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Thread: UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (David Robert Mitchell 2018)

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    UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (David Robert Mitchell 2018)


    Eccentric master David Robert Mitchell's brilliant depiction of goofy obsession

    What happened to David Robert Mitchell's Under the Silver Lake? After its debut at May 2018's Cannes Festival, A24 (who have a reputation for nabbing cool films) slated it for a June 2018 release date, then they pushed that to December. I kept waiting. It sounded desultory and overly cultish, but I love noirs (this one got called a "hipster" one) and I like Andrew Garfield, who's the lead. But then A24 announced an April, 2019 release - and they've dumped it onto VOD, except for select screenings in NYC and LA, SlashFilm explains.

    It came out much earlier in France, August 8 of last year, and the AlloCiné press rating, 3.9, shows that French critics just loved it. (They're cinephiles; that's one of the big reasons: it's a cultish, highly referential movie.) US reviews have lined up at the other end of the reaction spectrum reflected in the absolutely lousy Metascore of 59%.

    That (the 59%) is totally undeserved. It's a beautiful movie, rich in details. At Cannes, where it premiered in Competition, though it wasn't a hit, it still was sixth from the bottom in a field of 21 on the final Screen Daily Jury Grid, which is really not bad at all. It's Cannes Competition, for God's sake.

    At this point, Under the Silver Lake has been out for a while now, and often enough reviewed so that I can't bring anything new to the table. (I wasn't in New York or Los Angeles, and was waiting in vain for it to come out in northern California cinemas, which, despite trailers, it wasn't.) What I will offer here are some of the things people have said that were interesting.

    To start with, an old standby (no longer hired to do his great coverage of Cannes and Toronto), Mike D'Angelo for AVClub, who loves puzzle pictures (he's a big fan of Shane Carruth's cult time-travel indie Primer), gave it an A. But before Mike, A.A. Dowd, AVClub's man at Cannes now, "split the difference," as Mike puts it, with a B. Dowd says some true things. He says this movie is "less successful than its predecessor" because Mitchell is "taking a big swing" with this third feature, trying something "not just new but also more unconventional, ambitious, and even potentially off-putting." In the off-putting area comes Sam, the protagonist played by Andrew Garfield. He's not particularly appealing and certainly not admirable. He's a purposeless slacker, a bit of a nut case, and he does some really violent things. Garfield's usual puppy-dog likeability doesn't go over, though he plays with it at times.

    As Dowd says, Mitchell, transferred here from his native Michigan to L.A.,"adopts the basic shape of a shaggy L.A. noir," (he cites The Long Goodbye or Inherent Vice; another movie often cited, and referenced, is David Lynch's Mulholland Drive). But this is far out of the classic neo-noirs exemplified by Polanski's masterpiece, Chinatown, or John Dahl's great late Eighties-early-Nineties trilogy, Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction. And he "blurs the edges" of that structure with some "vaguely unsettling surrealism."

    As Dowd states the premise, Sam spots his "new bombshell neighbor," Sarah (Riley Keough) in the courtyard, spends some time with her and her roommates. Sam and Sarah agree to meet up, maybe hook up, tomorrow. But when tomorrow comes, Sarah is gone, and the apartment has been stripped. This sends the already highly suggestible Sam on (as Dowd puts it) "a roundabout, obsessive amateur investigation" that involves "subliminal messages, hidden codes, a missing movie producer, underground tunnels, a string of canine slayings, and a fabled, moth-masked assassin" which lets the director "briefly play again" with the "goosebump-provoking" power of an "encroaching, spectral-like threat."

    Dowd's riight about a weakness: at times Under the Silver Lake " feels a little random in its plotting." And its two-hour, nineteen-minute run-time doesn't help it seem neatly structured. Garfield’s "boho makeshift sleuth," Dowd points out, "remains an uncomfortably unheroic hero, prone to lecherous spying on his neighbors with binoculars and unnerving fits of rage, as when he beats the shit out of a couple preteen kids egging cars in his neighborhood." That last incident is particularly shocking.

