As preferable as it always is to see a film on the bigscreen — “the way it was meant to be seen,” if such an ideal still exists in the era of Netflix and YouTube — the conventional wisdom didn’t seem to apply to “The Canyons.” Given that Paul Schrader’s controversy-seeking erotic thriller represents an unusually high-profile test of IFC’s day-and-date digital distribution model, I accepted the latter of two options presented by the trailer (“in select theaters or in the privacy of your home”) and watched the film on my laptop just after 10 p.m. on Friday night — optimal conditions, really, for a movie that has been marketed for maximum trashy-porny appeal.
And yet, despite its flat, airless style and sometimes less-than-adroit acting, its occasional full-frontal nudity and the prominent casting of adult-film star James Deen, “The Canyons” is decidedly not pornography. Its restraint in that department — or its timidity, depending on your taste — may well be its most perverse stroke, for this is a film that deliberately short-circuits the viewer’s pleasure in every way imaginable. Our entertainment, to say nothing of our edification, could scarcely be more beside the point.
As screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis recently noted with characteristic humility, “I think ‘The Canyons’ is about mood and a world and not plot points. The best movies are.” Without lending credence to the idea that “The Canyons” and “the best movies” belong in the same tweet, I’d say he makes a pretty fair point. Opening with a still-frame montage of various decrepit, long-abandoned movie houses, the film is less a Cinemax-style potboiler than a zombified mood piece set against a post-cinema wasteland. Scene by coolly drawn-out scene, Schrader and Ellis build a portrait of a world in decay that feels at once trashy and sterile, repellent and weirdly hypnotic, framed and edited so as to emphasize the dead space, visual and aural, that surrounds their characters.
This, they seem to be saying, is cinema’s future, and perhaps even its present: a creative and commercial dead zone overrun by not-so-bright young things who spend their free time spying on each other, shooting their own amateur porn movies, and generally exploiting their bodies for personal and professional survival. “Nobody has a private life anymore,” notes Deen’s character at one point, and if that sounds like a leaden attempt at commentary on The Way We Live Now, it’s also a clue as to how to watch a film that completely obliterates any notion of privacy, on or off the screen.
As anyone who has been following this troubled production knows, the film’s leads, Lindsay Lohan and James Deen — two celebrities who, for very different reasons, have suffered from what you might call overexposure — have been its primary liability as well as its chief selling point. In the new low-budget filmmaking economy of Kickstarter and VOD, public notoriety is its own tricky but valuable form of currency, and since the day Stephen Rodrick’s viciously entertaining New York Times Magazine piece appeared, the chaos behind the scenes — Lohan’s difficulty on the set; the infighting among her, Deen and Schrader; the four-way sex scene — has had the feel of a carefully orchestrated scandal.
What’s interesting about the film itself, and what compels at least a handful of critics (including Variety’s Scott Foundas) to take it seriously, is that its stunt casting also happens to serve a thematic purpose. Watching Lohan and Deen onscreen, it’s impossible not to feel the weight of the actors’ public personae pressing in — the professional train wreck and the boy-next-door porn star, respectively — and it’s precisely this blurring of on- and offscreen identities that makes Schrader’s experiment, for all its surface-level frustrations, an object of fascination. Our sense of who these people are doesn’t distract from the film’s sleazy simulacrum of reality; it completes it. That’s true of Deen, who brings a chilling opacity to the role of a murderous producer/pimp/sex addict, and it’s especially true of Lohan, striking the film’s sole chords of genuine emotion as she merges real and (hopefully) fictive demons, projecting a level of raw anguish, anxiety and personal torment that even naysayers have been hard-pressed to overlook.
Still the problem remains, as many have argued, that these characters are vacuous beyond belief, to which I would suggest they are holding “The Canyons” to a standard of dramatic humanism that it never once aspires to. This is a chilly slab of anti-entertainment, and the too-easy derision it’s received so far can’t help but remind me of the reactions to a far more benign study of industry malaise: Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” a perceptive and eloquent film that was dismissed as empty because it dared to tackle spiritual emptiness as its very subject. “The Canyons” goes further still; at once embodying and interrogating a culture of vulgarity, degradation and compromise, it takes our worst nightmares about the future of cinema to a hideous yet revealing extreme. It won’t get you off, but you might have an awfully hard time looking away.