Sex, Obsession, and Class in “Under the Silver Lake” and “Burning”


If you’re going to make a postmodern neo-noir sex-conspiracy wannabe-mindfuck set in Los Angeles, it helps to have some personality, or at least a sense of style. With Under the Silver Lake, David Robert Mitchell (It Follows) seeks to play in the sandbox of Paul Thomas Anderson, David Lynch, and Brian De Palma (and maybe even Lebowski-era Coen brothers). Sadly, he doesn’t measure up. One of only two American titles in Cannes’s main competition, Silver Lake doesn’t appear to be particularly well-liked by audiences here, though a number of critics have made a case for it as unfairly maligned, a shaggy-dog epic of significant vision. I can’t. Mitchell has interesting ideas, and his actors seem to be having fun, but that’s not enough when the film itself lacks atmosphere, or tension, or emotional engagement.

What it does have is Andrew Garfield doing his patented brand of mopey torment, and that’s always a good thing. He plays Sam, an L.A. layabout who falls for the beautiful blonde (Riley Keough) in his apartment complex, then becomes obsessed with finding her when she moves out. There follows a tedious but busy journey through an elaborate underworld of dancers, groupies, heiresses, singers, artists, and cultists, with seeming detours into mythical naked owl-faced sex assassins, serial dog killers, independent comics, hobo signs, and dead celebrities.

I’m still amazed that, with all this nuttiness going on, the film so often is flat. (It’s also approximately 312 hours long, though the program notes assure me the running time is 2 hours and 19 minutes.) It’s hard to keep an audience invested in something so episodic and overloaded (and long) without giving them characters or situations to care about. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously — but the longer it goes on, the more it seems to want us to take it seriously. All too often, Under the Silver Lake feels like a cinematic lark that accidentally turned into a suicide pact.

But like I said, there are ideas here. The film and the world around Sam is awash in female nudity: Among other things, he still keeps his favorite old copy of Playboy, one that he found as a kid in his dad’s secret stash. His torment over lost loves, his obsessive need to find the downstairs neighbor he barely knew, all feed into the echo chamber of sanctioned, prepackaged lust that movies and songs and shows and magazines have sold us for generations. (That theme, of course, offers a perfect excuse for Mitchell to put a ton of topless shots in his movie; he’s doing it ironically, you see!) And the film does get, especially in one late scene, at the peculiar feeling that everything we’re sold, be it deemed authentic and underground or glossy and pop, ultimately comes from the same corroded spiritual place. The class chasms of the modern American metropolis, as well as the culture industry, shine through vividly at a couple of points as well. Some of my L.A. friends who admire the movie assure me that it’s hit some truth in its depiction of this part of the city and the oddballs that inhabit it. Maybe I’d feel similarly about a film like this set in Brooklyn. Or maybe I’d just want to claw my own eyes out.

An entirely more successful look at obsession, class, and romantic torment can be found in Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Maybe it says more about my own mind-set of late than anything else, but I spent much of this movie, based loosely on Haruki Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” (itself inspired by the William Faulkner story of the same name), thinking that the tale was eventually going to turn apocalyptic. Trump blares on TV sets, the North Korean border is often in view, ominous flocks of birds keep blasting through the background, and the slow, rolling tension among the characters feels like it’s headed toward an outsize release. And an apocalypse of sorts does come — but not at all in the manner that I expected.

Burning opens with a meet-cute (or rather, re-meet-cute) between sturdy, shy day laborer Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) and lovely, lively Haemi (Jun Jong-seo), who grew up in the same small town but haven’t seen each other in years. He wins a watch in a street raffle she’s overseeing; she notes that it’s a ladies’ watch, and suggests that he get himself a girlfriend so he can give it to her. Before long, they’re holding hands and making love, and he’s agreeing to cat-sit in her absurdly tiny apartment while she goes off on a trip to Africa. Does her cat Boil (note the name) even exist? Peeling and eating an imaginary orange in front of Jongsu, Haemi speaks playfully of believing in things hard enough that you can make them real. We start to wonder how much of this make-believe extends to her life as well.

When Haemi returns from her trip to Africa with hunky, wealthy playboy Ben (Steven Yeun) in tow, Jongsu is devastated — though he doesn’t exactly show it; he looks out at the world with tired, bewildered eyes, his responses frustratingly muted, and Yoo Ah-in’s performance is a heartbreaking marvel of lovesick strain. Ben appears to be everything Jongsu is not, and can do everything Jongsu cannot. He says he’s never shed a tear, and that for him there is no difference between “play” and “work”; Jongsu, meanwhile, has to do manual labor as he struggles to become a writer. While Jongsu’s impoverished livestock farmer father is being tried for attacking a public official (the result of a volatile temper that runs in the family, which gives some shape to Jongsu’s own emotional submersion), Ben brags that he likes to burn other people’s empty greenhouses for sport, with no consequences. He could be a tech-bro, a finance-bro, a real estate–bro, or an inheritance-bro, but he is certainly a man of the moment — a handsome, charming devil with a seize-the-day ethos, and a casual desire to shape the world the way he sees fit.

Lee Chang-dong’s dexterity with the telling minutiae of human interactions ensures that Burning makes for an emotionally gripping film. I’m not sure he sticks the landing, however: The finale, while it doesn’t actually resolve anything, felt to me more convenient than convincing. But maybe that’s because I had too much invested in these characters; not unlike Taxi Driver, Burning pulls us into the inner world of a relatable central character, then pulls the rug out from under us.

The notion of imagination powering the world and how that fits into the creative life runs through Burning. Faulkner is referenced directly, but so is The Great Gatsby. Jongsu wants to be a writer, but it’s the others around him, particularly Haemi, who seem to have the imagination, the offhand creative force that can reconceive reality. This is not, however, a movie about becoming a writer, or an artist. Instead, it’s a melancholy look at how we imagine ourselves in the world, and all the ways that class, family, and desire can come to complicate that.


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