Falling Down the Canyon

12 February 2014

Paul Schrader’s attempt at a directorial comeback – the low-budget erotic thriller The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan – has moments of frazzled beauty, but dissolves in a haze of vapid LA smog.

Like all respectable disciples of high culture, I follow the lead of radical chic priestess Susan Sontag and occasionally dip my sandaled toe in the murky waters of pulp culture. There are few trashy movies I’ve been looking forward to as much as The Canyons, a low-budget erotic thriller directed by Paul Schrader that received serious film industry attention ahead of its release for its alluring fusion of high and low culture, and an innovative low-budget production and marketing campaign.

The project is the well-publicised attempt at career resuscitation for four very different Hollywood players. The director, Paul Schrader, is the highly regarded screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and a director in his own right, but who hasn’t had a hit in nearly a decade. The screenwriter, Bret Easton Ellis, is a former literary wonderkid who found fame chronicling the hedonistic pathologies of 1980s yuppiedom in novels Less Than Zero and American Psycho, but whose recent works, wan repetitions of his earlier stuff, suggests that he’s creatively exhausted. In between taking out bitchy vendettas against fellow celebrities on Twitter, Ellis has, perhaps inevitably, turned to Hollywood screenwriting, like one of the disillusioned characters in his novels. The lead actress, Lindsay Lohan, was a one-time teen star of Disney movies and, in the grand tradition of Hollywood starlets before her, has skidded erratically off the rails and become a tabloid joke. For the last few years, LiLo’s life has been a haze of drugs, drunk driving, family spats, terrible dye jobs, court appearances, weepy confessional interviews with Oprah, and a succession of tit-jiggling performances in straight-to-video movies that will one day play in Hell’s multiplex. The lead actor, James Deen, is a porn star, famous for his relatively normal un-steroided physique and his cute Jewish boy-next-door looks (well, the cute Jewish boy next door who’ll kill you with his cock) who apparently wants to go legit as a ‘straight’ actor in Hollywood films. It’s an unholy quartet, and together they’ve created one of the strangest and messiest Hollywood feature films in recent history.

The project was also notable as a daring experiment in low-budget filmmaking. The shoestring budget (reportedly US$250,000) was partially funded via a Kickstarter funds campaign, supporting actors were cast via the open access Let It Cast website, actors and crew worked for $100 a day, and the film was released on iTunes simultaneously with a very limited cinema release. Despite hair-raising accounts of troubles in the making of the film (for more details, read Stephen Rodrick’s highly entertaining article in the New York Times), industry commentators were kindly disposed towards Schrader, given his exemplary back catalogue. There was even talk that the film might herald the return of a new wave of by-the-seat-of-your-pants filmmaking that would invigorate the sluggish studio production process.

The Canyons might have been a breakthrough film, both for the filmmakers and the industry, had it been any good. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Early signs weren’t good. It was put forward to the Sundance and SXSW film festivals (presumably to attract indie film prestige) but was rejected from both for “quality issues”. Rodrick’s article reports that director Steven Soderbergh offered to step in and do a last-minute re-edit for Schrader, which he refused. Somehow it managed to screen out of competition at the Venice Film Festival, where it attracted mostly negative reviews, though some critics praised Lohan’s performance.

The Canyons didn’t get a cinema release in the UK and hasn’t been available in video stores or on iTunes there either. I finally got my LiLo car crash fix in rural New Zealand, where I found a DVD of the film in the half off bin in my parents’ local video store. I was hoping that it would be surprisingly great, or at least enjoyably trashy in the manner of Showgirls or anything starring Madonna. As it was, it was mostly just soft-porn trash of the mid-80s Two Moon Junction variety, played with the solemnity and earnestness of a Bergman film, which made it unwittingly funny – but not in a good way.

As a piece of narrative fiction, it’s fairly lightweight stuff. Deen plays Christian, an amoral trust fund baby cut from much the same cloth as American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, who lives in an all-white modernist palace in the Malibu hills, with his girlfriend Tara (Lohan), a co-dependant failed actress. As we learn in the stilted introductory scene, Christian calls himself a movie producer, but is mostly interested in making his own home porn with his iPhone, starring Tara and random swingers who he finds on the internet and invites over for amateur orgies. There’s some other stuff that happens involving other people, but it doesn’t really matter since all we’re really interested in is watching LiLo get it on with a porn star.

Like most of Ellis’ protagonists, Christian is all surface with no depth, repellent and irredeemable, which makes the casting of a porn star both a masterstroke and a fatal mistake. Deen is, at least in his porn persona, a real-life embodiment of one of Ellis’ preppy monsters, and while his acting isn’t great, he has the glossy veneer of confidence and cruelty to fit neatly into Ellis’ amoral universe. On the downside, Deen can’t bring any more depth or nuance to the role, and so Christian becomes a cipher for moral corruption rather than a character. Maybe that was what Ellis and Schrader intended, but it’s not that interesting to watch. It takes a skilled performer to play a vapid character without giving a vapid performance, and Deen just doesn’t have the actorly skill required – though the sight of his large endowment slapping between his thighs during his many naked scenes adds a frisson of X-rated authenticity to proceedings.

Lohan fares much better as Tara. The mustiness of the actress’ tattered reputation and emotional instability hangs heavily around the performance, which in some ways is a plus. Tara is the same as most of Ellis’ female characters – passive, sexualised, materialistic, victimised – but Lohan roughs it up a bit, playing the role with a jittery energy and occasional sassiness that keeps things on edge. She’s not a skilled or subtle actress, but she has charisma and a frayed-around-the-edges beauty that commands attention. More importantly, she provides the sense of anarchy and a touch of sleaze that the film needs to jolt itself out of its anaesthetic stupor. This is, unfortunately, interspersed with some terrible LiLo acting – too heartfelt to be camp, too bad to be anything else.

Despite the tabloid appeal of imagining Lohan as the iceberg who brought the ship down, she’s not the main problem with the film. That lies in the fundamental mismatch between Schrader’s and Ellis’ sensibilities, and their inability to synthesise their different visions. Ellis’ screenplay – cold, clinical, ironic, distancing – isn’t a natural fit with Schrader, whose writing and direction is generally rooted in moral absolutes and a sense of compassion for extreme emotional states. A savvier, more playful director might have been able to mine the arch and vulgar aspects of Ellis’ story, or play up the satiric humour, as Mary Harron did in her witty film version of American Psycho. Instead, Schrader’s direction attempts to perform psychoanalysis on a script that has no emotional centre. While Schrader manages to bring out glimmers of humanity in Lohan, despite the tonnes of Cleopatra eye make-up she’s wearing, but he fails to defrost the other characters, who end as they begin, embalmed under reflective glass.

In its favour, the film looks ok (which is amazing, given its tiny budget) and the lighting is pretty. I definitely want one of those disco spotlight lighting thingees over my bed the next time I have a four-way with three porn stars. But otherwise, The Canyons is a disconnect on every level.

Time will tell whether it’s seen as the turkey that finally buried Schrader’s and Lohan’s careers, or as the silly little soft-porn indie that became their life raft and started a new trend for crowdsource-funded filmmaking. It may, like Showgirls before it, find a second life as a camp classic. Until the jury is back in, there it is, a small but persistent pimple on the cultural landscape. Now that I’ve watched it, the rest of you don’t have to.

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