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The Canyons

By Philip Martin

This article was published September 6, 2013 at 3:48 a.m.

The Canyons is low-hanging fruit, an ill-begotten movie that is already infamous in a way. It was reportedly made for about $250,000 by Paul Schrader, a man who was once considered one of Hollywood’s major talents (he wrote the scripts for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and even more impressively, co-wrote and directed 1982’s remarkable Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters) but who has been increasingly marginalized in recent years, to the point that he turned to the crowdfunding site to help finance this movie. He paid his actors - who include tabloid bait Lindsay Lohan and porn actor James Deen - a reported $100 a day (against shares in the profits, which look increasingly unlikely to materialize), and shot any place he could for free. In January, the New York Times Magazine ran a devastating article detailing the production’s troubled history titled “This Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.”

Bret Easton Ellis - the novelist who wrote Less Than Zero and American Psycho - wrote the script for The Canyons. In some circles, Ellis is as much a punch line as Lohan - his name brand nihilism seems so ’80s these days, and - according to the aforementioned article, he has “tired of the novel as an art form.” But if he means to re-invent himself with his screenplay for The Canyons, he has failed miserably. This is one of those anti-erotic erotic thrillers, filled with bored people with money and touched by only the most desultory ambitions. It is set on the periphery of the movie business, likely in the same sort of space where it was made. There is violence and some risible dialogue, a silly orgy scene and, above all, an air of irritation at having to exist at all that runs through the piece.

I will not tell you that this is a good movie. I will say that there is something about it that deserves genuine consideration, and not just the reflexive snark that we heap on those we feel it’s safe to mock. While there are indications that Schrader has devolved into a dirty old man, a fool who recognizes neither his limitations nor his gifts, he has still managed to make a deeply interesting film that teases questions about our celebrity culture and the ways we entertain ourselves.

But to get to what is worth thinking about in The Canyons, we have to allow ourselves to forget about the bad acting and the schlocky script. I will not try to convince you that the “bad acting” is on purpose (although I feel it might be), only that the controlling sensibility of the movie (presumably Paul Schrader) knows that the performances come off as wooden and affect-less and wanted them that way. He cast it that way. He directed it that way. I am not willing to believe Schrader is so tone deaf that he does not understand what he has done.

And in a way, Lohan, looking puffy and exhausted and only mildly engaged by the character she’s playing, is perfectly cast. Her character, Tara, is essentially an accessory, the girlfriend of the casually cruel Christian (Deen), a trust fund kid who dabbles in the movie business (and undergoes therapy at the hands of the redoubtable Gus Van Sant), so that his estranged father won’t turn off the money spigot. Tara is nominally an actor, or at least she used to be one, though, like most of the film’s characters, she has little interest in movies.

Writing in Salon, Andrew O’Hehir called The Canyons “‘post-theatrical cinema,’ a movie made after the age of movies” and I don’t think he’s wrong. It begins, ends and features as interstitials some strikingly beautiful images of dilapidated movie theaters - though mostly not those of the grand palaces from the ’30s, but of theaters built in the ’70s and ’80s - when Schrader was an important player. The Canyons feels like a toxic kiss-off note to Hollywood, and the only thing I’m really wondering about is whether Lohan and Deen (and others involved in the production) are the director’s collaborators or victims.

If Lohan is acting in this film, she’s tremendous. If she’s not, then she’s even more tragic than imagined. She’s either very brave or very desperate - maybe she’s both. I honestly don’t know. But I believe Schrader knew exactly what effect her “performance” would have.

Anyway, The Canyons is a misfire - no doubt about it. But I am not willing to make a joke of it. If it’s a joke, it’s a cruel one. And it’s not on Paul Schrader.

The Canyons 82 Cast: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Gus Van Sant Director: Paul Schrader Rating: Not rated Running time: 99 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 09/06/2013

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