under the silver lakeIf, as Orwell observed, each person gets the face that they deserve at age fifty, then could we say that in 2019 we get the films that we deserve? In this era of distraction it makes sense to pile on the noise with all the thudding, booming, and tremendous concussions that constitute every product (and make no mistake, they are products) released by Marvel Studios at the rate of three or four films a year, the costs of which can equal the GDP of Yemen—if we include the marketing. So am I supposed to be impressed to learn that Avengers: Endgame earned 1.2 billion dollars at the box office in one weekend? Why should I care? Unless the profits were to be funneled into the building of suitable homes for all the immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees that President (cue the retching sounds) Trump is gleefully threatening to send to Sanctuary Cities, then you might as well be sharing that bit of news with a pumpkin.

Mega-altruism! Imagine that! Talk about superheroes doing actual super-good in the world! Fat chance. The blue-chip armies of the night have decamped from their stock tickers and digitized screens and have planted their flags in the multiplexes all across the globe. Buy low, sell high! But they aren’t talking about the movies, mi gente. What they’re buying and selling are your souls. Because, you see, the less you have to think while you’re ensconced in your plush seat—a raft of nachos spread across your lap, bucket of popcorn strapped to your chest, and a soda tall enough to the sate the thirst of a titanosaur looming from your palm—the more money the corporations rake in. The blizzard of data and computer noise that virtually assaults us every day puts us in the same pickle as the fretting Lisa Simpson when she exclaimed, “I’m losing my perspicacity!”

Thankfully, all is not lost, for a host of indie cinemas have cropped up in New York, catering to film noir and more experimental fare, and there are still plenty of holdouts from the heyday of cinema paradisos, such as Angelika Film Center and Film Forum.  We can duck away from the killing noise and immerse ourselves in entertainments where people actually speak to each other using conjunctions and interjections, as opposed to communicating through the hurling of hammers or the summoning of storms.

This is not to say that every independent film is a work of high art with superbly written dialogue and moving dramatic action. Take the gorgeously titled Under the Silver Lake (2019), a paranoia-steeped neo-noir written and directed by David Robert Mitchell (It Follows, 2014). If ever there was an early candidate for the worst film of the year, then this is it. Running at an astounding two hours and twenty minutes, which is as long as Methuselah’s toenails, this is a work that swings for the fences—only to find the bat completely missing the ball and bonking against the director’s skull.

There is no other way to explain how such a punch-drunk vision was given leave to weave across our eyeballs. I was lured by the colorful trailer of the film (plaudits go to the masterful lighting by cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who had recently shot Us (2019) for director Jordan Peele), which struck me as the kind of hardboiled tale we need in these murky times (and, a sucker for the genre, I was hoping for a worthy diversion). What I got instead was a film for the attention-challenged, where one scene does not quite connect to the next, and the head-scratching became so prevalent that after the second hour I could barely see because of the blood running into my eyes.

Under the Silver Lake stars Andrew Garfield, who plays the thirty-three-year-old Sam, generally a mop of hair with a barely sentient gaze who is on the verge of being evicted from his garden apartment. Sam, willfully unemployed, proudly voyeuristic (he often spies on his female neighbors through binoculars), aiming low just so he could get high, takes on the accidental role of private dick when a young woman he plays stoned-footsie with one evening mysteriously vanishes from her apartment—or so we are led to believe. The shabby detective is led astray in his pursuit concerning the truth of her disappearance as he navigates through upscale parties in the aeries of Los Angeles, and in subterranean dens of iniquity where dull-looking Angelinos bounce around to R.E.M.’s “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” There he unravels a terrible secret involving a creepy billionaire cult that I do not want to reveal in case you wish to waste nearly two hours and a half of your life watching this hot mess. The conclusion of the film—delivered by a guru-like figure billed as Final Man (Don McManus) while in the lotus position— was so colossally dumb that the part of my brain whose job it is to protect my cells from rotting quickly lowered its membrane, screening me from harm, and preventing me from striving to make too much sense out of what was clearly nonsense.

