Paul Schrader’s new film The Canyons received an unusual amount of attention for a low-budget project by an unfashionable director, largely for casting Lindsay Lohan in one of its lead roles and thereby becoming an instantly foreseeable train wreck. She plays Tara, the girlfriend of Christian, a spoiled rich kid and dabbling movie producer with a nastily manipulative nature (evidenced in particular by immersing himself in a sex life of Tiger Woods-like complexity). Christian doesn’t know she formerly lived with Ryan, the lead in his pending low-budget horror picture, but when he gets suspicious, everything ramps up, putting careers and psyches and even lives in danger. The film really only has five significant characters (and a cameo by Gus Van Sant, almost the only person in there who seems much older than thirty-five) – for all of LA’s space and possibilities for connection (and the city looks as ugly in this movie as it ever has), it’s heavy with inertia and defeat, with the sense of being trapped in the debris of past compromises and present fears.
If I hadn’t seen any other reviews of the film (which you can watch on-demand as well as in theatres), I might have argued Schrader had hit on a somewhat foolproof approach, whereby the worse his movie gets, the more you can argue it embodies the end-of-everything wretchedness of its protagonists, its form thus appropriately mirroring its depressing content. But since the picture received very few positive reviews, maybe I’d be the only fool to be hooked by that foolproof line of thinking. I’m still not sure I’m wrong though. In The Star, Linda Bernard commented “it’s hard to believe (Schrader) is the same person who directed American Gigolo and wrote Taxi Driver.” Well, that’s a fair statement – American Gigolo remains a monstrously compelling, strutting, polished-to-a-shine tale of life on the moral margins, so crazily confident that Schrader brings it to a close by lifting from the austere French master Robert Bresson, and makes the absurdity seem organic. His next film, Cat People, one of my all-time guilty pleasures, deployed a similar aesthetic approach to scintillating intense and perverse ends. But he’s made over ten films between then and now, few of which would have readily jumped out as coming from that “same person,” except to the most refined of cinematic detectives.
His work, for sure, exhibits a recurring interest in obsession and fixation and voyeurism, and in following these to often violent ends. Schrader has summed it up this way: “What fascinates me are people who want to be one thing but who behave in a way contradictory to that. Who might say, ‘I want to be happy, but I keep doing things that make me unhappy’” (it sometimes feels like Schrader’s often fraught career, studded with disappointments and conflicts and firings, is an extended application of that principle). But these preoccupations have allowed him an impressive range of tonal variety, from the wintery Affliction to the dreamy Forever Mine to the drolly efficient Auto Focus. The Canyons, if nothing else, adds to this toolbox: its dead-eyed digital images bleakly replicating the shallow waters of its characters. Which of course is another assessment that almost simultaneously sounds like an indictment.
When we were great
The broader point, I think, is that it’s hard to believe America is the same country that could have spawned a movie like American Gigolo. Schrader starts and ends and punctuates his film with images of now derelict movie theatres: they clearly make the point about the death of cinema, almost too clearly (in a Globe and Mail interview, he commented: “We’re in a post-empire arts culture…we’re making movies out of crap that’s left lying around from when we were great.”) More piercing is a moment when Lohan’s character asks another, a woman straining to make her way in the movie business, if she even likes movies; the other says of course she does, but can’t flesh out her answer beyond that. Later on, talking to his psychiatrist, Christian talks of how a particular situation made him feel like an actor, a state which seems to evoke significant disquiet and self-disgust, and leads him to a complete behavioural breakdown after he leaves there. It’s not just that the movies are dead, it’s that what remains of the term, and the infrastructure surrounding them, is actively malignant.
Thus the casting of the lead roles. James Deen, who plays Christian, is usually a porn star, thereby embodying the branch of cinema with the most tenuous claim to art, or meaningful free expression, or anything else beyond the strictly utilitarian. His performance isn’’t particularly interesting, but that seems to be the point: for all his affectations and calculations, the character’s a dead end, a vacuous non-entity whose prominence in his little world is proof of its hopelessness.
Lohan, the film’s most discussed aspect, is an inherently more resonant presence, and Schrader takes an old-style approach toward her, casting her without too much regard for plausibility (she doesn’t seem to be in good enough shape, in any sense, to constitute such an object of desire) and allowing our knowledge of her real-life travails (which I assume, like me, you seem to have acquired by osmosis even if you’ve never spent a moment of your time searching for it) to seep onto the screen, cloaking her in brittle, soiled poignancy (Tara’s ambition, even in her mid-twenties, seems to have been completely extinguished, with nothing left except a desire to be taken care of). Just as with some of her predecessors in this regard (Schrader has evoked Marilyn Monroe, although that’s understandably not convincing to everyone), the question of whether she’s giving a good performance by normal measures barely seems relevant.
The film toys with the promise of a melodramatic ending, but then avoids it, suggesting the characters will achieve nothing better than variations on the same living oblivion, until their time or luck runs out. No doubt there are worthier case histories in LA, and around the film business, than this, but the film seems to suggest we’re fooling ourselves if we even spend the time to look for them. Writing here a few weeks ago about Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, set in similar circies, I said she seems to regard her subjects “as beyond defense or criticism, as embodiments of a complete moral absence.” I might apply the last part of that to Schrader too, but forget about being beyond criticism; you can feel his moral outrage itching, to the point where it wouldn’t have been so surprising if the movie had morphed into the sometimes-rumoured Taxi Driver 2, with Travis Bickle returning to wash all this sin away. The fact it doesn’t happen, that it’s all just frozen in place, might be Schrader’s greatest expression of pessimism, of how he’s stuck doing something that, to say the least, doesn’t make him completely happy.