    Down's AV Cub colleague Mike D'Angelo, in his review, titled "Under The Silver Lake is the perfect demented detective yarn for our paranoid age," dives right into the coding. He points out that even before the first shots proper, in the first ten seconds, there appear drawings of "a unicorn, a tiger, a snake, and a lion" that "seem inexplicable, even in hindsight." But then he figures out (entering clearly into Sam's demented POV in the film) that the initial letters of these animals' names are U,T,S,L - "under the silver lake"! That's a sign of how eminently footnote-able and analyzable this movie is, and its crazy mindset. This movie is a puzzle-palace and a mine of pop-cultural references.

    D'Angelo has had the advantage of not being at Cannes to see the film, as Dowd was, and forced to write about it within hours. He could replay it at home and study it. (So the slighting of the film by A24 is not wholly inappropriate.) Thus he comments that there are "many additional clues and hints" that are "visible in the background of various shots" subsequently, often " enciphered, requiring significant effort to decode." Then the "vaguely related conspiracies" Sam discovers in "stumbling" around L.A. are are so "stupid" they make "the very notion of searching for hidden meaning" seem utterly "inane." This, he thinks, is what makes this such a "hilariously demented spin on L.A. noir."

    But D'Angelo acknowledges both that what Mitchell has done here is a leap forward and that it's dangerous. His first two features didn't stray far from their genre templates of coming-of-ager and horror flick, he points out, while this is both wildly ambitious and all over the place. It's likely to seem desultory, while it's really complex and highly wrought. It's the kind of movie viewers and critics may not get, and D'Angelo refers early in his review to Southland Tales and notes that Richard Kelly has only managed to make one film in the thirteen years since that ambitious debacle.

    There is so much here, D'Angelo doesn't go deeply into the movie's pop-cultural references, but he makes clear how the complexity is enhanced by the way the surreal menace is so often undercut but the "sheer absurdity of what Sam discovers," including as it does "a courier who calls himself The Homeless King and underground tunnels that lead inside a convenience store’s refrigerator."

    This is a movie that absolutely cries out to be rewatched, that yet many will balk at even watching once. I was initially disappointed by it myself, even though I was impressed by its audacity, its bright, beautiful visuals (the first few shots are fresh and gorgeous, looking through a glass window with a graffiti message scrawled across it into a coffee shop with babes in it). And even one as unmusical - cinematically - as I could appreciate the nice use of a retro score. Among many connections, that score may evoke Hitchcock, since Sam's role parallels that of James Stewart in Rear Window. When you think about it, with his drawl and soulful look, Andrew Garfield isn't a bad contemporary stand-in for James Stewart. Garfield also does goofy well, but sexily. He has to be well-put-together enough to be convincing (as he is here) graphically fucking young, attractive women, and constantly attracting others. Andy's present in every frame and visible from a wealth of angles, including, repeatedly, butt-naked, though Andy-butt shots are handily outnumbered by bare-breasted babe shots.

    Sam has a nice apartment on a Real Window-style courtyard with swimming pool. He ogles women out there with binoculars, not disabled like Jimmy Stewart, just idle. He pretends (to his mom, who calls cooing about Janet Gaynor, and to anyone who asks) that he has a job, but he doesn't. And he isn't looking, even though his flashy retro car gets repossessed, and he's threatened with eviction in days for non-payment of rent. As D'Angelo points out, Sam has been obsessed with meaningless "signs" before, "logging every eye movement that Vanna White has made on Wheel Of Fortune," convinced that they must have meaning.

    The journey is the destination, and so may be perfectly right that this film ends with Sam still on a balcony of his apartment complex courtyard, looking sun tanned and pleased and stoned, staring happily into space.

    Under the Silver Lake, 141 mins., debuted at Cannes May 2018, and a dozen other festivals are listed on IMDb. The big US one was AFI. Nov. 2018. Theatrically released in the US only in NYC and LA Apr.19, 2019, now on VOD. Watched on Amazon Prime May Memorial Day Weekend, 2019. Also available on YouTube, Google Play or Vudu.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 05-29-2019 at 12:58 AM.


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