I could write an entire essay about The Canyons--1000-2000 words, at least--without ever having seen it. The amount of sheer context that has surrounded this wildly underwhelming film, concerning its director, its screenwriter, and its star, provides substantial fodder for conversation. About what? The movies that are made, the movies we choose to see, why we choose to see them, and, frighteningly, what we think of them. The Canyons has attracted lengthy, considered commentary from many corners, including some corners, including the New York Times or Salon, in which you would have thought the critics there, after seeing the film, would have passed on the opportunity to write about it. How could they have passed, though, with all the backstory surrounding it, like an enormous fur overcoat? This backstory grows--and vibrantly--from the American obsession with celebrity culture, which amounts to a near-celebritocracy.
About that backstory, though: let's start with the film's director, Paul Schrader. His scripts for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, from nearly 40 years ago, elevated him to near-godlike status among film buffs and regular moviegoers alike. However, that early promise did not lead to sustained, wide-ranging popularity; films ranging from American Gigolo to Mishima to Auto Focus were critically acclaimed, but not sufficiently critically acclaimed to be considered cinematic events (with the possible exception of American Gigolo). As his films have relentlessly explored the seamier sides of life, fewer and fewer viewers have been willing to take the journey with him, beyond a militia of devotees. After his lengthy New York Times article about the difficulties of working with his star, Lindsay Lohan, it was hard not to think that using the star was an attempt to raise his own status at the box office, to prove himself capable of creating a spectacle. And then there's the screenwriter, Bret Easton Ellis, most famous for early, dynamic novels like Less Than Zero or American Psycho. In recent years he has become more famous for his overbearing presence and his nasty tweets than for his work, which has not struck quite the same loud chord with readers as did his earlier books. Again, it's tough not to read his engagement with this film as an attempt to pull himself into the spotlight by a notorious star's bootstraps (to mix metaphors).
But what about those bootstraps? And what about that star?
Oh, that poor star.
There's a lot you would have to ignore if you wanted to take The Canyons, or Lohan's performance in it, on their own terms. The prison time. The ankle bracelets. The driving while intoxicated. The missed court dates. The court dates made while wearing stunning apparel. The embarrassing interviews, each more falsely "honest" than the last. And there, almost completely crowded out by all that we'd have to set aside, would sit her two good performances, in Mean Girls and A Prairie Home Companion, the latter of which was probably missed by many. And then there are the aforementioned tales of her behavior on-set, her tantrums, her absences, her lack of preparation, her immaturity, and her apparently newsworthy near-toppling of the whole venture.
And the venture itself? Sadly, it would be impossible for anyone with both a conscience and a wholly functional critical apparatus to find this attention-grabbing film more than marginally interesting, artful, or, least of all, shocking. We can give points, if to nothing else, to the cinematography, which evokes the deadened, shallow, decaying Hollywood we've come to expect from countless other films about that same microcosm. The gray, deserted, drab theaters the film uses as interstitial shots provide an admirable backdrop for the film's satire of moviemaking. The story to which that satire is hitched, unfortunately, is woefully thin: Christian, a young, trust-funded filmmaker (James Deen) "keeps" Tara (Lohan) in a beautiful house overlooking the ocean. He's cast a studly young man (Nolan Funk) in his new film, who turns out to be an ex-boyfriend of Tara's. As Christian digs, he finds out information that makes him unusually jealous of Tara, and he promptly loses all control of his drug-addled mind (to make a long story short). Before this happens, though, we gain an insight into this resoundingly unpleasant couple's lifestyle, transitioning fairly smoothly between an opening dinner scene--in which the couple spends most of their time out with another couple (the star of the film Christian is directing, and his girlfriend) staring at their cell phones--into a scene in which they have a threesome with a man Christian found on the Internet. The sex in the film, though perhaps a shocking move for a former member of the Mickey Mouse Club, isn't shocking by comparison with other films that have been released, say, within the last 25-50 years. There's a deflated feeling hovering over the entire film: the dialogue, such as it is, is delivered with awkward pauses after each line, as if the actors were waiting for a laugh track. Lohan's acting, by comparison with her co-stars, is compelling, but again only by comparison. More often than not, because her co-stars are so inexpressive in their delivery, her excesses of emotion (mainly crying) seem rather unusual, as if perhaps she had walked into the wrong movie.
One could ask, then, why see such a film? Why write about it? Why give it the time? Because it has a mood of controversy about it, and controversy can be fascinating. Because the publicity for it, as is often the case with over-hyped films, transcends the product—but is no less persuasive for doing so. Because it has talent attached to it, and hope springs eternal. But the film itself? Daring? Shocking? The most shocking thing about it is the degree to which it reflects, as a phenomenon, the de-evolution of American sensibility, the allotment of power and, weirdly, aesthetic influence to whichever figure displays most flashingly before us. Ultimately, this film is most interesting as a phenomenon, as evidence of the power of, to put it simply, talk, talk so loud that it shapes our tastes, and ultimately, our lives.
Max Winter is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.