Upon first glance Paul Schrader’s The Canyons may appear to be a wooden, overly staged affair, and a picture not aesthetically disimilar to the adult-movie industry that informs the film’s contextual make-up. Alas, this is 21st Century touch-point logic, with the film’s most immediate inspiration actually being the classic Hollywood melodrama (a type of cinema whose influence can be seen on the adult-movie, as luck would have it). Imagine that particular cultural trend crossed with the one that followed it, and it’s own negative, the film noir, and you’re close to the tone of the film at hand. An anti-naturalistic inflection runs through the picture, with the whole work an explicit construct that is constantly reminding the viewer that what they are watching is a movie, and not a legitimate imprint of the real world. The sight of a lost Lindsay Lohan, the perfect ‘model’, to borrow a piece of terminology from Schrader’s beloved Robert Bresson, wandering the halls of her vast, empty, luxurious habitation recalls Bardot in Godard’s Contempt. As Godard did with that film Schrader here takes a fascinating contemporary figure of celebrity and subverts their public persona. He lingers, and focusses, and plays Lohan back in slow motion, offering the viewer the chance to really take a look at a figure so often only seen in the instance captured by a flashbulb.
It’s a film that is constantly referring to the illustrious and infamous history of the city of Los Angeles, which, for all intents and purposes is a city that lives and breathes the movies. The notorious case of the Black Dahlia, in which the most heinous sexual violence was enacted is explicitly referenced, while the cities many empty movie theatres are themselves placed centre stage. The film’s opening credits play out over a montage of “dead” cinemas, abandoned in the current, and “dead” being a recurring adjective throughout these thoughts on The Canyons, while an ultra-modern electronic score plays out. The tag-line “Youth, Glamour, Sex and Los Angeles, circa 2012” comes attached to the movie, laying out it’s creators (there are two of them; novelist Bret Easton Ellis wrote the picture) intentions. Just how contemporary the films commentary on the end of the cinema is is rather surprising. Many have expressed concern over the death of film for some time now, with such hypothesis’ placed alongside the context of the rise of the digital, but Schrader’s movie takes that one step further. He’s concerned with more than the celluloid vs. megapixels debate, and is instead looking to the nature in which the shape of the very medium itself is changing. The question of how we consume cinema is being asked, as opposed to one of how a filmmaker produces movies .
An examination of the contemporaneous fills every facet of the picture. Schrader and Ellis’s characters bear the names of several contemporary pop culture yardsticks. Christian, Ryan and Tara, the three main players in the picture share their own christian names with Messrs Grey, Gosling and Miss Reid, three figures that each represent various areas of pop cultural stardom. Christian Grey, 2012’s trash-literature crossover poster-boy, Ryan Gosling, this generation’s James Dean-alike brooding nihilist, and Tara Reid, actress turned full-time celebrity. It is in Christian, played by adult-movie star James Deen, in which the pen of Ellis can most clearly be felt. A preening, arrogant Bateman-alike, Deen’s Christian might just be the key to understanding the picture’s intricacies. As he sits in the office of his psychiatrist, portrayed by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, he is told that “We’re all actors”, which acts as an emotional epiphany of sorts. We’ve previously seen his emotional balance veer from obnoxious on an affecting level (initially he’s the kind of potentially dangerous character that an audience would choose not to spend any time with), to fascinating psychological channel.
Lindsay Lohan, the disaffected child actress turned tabloid whipping girl, plays Tara, the closest figure the film has to a central protagonist. Lohan is filtered through the director’s own cinematic interests. Jeanne Falconetti, the aforementioned Bresson model and the road away from agnosticism inform the character. In fact, The Canyons features the most explicit bearing of Schrader’s influences (as outlined in ‘Transcendental Style In Film’, his thesis-turned-film-theory-staple) since 1980’s American Gigolo. The power of the close up cannot be downplayed. As mentioned afore, Schrader resorts to technique to portray the true scale of Lohan. Betwixt the physical spacing of Ozu and the meditation on faith in the movies The Canyons almost plays out like a cinematographically captured re-rendering of his ‘Transcendental Style In Film’. The film’s memorable final shot, which features one of the leading characters looking directly to the audience sees Schrader re-appropriate the stylistic trademarks of Bresson and Dreyer in order to further convey his own communication. This moment also serves as a nice reminder of an earlier moment in the movie, as Lohan’s Tara remarks that “No one has a private life anymore“. That statement already carried with it a number of readings, due to the actress’ own personal life, but one can’t help but feel as though it is with this final look to the camera that the announcement comes full circle.
It’s not merely the theatrical experience that Schrader is declaring passed in The Canyons. One key moment in the film plays out in Los Angeles’ famous Amoeba Music, the largest independent media retailer in the world and a store notable for selling all manner of relic platforms, which, when placed within the director’s grand vision is transformed in to a shrine to another form of a dead medium, with the once mighty heirs to the picture-house, the DVD, the VHS tape, the laserdisc, now damned with the same fortune as that bestowed upon the long-reigning king of popular entertainment. In referring to The Canyons Paul Schrader has said that “We won’t ask anybody’s permission and we will create cinema for the post-theatrical era”. It is perhaps appropriate then, that having witnessed the film play out across a streaming home medium, one longs to have witnessed the director’s latest creation in one of the many “dead” theatres photographed in the movie.