Note: The following essay is part II of a III-part series on the deconstruction of the modern American man and the ascent of the divine feminine as depicted in three Hollywood productions.

Note from the Editors: The following essay is part II of a III-part series on the deconstruction of the modern American man and the ascent of the divine feminine as depicted in three Hollywood productions.

The Hobo & the Hollywood Goddess

By Thomas Millary · 15 September 2023

Under the Hollywood Matrix, Part I: A Review of David Robert Mitchell's "Under the Silver Lake"
In one of the key sequences of Under the Silver Lake (2018), David Robert Mitchell’s dreamy and dense conspiracy-themed neo-noir, the protagonist Sam learns about the hobo code. After beginning to investigate the disappearance of his mysterious and alluring neighbor Sarah, an idealized “damsel in distress” who Sam pursues through his own desire to claim her, he finds a strange symbol written on the wall of her empty room. Inquiries lead Sam into a labyrinthian LA mystery filled with eccentric characters including “Comic Man,” played by Patrick Fischler, who Sam meets about forty minutes into the film.
 
The author of a zine called ‘Under the Silver Lake’, supposedly detailing the darkest secrets of Hollywood, Comic Man is obsessed with the Owl’s Kiss, the film’s most terrifying iteration of the divine feminine. A dark avenging female, naked except for an owl mask, who breaks into homes and kills the inhabitants, Comic Man describes her as “a member of a longstanding American cult with origins in trade and finance” with her symbol on the dollar bill itself, so that “Any household that eats, lives, or trades under her eyes is subject to her jurisdiction.”
 
Comic Man’s primary example of the codes and secret pacts that characterize society is the subliminal sexuality that defines much of the advertising industry, using innuendo as a tool to further mass consumerism. But Sam, nursing a long-held suspicion that pop-culture is saturated with coded messages, believes that the wealthy and powerful use media not only to subliminally influence the public but also to cryptically communicate with each other. Comic Man affirms that to be “as common as tits and hamburgers.” 
 
Portrayed by Andrew Garfield, Sam is supremely unlikable — a bitter, irresponsible, and constantly horny slacker. The film is open in its contempt for its protagonist, to the extent of emphasizing at one point that he stinks badly enough for a homeless man to mention it. Garfield has described his character as a Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) type. When he shows him the symbol he found in Sarah’s room, Comic Man tells him that it’s hobo code for “stay quiet,” one of many symbols that 1930s hobos used to convey messages to each other. He warns that in this case, it may be Sam who is being told to keep silent. 
 
In the symbol of the hobo code, Under the Silver Lake suggests that modern American life is saturated with cryptic messages. The homeless denizens of LA and the city’s ultra-wealthy both communicate with each other through similar techniques, and Sam finds himself implicated in both strata. As a millennial pop-culture obsessive, he’s immersed enough in media to get a glimpse of the mindset of Hollywood oligarchs. But the specter of homelessness hangs over Sam throughout the film. His annoyed landlord, threatening to evict Sam because of his “criminally overdue” rent, tells him: “Maybe she doesn’t want to date a homeless man,” as an explanation for Sarah’s mysteriously rapid exit from her apartment in the same complex.
 
The relation between Sam’s homeless status and the hobo code messages is confirmed by the conclusion of the film. Returning to his apartment after the disillusioning end of his quest, he finds the “stay quiet” symbol is now written, much larger, on his own apartment wall. Sam leaves his apartment immediately, knowing he can no longer delay his eviction. With no home, no car (also impounded, because of his failure to make payments), and no job, Sam has essentially joined the ranks of the hobos, despite having expressed his open disgust with LA’s homeless earlier in the film. 
 
Both Sam and Comic Man’s fates involve being overwhelmed by the power of the divine feminine, which is quietly omnipresent throughout the pop-culture saturated world they inhabit. In the case of Comic Man, the Owl’s Kiss sneaks into his home and murders him, in the exact manner he feared. She tries to do the same to Sam, who narrowly avoids the same chilling death. 
 
For his part, Sam is surrounded by avatars of feminine mystique, as established in an early scene where he spies on an older neighbor lady, credited as “Topless Bird Woman” because of her abundance of caged pet birds, as he speaks on the phone to his affectionate mother. Sam’s mother calls him throughout the film, and seemingly has no conception of his degenerate adolescent lifestyle. She tries to convince him to watch the 1927 film 7th Heaven, which stars the iconic actress Janet Gaynor, and tells him she admires and feels connected to Gaynor.
 
As Sam speaks with his mother and spies on his maternal neighbor, he first sees Sarah, turning his gaze to her as she arrives at the apartment complex pool. Throughout Under the Silver Lake, we encounter this same matrix of young and old women, all symbolically or literally connected to the Hollywood starlet archetype. At the center of that matrix is Sarah, who Sam is crushed to discover has voluntarily taken part in an elaborate ritual where rich men and their young lovers seal themselves underground. There, such elites enjoy an empty lifestyle of television, wine, and casual sex, before supposedly their souls ascend to an exclusive immortality that can only be bought with wealth and power.

