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Californoir: Close-Up on “Under the Silver Lake”

In David Robert Mitchell’s sunshine noir, a millennial slacker gets embroiled in a labyrinthine web of conspiracies and cinephilia.
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.
Under the Silver Lake
I first saw Under the Silver Lake at its late-night Cannes Film Festival premiere, thinking that would be the logical time for it: sight unseen, the third feature from David Robert Mitchell's radiated the sexy, angular strangeness of a midnight movie in the making. Strange it is, though in a louche, breezy way; it's the stuff of inebriated daydreams rather than outright nightmares. It's as much a midday trip as it is a midnight one: as I emerged from the inappropriately tuxedoed premiere for this rumpled, T-shirted detective odyssey, the film's hazy, zonked afterglow was in a separate dimension from the crisp, inky atmosphere of the Côte d'Azur after dark.  
Suddenly, the sky outside the Cannes Palais looked wrong: all deep-navy velvet where Mitchell explicitly conjures the eerie day-for-night sensation that Los Angeles somehow manages whenever the sun turns in: to this sporadic visitor, it has always seemed a city of overexposed sunshine and sodium-yellow streetlight, with only a few gradations in between. Under the Silver Lake nails these small atmospheric specifics even as its storytelling goes grandly and quite deliberately haywire. I was reminded, improbably enough, of Damien Chazelle's open-armed, far more strait-laced crowd-pleaser La La Land (2016). Both are films that many would immediately describe as “very L.A.,” whether they're jaded Los Angelenos themselves or neon-struck outsiders.
Others might call Mitchell's film, like Chazelle's, a Los Angeles film for tourists, though the longer we drift in its warm, unhurried world, the more it seems that everyone in the city is a tourist themselves. The film's uncanny parade of perfectly contoured, closeup-ready starlets, plus the gaggle of self-styled geeks who dolefully trail them, don't belong to this city any more than a moth belongs to a lightbulb: their hungry not-belonging just seems the natural order of things. This is what has always made the dubiously named City of Angels an ideal setting for film noir, with its hard, unwelcoming shell and star-making raison d'être. All but its most famous, lacquered inhabitants have no sensible reason to be there, and a desperate compulsion to prove otherwise. And while other seamy cinematic capitals let ne'er-do-wells melt into their crowded shadows, the Californian sun is a cruel, constantly taunting spotlight.    
Thus does Under the Silver Lake fall casually into the deceptively perky-sounding “sunshine noir” bracket, in which unseemly mysteries are unraveled by broad, bleached daylight. There's precious little chiaroscuro in Mike Gioulakis' hot, oil-pastel cinematography, which finds citrusy pops of color even in the film's dingiest nighttime action. It's a broad church of thriller, the sunshine noir, and Mitchell eagerly runs the width of it, showing off strands of inherited L.A. DNA—from sundry Raymond Chandlers (of course) to played-straight B-movies like Sidney Lumet's The Morning After (1986) to labyrinthine Hollywood nightmares like David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001)—like a cinephile's stamp collection. 
One subgenre gets a more rigorous workout than the rest, however, in this exhaustively appliquéd exercise in referencing. The slacker noir was arguably minted, and certainly perfected, by Robert Altman and star Elliott Gould's glorious scuzzification of Chandler's hitherto hardboiled Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye (1973). Both radical and horizontally laid-back, laying waste to Bogart's clenched, sharp-cornered authority on the character with simultaneous it's-all-good respect for the source, it was the film that emphatically proved a detective could be as much of a shaggy dog as his case.  
Without it, we wouldn't have the loopier stoner tail-chasing of the Coens brothers' The Big Lebowski (1998) and Paul Thomas Anderson's Thomas Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice (2014)—two pretzel-twisted Californian mysteries in which the protagonist's semi-constant insobriety provides an alibi for the addled nature of his investigation. You wouldn't catch Humphrey Bogart admitting, or submitting, to confusion in The Big Sleep (1946), even as that film's plot tangles famously mount to the point of near-nonsense: the stoner detective, on the other hand, leads with his bewilderment, counting on the kindness and cooperation of strangers to pull him out of it.   
Sam, the shambling twenty-something hero of Under the Silver Lake, presumably has most of the aforementioned films in his fussed-over VHS collection. Yes, VHS in the present day: made in the director's own image, albeit in the scruffy-dreamy shape of Andrew Garfield, Sam is a pop culture magpie, nostalgic for times and places he's never known. There's some of Marlowe in him, and some of the Dude, remixed for a much-maligned millennial generation that, thanks to the fragmentary nature of the Internet, can scrutinize formative movie scraps for memes and messages.
Sam likes his weed, but he's too self-aware and analytical to be a stoner detective in the traditional sense; he's not haplessly plunged into a mystery, but pursues and complicates one with his own obsessive-compulsive code-cracking. Consider him an even nerdier cousin to another young contemporary wearer of Bogie's trench coat, refashioned with jeans and Converse: Joseph Gordon-Levitt's San Clemente high school gumshoe Brendan Frye in Brick, whose earnest dedication to the task at hand was reflected in the wholly straight-faced homage practiced by Rian Johnson's 2006 film. Under the Silver Lake bends the rules and fashions of its chosen genre(s) more cheekily than Brick did, but both films are strikingly free of the cynicism that old-model film noir practically ran on. Shorn of Bogart's (or even Gould's) offhand cool and capabilities, or even the Dude's mildly ruffled zen, the millennial sleuth is forced to actively care about his case, even as it crumbles into the inexplicable. 
