Dysfunction, and other comfort foods

by | Aug 17, 2023

Yesterday’s Washington Post offered a column headlined “Why I fired my therapists,” with this payoff:

Over the course of the past 14 years, I’ve left two therapists after they veered into latent, head-nodding advocacy — cheering me on, validating my complaints about the world and losing their analytical edge (to say nothing of the power patients give them in allowing this). I’ve pointedly told them: “Why are you agreeing with me on something I’m plainly wrong about?” They were surprised, maybe put off. At moments, it has gotten heated. But it has also taken us to places that would otherwise take far longer to reach.

The piece is grounded in the Jonah Hill “therapy speak” controversy, which, tbh, has been a glaring cultural issue in America for years. But it took on a different meaning for me last night after watching Under the Silver Lake, a 2018 movie by writer/director David Robert Mitchell. The rest of this column contains spoilers, and if you’re interested in watching this weird and wonderful conspiracy-theory film, you should stop now and stream it before continuing with this column.

Janet picked it out because Janet loves crime stories, detective stories, and anything noir. And if you read the descriptions of Under the Silver Lake, you’d understand why she chose it. Here’s the pitch on Max: “In this stylish neo-noir, a slacker embarks on a surreal quest across LA in search of a seductive vanished woman.”

No wonder so many people missed the point. This isn’t a neo-noir, it’s a postmodern noir. And the protagonist isn’t so much a “slacker” as he is a pretty, affable, and dangerously deranged nutter. Multiple critics compared Under the Silver Lake to the 1974 Robert Towne/Roman Polanski classic neo-noir (yes, that’s how far back the term goes) Chinatown, and those comps are vaguely relevant — but only if detective Jake Gittes hallucinated the entire Los Angeles water-rights conspiracy thing.

Under the Silver Lake opens with a shot of graffiti that says “BEWARE THE DOG KILLER,” and that’s the story in its tightest summary. That’s because Sam, our POV detective, doesn’t seem to realize that he is the dog killer. And once you know that, Under the Silver Lake stops looking like a knockoff David Lynch phantasm and starts reading like the most unusual psychological black-comedy-thriller ever.

I read several reviews from 2018, and let’s just be kind and say that it can be tough to write movie reviews without looking foolish, or pompous, or both. And I’ll also say that the excerpt below, from a site that offers a “serious” platform for mainstream film criticism, seems like a pretty good summary of the mainstream consensus (Metacritic aggregate: 57 percent positive).

It’s easy to see why the long-delayed “Under the Silver Lake” has been something of a conundrum for A24, a film distributor that typically knows how to handle projects that may not appeal to a mass audience. They’ve become very successful through supporting ambitious projects from young filmmakers, but I picture them watching “Under the Silver Lake” and having absolutely no idea how to sell it. David Robert Mitchell’s follow-up to “It Follows” is a rambling shaggy dog of a movie, a flick that recalls the sprawling insanity of “Southland Tales” and the stoner vision of “Inherent Vice.” It’s not exactly perfect counter-programming if “Avengers: Endgame” is sold out. And yet there is an audience for this movie. Trust me. This is the kind of film that garners a cult following and will make underrated lists at the end of the year. It’s unlike anything else so far this year, and that alone has value. That it doesn’t quite come together in the second half after a riveting first hour is disappointing, but there’s still too much to like here to discard it as much as A24 seems to be doing…

…Every reference has layers of meaning, most of which are going over Sam’s head. As you might imagine, this can get exhausting. The first hour of “Under the Silver Lake” works on every level. The score, the camera framing, the tonal balance, Garfield & Keough—it all clicks. And then the film starts to come apart a bit because of its own conspiracy theories and narrative inconsistencies. It’s not unlike an actual conversation with a conspiracy nut, in that the first few theories are kinda fun but you’re looking for someone else to talk to by the time he gets to the hidden patterns in Vanna White’s eye movements.

In other words, here’s a film critic struggling to review a movie that he simply didn’t understand. And trust me, I have sympathy for him. Yes, “community” is a terribly worn-out word in the 21st century, but to the extent that there is a “film criticism community,” your status in that high-stakes, snarky, status-obsessed online clique is based on where you stand relative to flitting fashion. And when your reputation and your paycheck depend on not being mocked online, you’re gonna write some bland, tortured bullshit like this from time to time. Just to get through the day.

