As David Robert Mitchell’s Los Angeles neo-noir Under The Silver Lake takes a turn for the paranoid, his male lead passes by a spoken word poet dressed as Rosie the Riveter, reciting from a notebook at a rooftop party:
“All these holy trinities of women, thriving like plants under the heat of the city’s Male Gaze. Three three three, three three three.”
Mitchell knows exactly what he’s doing by naming the feminist term “Male Gaze” a half an hour into his film. By now, Sam (Andrew Garfield) has already used binoculars to spy on his neighbour Sarah (Riley Keough) before she disappears, had sex with an actress who compliments his Kurt Cobain poster, and followed a group of women unstealthily across the city.
With this phrase, the viewer understands that the writer-director will play with Hollywood’s use of female bodies to draw attention to the sinister realities of the entertainment industry. While many women wilt under the power of the Los Angeles elite, some will find a way to blossom. By the end of the movie, the viewer and their male stand-in both will realise that the women he obsesses over have a deeper understanding of their fates than expected.
This is all well and good and echoes the film’s critique of how men treat women outside the Los Angeles basin. However, though women are given a final word in reaction to what they have to come up against, we are still given all of the pornography, Playboy covers, call girls, dancers, and bikinis that any heterosexual male viewer could enjoy.
Under The Silver Lake uses the Male Gaze to criticise how society uses and abuses female bodies to obtain and maintain control. But to do this, the audience still receives carefully crafted shots of the bodies of characters never named; this makes us complicit in the voyeurism of Hollywood. No matter what the film’s message intended to convey, the viewer enjoys the time spent on the film’s extensive list of viable, white, thin, traditionally attractive actresses.
Feminist theorist Laura Mulvey named this method of filming female bodies the Male Gaze because it is a way for an audience to easily identify with a movie’s male protagonist. Positioning Sarah’s lower body in the centre of the frame, in a binocular’s sight, as she dances in a pure white bikini and sunhat shows that she is desirable, under control, yet just out of reach. Stripping away the whole personhood of this symbol of attraction to the individual assets of her body is a way of articulating Sam’s obsession but inability to connect with the rest of his society. Sarah is easier to look at, easier to digest, and easier to follow to the edges of the earth as an object that Sam must track down and capture. He can ignore his rent and car payment and any attempt to understand Sarah’s fears, desires, and why she may have chosen to disappear in the first place. The Male Gaze is a form of preoccupation with something easier to grasp than the cause of one’s own spiral into despair; Sam’s obsession with codes, hidden messages, and conspiracy do the same.
The amount of times a desirable female body comes into view is astounding, to the point of repetitive. Sam watches his older, topless neighbour stroking her parrot as he lies to his mother on the phone. An unnamed actress (Ricki Lindhome) comes over dressed as a German barmaid in one scene and as a sexy nurse in another. A drone is used to watch a woman undress to her underwear and burst into tears in her apartment. Another unnamed woman, dressed in a pink bodysuit covered in balloons (Grace Van Patten), dances through the crowd at the rooftop party. Women in pink wigs scream at Sam to leave the women’s restroom and their human voices turn into dog barks. The daughter of a powerful Hollywood icon, Millicent Sevence (Callie Hernandez), ends up posing in the same way as the woman on the cover of Sam’s favorite Playboy issue as she sinks into the depths of the Silver Lake Reservoir with a gunshot wound to the chest.
Each of these scenes and countless more play with the image of the woman and her role in a noir protagonist’s story arc. Though Sam ends up going to bed with his older neighbour, it’s only after plenty of shots of her bare breasts appear on screen. Though the actress willingly calls Sam’s obsession with codes weird and leaves his apartment, we are still given a full shot of her chest while they lie in bed together. Though the balloon girl seems vibrant and free while she dances, she’s still dressed in a skin-tight suit and stands still as a statue so the crowd can pop her balloons. Though the women in the bathroom are fully dressed and use strength in voice and numbers to get Sam out, their voices turn into dog barks —inhuman, unnatural, and equating the angry woman with a ferocious dog.
We can admire Mitchell for subverting the traditional systems in which we see the Male Gaze utilised for the betterment and motivations for male protagonists. At the same time, we can and must acknowledge that to comment on the Male Gaze is to utilise it. When it’s used again and again, the effect is more powerful, but it also reveals more and more skin of its subjects.
The message that using women’s bodies for the benefit of the Hollywood system comes to a head when Sam’s conspiracy theories lock in with discovering where Sarah had gone. Sam was right, has always been right, about an exclusive society the powerful and wealthy are hiding from the rest of the known world. This is a confirmation of a male fantasy that ends up exposing the realities of living under the rays of L.A.’s shining light when Sam and Sarah talk for the last time after he finally finds her in a tomb under Mount Hollywood:
“Do you think I’ve made a mistake coming down here?” she asks.
“Maybe,” Sam replies.
Sarah stretches, wipes a tear from her eye, and smiles. “Well, there’s no getting out now so I might as well make the best of it.”
Then, after revealing her lack of choice in her fate, Sarah then turns the question back to her male counterpart, asking how he is and if he’s thinking of getting another dog anytime soon.
Under the Silver Lake is about losing women to the darkness that is Hollywood power, wealth, and glamour. It’s about a man proven right about his paranoia while he chooses to not take up the chances the world has given him to succeed. This film is not about turning the tides of these realities; it’s about opening them up to study and critique. But what do we get when exposing the truth also exposes the bodies of nameless, beautiful young women seeking to use their own voice, left with only a dog’s barks?
Sam blissfully ignores his responsibilities in favour of pursuing women he barely knows. The audience does not have to acknowledge how his life is falling apart. All that the viewer has to worry about is when the next low-angled ass shot will come up because another is likely on the way. To comment on the Male Gaze in modern film is to participate in a patriarchal structure that forces women into the same poses, positions, and frames, but with a modified but still commercially profitable purpose. To acknowledge the presence of the Male Gaze as a cinematic tool, even when it is ultimately used for the narrative conclusion of a female subject of desire, is to begin the conversation on how to critique misogyny without using the methods that give it power.
by Emilie DeFazio
Emilie DeFazio is a graduate student from Sacramento, California, studying English composition, feminist rhetoric, and the use of digital and cinematic spaces to support both. Her favorite movies are Lady Bird, Mulholland Drive, The Princess Diaries, and The Godfather II in that extremely precise order. When she’s not rewatching these films she likes to bake, play with her cats, and read memoirs about women from troubled backgrounds finding success in just being themselves. You can find her on Letterboxd and Twitter.
Categories: Feminist Criticism