Although it takes a very different form and tone, Under the Silver Lake plays as a spiritual sequel to It Follows, David Robert Mitchell’s previous release. Like It Follows, Under the Silver Lake is fascinated with the idea of what it means to follow another person in the digital age. On the one hand, tracking and trailing sequences were central to classical, analog cinema, allowing the camera to follow characters and events through an expanding urban environment. On the other hand, following has taken on a new significance in the digital age, especially now that social media has become more configured around accruing followers than connecting with friends. Both It Follows and Under the Silver Lake are situated in the elastic zone between these two different conceptions of following, and both films are aware that both forms of following are somewhat incompatible with one another. If we followed people in physical space like we do in digital space it would be unbearably creepy, but if we treated the process of following people in digital space as an aesthetic spectacle – as tracking and trailing sequences so often were treated in classical cinema – then this would make our digital lives seem eerily preprogrammed and orchestrated as well.
Whereas It Follows examines this bind from the perspective of suburban horror, Under the Silver Lake opts for more of an urban detective story, albeit one that often lapses into horror, only to puncture it with an absurd comic register. More specifically, Under the Silver Lake is a Los Angeles detective story, drawing heavily on the conspiracy fiction of the 1970s, and the work of Thomas Pynchon in particular. This period in Los Angeles literature drew heavily upon noir, especially noir’s depiction of Los Angeles as spatially complex, opaque and unknowable except in small moments of epiphany or revelation. However, writers of the 1970s compounded this sense of Los Angeles’ opacity with a broader outlook of conspiracy, driven in part by the rise of globalization, the demise of the counter-culture and the emergence of a more networked and distributed kind of technological experience. The result was a vision of Los Angeles, in both literature and cinema, as the network par excellence, suffused with nodes of meaning that could never be properly organized into a discernible whole, at least not by the individual citizen, or in any one forensic investigation.
In Under the Silver Lake, Mitchell draws heavily upon this vision of Los Angeles, presenting the city as a spatial scheme that is cryptic, conspiratorial and overdetermined in its complexity and significance. Our point of entry to this cityscape is Sam, a slacker played by Andrew Garfield, who becomes fixated with Sarah, played by Riley Keogh, a beautiful young woman who lives in his apartment complex. When Sarah abruptly vanishes, Sam decides to find her, taking him down a rabbit hole that includes a serial killer, a series of mysterious happenings across the city, and finally a death cult “with origins in trade and finance.” Most of his wanderings take him across neighborhoods like Silver Lake and Los Feliz, as well as into the Hollywood Hills, suggesting that this conspiratorial approach to Los Angeles stems in part from an inability, by white residents, to properly process or conceptualise the different ethnic groups and ghettoes that comprise the city. At the same time, Sam’s investigation also reveals an entirely hidden part of Los Angeles – an underground network of caves, tunnels and bunkers that turns out to contain some of the answers to his curiosity.
As a result, Under the Silver Lake doesn’t have a great deal of story. Instead, it plays like a sustained tracking scene from a Los Angeles crime film, with Sam spending most of his time following one suspect, quarry or lead after another. At times, that produces a genuinely suspenseful and immersive crime film, and could conceivably be an excerpt from Chinatown, The Long Goodbye or any other films from the conspiratorial era that Mitchell is drawing upon. Yet the downbeat vibe also cuts against this suspense, as does the more bathetic sense that following people in Los Angeles, and in everyday life, isn’t all that unusual: “Who’s not being followed these days?” As the film proceeds, Sam’s conspiracy starts to feel more like a consolatory fantasy than a viable reality, a way of retaining some control over the cityscape as a subject – white, male, lower middle-class – whose centrality has been increasingly displaced and dispersed by its growing racial diversity and multiplicity.
In other words, Under the Silver Lake is nostalgic for conspiracy in the same way so many recent films are nostalgic for the 70s, longing for the sequence of “crimes, murders and conspiracies within this cursed community” that will provide the city with a stable vantage point for Sam and for the camera. This conspiracy isn’t merely a way of containing the racial diversity of the city, but the medial diversity, since Sam’s outlook is firmly grounded in cinema, and cinematic history. In fact, we learn very little about Sam apart from the fact that he is a movie fan, effectively turning him into a cipher for cinema, and for a cinematic mode of perception, as the film proceeds. As a result, Sam often seems to be channeling and mimicking the cameras of classical Hollywood and New Hollywood as much as acting as an autonomous character in his own right. Following his various leads becomes synonymous with the camera’s ability to follow the warp and weave of the city, while the idea of a great Los Angeles conspiracy starts to feel like one of the last great tropes for the city that permitted it to be glimpsed from the outlook of a single cinematic camera, rather than the messy flux of post-cinematic technologies and devices more typical of the metropolis today.
