblance is largely surface-level.
Well, maybe one, but we’ll get to that.
Though in this case it’s impounded over late payments after being defaced with a cartoon penis.
Though in this case it’s a skunk spray of such intense force that he spends the remainder of the story physically repelling those he encounters.
Andersen, a staunch defender of his city against what he believes to be decades of municipal character assassination by the film industry, abhors this abbreviation, considering it a diminutive denigration invented and sustained by the movies and emblematic of a self-loathing instinct fostered by Hollywood (itself another term, in his view, used to hold the entertainment industry above the majority of workaday citizens—“the rest of us,” he says of the industry’s preferred perspective on the apparently 97% of Angelinos who work outside show business, “simply don’t exist.”)
One factor may potentially complicate this categorization: Andersen believes that a realistic geographical rendering is among the greatest of virtues in a Los Angeles film, and Mitchell’s geographic specificity in the screenplay for Under the Silver Lake verges on the obsessive—where most writers would place Sam at a gas station near Griffith Park, Mitchell specifies that Sam is “in the parking lot of the 76 gas station near Hillhurst and Los Feliz.” This compulsion to pay tribute to LA’s most quotidian features while castigating its overarching qualities is among the most compelling contradictions in Mitchell’s portrait of his adopted city.
Virtually all of them white—Under the Silver Lake features only a handful of characters of color, and almost none of them have particular bearing on the story. Whether this is a pointed choice by Mitchell or a blind spot is unclear, but in either case, the optics are suboptimal.
This detached adoption of outmoded archetypal costumes extends, as well, to the young (white) man Sam encounters smoking a joint in a cemetery while wearing an ostentatious war bonnet, an item that evokes a kitsch reappropriation of passé cultural hallmarks. But rather than evincing an arch affect, the man’s overt casualness seems to suggest a stance so utterly devoid of irony it might go beyond post-irony to post-post-irony, if such an advanced level of aesthetic philosophy is even conceivable by the human mind.
Mitchell is not above the occasional broad satirical jab, such as the reference to a celebrity producer who makes blockbusters based on household cleaning products, or the 12-year-old girl cited as “the first woman to write, produce, direct and sound design her own network sitcom.” While these cartoonish premises might sound like the stuff of Saturday Night Live, they also deftly anchor the story’s absurdist worldview in 2011’s cultural geography, when the third Transformers installment grossed over a billion dollars worldwide and auteurist sitcom Louie captured the TV zeitgeist (the fact that this beloved series was later revealed to be built on the foundation of its creator’s assaults upon and subsequent suppression of women dovetails eerily with Mitchell’s thematic concerns, a particularly painful example of the screenplay’s unconscious prescience in capturing its time and place).
This effort will, naturally, yield the instructions that Sam will use to make contact with The Homeless King and discover the first of the death cult’s subterranean bunkers.
Analyzing the story’s self-analysis, however, remains rich and fertile ground for discussion—or so I hope.
Among the film’s most notable recurring images is that of a trio of sexually alluring women—along with the Brides of Dracula, there’s Sarah’s fondness for the 1953 Technicolor comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, as well as her prominently displayed trio of dolls modeled after the film’s stars, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and Lauren Bacall, and the trio of “Shooting Stars,” starlets who moonlight as escorts, quite literally selling the dream of the jailbait celebrity, who drift through the story as key supporting players. All these early instances, of course, foreshadow the eventual reveal of the three brides each billionaire will be entombed alongside. Notably, one of these trios is identified in the credits by proper name, though these names are never spoken aloud and the three have only a few minutes of combined screen time—Troy, Fannie, and Mae (Zosia Mamet, Annabelle Dexter-Jones, and Laura-Leigh), whose white Rabbit Sam tails, are ultimately revealed as the three brides of Final Man (Don McManus), the billionaire who delivers the climactic info-dump. It seems quite likely worth noting that two of the scant named characters (more on that in a minute) share those names with a prominent mortgage lender, and this significance is already being debated by the diligent redditors systematically decoding the film (more on that in a few minutes).
Later, Sam will black out and awaken the following day beneath the grave of Janet Gaynor, references to whom recur throughout the film while serving no direct plot function. It could be worth noting that while Gaynor attained dizzying fame at dizzying speed in the 1920s, she never intended to seek Hollywood stardom, and was strong-armed into the profession by her stepfather. It could be that this is not significant, but in a film so dense with references to young women being taken advantage of by venal men, I suspect that it is.
