Cultural Commentator

‘The Canyons’ Is Everything You Were Hoping It Would Be

Cultural Commentator

‘The Canyons’ Is Everything You Were Hoping It Would Be


When you’re watching a movie about phonies, liars, and failed actors, it’s hard to tell whether the performances are any good. Is he playing an earnest airhead brilliantly or is he just an earnest airhead? Is she playing a burnout sexpot brilliantly or is she just a burnout sexpot? Are the lies creeping through his duck face well acted as lies or poorly acted as lines? Can it be both?

The Canyons is that movie and it may be so bad, it’s good; so fake, it’s real; so wrong, it’s right. Or it could be so bad, it’s bad; so fake, it’s fake; so wrong, it’s wrong, but that itself might be good, real, and right, if our measure is the verisimilitude of LA, where Gwynnie trains and money reigns and it rarely rains, where Bret Easton Ellis, the script’s author, was born and raised.

Have I lost you? It’s okay, I’m lost too. I lost myself in Lindsay’s sad green eyes. In the lime green walls, the teal green dresses, the avocado, the pine. Lettuce green, cash green, baby puke green, turquoise! This movie is so green. That’s what I told director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Affliction). He told me to check my screen.

The much anticipated Canyons is out today in selected theaters and, more significantly, on VOD. That means you can finally stream Lindsay Lohan’s banal four-way with three professional porn actors in the comfort of your own home, which I did three times over the course of the last week in various states of intoxication, because how else are you supposed to watch such a toxic film?

“Noxious,” is how I described the palette to Schrader: oranges and greens, like cartoon bile. The dried autumn leaf orange of Lindsay’s extensions. The chartreuse screen glow on James Deen’s Facebook lurking face. I Know Who Killed Me rotated between red and blue like a police car light. The Canyons is definitely orange and green; it’s not my screen.

My ganja goggles may have made me extra sensitive to what Schrader suggested, “probably just had to do with the palette of the places we were in.” The sets they shot The Canyons in were au naturel (lime, pine, avocado, avocado, avocado), untouched sites borrowed through Kickstarter or crew members, where types not unlike those portrayed in the film actually live. Same with the cars. James Deen (the best supporting actor) drives his own car in the film. Lindsay was responsible for her own hair, makeup and wardrobe, which explains a lot.

Hyperreality: the inability of consciousness to distinguish reality from a simulation of reality. Hyperreality is not like surreality. “Sur” means more than, beyond. Hyperreality may concern itself only with the surface of things, like The Canyons, which simulates the mundanity of LA’s waiters-slash-models, yoga instructors-slash-actors, and trustfunders-slash-producers. If you are as dumb as its subject, the film’s interest will be in tits and ass and how haggard or hot (subjective) Lindsay looks. Maybe you’ll even care about the dopey Canadian who gets dumped. If you have any mind at all, you may get a kick out of the the hyperrealistic copies of copies and the metatextual “cinema is dead” stuff. That is, until you realize you’ve wasted more intellectual energy trying to pull something out of this Hollywood hall of mirrors than its subjects have expended in their entire twenty-something life spans… combined.

Still lost? It’s okay. “Visit a place where you have nothing to lose but yourself,” is one of The Canyons trailer taglines. Let’s fucking do it.

Bret Easton Ellis is gay

I didn’t realize this. It totally goes against my theory that queer people are by default more creative because they have to imagine a world they can exist happily in. But “who said anything about happy?” (That’s one of Lindsay’s winning lines in the film.) Bret wrote The Canyons because Paul Schrader suggested they collaborate on a micro budget production. It was imagined as a VOD picture from the get-go: “cinema for the post-theatrical era.” The movie is a walk and talk because that’s the cheapest thing you can make. “Beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms,” as Schrader’s so often repeated to the press.

Ellis and Schrader set out to make a micro-budget film because they were both stalled in production on other Hollywood projects and Hollywood is dead, donchaknow? The hills will only make sequels and remakes. Bold, original content doesn’t get greenlit anymore. And so… The Canyons.

The film was financed through Kickstarter. Ellis, Schrader, and producer Braxton Pope topped off the $170,000 they crowdsourced with another $30,000 each. Lindsay traded her labor for a co-producer credit and a stake in the proceeds. Those that were paid were paid nominally. Thus the borrowed cars and green hued houses.

If you had the means—be them small—to make any movie, free from boardroom bullshit, would you make The Canyons?

For an indie flick, The Canyons is trop mainstream. For an NC-17 flick, The Canyons is très conservative. Yes, you get to see Lindsay’s rack and James Deen’s swinging flaccid cock. Yes, there is a four-way. And a three-way. And talk of gang bangs and other modern day internet abetted dalliances. But none of it challenges the status quo. Every line and scene is exactly what you’d expect.

Because its stars are formidable, the walks in The Canyons are pretty great but the talk is tinny, mean, and contrived; PureBret. Materialistic and nihilistic, The Canyons is a place where phonies and liars (subjects with no subjectivities) hurt one another for no apparent reason. The dialogue—bad in a subtly self-aware way, like authorially condescending of its own dim victim creations—is designed to showcase only one mind and that’s Bret’s. The man clearly can’t handle not being the smartest one in the room. That’s probably why he’s still in LA. Fuck saving Lindsay, save Bret! Get this brain to Libya or Russia. That’s a Kickstarter I would contribute to.

The Canyons imagines itself as capturing a generation, my generation. Old man Schrader (really, I love your work) relied on Bret to access my generation. “I could have written about Bret’s generation but I couldn’t write about this one,” Schrader told me, “And Bret could write about this one. I was able to get at the zeitgeist through him.” According to Bret Easton Ellis, my generation believes in nothing except getting itself off, but we may be faking that too. “You’re part of a generation that really doesn’t think the world is going to be better in fifty years,” Schrader translated for me. “That infects your entire psychological ecosystem.”

One thing that marks my generation is that we apparently no longer care about the cinema. Again, says Schrader: “The demographic that we are losing most in theatrical is under twenty-five. That’s the sharpest drop off of any age group. I was part of the film school generation when cinema was God. But that God is dead.”

The Canyons opens with shots of post-zombie-apocalypse looking movie theatres. The passing of time is communicated with the same imagery. Day one: cinema is dead. Day two: cinema is dead. Day three: cinema is still dead. Lindsay gives some husky speech about no one going to the movies anymore, you can hear it in the trailer. This metatextual stuff does add to the film because the most (only?) interesting thing about The Canyons is its making.

A thesis: The Canyons is an action film in the sense of an action painting. The media spectacle leading up to it, the transparent, crowdfunded production, the cast of stars playing characters like themselves (except for Deen, who in real life is a dream), all of this works to emphasize the physical act of making a movie. You hear Deen as Christian (as in Grey) stammer, “Nobody has a private life anymore, Tara,” and you picture Bret’s puffy pleased-with-itself face as he types out that line. You see Lindsay smirk maniacally into the camera and you see Schrader behind it. You watch newcomer Nolan Funk in the role of an aspiring actor yearning for his big break and you know this movie isn’t going to be that for Funk.

You see yourself, like countless others, streaming The Canyons in your bedroom, rewinding the good bits, snapchatting screenshots. You hear yourself overanalyzing the phenomena, retweeting all the reviews, retumbling all the gifs. You watch yourself watching and you recognize yourself as part of it, an active participant in the internet audience Ellis, Schrader and Lohan knew they’d garner. Action movies. Expressionism. “An arena in which to act.”

I think we just found ourselves.