While Under the Silver Lake may be a conspiracy film, its conspiracies therefore play as period effects, from the perfectly poised portents (“A little late in the summer for fireworks, isn’t it?”) to the Tristero-like symbols that proliferate in a direct homage to Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. As with It Follows, the hardest point to pin down in this conspiratorial spatial scheme is the middle distance – what Jerome Monnet called the mesocosm of Los Angeles, between the microcosm and macrocosm – with Mitchell often lurching between close-ups and long shots without a clearly defined space in between. At first, the road, and the process of driving, anchors the middle distance, but it is quickly destabilized when Sam loses his car, and is forced to traverse Los Angeles on foot. The closest the film comes to a stable middle distance is the surface of Echo Lake Park, in Silverlake, but this surface is also disrupted whenever it becomes too stable. In one of the most spectacular scenes, Sam and one of his friends fly a drone over the surface of the lake at night, but the movement of the drone is too seamless and fluid to resolve the lake into a properly cinematic middle distance. Instead, the two friends feel compelled to fly the drone to a house just beyond the lake, where they use it to watch a woman undress, in a wry twist on the perennial noir trope that Los Angeles can be momentarily mapped through the body of an alluring femme fatale.
This kind of voyeurism abounds throughout the film, imbuing Sam’s investigation with an oneiric and masturbatory quality that also cuts against its suspense and pathos. Early in the film, Sam tells Sarah that his favourite girlie magazine is the first one he ever masturbated to, while his first conversation with her is about whether he was masturbating when he first glimpsed her from his balcony. This gives way to a broader discussion about whether masturbation is normal (“It’s not strange, I mean – doesn’t everybody?”), and then a recurring joke in which Sam’s right hand is perpetually sticky, or covered in some kind of semen surrogate, especially at the most critical moments during his journeys across the city. Rather than simply expanding his knowledge of Los Angeles outwards, Sam’s conspiratorial outlook makes him feel more oneiric and hermetic as the film proceeds, until the search for a conspiracy – and his place in the conspiracy – plays as a way of sheltering himself from the broader world, and shutting off the broader world, especially those racial and medial aspects of the city that don’t conform to his sense of its white cinematic history and legacy.
In that respect, Under the Silver Lake is not unlike La La Land in its prescience that a post-cinematic Los Angeles is also, inevitably, a post-white Los Angeles. Yet whereas Damien Chazelle falls back on pastiche – of both cinema and whiteness – Mitchell keeps his film poised on the precipice between suspense and absurdity, never quite allowing it to occupy either the past or the present. In doing so, he evokes the discomfort of cinema within the Los Angeles present in quite a beautiful, compelling way. Sometimes this involves refusing to allow specific tracking scenes to quite come into their own, as in a terrific sequence in which Sam follows a gang by car, then by foot into Echo Lake Park. In these first two scenes, his following is seamless and elegant, but it grows more awkward when he is forced to take to the lake on a rowboat to keep up with his quarry, and turns ridiculous when a man in a pirate costume runs down to the shore to claim some booty from them. All of the pathos and suspense – all the cinematicity – of the tracking sequence ends with a spectacle that is closer to a meme, or a piece of viral content, suggesting a city that both demands and defies the kinds of cinematic treatment that are bound up with Sam’s quest and search for Sarah.
As the quest deepens, this sense of absurdity intensifies, until the film almost plays as a comedy in which Sam is trying to apply a cinematic lens to a city that has utterly surpassed it. I was often reminded here of the parody neo-noirs that arose in the 80s, from The Naked Gun franchise to Who Framed Roger Rabbit, since Sam’s movements often take on a similar ungainliness – reaching for world-weariness and just missing it – as the protagonists of these films. In one scene, he “hides” behind an inflated ball at a municipal pool while following a lead, while in another he sees a vaguely familiar man on a cereal box and is “convinced this man is the answer to everything I’ve been searching for my whole life.” While Sam’s quest often intersects with a serial killer who is ravaging Los Angeles, the fact that this serial killer only targets certain breeds of dogs again feels like a joke from a parody neo-noir film, offering us just enough of a crime angle for the sendup to be truly ridiculous.