So the platformed critics generally missed the point five years ago. But what’s truly alarming are the guys on the various Under The Silver Lake Subreddits.

just watched the movie the package he gets from his mother if you Google his mother’s address in real life it’s a place called rainbow rehabilitate and is a reablitation center. Interesting ???? part of the puzzle!?


I’ve actually spent time in a treatment facility, and there was a schizophrenic woman there who often gave off a very unpleasant, strong scent. And it’s very goatish, or skunk like.
When I discovered that about her, it instantly made me think of that “Silence of the Lambs” quote. And today I was digging around for more info on UTSL and found a lot of stuff where people thought Sam was suffering from schizophrenia and having a mental break. I didn’t really think much into that theory, until my brain clicked on that terrible skunk odor Sam was giving off…..and I thought Jesus maybe he is schizophrenic after all! It makes sense…


I also think the idea of the songwriter was fiction. I think the reality was he liked this new band with jesus but he learned that all the words that gave it meaning to andrew Garfield’s character were phony because some mainstream media shill asshole was just making money. Clearly this was the worst thing for a music fan, especially some one into nirvana, being told kurt is a phony is the worst thing you could possibly hear. That was him taking reality and being in his depressive state he went a dark rabbit hole that made him almost meet the owl.


When we see him buying the comic we also see him buying a spiderman comic. This confirms his identity.


This refers to two graffiti that can be seen in the toilets and on a wall and which are coded with the Copial Cypher. The ‘Copiale Code’ is a weird manuscript from the 18th century found in Berlin at the end of the Cold War, with 105 pages full of encrypted messages. A computer scientist created in 2011 a program to translate the Copiale Cypher, and who was it? Kevin Knight. (Remember this name)

So, yes, maybe this is a bit on-the-nose, but writer-director David Robert Mitchell made a darkly comedic movie about an aimless, obsessive, isolated, depressed young American man in the midst of a psychological crisis. His journey toward conspiracy-theory delusion is the plot. And depicting the code-breaking, pattern-seeking thrill of “finding the truth” in ever more absurd projections required littering the film with “meta symbols” and “hidden messages.” Afterwards, an online subculture of similar young American men has spent years as “a community” trying to unpack and decipher those messages to figure out what David Robert Mitchell was “really trying to tell us.”

Which brings me back to that WaPo piece about therapists-as-advocates.

When you’re feeling bad about your life and a therapist seeks to comfort you, you’ll feel good in the moment, but you won’t get better. And maybe you’ll learn to mimic the terms used in therapy to more effectively make new friends and manipulate them. Either way, things get worse, and not just for you, personally. We all suffer from the bullshit.

When you’re feeling bad about your life and someone tells you a conspiracy theory that says it’s not your fault, it’s the (insert conspiracy scapegoat here), you’ll feel good in the moment, but you won’t get better. And maybe you’ll use your new conspiracy to make new friends and blame something else for your common problems. Either way, things will get worse, and not just for you, personally.

You get my drift.

And here’s why I dragged those poor platformed film critics into this topic: One reason why modern humans get disillusioned and isolated and become vulnerable to mental illness and conspiracy theories is that they’re not entirely sure what’s true, but they can smell a phony from miles away.

Like a film critic trying to sound relevant while writing about a movie he didn’t understand, a company that says one thing while doing the exact opposite is kinda easy to spot. We’ve been dealing with a corporation that talks a lot about “valuing the customer” but has apparently laid off most of its customer service reps and now forces you through lengthy phone trees before connecting you to a robot that will schedule a response… next week. It’s obvious bullshit, done for fairly obvious reasons: To cut costs, add subscribers, win elections, increase quarterly stock dividends.

And it may work for them. For a while. But things won’t get better.

We don’t get better — as individuals, groups, companies or countries — when our first solution to every problem is to generate some new comfortable bullshit. We may rationalize it, and there may be times when bullshit is necessary (“After several hours, Joe finally gave up on logic and reason and simply told the cabinet that he could talk to plants, and that they wanted water”), but when we come to rely on it, things will get worse.

What’s the solution? Damned if I know. But I can talk to plants, and they think most of y’all are to blame.