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story.lead_photo.caption Sam (Andrew Garfield) is an aimless 33-year-old Los Angeleno who uncovers a secret world while searching for a missing neighbor, in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake.

It ends the way it must, in front of a piano ...

If you think about it, many of the original pop-culture conspiracy and rumor theories began with music and musicians: from the secret back-looped demonic messages bands like Zeppelin supposedly added to their tracks; to the strange coincidence of the deaths of Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Cobain all coming at 27; to Klaatu actually being the Beatles (minus Paul, of course, who had obviously died years ago) in disguise.

It is entirely appropriate, then, that David Robert Mitchell's convoluted grind of a pseudo-thriller, Under the Silver Lake, should climax with our protagonist, the beleaguered, manic Sam (Andrew Garfield), having spent most of the picture following the obscure bread crumbs laid out by a reclusive, song-writing illuminati (Jeremy Bob), finds him at last, sitting at his piano in his empty mansion. There, crowing in perverse glee, he monologues to Sam about his part in all of our childhoods, while playing a wide medley of pop hits -- everything from "Earth Angel" to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," (a particularly painful revelation for Sam, a huge Cobain fan) -- all of which he claims to have written.

It's the culmination of a long, arduous, and often nonsensical quest Sam began shortly after the disappearance of a beautiful young woman, Sarah (Riley Keough), he had just met one evening at his L.A. apartment complex. Following a line of clues ranging from old hobo symbols and maps on cereal boxes, to hidden, coded messages in song lyrics, Sam eventually comes to find the grandmaster pianist at his walled-off estate, but only after an inordinate amount of time spent raking through the detritus of the everyday lives around him, combing everything for the signs and clues few other people seem to notice or care about.

To create a movie about the hopeless futility of conspiracy groupthink, Mitchell has made a modern horror movie of the all-too real variety. His previous film, the powerfully allegorical It Follows, created a different sort of anxiety for the audience, forced to frantically scan the crowds behind the main characters to see if an unstoppable, malevolent spirit was coming toward them. Here, he deftly places that sort of paranoia onto his protagonist, a slightly disaffected and emotionally unstable young man, fecklessly living in L.A. with no particular job and under threat of eviction for which he seems to care not a whit. Sitting out on his veranda, facing the courtyard pool, he spends his mornings smoking, and watching his neighbors through a pair of binoculars, hoping to see something, anything, that could leave him feeling both less alone, and more in control of his empty existence.

Premiering with some fanfare at Cannes in May of last year, Mitchell's film was produced by A24, the premiere indie studio whose impressive back catalog includes such luminous fare as Moonlight, Lady Bird and The Witch. In many ways, it feels very much like a suitable part of their oeuvre, with a young visionary director making a personal, nontraditional sort of film, crafted somewhere between Hitchcock and Lynch, with a musical score that sounds pulled from a '50s-era thriller. Yet, after a less-than-stellar reaction in France, the studio kept changing their minds about how to release it.

Like every other indie distributor, A24 has to move cautiously with their titles: When an audience isn't automatically primed for a new film's release -- that is, the film represents new and original content as opposed to yet another sip from the sequel geyser Hollywood so consistently relies upon -- it's up to the marketing department to craft the film's branding such that the trailers, commercials, and the other ephemera that make up the push for recognition all convey a compelling reason why an audience would want to make the effort. Going in, A24 seemingly had several things working in its favor, including a recognizable star (Garfield), an exciting young director (Mitchell), and, for a film steeped in mystery and symbolic portent, a means to cut a gripping trailer out of the material.

So why did Under the Silver Lake languish on the shelf for more than a year, with its release date changing from June 2018, to December, and now after a three-day limited release, going straight to video on demand? Its current Rotten Tomatoes rating stands at 53 percent (55 percent audience), which is pretty close to an even split, but I suspect the film's trend of lagging reviews and A24's wavering belief stems, in part, from the complexity of a film knowingly counterprogramming against its own genre language.

There are a great many ways a film can tank with audiences, but one of the more surefire methods is to have a film purport to be one thing, but actually be a sobering dissection of that very thing, tricking filmgoers, as it were, into watching a favored genre deconstructed before their eyes.