That’s the ostensible plot of the film, but it’s easy to forget amid all the characters who shamble in and out of our purview, such as the conspiracy-theorist comics writer played by Patrick Fischler (his zine gives us the film’s title), who believes that a mysterious pattern heretofore hidden from the common run of humanity could be found in a child’s treasure map stowed away in an old cereal box; a dog killer who leaves corpses and is never quite resolved as a plot device or character; the parrot-loving topless woman of an uncertain late age, who dances about her flower-pot porch like the leaping bubbly bouncy young Wicca-girls in Robert Altman’s shaggy-dog masterpiece The Long Goodbye; the scene-stealing Jimmie Simpson who, though still hilarious to watch, is not given much to do as Sam’s eccentric yet plugged-in friend (though he does seem hot-wired to act everyone else out of frame); a bar buddy played by koan-spouting Topher Grace, bearded like John Goodman in The Big Lebowski, but without the wounded childlike sweetness exuded by his Walter Sobchak, which endeared legions to this character; a trio of prostitutes who pretend to be Hollywood starlets, much like the ladies who work for the escort service Fleur-de-Lis in L.A. Confidential (1997); and a Goth band that conflates Jesus with the vampire mythology.

References to noir and mystery films abound. There’s Hitchcock’s tombstone in the cemetery! Look at the book Sam’s reading, The Code Breakers, the very same volume that Jake Gyllenhaal pored over so obsessively in Zodiac (2007)! Sam lives near a reservoir, where a billionaire heiress is murdered during a late-night skinny-dip—and doesn’t Chinatown (1974) have a reservoir at the center of its tricky plot? But unlike Quentin Tarantino, who is the master of cinematic appropriation, all of these hidden eggs and red herrings and clues and winks and nods amount to no more than pins on your father’s MapQuest marking his favorite restaurants. This is filmmaking that could be equated to the relief one feels in the unblocking of a colon; director Mitchell unwittingly makes of pop culture poop culture as he lets rip his own personal accumulation of media lore.

To be fair the first hour ambled along pleasantly enough, like the initial buzz one gets from particularly high-grade marijuana after the first few puffs; but then the paranoiac haze sets in when you take three pulls too many, and the scenery shifts about like frightened jellyfish, and you’re left wondering what to make of it all. This is because Mitchell sought to squeeze way too many ideas out of what should have remained a far more simple exercise in style, much like the way we try to ooze out the last bit of toothpaste that stubbornly resides at the tail of the tube. Put as much pressure as you like, you still may not have enough minty cream to satisfy the brush.

How are we to take Sam’s character when he beats the living shit out of vandalizing children, one of whom scratches a phallus onto his car hood? (Get it? he’s a dick) And what do we make of the strange critique of the homeless population, who, according to Sam, exist along the periphery of society, “eating the good food that we throw away,” and are essentially pariahs that he despises—lines that do not seem to belong in the film, let alone the mouth of any decent human being? And what’s up with that naked woman in the owl mask, who slinks her way out of a kitchen-sink cabinet, as bendy as a doll with wire joints?

I can’t really say. I do know that I was wishing for the surer hand of a Paul Thomas Anderson, who created a gem to be vaulted away in the annals of stoner cinema when he directed Inherent Vice (2014), based on the wonderfully loopy novel by Thomas Pynchon. In this film, also based in Los Angeles, we have a similar exploration of a paranoid atmosphere (it is the tail end of the sixties, after all), and a befuddled P.I. matching himself up against outsized corruption. But there is a deeper level of coherence, and visual inventiveness–I’m thinking of the eye-pop lettering of the opening credits, stamped slantwise in neon Drescher Grotesk, and cued by the bass-and-drum heavy “Vitamin C” by Can, which is of a piece with the vibrant Gordita Beach night–that compels the viewer’s attention. Even the supporting characters, such as the police informant played by Owen Wilson, whose dialogue is so drug-addled they require subtitles, all serve to further unify the theme. Just take the time to marvel at one hypnotic scene early in the film, in which the perpetually stoned snooper, Doc Sportello (played by one of our greatest living actors, Joaquin Phoenix), strides across a dusty parking lot toward a massage parlor, twanging druggy music accompanying his cloud-walk as the tracking camera tilts up at him from hip level, the blue sky domed by a fluttering of red pennants and the sunlight crowning Doc’s frump of hair; he pauses on the first blue step and turns to survey the desert landscape, the trailer in which the massage parlor is housed captured with a wide lens, and Doc beautifully framed in front of the beaded entrance with its vivid blue door, a vintage sign for Chick Planet Massage lit up with colored bulbs, and a slant sign propped on the ground that one would find at a chicken and ribs shack, “Stop Here Good Eatin”: the scene is reminiscent of an indelible Polaroid snapped by William Eggleston in some dismal town in the forgotten outlands of the west, a composition to be savored. Now that is cinema.

Edwin Rivera is the Editor of The Match Factory and a Writing Instructor at the School of Visual Arts. He is a playwright, fiction writer, poet, and essayist. His first play, In the Palace of the Planet King, will be produced at the Wild Project theatre on May 9th, 2019, as part of the Downtown Urban Arts Festival.