Under the Silver Lake (2018)

Sam’s realization that Sarah is forever out of reach is compounded by the heartbreak of discovering that all the pop culture he ever admired has been synthetically constructed by these same cynical elites. In the film’s essential sequence, he encounters “The Songwriter,” an ugly old man behind a piano in a lavish mansion. He tells Sam that he wrote every pop song and rock song of the last several generations “somewhere between a blowjob and an omelet.” Sam is especially horrified to learn that Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is on the list. “There is no rebellion,” he says. There’s only me earning a paycheck.”

Sam’s disillusionment does not give him freedom from the Hollywood matrix. Another object of Sam’s desire is an ex-girlfriend he pines after, who is becoming successful enough to have her face on billboards for an advert for contact lenses, above the Gnostic-flavored phrase “I can see clearly now.” When Sam is exhausted at the end of his failed mission, he walks by that billboard a final time, which is now split down the middle with an advertisement featuring a fast-food ad, comprising a crying clown and the slogan “Hamburgers are love”, recalling Comic Man’s “tits and hamburgers” phrase, and also recalling what my colleague Brett Carollo and I have designated “the Joker Cycle.” A Hollywood lineage involving depictions of incel and proto-incel antiheroes (notably including Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and Joaquin Phoenix’s 2019 titular performance in Joker), the Joker cycle weaponizes pop culture fantasies as a psyop to coax alienated young men into states of dissociative helplessness. 
 
With the Joker figure in mind, we can see the crying clown as representing Sam himself, a millennial man debased by an all-consuming culture of hollow entertainments and endless advertisements, which has poisoned him with cheap sexuality and astroturfed rebellion. His overt humiliation is contrasted with the other side of the billboard, representing the industry’s fetishization of his ex and the other women in the divine feminine matrix, including a minor actress whose second job as a prostitute obliquely indicates the connection between the entertainment industry and sex trade. 
 
Sam wanders dejectedly past a coffee shop playing a song called “Turning Teeth,” which we hear many times throughout the film and now know to contain coded secrets within its lyrics, encoded by The Songwriter at the behest of his unknown elite benefactors. Sam has deciphered its meaning, but nothing has changed. He has failed to save Sarah, lost his material possessions, and the machinery of pop culture continues, as if his surreal adventures never happened. In fact, Sam’s journey only embeds him deeper within the Hollywood matrix. 
 
Before fleeing his apartment to avoid forced eviction, he finally takes his mother’s advice and watches 7th Heaven, finding comfort in the classic romance (multiple symbols in that scene indicate the connection between Gaynor/his mother and several of the women Sam has pursued earlier). As he watches the film, he gets an idea to find a new home in the sexual embrace of Topless Bird Woman. After his dalliance with his older neighbor, Sam looks from her balcony back into his now vacated apartment, with the hobo symbol prominently scrawled on his wall. Now he gets the message; he knows to “stay quiet.” Post-lovemaking, Topless Bird Woman sensually smells Sam and asks, “Is that patchouli?” Every other character has been disgusted by his skunk-like scent. But his new lover, a stand-in for his mother, and for Janet Gaynor, accepts him as he is. 
 
Under the Silver Lake can be read as a revelation of the method, a victory lap for Hollywood, in which conspiracy realities (increasingly hard to conceal) are integrated into the industry meta-narrative. Sure, Sam might be right about a secret power elite and subliminal codes, but Under the Silver Lake wants to tell us that his misogyny is just as bad as the murderers and sex traffickers who run the show behind the scenes. A sequence where he and a friend bemoan the panoptical nature of contemporary technological society while using a drone to spy on a weeping actress undressing in her home, makes this point explicit. The starlets that Sam lusts after may indeed be victims of a dehumanizing system, but the film suggests that his desire to save them is just as dehumanizing, and should therefore be abandoned. His only recourse is to realize that in spite of all he’s learned, he can still find comfort in the classic Hollywood romance. 
 
While a wealthy Hollywood cult member believes that in his pseudo-Egyptian occult ritual his soul will leave his body and be “and carried through this unfathomable amniotic sac,” Sam finds comfort in the womblike embrace of a retreat to pop culture-driven consensus reality. Giving up his heroic ideal of saving the princess, he becomes a domesticated object of pleasure for the maternal feminine. Like the Homeless King, another key character in the film who establishes a mysterious link to the cartels that run Hollywood, he’s a hobo, who’s found his place within the Hollywood system. Sam is a sad clown, a rootless modern American male with no home, no family, and no beliefs. The film’s critique of Sam’s misogynistic masculinity signals its allegiance to the occult allure of Hollywood womanhood. The phrase “I can see clearly now” emblazoned beneath the face of Sam’s advertising model ex reveals the spiritual power of fetishized femininity as a secret at the heart of the entertainment and advertising industries. 
 
From a slacker conspiracist like Sam to the oligarchs whose conspiracies he uncovers, all are driven by the desire for total immersion, a desire they only find satisfied in the Silver Lake of cinema. Accept your homelessness (your social powerlessness and lack of foundations), the film tells us. Put on a movie, “stay quiet,” and remember that the Hollywood goddess loves you. Push too far for too long and (like the ill-fated Comic Man), you may also receive a nighttime visit from the Owl’s Kiss.

This essay is part II of a III-Part series. Read part II, here.

 
 

Thomas Millary is the co-host of Psyop Cinema with Brett Carollo. They can be found on psyop-cinema.com.

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