ScreeningNotes’s review published on Letterboxd:
"Do you ever feel like you fucked up somewhere a long time ago, and you're living the wrong life? Like a bad version of the life you're supposed to have?"
Sam is a fucking loser.
He feels like he fucked up somewhere long ago and is now living the Black Mirror version of what his life was supposed to be. He constantly feels inadequate, which makes sense, because, you know, he's broke and about to be evicted, but the way he enunciates his dissatisfaction is telling. He doesn't think he just fucked up recently, failing to pay for his car or keep up with rent or whatever. He thought he was going to be "someone that people cared about, maybe do something important." His dissatisfaction is existential.
Topher Grace says that everyone feels that way. He calls it "Narcissism and Entitlement 101," but psychoanalysis calls this the constitutive lack, the primordial loss we all experience upon learning language, entering the symbolic order, and having our desire structurally deferred. It's essentially the feeling that something vague and unknowable is wrong with either yourself or the world; it's the feeling that's most commonly at the root of anxiety and depression. Point is, it's something we all experience.
We are all fucking losers.
So what do we do about the fact that something's not quite right? We search for meaning and purpose to explain the not-quite-right-ness of the world. This is the essence of psychoanalytic fantasy, and it's what's at the very heart of Under the Silver Lake: fantasy and the search for meaning. We try to find that thing that we've lost, the primordial object of desire that would fill our constitutive lack. Sam does this by searching for hidden meanings and subliminal messages in pop culture. He analyzes Vanna White's eye movements and uses code-breaking techniques on song lyrics. That's his fantasy. As he explains:
"Why do we just assume that all this infrastructure and entertainment and open information that is beaming all over the place all the time into every single home on the planet is exactly what we're told it is? Maybe there are people out there who are more important than us, more powerful and wealthier than us, and are communicating things and seeing things in the world that are meant for only them and not for us. I think it's fucking ridiculous to assume that media has only one purpose. Right?"
And as Patrick Fischler confirms:
"Our world is filled with codes, pacts, user agreements, subliminal messages... Words and symbols hidden in print advertising, sexual innuendo connected with corporations. Ideologies you assume you adopted through free will but are actually a result of hidden messages."
So, yeah, there's definitely gotta be hidden messages in pop culture—how could two paranoid losers possibly be wrong?—but the search for these messages is, of course, an impossible one, not only because it's conspiracy theory nonsense, but more importantly because it's an effort to reverse the process of signification, to take the production of meaning back to its root in some pre-symbolic intention. They're not looking at the words or even looking for what the words mean, they're looking for The Truth, they're looking for something that Makes Sense, something beyond the world of the lack, beyond our limited and flawed selves, beyond this feeling that something's not quite right.
This search for truth isn't limited to Sam's paranoid conspiracies: he's also looking for his neighbor Sarah in the same way. Here he's not trying to reverse the process of signification, but he's still searching for the same pre-symbolic intention outside of the world of the lack. Why would she just up and leave? People don't just move out of their apartments in the middle of the night, after all. Maybe if Sam figures out what happened to Sarah, maybe if he can understand why Vanna White moves her eyes the way she does, maybe if he can learn what the song Turning Teeth is really about, then he can figure out what's wrong with everything and maybe undo whatever it is that he "fucked up somewhere a long time ago."
You can't, though, of course, as the Songwriter explains all too clearly. "That's pop culture, isn't it? Floats away like tissue paper," he tells Sam, who came to him looking for the meaning behind the code he found in Turning Teeth. "Your culture is the shell of other men's ambition." The band didn't write the song, and the Songwriter only wrote it for a paycheck, for someone else in an endless chain of suspension and postponement. Meaning is always deferred in this way, it is in its very nature a product of transference and projection. Art does not exist separately from our interpretation of it. The world does not exist apart from our understanding of and existence within it. The deeper meaning is a fantasy. It does not exist—at least not in the way Sam thinks it does.
And, I mean, duh, right? This dork is a paranoid conspiracy theorist! He thinks there's a hidden message in the way Vanna White looks from Camera 1 to Camera 2 to Camera 3 and back to 1. But is there really any difference here from what the rest of us do all the time in our daily lives? Is Sam's search for meaning not exactly the same as what I do every single day, using a bunch of pretentious nonsense to analyze movie themes?
We all do something to fill the void. We all grind away at our own personal millstones, thinking that there's something out there that makes more sense than this, or that there was a time long ago when things were better. We all have some fantasy framework through which we make sense of the incoherent world around us. But there is no return to the pre-symbolic intention. There is no deeper, hidden, capital-T Truth.
