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Clueless: “Under the Silver Lake” and the Return of the Amateur Sleuth

How a new golden age of conspiracy theories set the stage for the new breed of armchair detective.
David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake (2018) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from March 15 - April 13, 2019.
“I feel like somebody’s following me.”
“Yeah, probably. Who’s not being followed nowadays?”
—Sam to Topher, and vice versa, in Under the Silver Lake
According to a recent survey conducted by Cambridge University and UK data firm YouGov, over half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Click around online, and you won’t have to look hard to find one. Deep-state scheming, child actors, fake birth certificates: the daily news  has become a hellish churn of crackpot accusation and counter-accusation, with some unseen hand at work in every new turn of events. Meanwhile, other news stories with the whiff of conspiracy prove to be frighteningly true, tech giants luring us in with the promise of a more “connected” world and selling our secrets on to advertisers and bad-faith political actors. We’re being followed all right, and not just by our phones—but by our televisions, our toasters, our doorbells, and our children’s toys.
In this vexed cultural climate, one man’s conspiracy theorist becomes another’s amateur detective—and into this grayest of areas steps Sam (Andrew Garfield), scruffbag sleuth in David Robert Mitchell’s tweaked-out noir comedy Under the Silver Lake. Sam is the kind of guy who tapes seven straight months’ worth of Wheel of Fortune episodes to discern secret messages encoded in its presenter’s body language, so naturally enough, he’s suspicious when new neighbor and would-be love interest Sarah (Riley Keough) vanishes from her flat just days after moving in. From here, he follows a sinister breadcrumb trail of comic-book conspiracies, late billionaire moguls, and maps on the back of cereal packets in an attempt to track her down.
Sam seems like the type we’ve seen before on screen: affable, eccentric, habitually unemployed; he’s facing eviction from his seedy LA flat after falling behind with the rent. And OK, he also likes to spy on women from his first-floor balcony with a pair of binoculars—but, well, look at that gorgeous mussed-up hair! That sleepy-lidded charm! No wonder he’s so familiar: Sam is the pot-smoking cipher we’ve seen in stoner noirs from The Long Goodbye through to The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice.
Or is he? About twenty minutes into the film a shocking moment transpires. Sam spies a group of kids who’ve defaced his car out on the street. Sneaking up under cover of darkness, he confronts one of the young perps—who can’t be older than twelve—and smacks him square in the face, smashing an egg into the boy’s mouth as he lies bleeding on the tarmac. He lands another punch, aims a kick for good measure, and goes back to his flat to carry on watching 24-hour cable news. What the hell? 
Before we say anything else about Sam, we should first acknowledge what his character owes to a tradition of films featuring people drawn into dark webs of intrigue, from films noirs like The Third Man to giallos (Deep Red) and quasi-giallos (Brian De Palma’s Blow Out),Blue Velvet, Blow-Up, and The Big Lebowski. Many of these films have their roots in noir, swapping cynical private eyes for characters who are rudderless, adrift, searching for a deeper sense of meaning in their lives, which the mysteries they’re attempting to solve seem to offer. Also more often than not, their protagonists are artistic types (Blow-Up, The Third Man) whose attempts to manufacture meaning from chaos end up threatening their sense of self. 
Another thing about amateur sleuths: they tend to be the good guys, even when their actions are presented as problematic. Sam’s binoculars nod to one of the best-known armchair snoops of them all, Rear Window’s Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). In Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, a bored newspaper photographer helps bring a murderer to justice while snooping on his neighbors across the yard from his home. Hitchcock had already given us memorable amateur sleuths in The Lady Vanishes and The Man Who Knew Too Much, but his trick here—much imitated by disciples like Dario Argento and Brian De Palma—was to make him an existential figure, a complex individual whose actions aren’t merely a device to drive the plot forward, but a function of character. 
Drawing us in with point-of-view shots of the action, Hitchcock allows us to see Jeffries’ neighborly concern for what it is: an act of voyeurism. Still, the character’s snooping pays off in the end, giving him a redeeming character arc that rewards his morbid curiosity. Taking Hitchcock’s voyeur-sleuth to new extremes of darkness is Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey (the name can’t be a coincidence) in Blue Velvet. After finding a severed human ear on a lawn near his home, Jeffrey uncovers a seedy criminal underworld that leads him into the arms of an abused woman, and deeper mysteries about the human capacity for cruelty. Speaking to The Stool Pigeon in 2012, the film’s director, David Lynch, summed up the idea of the amateur sleuth-as-artist succinctly: “For some people, the world we see and live in is enough. But once you start wondering about it, it’s just like pulling on a string with no end, almost. It’s just more and more mystery that comes out and it’s such a thrill. I think it’s because some of us are like detectives, always trying to figure out what’s going on.” 
This gets to an essential point about Sam, compulsively poring over the pieces of a puzzle that might not fit. In that sense, he is like another amateur sleuth seen in cinemas this year, Lee Jong-su in Burning. In Lee Chang-dong’s acclaimed South Korean thriller, adapted from a short story by Haruki Murakami, Jong-su (played almost as a blank canvas by Yoo Ah-in) becomes obsessed by the disappearance of a girl, Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo), he’d had a brief sexual encounter with. Eventually, he comes to suspect an acquaintance of the girl’s, jaded super-rich kid Ben (Steven Yeun), in her vanishing—but the mystery refuses to unravel, and the film builds to a rug-pulling climax that makes us question what we know about the characters in the film. 