All of these tangled leads and thwarted trails end at the Griffith Observatory. In La La Land, the Observatory effects a seamless and unironic return to the white cinematic past, in which Sebastian shows Mia Rebel Without a Cause for the first time, and the two dance up into the ceiling in a dream homage to James Dean and Sal Mineo. No such return to the white cinematic past occurs in Under the Silver Lake, however, even when Sam rubs James Dean’s head, and then walks under Newton’s statue, as he has been instructed by one of his cryptic contacts. The stage is set for a return to the cinematic past, here conflated with the Newtonian past, but Mitchell refuses to take us out of the racially and medially relativistic present. Instead of the cosmic guide to Los Angeles that he is expecting, Sam is confronted with the “Homeless King,” who takes him on a tour of a whole new underground city, before launching him back, above ground, into what now feels like a totally new metropolis.
One of the key reasons for the conspiratorial sprawl of Los Angeles literature is the lack of subterranean infrastructure, and subterranean metaphors, for understanding the city, both of which make it unique in American cities of a comparable size. As a result, the underground plays two basic roles in Los Angeles film. First, it reminds us of those parts of the city (non-white, non-cinematic) that we don’t normally see on the big screen. Second, it functions as a cipher for the conspiratorial impulse itself, and its yearning to consign precisely those non-white and non-cinematic experiences into even further oblivion. The “underground” of Los Angeles, such as it is, is thus a contested zone in the cognitive mapping of the city, and tends to play a prominent role in films, such as Predator 2, that are acutely attuned to reconfiguring the city from the inside out. In Under the Silver Lake, this contested underground is the final stage upon which this conspiratorial yearning is played out as a nostalgia for a version of the cityscape that no longer exists in the present moment.
This final sequence takes place deep in the Hollywood Hills, where Sam’s final destination is the headquarters of a death cult. While the three leaders of this cult reside in a modest, one-room hut, they command a vast reservoir of underground structures in the city, most of which are accessed from the Hollywood Hills. It is into one of these structures that Sarah has voluntarily moved, where she lives with her new husband in an apartment that is decked out with mid-century modernism, and modelled on interior design as it stood at the height of classical Hollywood. While Sam glimpsed one of these structures during his underground sojourn with the Homeless King, he gets a much better look when the death cult show him CCTV footage of the various apartments under their control, including the one where Sarah is currently living. What Sarah doesn’t know, however, is that the entrance to the apartment has been sealed and concealed, since the death cult demands that their devotees suffocate to death underground, in order to properly “ascend” over the Los Angeles basin afterwards.
From one perspective, this death cult meeting brings Sam’s journey to an end. Not only does it explain Sarah’s disappearance, and the cryptic features he has encountered in his journey across Los Angeles, but it takes place in the one area of Mount Hollywood that has been left blank on Google Maps. In hearing the death cult’s account, Sam thus maps the unmappable kernel of Los Angeles and “solves” the mysteries that have accrued throughout the film. Yet this fails to provide any clear sense of closure, partly because the death cult is simply an intensified version of Sam’s own effort to conspiratorially map the Los Angeles cityscape. Like Sam, the death cult is keen to insist that the era of classical Hollywood is alive and well. Whereas Sam tries to find this era in an “underground,” however, the death cult literally creates an underground city to accommodate it. Like Sam, too, the death cult is invested in achieving a panoramic and totalizing perception of the Los Angeles cityscape. Yet whereas Sam experiments with all the vantage points he can discover within the city, the cult believes that only by sacrificing their bodies to the city in the most concrete way can they hope to ascend above the city, and properly process all its complexities and structures.
In other words, the death cult doesn’t conclude Sam’s journey so much as simply displace it. For a moment, it feels as if he might ask to be sealed up in one of the bunkers himself, but he decides instead to warn Sarah that she is trapped, when the death cult allow him to talk with her through an intercom system. Yet Sarah turns out to be as content with her entrapment as Sam is with his, revealing to him that his form of mapping has also been an attempt to hermetically sequester himself from the city in the name of some totally specious impulse to understand it in its totality. Rather than immerse themselves in the city, Sam and Sarah have both withdrawn further from the city through their respective conspiratorial fantasies, producing an aborted mapping that situates Sam back in his apartment, in the closing scenes, as if nothing has happened. And indeed it hasn’t, since the point of his mapping, and his conspiracy, was simply to reiterate, and cordon off, what he already knew about the city. In that final gesture lies the wry irreverence of Under the Silver Lake, which confronts Sam with his desire to find a cinematic ideogram for Los Angeles, but consistently thwarts it, dissociating Los Angeles from its cinematic heritage to evoke a cityscape that is every bit as unformed, uncanny, and unfamiliar, as the Detroit of It Follows.