In the screenplay, Mitchell identifies Sam’s age as 33. And with the story set specifically in (as Mitchell told MUBI Notebook) “a nightmare version…[of] summer 2011,” this would make Sam’s birth year around 1978.
As I have alluded to, only 8 characters out of the film’s 65 credited roles are identified by proper name—there are Sam and Sarah, billionaire cultist Jefferson Sevence and his daughter Millicent, Troy, Fannie, and Mae, and finally Allen—while the remaining characters, even those with whom Sam shares a close relationship, are identified by titles like “Topless Bird Woman” and “Handsome Man.” The fact that two of the most egregiously unnamed characters are Sam’s two sexual partners—in addition to Sam’s devoted friend-with-benefits “Actress,” there’s “Ex” (Summer Bishil), a model whose watchful gaze from a contact lens billboard silently judges Los Angeles’ iniquity like a modern T.J. Eckleburg (this could be significant, or it could not be worth noting)—has contributed to the film’s accusations of misogyny from some viewers. Mitchell, for his part, does not deny that Sam and his peers have an unhealthy perspective on women—“The character is…struggling with feelings of misogyny,” the director told Vulture’s Lane Brown. “That’s a core element of what this movie is about…for people to imagine that we’re celebrating it is just disappointing.” Mitchell does often compare Sam, both in the screenplay and in interviews, to characters like Travis Bickle and Ethan Edwards, violently unstable avengers who nevertheless operate on a strict personal code as they attempt to protect the purity of innocent young women, though the question of whether this is the observing eye’s perspective on Sam or his own self-image can be a bit fuzzy. (The screenplay also implicitly places Mario, with his eternal quest to rescue a princess from a monster, in the same category as Bickle and Edwards, a suggestion too dense to unpack even within a footnote).
One redditor has noticed that an extra in the opening scene wears a T-shirt bearing the likenesses of various animals, and determined that the names of these animals correspond to the words “Beware the Dog Killer” (more on that in a few minutes).
Another redditor has developed the fan theory that Under the Silver Lake works as a sequel to Scooby Doo in which Sam represents a traumatized Shaggy reeling from Scooby’s death.
Still another redditor has noted that the central pairing of Sam and Sarah corresponds to the Buddhist concept of Saṃsāra, the notion that existence is a cycle of endless transformations and rebirths, a concept resonant not only with the ultimate billionaire death cult but also with Sam’s passionate Nirvana fandom.
In a conversation that takes place beneath a wall adorned with Comic Man’s collection of celebrity death masks, which he deems so significant that he considers starting a family just so he has someone to pass them on to—in addition to exposing the conspiracies of the paved paradise once called Edendale, this man sees his sole worth to be as a steward of the flame of Hollywood’s past glory. As Thom Andersen notes in Los Angeles Plays Itself, “although Los Angeles is a city with no history, nostalgia has always been the dominant note in the city’s image of itself.”
The actress portraying The Owl’s Kiss is not identified in the film’s credits, nor in any official press materials, and while the subreddit has entertained various theories as to which character may secretly double as this eroticized cryptid (“I think the blond girl who is fuking [sic] with Sam is the owl girl,” writes one redditor, presumably referring to Actress), various enigmaticposts on the social media profiles of actress Karen Nitsche suggest she is the true performer.
When Ronson published his book in 2002, Jones’ notoriety was generally limited to the fringes of Austin society. Still, even a decade before InfoWars attained national infamy, Ronson’s use of Jones as a source of hapless comic relief is a notable and unfortunate misstep.
This nihilistic bent is particularly notable in the defiantly ambiguous final scene, in which Sam finally vacates his apartment and watches from afar with detached bemusement as his landlord enters the abandoned space to find a hobo code symbol spray-painted on the wall, Sam’s expression shifting mercurially between bemusement and defiance as his landlord throws what can only be described as a conniption fit. The scene is pointedly open to interpretation, but my personal belief is that Sam is embracing his homeless status, one Mitchell has previously associated with servitude to the billionaire death cult. My personal belief is that Sam now offers himself up to the villainous machinations he’s powerless against, choosing a life of service as a preferable alternative to a life of futile resistance. Of course, it could well be that my personal belief is not significant.