What is Jong-su really looking for? Hae-mi, in a speech she gives shortly before her disappearance, offers a clue: “Do you know the Bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, Africa? It is said that the Bushmen have two types of hungry people, the little hungry and great hungry. Little hungry people are physically hungry; the great hungry is a person who is hungry for survival. Why do we live? What is the significance of living? People who are always looking for these answers. This kind of person is really hungry. They are called the great hungry.” 
Jung-su, of course, is one of the “great hungry,” and as such the mystery at the film’s heart is no more than a McGuffin, a pretext for Lee to subtly probe at themes like sexual jealousy and class resentment. Like much of the Western world, South Korea faces problems of wealth inequality and class immobility today; for Jong-su, a working-class kid who wanders through life like a ghost, Ben becomes a convenient focal point for his rage (tellingly, Jong-su is a self-described writer who “doesn’t know what to write yet”). Garfield’s Sam, too, is consumed by questions about the wealthy elite. In one of the film’s neatest gags, Sam explains his theory to a girl he’s just slept with that pop culture is loaded with secret messages intended for the one percent. “You don’t ever think that maybe rich people know something that you and I don’t?” he asks, sensing her doubts. She shrugs. “Good restaurants, maybe?”
In an interview with French newspaper Libération from last year, Mitchell shared his thoughts on Sam as emblematic of a wider malaise in society. “Under the Silver Lake tells the story of someone who is looking for answers everywhere, including places where there’s no answer to be found,” he explained. “The fact is he’s not the only one. Today, conspiracy theories are no longer a part of the counterculture on the left or right, they are everywhere, on the internet and beyond. People really believe that they’re about to discover things that don’t exist. Right up until the moment they discover them. Of course, it almost never happens.” 
A recent Guardian report on the “mainstreaming” of conspiracy theories cites two key factors in their rise—ads on social media being weaponized by political actors, and the election of Donald Trump, a “paradigmatic conspiracy theorist” who used Twitter to peddle lies long before he was sworn into office. Under the Silver Lake suggests a third factor, again tied to the media. “There’s an entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes, space aliens,” says Sam’s friend, Topher, puzzling over clues as to Sarah’s disappearance. “[It] used to be 100 years ago any moron could wander into the woods and look behind a rock or some shit and discover some cool new thing. Not anymore. Where’s the mystery that makes everything worthwhile? We crave mystery because there’s none left.” What’s the Internet’s role in all of this? A paradoxical one, maybe, as a superabundant source of information that takes away mystery on the one hand, but supplies new mysteries on the other in the form of conspiracy theories.
Another armchair detective who goes barking up all the wrong trees is Dory, Alia Shawkat’s Brooklyn hipster-turned-sleuth in the TBS black comedy Search Party. Dory shares a few traits in common with Sam and Jong-su: underemployed, fuzzy about her prospects in life, yet possessed of a feeling she’s somehow destined for more, her journey begins when a girl on the peripheries of her friendship group vanishes in mysterious circumstances. Dory, fed up of the shallow narcissism of her friends, sees an opportunity to do something objectively good, but as the show progresses through its two seasons to date (a third has been commissioned) you start to get the feeling that “good” is a lie Dory has been selling herself. 
“At first you think Dory’s the good one,” series co-creator Charles Roberts told NPRin 2016, during the first season’s run. “[T]hen you realize that all of these friends are equally complex and equally grey. And there is no such thing as a good person and a bad person. There’s just choices.” It’s an expert satire, not only on the self-serving aspects of modern Internet culture, but on the amateur sleuth figure in general, which has undergone something of a renaissance in hipster circles thanks to the success of true-crime documentaries like Making a Murderer and The Jinx. (Taking aim at the trope, David Gordon Green took conspicuous pleasure in offing a pair of nosy crime-doc makers in his recent Halloween reboot.) 
Similarly, there is something off about Sam that Mitchell keeps returning to. It’s as if he wants us to be on our guard around him—aside from making him a child-beater and a lech, he also has him share some abhorrent views about homeless people later in the film. Is Mitchell using Sam’s character, like Alan Moore and his caped vigilantes in Watchmen, to question the moral authority of the amateur sleuth figure? And what’s with that smell? “Some people don’t know it about themselves,” Sam is told in the film, by a guy dressed in rags claiming to be the Homeless King, “but you have a bad smell about you.” It’s part of a running gag about skunks, but really he could just as well be talking about the shabbiness of Sam’s soul.
The amateur detectives of films like Rear Window and Blue Velvet were, for all their sins of transgression, the good guys of the story; sensitive artist-types trying to make sense of the world. Now, they just think of themselves as the good ones, in much the same way that so much Internet discourse has become a slanging match between sides convinced of the unimpeachability of their motives. They are bad-faith detectives whose actions echo the “bias confirmation” of social media, working backwards from their own convictions about the world in pursuing their leads. 
Curiously, Mitchell seems to cloud that narrative by giving credence to some of Sam’s pet theories. He ends Under the Silver Lakewith another nod to Rear Window, and a speech given by Jeffries’ girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), who is troubled by his voyeuristic behavior. “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” she complains. “What people ought to do is get outside their house and look in for a change.” Which is exactly what Sam, staring in at his own flat from a neighbor’s balcony, does in the film’s final shot. Is this what redemption looks like for this most slippery of amateur sleuths? For me, it’s the smell that lingers longest.

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