“When was the last time you went to see a movie in a theater? A movie that really meant something to you?” It’s a loaded question, asked by one of the characters in crowd-funded, Bret Easton Ellis-scripted, Paul Schrader-directed film about the part of Los Angeles that exists on the periphery of the movie business, and which opens, ends and is intercut with arty photographs of boarded-up movie theaters. Ellis and Schrader want us, the audience, to ask ourselves the same question – when did we last see a good movie? – and, ideally, agree with their pronouncement that the movies are dead. Why do they want this? For one thing, because in the cynical world of the hipster, nothing is cooler than to be the first to pronounce something dead – except that people were pronouncing the death of the motion picture long before Norma Desmond declared, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” The other reason it suits Ellis and Schrader to declare cinema dead is that it is, effectively, dead for them. Ellis, who wrote the novels Less than Zero and American Psycho in his twenties, both of which spawned well-received films, hasn’t been able to get a movie made for years; the last two films adapted from his work (The Rules of Attraction and The Informers) were critically derided, commercial failures. Schrader, who in his heyday scripted Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, has fared even worse, getting fired from the last film he was hired to direct, Exorcist: The Beginning, and replaced… by Renny Harlin. Renny Harlin.
Obviously, movies aren’t dead – no more than baseball or football no longer exist just because most people watch them at home on their big flatscreens, rather than actually go to games. Leaving aside the obvious irony of making a movie which declares, more than decries, the death of movies, what Ellis and Schrader seem to be saying is that the movie business has changed beyond recognition – and the peripheral players in it are panicking. How fitting, then, that the two principle characters are played by individuals who epitomise the darker side of Hollywood: James Deen, the well-endowed star of some 4,000 porn films, whose very name evokes Old Hollywood in the same awful way that porn films often ape the titles of mainstream films; and Lindsay Lohan, the former child star and preternaturally talented actress (so great in The Parent Trap and Mean Girls) whose personal life and nose-diving career have become punchlines for the mean-spirited, give-me-reality-or-give-me-death TMZ generation she partly helped to create. When their casting was announced, shortly after the film reached its $150,000 funding goal on Kickstarter, it seemed like a sick joke at the expense of no one in particular, except perhaps for the few thousand crowd-funding backers. But here’s the real surprise: it works.
Deen, whose typical films require him to perform rather than act, has a weirdly blank expression entirely suited to the role of Christian, a feckless trust fund film producer who only makes films to show his father he’s actually doing something. Lohan, meanwhile, follows her underrated portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor (for the TV movie Liz and Dick) by bringing exactly the right amount of ingénue-gone-to-seed insouciance to the role of Tara, who once dreamed of being an actress, but having tired of the endless drudge of waiting tables, auditions and rejections, has taken the easier option of becoming Christian’s live-in girlfriend and plaything. As we meet the unhappy couple, in an excruciating restaurant scene that mercifully gets the film’s low point out of the way early on, Christian is regaling his assistant’s boyfriend, Ryan (who is secretly having an affair with Tara), with tales of his and Tara’s sexual adventures, largely involving threesomes and foursomes found via the (fictitious) Amore app, which locates casual sex hook-ups without the bother of having to advertise on Craigslist. Tara is too jaded to be seriously offended by Christian’s airing of their dirty laundry; she has made her bed (with Christian), and she would sooner lie in it than ever go back to Ryan’s life of “waiting tables for eight bucks an hour” – even if the part of her that still loves, loves Ryan.
Christian is the classic obsessive/possessive/abusive type: he stalks Tara, checks her phone messages, and grills her about her movements and encounters… and yet he is turned on by watching her have sex with other people. While this seems paradoxical behaviour, it isn’t: polyamorous relationships tend to involve sanctioned, contextualised adultery, often within pre-determined boundaires; thus, in a ménage a trois, rather than cheating on Christian, Tara is acting out his (or her) sexual fantasies in the confines of a situation which Christian controls; any liaison (such as her affair with Ryan) that might take place outside of Christian’s control would constitute an unforgivable betrayal. The true paradox is really that, despite all the stalking, hacking and demonstrative jealousy, Christian doesn’t love Tara – and neither does she love him. They are, however, monstrously co-dependent, like younger, but equally jaded simulacra of Martha and George from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who also invite another couple, less worldly and bitter than they are, to the epicentre of their miserable existence.
The Canyons is not, in the end, about the death of motion pictures – although it’s an added irony that you’d have to drive a lot further than the actual Canyons to find a theatre showing it – but about the death of privacy and intimacy, even more so than Paul Haggis’ overrated Crash. “There’s no such thing as privacy any more,” Christian says, as he hacks into Tara’s Facebook page and retrieves her deleted text messages, violating her privacy with an NSA-like sense of entitlement. The film takes place in a sprawling land of co-dependent relationships, hook-ups and mutually beneficial career moves, where people fuck each other, or fuck each other over, with little or no moral consideration, and nobody really seems to care about anyone, or anything, except themselves – and even then, not that much. It’s a jaded film for jaded times, and although it’s been said that the film is not as interesting as the story behind it – outlined in excruciating detail in a New York Times piece, months before the film itself was released – that’s a reductive, specious view. Equally fatuous are complaints about a lack of tawdriness and titillation in a film which, after all, puts a hardcore porn actor in a four-way sex scene with a former child star turned sex kitten; but films that are actually about sex (Eyes Wide Shut and Shame come to mind) are rarely, if ever sexy – usually quite the opposite.
The Canyons is uneven, and its predictable last-minute genre switch is unconvincing and unsatisfying, but for all its flaws, it’s a thoughtful, soulful and thoroughly modern look at the way in which we willingly sacrifice privacy and intimacy for a kind of reality-show pseudo-reality in which we know everything about everyone – without ever really knowing them.
The Canyons is available in the US via Video on Demand services.