UNDER THE SILVER LAKE (2019, David Robert Mitchell)
An intoxicating oxymoron foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, this is both a hilarious satire and a dark, rotten gaze into an existential void; it’s both a loving ode to cinema’s glorious past and a rebuke to the nerds who obsess over the details of those movies (and pop songs alike). It’s tender yet violent, superficially shocking yet profoundly intelligent, and manages to be an all-out gas to watch — sparkling entertainment that is increasingly rare among like-minded indie auteurs so desperate for relevance they forget how to dazzle.
Central to the success of this high-wire act is Garfield’s layered performance: physically comic, faintly sinister, oblivious, rude, relatable, and pathetic all at once. He’s always communicating to the audience even when his character takes no action, like a Camusian antihero whose inner monologue is made visual by Mitchell’s critical gaze. And the tapestry over which Garfield lingers is modern-day Los Angeles, a city memorialized in dozens of the hard-boiled noirs this movie tips its hat to, yet reminding us this is Hollywood itself — a place where hipsters dine on tabletop gravestones of former movie stars, and failed actors turn tricks to pay the bills. Driving-and-following sequences are shot and cut (and scored) with direct fidelity to Hitchcock, and the gimmick is that if you catch the reference you’re the butt of the joke. Garfield is also the anti-Tom Cruise in a daylight EYES WIDE SHUT, having dangerous near-sexual encounters with every woman he meets, but rather than wearing a tuxedo and flashing a medical badge, he’s wearing pajamas to a party and slurping milk from inside a corner market fridge.
If Mitchell really wanted to make the point that ROOM 237-style conspiracy theorists are insane losers, then it doesn’t really make sense to have Garfield’s pursuits yield results — that said, there’s some question over just how reliable his experiences are; every loose end that isn’t tied up (the mask-wearing naked woman who climbs out of his cupboard, the songwriter incident that has no consequences, the pirate who’s never explained) is something that Garfield saw or heard about throughout his quest and could just be dreaming of later on. And whether these things happen or they don’t, it’s still true that he’s an aimless young man searching for a pattern in a meaningless void of a world — surrounded by a populace obsessed with pop culture, paranoid over privacy and security, burdened by financial concerns, and largely focused on work. The less things make sense in this wild march towards a reckoning, the more they ring true.
By the way — I just barely resisted bumping this up to a 9 thanks to two of the best tracks off R.E.M.’s Monster hitting the soundtrack at significant times. And one of them results in Mitchell’s cheekiest Easter egg: when Garfield impulsively dances to “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” it’s hard not to think of the story of its title, which brings me to quote this lede from the New York Times circa 1997:
Over the course of a decade, it evolved from an incomprehensible utterance during a quizzical crime to the possible measure of a news anchor's unraveling to a kernel of kitschy folklore, memorialized as the title of a popular hit by the rock band R.E.M.
''Kenneth, what is the frequency?'' became more than just the question that Dan Rather, the CBS news anchor, said he was asked during an attack in 1986 that some detractors unfairly dismissed as apocryphal. It became a nonsensical oddity and an unsolved mystery: Who said it, and why, and what ever happened to him?
And sorry, Jeremy Bobb, I won’t be persuaded that Michael Stipe didn’t write that one himself.