Sam has time to care, of course, because it's not at all clear what he's doing in L.A. to begin with. Jobless and in no apparent hurry to address that situation, he throws away his days in a grubby, drastically rent-overdue Silver Lake apartment, jerking off, neurotically poring over pop and comic-book ephemera, and spying on his neighbors—add Hitchcock to the long shopping list of references that the film wears on its sleeve.
His leafy, Peeping Tom-friendly apartment complex bears a certain resemblance to Marlowe's lofty pad in Altman's film; there's no missing cat here, though the area is papered with lost-dog flyers, as a serial pooch-killer supposedly roams the streets. (Absurd, intriguing subplots pass through Mitchell's script with an airy wave.) In both apartments, neighboring women are a recurring, diaphanous distraction; Sam is finally spurred into action—or at least non-masturbatory movement—when his enigmatic, Marilyn-flirty crush-next-door Sarah (Riley Keough) unaccountably disappears overnight, leaving behind only a convenient puzzle-box of jumbled personal effects for him ponder as he embarks on an amateur investigation. 
Needless to say, as is par for the course for the cinematic slacker detective, his search not only leads nowhere: it leads to a kaleidoscopic proliferation of nowheres. Just as Inherent Vice's weed-whacked hero Doc Sportello is led into a wild goose chase by the torch he carries for a vanishing woman, Sarah's disappearance opens up larger mysteries and conspiracies for the addled Sam—to the point where she seems to trickle away from his consciousness too. In Under the Silver Lake, potential femmes fatales turn out to be MacGuffins, its bumbling male hero never quite getting close enough (or cool enough) to catch them. There are shades here of Martin Scorsese's virtuosic late-night (and distinctly non-L.A.) runaround After Hours (1985), which went so far as to tease its stoner-noir credentials with a Cheech & Chong cameo, but never let its milquetoast hero all the way into its smoky world of dark deeds and sharp women.
Sam fancies himself more of a player, but more often than not comes off as a man-child way out of his depth, outpaced even by his own movie's playfulness. For Under the Silver Lake is first and foremost a work of gamesmanship, with Mitchell gradually pulling the rug out from under his hero, shifting the rules and stakes mid-investigation. We're not talking merely about the episodic, shape-shifting story here, but the director's own objects of homage. What begins as an admittedly catholic sampling of assorted noir tropes mutates into surreal cross-genre crazy-quilting of the Southland Tales (2006) variety, simultaneously ramping up the most extreme plotting traditions of the stoner, slacker and sunshine schools. The film never submerges itself in full Lynchian dream logic, but more than once, Mitchell seeks to outdo Lynch's dumpster-monster reveal in Mulholland Dr. for sheer, fantastical urban grotesquerie—symptoms of spiraling cinemania.
The signs are planted early that Under the Silver Lake is knowingly going to boil over. Visual name-checks for The Amazing Spider-Man (does even Garfield remember he was in that?) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes point to fiction worlds barely even adjacent to the neo-neo-noir realm that the film so enticingly builds at the beginning. Of course a hot mess like Sam—the would-be hipster millennial who can't even afford avocado toast, whose crummy life amounts to a grab-bag of favorite cultural scraps from times less desolate than his—isn't going to stick to the script, especially when he has an obsessive tendency to read meaning into every image, sign, or dead squirrel that enters his dazed field of vision. And so Mitchell's film follows his lead, sampling and scrambling Hollywood traditions with gay abandon, cruising as far from its initial inspirations as a fair wind will take it.
Still, for all its subversions, Under the Silver Lake perhaps most faithfully follows a long tradition of shaggy-dog storytelling—circuitously drawing viewers away from any firm conclusions just as Sam's own investigation finally leads him up his own idle, well-toned ass. Read into that what you will about a directionless, overstimulated band of young American masculinity—the neo-slacker, if you will—or just take the film as the dizzily circling lark it ostensibly is, a Californoir that goes from sunbaked to simply baked with sauntering ease. Either way, after two excellent films in which he neatly honored, personalized and tenderized one Hollywood genre at a time—the coming-of-age drama in The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010), the teen horror in It Follows (2014)—Under the Silver Lake is Mitchell's bold declaration that not only can he make any movie he wants, he can make several of them at the same time. “Our world is filled with codes, subliminal messages from Silver Lake to the Hollywood Hills,” Sam is told at one point in the film; Mitchell likewise invites us to scan the breadth of Tinseltown, low and high, in order to unlock his latest.
Mac
I don't understand. How can you, as an admitted "sporadic visitor," think you understand the first thing about Los Angeles? I lived in Chicago for one year and I would never pretend for even a moment that I "understand" the city or that I would be able to tell from a movie made by another tourist (as Mitchell is to Los Angeles) whether the themselves "got" the city. What is it with you people that you think you get Los Angeles, or think another shoddy, 2nd hand representation of it is in any way accurate or true to those who were born and raised there? It's irritating. Mitchell's movie isn't about Los Angeles; it's about the movies about Los Angeles that Mitchell has seen, and to my mind, misread in a typical, smarmy, smug, grad school-ish way. Under the Silver Lake is a movie made by someone who knows Los Angeles through the dinners he's been bought by agents and studio heads, and the actresses he's met through the casting process, and that's it. Los Angeles is more than that, though, and I look forward to the day when the next hot shit director makes a movie that communicates that, and not another Lynch-noir pastiche.
Mac
Oh, and by the way, there are 13 million people who live in Los Angeles, and most of us aren't tourists, despite what you tourists want to believe.
@Mubi- thank you for bringing this film to the UK! Went to see it at the PCC w Q&A!

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