Bored of sunbathing and with big thoughts about life, death, sex, and especially The Movies on its mind, The Canyons posits a post-theatrical culture, both through its somber opening montage of shuttered Los Angeles exhibition houses and its depiction of screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis’s sociopathic yuppies placed within contemporary Hollywood, making smut with their girlfriends and Craiglisted strangers on cell phones. Its ultra-modernity is really just a logical progression from the moral hysteria director Paul Schrader projected through Travis Bickle decades earlier, in which theatrical culture was, if not seriously endangered, then tainted somewhat by Vietnam-addled brutes who sought nightly refuge in plastic-lined seats.
Moreover, if the very first shots of these decrepit buildings evoke a film from almost half a century ago, The Last Picture Show, there’s no greater relic than the archetype portrayed here by adult film star James Deen, an offshoot of the screenwriter’s most famous creation, Patrick Bateman. Here named Christian, Deen’s American psycho never gets the chance to be interesting because he’s placed, inexorably, at the crux of an Ellis screenplay.
The Euclidean shape of its narrative begins from the apparently self-evident premise that identifies developments in modern technology (here, Christian and Tara disappearing into their smartphones in the opening dinner scene) with the equally self-evident moral disorder of its characters (because Christian is…rude?). It proceeds inevitably to an act of violence that constitutes the least imaginable resolution possible to any narrative, noir, satirical or otherwise. Tellingly, Ellis has never tired of this trick.
Schrader’s thesis is also present in that very first scene, which lays out just what the decline of a theatrical culture really means to his lost, lewd generation. Burrowing into their phones, by which Christian ostensibly views the same homemade pornography he uses them to record, the millennial power couple consumes media as an act of social evasion rather than the (idealized) communion of cinephiles under the same roof in the repertory houses of old. By the same coin, their sex is an active perversion of real intimacy, the vulnerable kind which Tara forces on Christian in their psychedelic four-way confrontation at the close of the second act. In prodding him to actually engage in an act outside of his choreographed plan for the evening, she uncovers his uncontrollable, impulsive side, leading to the film’s brief therapy scene (with Gus Van Sant as the shrink) and its inevitable bloody climax.
Web-curious cinephiles will find the best criticism on The Canyons in the form of Tumblr posts synchronizing screenshots of Lohan’s lingerie’d amble about Christian’s house with parallel images from Ophuls movies, a fact of new-media art appreciation that would surely delight Ellis and Schrader. On the other hand, Nick Pinkerton has written perhaps the best traditional criticism of the picture for Reverse Shot, which takes the “open film” ideal espoused in interviews with the filmmakers and on the project’s original Kickstarter page and runs with it, diving into all the film’s various contexts — social, artistic, philosophical, literary, cinematic — to the detriment of actually discussing its text.
Too much critical thinking only detracts from one’s enjoyment of The Canyons. Not because it’s a dumb movie (though Ellis’s writing never offers, on its own, the necessary insight to cut through his smugly superficial dialogue), but because its handful of non-prurient pleasures remain so ineffable.
Take, for example, Tara’s Big Thematic Monologue, beginning with the “buckle up” rhetorical question “Do you like movies?” Following this line of thought is a short avenue that leads to an intellectual dead end, but the seasick, wobbly motion of the camera, burrowing close to Lohan’s face and cutting up and around in short circles, either bored by the monologue or distracted by her thick-lipped, lazy-eyed appearance; in many scenes she resembles an unfinished portrait of the adult Lohan, perhaps dreamed up by a child star who wandered into the wrong room at a wrap party.
A separate essay could be written on the strategies employed by Schrader’s cinematographer, John DeFazio, to circumvent the cheapness of the footage’s overlit, filtered qualities. A transition from a breakup to Christian’s therapy via a concave mirror, the alternating high and low angles in Christian’s house that had The Counselor pegged a year before its release. Alternately, consider the rough edges of Ellis’s screenplay, not all facile structure and listless dialogue: elliptical choices like the placement of Ryan’s parking garage ambush on a man he suspects Christian hired to tail him just before a scene in which he discovers his bank account is empty, for which we know Christian is responsible.
Too easy to dismiss yet far messier and more elusive than the year’s most recent cult curio, The Counselor, Schrader’s film seems destined to the fate scripted for it from the beginning, an iTunes rental bound to either provide viewers with their desired titillation or to spook them into paranoid Vine confessionals. Perhaps its indifferent reception has a little to do with its own strange uncurious attitude toward the world Tara, Christian and Ryan inhabit.
The Canyons has the sheen of a satire but none of the purpose, the first picture consciously and publicly made for the post-theatrical era but without much desire to spend time in its universe. Watching it is a bit like having dinner with one of these characters: enjoy the accidental humor, the bits of charm that seep through the indifference, try to make eye contact a couple of times, but when it’s time for the check, just get the hell out.
The minute-long “featurettes” on the Blu-ray seem to have been mocked up for promotional Tweets rather than for home viewing, but the extended “Creating the Canyons” feature compiles the filmmakers’ big, foolhardy statements of purpose in one convenient package. Not included is the New York Times article on Lohan’s involvement with the picture, more insightful than any of these clips.