So what do we do about this psychological deadlock? This is where the Dog Killer comes in. He tells us, "No one will be happy here until all the dogs are dead," and this right here is exactly where I fell in love with this movie. No, not because I hate dogs (although I am admittedly more of a cat person), but because it's such a perfect and perfectly bonkers enunciation of psychological projection and transference, of taking the blame for your own failures, finding a cause for all of your suffering and the reason for your lack, and placing it on, of course... the dogs.
The reason for the failure of the suicidal actor from the Under the Silver Lake 'zine is too deeply traumatic and too fundamentally impossible for him to confront it directly, so he projects it onto the dogs. Likewise, for the rest of us, in our encounter with the unresolvability of the constitutive lack, our natural reaction is to displace that unresolvability onto the Other. There's not something wrong with me, there's something wrong with them.
Now I'm not going to just come right out and say that Sam is the Dog Killer, at least not in the literal text of the film, but he is essentially the Dog Killer within the metaphor of the film. Because, here's the thing:
Sam has a woman problem.
He walks around town staring at women's asses, having meaningless sexual encounters with them, seeing them as barking dogs when they tell him he did something wrong, sexualizing and objectifying them in a way that literally removes their humanity, metaphorically killing these women in the same way that the Dog Killer actually kills dogs, displacing his constitutive lack onto women the same way the Dog Killer does for dogs. Part of Sam's fantasy frame for understanding the world involves women being subhuman objects, animals. Sometimes a dog is just a dog, but sometimes a dog is a metaphor for a woman and sometimes a woman is objectified to become a dog.
"... all these holy trinities of women thriving like plants under the heat of the city's male gaze..."
This is why Sam can't understand Sarah, his neighbor who mysteriously disappeared. Why would she just leave all of a sudden? She can't possibly have her own desires beyond having sex with him! She's just a dog! But no, she does have her own desires; she wants to join this delusional, rich, white man in his bunker-tomb until they all die of ignorance and probably starvation. Her response to her constitutive lack—no more unreasonable than the rest of our responses to it—is to embrace this admittedly ideological pseudo-religion that promises ascension.
But Sarah is getting much more out of this than some naive hope of ascending beyond this life. Maybe she hoped to actually ascend when she first joined the bunker-tomb cult, but when Sam attempts to dissaude her of this illusion, presumably hoping that she'll try to get out and have sex with him or whatever, she's almost completely unfazed. There's more for her here than just the desperate hope for an afterlife. She calmly accepts her fate, saying, "There's no getting out now, so we may as well make the best of it" Sam's lip trembles. "Yeah." Cut to the Hollywood sign. "Same here."
This is the central ethical core of the film. We're all trapped in the bunker-tomb of life, feeling like we fucked up somewhere a long time ago but not able to do anything about it, so we may as well make the best of it. Sarah makes the best of it by returning to the bunker, by retreating to her fantasy world—but it's not the same as it was before. Free of her delusions, she's able to embrace it more directly, to live her life not for an imagined future, but for the present. This is what Sam couldn't understand about fantasy until now: the fantasy is not real in the sense that it will lead us to greater truth, it's real in the sense that it's meaningful to us in itself, as a way of organizing our chaotic lives.
This is why all the paranoid conspiracies in the film are presented as real. Owl's Kiss really kills Patrick Fischler, there are really hidden codes that lead to hidden bunkers, someone really marks Sam's house with the "keep quiet" symbol, and if we got the opportunity I'm sure we'd really see Sarah ascend, because this is precisely the only way to properly behave toward fantasy: treat it as real, not because it'll lead you to some deeper meaning or alleviate this feeling that something's not quite right, but because it makes sense to you. It is Your Truth, not The Truth.
The final shot of Sam looking into his old apartment at the "keep quiet" symbol isn't a sign that he now understands The Truth, that everything is finally right with himself and with the world, or that he now has access to the pre-symbolic intention and has rid himself of his lack. It's a sign that he's now part of the fantasy, that he has been inducted into the very framework he uses to make sense of reality. The purpose of recognizing fantasy as fantasy is not to then dismiss it, but to unconditionally accept it.
The point is, at the end, to embrace the fantasy as the end in itself, to watch Vanna White or search for your missing neighbor, not because you think doing so will bring you some transcendental answers to the question of the meaning of life, but just because it's your fantasy frame, it's what you're drawn to, it's how life makes sense to you. Psychoanalysis calls this act of going through the fantasy an "identification with the symptom," a radical acceptance of the contingency of your subjectivity, of that which is "in you more than yourself."
The search for meaning isn’t pointless because we’ll never actually achieve our fantasy of finding a higher purpose, the fantasy of a search for meaning is already itself that higher purpose. And so I continue to look for hidden meanings in movies, because it's the only thing I know how to do, it's the only thing that makes sense in this world. I write movie reviews not to become a film critic or to answer life's great questions, but because it's fun or whatever. Because I am a fucking loser, but that's okay. I'm making the best of it.