Under the Silver Lake: How to Watch It Wrong

Yes, more on this movie. And, yeah, it gets a little grumpy. Sorry.

One of the ways modern movie viewing works is through an odd process. With slight variation, it goes like this:

  1. See the trailer for the movie
  2. Watch the movie
  3. Post on social media about the movie
  4. Look up other people’s social media posts about the movie

Often times, this process supports major franchise films. Movie makers will produce something they want to generate chatter, to sustain word of mouth. Some people put Easter Eggs in their movies to tantalize deeper dissection, and some people go nuts with it. 

Since I’ve already passed points 2 or 3 on the above process, I’m on to step 4, and the results have been… mixed. 

Much as you might expect, a movie like “Under the Silver Lake” produces a multitude of completely valid responses. There’s intrigue, repulsion, bafflement, dismissal… it’s all very personal to the viewer. However, when you dig into Reddit and YouTube world, the content-creation monsters have by and large picked up the wrong signals: they are trying to catalog every clue in a way to explain why the movie works. 

And that’s not what the movie is about. The movie is about why following clues laced throughout pop culture is ultimately futile. 

In a way, I cannot blame people for trying to work out all the clues and “solve” the movie. I’m sure I did a little of this myself (I remember specifically texting a friend about how the number “13” appears in multiple facets through the film, which could be symbolic for “1 man with 3 women”), and the movie is practically begging us to do so. There are many references to other movies and songs and icons and stories that our brains are firing and connecting all throughout the story. 

But I believe that was by design, to drive us crazy by showing us the very thing that drives us crazy.

I came across a few moments like this on YouTube. There, making use of the screenshot-and-circle technique, viewers illustrate all the “things you missed” about “UTSL.” One person illustrated how the an early scene of Andrew Garfield walking through his apartment hall was reminiscent of “The Shining,” where Danny is riding his big wheel through the hotel and sees the twins. Only here, instead of seeing the twins, we see a warning of eviction. And the position of the camera is more aligned with the twins. The YouTuber went on and on like this, and after a while, I had to stop. 

I think what bothers me the most about this is that it’s not how movies are “supposed to be” watched. Sure, this might sound antiquated, and I’m not going to make a whole argument for “on the big screen or nothing!” But I will say that, at a minimum, movies are designed to be shown to you without stopping. Any time you notice something, I mean, great, I guess, but that’s all it is. Noticing something. The movie is not a still frame — it’s literally called a “MOVIE!” It’s supposed to add up and wash over you.

This is not film analysis, nor is it criticism. It is cataloguing. That’s what Film Internet does best: it counts things and puts them into boxes. TheRinger (another source of my irritation) does this as a business practice, constantly running exit poles about new movies, while also developing “Power Rankings” for movies, TV and music. As if they had the stats for these kinds of things like they do for sports. 

I haven’t watched any more of the aforementioned person’s series (he has at least 3 videos about “UTSL”), but I get the impression that they’re all kind of headed down this path, as though if a movie’s worth can be tallied by cataloguing enough textual points. 

My irritation at this phenomenon is not coming from some superior position, where I believe “I’m the only one who gets it, maaaan.” Not at all. It’s more pointing out that A.) I really wish I could talk to more people about this movie, while B.) realizing how much inherent bias plays in to everything we do. By simply using the internet to express himself, the YouTuber I mentioned has fallen into the trap of, basically, counting things in a movie. 

I wonder if he even liked “UTSL.” I wonder if he sees the irony in his actions, obsessively charting the minuscule moments in a movie which is so explicitly condemning the obsessive charting of potentially minuscule moments.

Am I wrong? Is this why such a movie is “good?” Or why it’s “bad?” I know some people who said they were distracted by the references. To me it feels like a filmmaking move to place us even more in Sam’s brain, but I can see why that might put people off. 

I can’t tell…

But I know it’s not based on a points system. As unscientific as it might be, a movie’s success or failure ultimately comes down to your feelings — you either like it, appreciate it, dislike it or don’t. The best film criticism can diagnose how directors, editors and actors elicited those responses from us. An articulation of those feelings.

Again, I could be wrong about this. Wouldn’t be the first time.

On the other hand, I don’t remember a single review where Pauline Kael tallied up anything. 

So… how the hell does THIS relate to writing? In a basic way, it relates because writing is about telling a complete story through joining many disparate ideas. Sure, we may write or read a book one sentence or chapter at a time, but how often have you ever read a chapter of a book you’re enjoying, and then stopped and read it again? Writing certainly lends itself to the Excel-based categorization of modern internet world… but it’s usually best when that stuff doesn’t matter.

And directly to the movie itself, I firmly believe the director and producers knew what they were playing with. In a way, they wanted this reaction from the internet. They wanted people to obsess over pop culture because it would prove their point.

It’s pretty smart.

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