The Canyons (2013)
Was it really two years ago that this doomed prospect first appeared on the radar? As a huge Paul Schrader fan any news concerning his increasingly fraught career is seized upon with a ravenous glee, and the prospect of him teaming up with the facile poet of the 1%’s narcissist offspring Bret Easton Ellis seemed like a potential match made in mercurial movie heaven. Schrader’s work, however you slice it is patchy yet always compelling, even severe tonal fuck-ups like Adam Resurrected, Auto-Focus and Touch have a grim fascination, but he has repented these sins with the likes of Mishima and Affliction which are among my favourite films, residing somewhere in the top fifty pictures that haunt my penitent head. As an exploration of faith and futility his Exorcist picture is sorely underrated, which for the cinephile has a torturous production history we so love to become incensed by, the great artist bedevilled by the philistine forces of commercial propriety and executive interference. But lest we forget that this is the man who wrote two of the seminal post war American films Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, so the thought that his new film (darkly preceded by this now notorious NYTimes piece) The Canyons wasn’t just critically crucified but actively judged as incompetent by festival selection panels is just bizarre, that’s not just judging the film as ‘bad’ but condemning it as technically amateurish which is quite an insult to a man with over forty years of experience under his belt. I’ve kept an eye out for London screenings and to the best of my knowledge the film has received precisely one exhibition, at the Hackney Picturehouse at a midnight Saturday screening which I really wasn’t prepared to attend, so like the rest of the English-speaking world this odd little film has slipped into the direct streaming and rental distribution channels with little fanfare or affect.
First of all, anyone criticising the film for being nothing more than the pointless liaisons of a group of horrible, narcissistic substance abusing trust fund twats whose premature deaths would raise humanities moral codex by discernible karma points clearly hasn’t read a Bret Easton Ellis novel before – that’s kind of the social point and as this so-called recent Golden Age of Television has demonstrated spending time with reprehensible or complex and unlikable protagonists can ignite compelling drama, from corrupt LA street cops, New Jersey mobsters, hard-drinking Baltimore police officers or cancer afflicted new Mexico science teachers. I must admit that the film does come across as slightly incompetent in some early staging and blocking techniques which is quite odd, the dialogue is also pretty poor but it is clear that these are empty cyphers, but a little more attention to words spilling out of these glazed eyed Moschino clad mannequins wouldn’t have gone amiss. In an acting stretch not exactly worthy of De Niro’s portrayal of Jake La Motta Lindsay Lohan is pretty young Hollywood starlet Tara whom has hooked up with the mediocre producer Christian (porn star James Deen in his first mainstream role), he being a charming misogynist who likes to watch her have sex with random guys he procures through hook-up iPhone apps. His current fascination is a Spanish zombie flick which he is anxious to make a breakthrough success, with some rather sour overtones of the recent Bryan Singer allegations his producer partner coerces pretty boy actor Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) into flagrante delicto positions in order to secure a leading part. Like all the industry denizens in this darkly mischievous take on the Machiavellian posturing of table-reads and production scouts no-one trusts anyone in either love or celluloid war, as Christian suspects Tara might be cheating on him both personally and professionally a violent altercation seems inevitable….
Whilst the film is by no means the disaster some have dismissed it as it’s also a patchwork paroxysm, where elements such as a perforating plot, robust performances and an absence of pathos threaten to pull the entire enterprise apart at the seams. There is a discernible colour palette and the warm vicious hues of that blazing California sunlight yearn to scorch the souls of these wandering Tinseltown spectres, but Schrader’s union of image and theme do not gel in this rather confused miasma of meta-critique and meandering interior scenes. Embracing a B-Movie plot paradigm the Bret Easton Ellis penned script is as sterile as Tara and Christians career convenient coupling, the film opting for the melodramatic, the heightened pitch to the vapid career and condom clad contortions, yet for a ninety minute micro budget (£250K allegedly) the film squanders the squalid wallowing in the movie membrane mud, The Canyons feels twice as long and half as fun as a Russ Meyer or Herschell Gordon Lewis picture. James Deen is pretty terrible and one assumes his porn-flick performances are slightly more memorable than the clumsy, uncomfortable line readings he musters in this film, his casting might be Schrader’s meta-statement at Hollywood’s ostracised dirty-mac uncle whom is still pumping out content over the hill in the Valley, an industry which is also in crisis mode since the proliferation of the internet and free content. But commentary and critical broadsides needs to be accurate and searing to make any lasting laceration, and for a film shot on a micro-budget you’d think the appropriate emphasis would be lavished on the film qualities which don’t demand dollars – sizzling dialogue, narrative nodes, dramatic conflict – and Ellis failure in these key departments scuttles the film from the start. It’s hard to believe (if you’ll excuse the pun) that everyone fucking each other so literally and physically could be so languidly boring.
As a mood piece The Canyons is far more effective, it is potentially interesting (I’ll need another viewing) for those distinctive West Coast spacious interiors, the exterior monsoon of azure bronzed pools and Henry Lloyd Wright domiciles littering the sun drowned California hillsides, it also yearns for a contemporary cool soundtrack in the model of Drive with Brendan Canning of Broken Social Scene supplying an echoing then dissipating electronica score. Maybe it is an intentional meta-film, itself a commentary on the status of the art form wreathed through pre-manufactured plot machinery and a stress upon pre-Botox sexed up skin, if so it fails as it lacks a brazen acidic cruelty and needs more sulphurous clouds emanating from studio executive boardrooms. For a film which Schrader pivots on the classical Hollywood tropes of power and domination, from the casting couch moguls and the young starlets of the golden age offering their bodies and souls for eternal silver-screen adoration you should feel queasy yet quietly fascinated, not disinterested and blasé. The death of cinema and the face of domineering franchises and the rise of home entertainment, the erosion of the shared experience and proliferation of communication device use in public space, digital usurping celluloid and all that implies for photochemical patience versus binary immediacy, all these arenas are febrile, rarely tilled ground and somehow I expected more of a talent as unwieldy able as Schrader to mine them with much more proficiency. However pious a devotee of his sect The Canyons is a severe disappointment, not so much a B-Movie as a Zzzz movie;