I would like to talk about Under the Silver Lake, the 2018 film whose release was slightly sabotaged by A24. It is a film that feels like it was barely even allowed to exist. Apparently, the film was considered not commercially viable enough to justify a theatrical release. This is the official story, but perhaps it is the paranoid and conspiratorial nature of the plot that restricted the theatrical audience for this particular film, since this awesome and unwieldy film does do things and show things that feel risky in our alienating and domineering world of how culture is created and how meaning is interpreted. I was reminded of what researcher Michael Hoffman calls “twilight language” by how in tune the film felt with alternative modes of perception.

The film has a slightly long runtime of 2 hours and 20 minutes. And it has an overly complicated plot. The longer runtime in this case gives the director room to breathe and to tell a more interesting story. I suppose it is a film noir, or a neo-noir; I don’t even know about genre. Genre is something peculiar, since the prevailing mood or the tone is often more significant in the grand scheme of things. But I suppose it does loosely follow the genre conventions of a film noir.

I thought that David Robert Mitchell’s previous film It Follows was far more interesting than many other recent “arthouse horror” films, and I felt it received some unfair criticism regarding the plot’s internal logic. It was a perfectly pleasant film. It was a good film. And Under the Silver Lake is an entirely different beast.

Andrew Garfield is an actor I never cared for prior to this film. In 2016, I thought Martin Scorsese’s Silence and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge would provide him interesting work, but somehow he disappointed in both of those films, despite their very capable maestro directors. In Under the Silver Lake, Andrew Garfield plays a hipster everyman. He is an unemployed resident of Los Angeles. He sees Riley Keough wearing a white bikini dancing next to the swimming pool. He sees many things in his daily life that do not make sense. He sees skunks. He sees mysteries. He sees mysteries hidden inside of other mysteries. Mysteries, hidden messages, and coded signals are all part of the language of this film, and it was great fun watching it unfold.

Andrew Garfield here plays a decadent aesthete, a cross between a contemporary Des Esseintes of Huysmans’ A Rebours and a character from a Raymond Chandler novel. His comfy apartment is adorned with posters of classic films. After a brief and pleasant meeting with Riley Keough, his life spirals into a paranoid odyssey after trying to find out why she suddenly disappeared. The film is filled with hidden messages, mysteries, patterns, synchronicities, conspiracies, paranoia, and ennui. I don’t feel like recounting many of the various details regarding the plot, but many of them resonated with me on a mercurial level, on a level that was a bit liminal, where there were hidden messages hiding just beneath the surface.

I won’t bother recanting all of the details, but during an underground dance party that takes place inside a cave, once R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” came on, I felt like I was watching something real. The title of the song is, of course, a paraphrased quote from an MKUltra sleeper agent who attacked Dan Rather in 1986; not sure what the full story was on that, but many instances in the film such as that set off alarms in my brain, as if the film was secretly speaking to me in a way that only I understood. I suppose this is the genius of the film, and there are several scenes that act as a kind of meta-commentary on paranoia and conspiracy culture that really resonated and gave it a heightened quality. This is because culture no longer feels like something organic that is creatively built up over generations, but instead feels like a sociological experiment in behavioral modification, like the CIA’s old brainwashing techniques done on a massive scale. There are several scenes dealing with the idea of secret hidden messages in pop culture and how pop culture exists not to entertain, but to steer or to guide certain modes of perception in a way that benefits and amuses a small wealthy elite group of people.

As Andrew Garfield’s friend says while playing the original Super Mario Bros, “An entire generation of men obsessed with video games, secret codes, space aliens. It used to be 100 years ago, you know any moron could wander in the woods and look behind a rock or some shit and discover some cool new thing. Where’s the mystery? We crave mystery because there’s none left.” I appreciate the sentiment, and the ambiguity of both coaxing on the sense of conspiratorial paranoia while also providing commentary on the subject.

I think that many men today will see a bit of themselves in Andrew Garfield’s character in this; his obsessive paranoia, his fixation with the occult side of pop culture, his paranoid awareness and his seemingly directionless detective work. Somehow, it all fits together. And any time I see Patrick Fischler in a movie, he always seems like a catalyst for stranger things to happen. I certainly think of his unforgettable scene in Mulholland Drive, along with various other things he has appeared in, and he certainly has a strange presence here.

The standout scene in the film is, of course, the Songwriter scene. A very elderly man in a mansion claims to have written every popular hit song for the last several decades. This particular moment in the film felt like what James Shelby Downard referred to as “the revelation of the method.” Downard used that phrase in relation to his research and investigation into JFK’s assassination, but it applies to a much broader cultural context of split realities and parallel realities, where roughly half the population believes what they are told, yet another half has more dynamic and troubling views. This has of course persisted over many decades now and has manifested itself in a multitude of different ways. And I was surprised to see a scene like that appear in a movie, since it’s almost breaking the fourth wall and speaking directly to the socially engineered nature of our sick and degraded culture. Under the Silver Lake offers a glimpse at the social engineers and how this twisted world of culture operates. Since I have a very paranoid and conspiratorial view of reality, I appreciated the film’s paranoia and unconventional narrative. I recommend this film.