Whereas the Dude is a wholly passive protagonist, thrown begrudgingly into the chaos of conspiracy by the force of pure coincidence and designs of other, more motivated actors, Under the Silver Lake’s protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) actively creates every aspect of the mystery that engulfs him.
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A Man for His Time and Place
A quarter of a century has passed since the release of the Coens’ understated classic The Big Lebowski (1998), a film that occupies a rarified place in the pantheon of cult fanaticism. It boasts its own theology, “Dudeism,” administered by an official governing institution, “The Church of the Latter Day Dude,” whose ordained ministers are authorised to perform marriage ceremonies in most American states. For adherents of the Dudeist religion, the annual “Day of the Dude,” its high-holy day, carries a pseudo-spiritual significance comparable only to that of “Bloomsday,” on which day Joyce’s most pious acolytes have been known to declaim his seminal 700-page tome in its entirety.
Yet despite its enduring legacy, Lebowski (TBL) shrewdly acknowledges from the outset the confluence of contingent historical and cultural factors which give life to the Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) character. To quote Sam Elliott’s rich narration:
Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.
Indeed, the relegation of the once ubiquitous trope of the “’90s slacker,” epitomised by the Dude and common to the works of Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, et al., is perhaps symptomatic of America’s waning self-confidence. Declining material conditions, particularly post-global financial crisis, and a heightened focus on inequality in political discourse, have rendered the prototypical lazy, charismatic protagonist who succeeds despite himself implausible if not distasteful. Instead, one notes Hollywood’s increasing proclivity to spotlight marginalised communities in its stories, formerly the sole domain of independent and foreign cinema. Shih-Ching Tsou and Sean Baker’s little-known Take Out (2004), a stirring, realistic portrayal of a hardworking undocumented Chinese immigrant tenuously employed as a takeaway delivery man, feels far more contemporary than the mainstream “fast-food slacker” comedies of its time, such as Smith’s Clerks II (2006) or Rob McKittrick’s atrocious Waiting (2005).
However, a thoroughly modern transformation of the ironic “slacker sleuth” is found in David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake (USL) (2018), a film that shares much of its DNA with Lebowski. Both are subversive, postmodern noirs whose detached and maladroit detectives navigate incongruent, inconsequential plots, occasionally brushing shoulders with LA’s artistic and social elite. Incidentally, both were significant box-office flops, released in the immediate aftermath of their director’s hitherto most successful films: Fargo (1996), the recipient of seven Academy Award nominations and winner of two; and It Follows (2014), a barnstorming commercial success, lauded as one of the best horror films of its time.
Whereas the Dude is a wholly passive protagonist, thrown begrudgingly into the chaos of conspiracy by the force of pure coincidence and designs of other, more motivated actors, Under the Silver Lake’s protagonist Sam (Andrew Garfield) actively creates every aspect of the mystery that engulfs him. Sam’s ability to construct reality eerily resonates with modern audiences, in an age obsessed with conspiracy and adrift in a sea of information. Conversely the Dude, an eminently more charming and likable character, feels increasingly like a relic of a nostalgic, far gone age.
The Self-Creating Detective
That Sam is the prime mover in the construction of his reality is subtly hinted early on, when Riki Lindhome’s character (named in the credits as “Actress”) comments on the wretched odour in Sam’s apartment, which Sam somewhat coyly, unconvincingly, blames on skunks. Later, Sam appears slightly befuddled when he actually spots, and is later sprayed by, a passing skunk. Less plausible again is a particularly jarring scene in which Sam bloodily assaults two adolescents whom he catches vandalising cars. This episode is pure wish fulfillment, a bizarre, violent manifestation of Sam’s frustration that is quickly glossed over without consequence. Similarly, the film’s portrayal of women, which has been perhaps fairly decried as sexist, can only be understood as the reification of a 33-year-old male loser’s sexual fantasies. Sam instantly, deeply connects with his gorgeous new neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough), who evidently finds his voyeurism not only relatable but downright charming. Their intimate first night together is even complemented by fireworks adorning the night sky, which Sam conspicuously notes are “unusual this late in the summer” and “might be left-overs.”
While Under the Silver Lake offers an incisive commentary on information overload in the digital age, Mitchell masterfully avoids cliche by rarely depicting computers on-screen. Instead, the clues in Sam’s mystery – symbols scrawled on a wall, numbers flashing on a distant scoreboard, the pattern of icing on a biscuit, ads in print classifieds, even Vanna White’s rhythmic blinking on an episode of Wheel of Fortune – recall Oedipa’s obsession with the muted post horn symbol, or Stencil’s fixation on the eponymous letter V. The “evidence” Sam adducts from comic books, magazines, and records is vital not because it corresponds with any external truth, but because it comports with his idiosyncratic self-image.