The most infamous example of this syndrome is John McTiernan's Last Action Hero, released in 1993, at the height of Arnold Schwarzengger's box-office powers. In it, he plays a "fictitious" action hero who, through the help of a magic ticket, meets his "real life" biggest fan, and through the kid's ministrations becomes self-aware of the construction of the genre into which he's been confined. It was meant to be funny and exciting, a new way to appreciate the usual bang-and-boom of Arnold's films, but instead, it became one of his biggest flops, earning a piddly $50 million domestic, on a budget of nearly twice that.

And you can always ask Paul Verhoeven about what it's like to produce such genre-stretching pictures, from the side-eye he earned for Starship Troopers, to the colossal bust that was Showgirls (both of which, now considered in some circles to be worthy cinematic rebels), traditional fans of these genres expect a certain kind of payoff and woe betide a film that doesn't offer the purported sweet release of its ilk.

True, a similar formula worked far better for Wes Craven's Scream franchise, a friendly deconstruction of the '80s slasher movies, but the original, at least, managed to encompass both the arch, comedic (if loving) commentary on the genre, while also incorporating enough actual scares to give the audience what they had thought they came for in the first place. If you can somehow straddle both worlds -- without making the audience feel idiotic to have fallen for these time-honored tricks -- you have a chance to make it work (i.e. Isn't It Romantic?), if the film comes on too condescendingly, as too much of a knowing wink, or rips it apart out of spite and malice, it quickly irks and alienates its audience, who are being made to feel ridiculous for watching it at all.

For Under the Silver Lake, Mitchell has made a film specifically calling out to conspiracy theorists, and showing them the error of their ways in the process. We aren't meant to exactly root for Sam, a skeeze who proves in the opening scene -- lying through his teeth to his mother on the phone, while also disaffectedly checking out his neighbors -- that his eventual quest for the fate of Sarah is never exactly reliable (when he does eventually find her, the conversation they have is remarkably awkward, befitting two people who barely know each other).

He is clever enough to decipher some of the film's many clues and symbols, but since the purity of his purpose is never authenticated, even his victories ring hollow. The film further antagonizes conspiracists by supposedly giving them the ultimate validation of their efforts in the form of the nameless songwriter, who sits at his piano and laughs at Sam's anguish at learning so many classic works of musical pop-culture all came from the same source, a man not working from artistic inspiration, or reacting to his unique set of life circumstances, but a talented cynic, making ends meet ("There is no rebellion," he cackles, "just me earning a paycheck!")

Mitchell fairly stuffs the film with portents, symbols, and runes, some real, some imagined. Squirrels mysteriously fall dead at Sam's feet, a parrot in his courtyard keeps calling out something he can't decipher, a dog killer stalks the neighborhood, and graffiti strewn about the area calls out to him. Films are always encoded with symbolic meaning, utilizing visual language to instill emotion and establish significance for the audience (think of Spielberg's girl with the red coat in Schindler's List, or James Dean's red windbreaker in Rebel Without a Cause), Mitchell's film gives us so many options, almost everything can be read symbolically, which perfectly captures the paranoia his character feels, and the pointlessness of trying to make sense of it at all.

In that sense, A24's struggle to release the film, and its subsequent banishment to VOD is almost too perfect of an outcome, a meta-style triumph from the marketing department: It becomes the film "They" never wanted you to see in the first place. Or at least that's what they can hope for.

By the time Sam has made his discoveries, and played out his quest, he's as empty a vessel as ever. The film ends with him on the veranda of the apartment diagonally across the way from his old place, having just romantically engaged the older woman living there for no particular reason, watching his former landlord seethe at seeing the state of the apartment from which he has finally been evicted. Having successfully gone through the looking glass, he has managed to move about 30 feet away from his old view of the same small courtyard as before. It's a different perspective, in a sense, but one only slightly removed from where he was when we first found him, and most certainly no better off for it.

MovieStyle on 05/03/2019

Print Headline: Looking beneath Under the Silver Lake

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