Fecklessness and Nihilism
Bunny Lebowski: Uli doesn’t care about anything. He’s a Nihilist.
The Dude: Ah, that must be exhausting.
While the Dude and Sam ostensibly share a mutual fecklessness, the films’ contrasting explorations of nihilism reveal key distinctions in the characters’ personalities. The Dude’s cool passivity and inimitable casualness are so admired, indeed mythologised, by the narrator that they take on an almost philosophical significance. Simple hedonistic pleasures – namely weed, bowling, and trademark White Russians – prove effective antidotes to the angst and monotony of American life, though the specter of nihilism constantly looms.
A clash of hedonism and nihilism occurs during a scene in which the Dude, smoking weed in a luxurious candlelit bathtub, is set upon by a gang of thugs called “the Nihilists.” The film seems to imply the Dude’s lazy hedonism is sufficient to stave off, if not entirely transcend, nihilism, as the gang is consistently made to look foolish through its members’ ludicrous “European” accents, their ferocious pet marmot, and their absurd obsession with amputating the Dude’s “johnson.” Yet despite this comedic portrayal, the threat of nihilism is abiding (so to speak), eventually claiming the life of lovable halfwit Donny (Steve Buscemi).
By contrast, Sam is rendered feckless by the overwhelming proliferation of information and “mild paranoia” of the digital age. Sam’s torpor is more reminiscent of a fear described by David Foster Wallace, of a modern form of entertainment so captivating as to be debilitating.
Under the Silver Lake proffers two possible solutions of its own to the nihilist dilemma, art and religion. In constructing his reality, Sam constantly draws on elements of popular culture that he seeks to assimilate into his conspiracy theory. This process of ironic redescription is symbolised by Sam’s treasured poster of Kurt Cobain, ironically signed by Kurt’s daughter Frances. Yet the futility of art as a cure for nihilism is brutally laid bare in two noteworthy scenes. In the first, Sam visits the home of a fellow comic book fanatic whose living room wall is decorated with so-called “life masks,” sterile resin castings of celebrities’ faces from Abraham Lincoln to Johnny Depp. Gazing on his uncanny, almost gruesome trophies, the comic book fan (Patrick Fischler) utters, “I really need to get a family. . . ,” prompting audiences to assume that love and human solidarity are about to be suggested as a tonic for creeping nihilism, before continuing “so I have somebody to leave these to. . . .” The transience and meaninglessness of cultural artifacts are similarly explored in Alfonso Cuaron’s excellent dystopia Children of Men (2006), during a scene in which protagonist Theo (Clive Owen) visits a private collection of priceless art. As Fischer (2009) notes:
Theo asks the question, “how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it?” The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism: “I try not to think about it.”1
This same theme is reinforced conclusively when Sam’s obsession with music is brutally dismantled by the callous, nihilistic “Songwriter” (Jeremy Bobb). In contrast, the Dude has a far more casual relationship with art, represented by his dalliance with Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore). Despite being comically out of place in the world of fine art, hilariously illustrated through his interplay with Knox Harrington (David Thewlis), the pair are nonetheless able to find pleasure in their fleeting but admittedly very sweet entanglement.
Meanwhile, Sam’s yearning for the sublime ultimately leads him to discover a clandestine, gimcrack religion, in which powerful men entomb themselves in underground bunkers with beautiful young concubines in the belief that their souls might “ascend.” The vacuousness and utter cruelty of this crackpot theology represents yet another triumph of nihilism.
Ironically, Sam’s only moment of bliss comes from temporarily adopting something approximating the Dude’s free-spirited, hedonistic ethos. In the film’s most enjoyable and memorable scene, the mysterious, enchanting “Balloon Girl” (Grace Van Patten) explains: “There’s nothing to solve, you know. It’s silly wasting your energy on something that doesn’t matter. We have this tiny little window where we can have fun, fuck, be free. . . .”
In a strange cavelike club, Sam dances freely to the delightfully nostalgic “What’s the Frequency Kenneth” by R.E.M., a quintessential ‘90s band, alongside his beautiful companion, as the camera sways and moves energetically with them. This magical, vibrant moment offers sincere, gratifying respite from the nihilism that otherwise pervades the film.
The Evolution of the “Slacker Sleuth”
While The Big Lebowski is undoubtedly a rare cult classic, its appeal mostly lies in its nostalgic value, as a witty and engaging pastiche of 1940s noir, 1970s aesthetics, and crucially, the ultimate 1990s slacker. Under the Silver Lake, on the other hand is far colder, more inscrutable, and less immediately satisfying, yet its distinctly modern take on the slacker sleuth feels incredibly relevant, and distressingly resonant, in the age of information and conspiracy.
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All images are screenshots from the films.
- Fischer, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Zero Books, UK, 2009. [↩]