The use of real-life porn star James Deen as antagonist and leading man in Paul Schrader’s no-budget film, The Canyons, makes comparisons to Boogie Nights lazy but, for me, unavoidable. Considering the careers of Schrader (Mishima, Blue Collar, Raging Bull*, Taxi Driver*), writer Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), and star Lindsay Lohan (Mean Girls, and, I guess, Freaky Friday) The Canyons feels like that part at the end of Boogie Nights, after video killed the porn industry, the characters’ lives had fallen apart, and they’d all returned home to reunite with Jack Horner to do the one thing they do best: make quality fucking porn. Except without the “quality” part. The “porn” part, I suppose, is questionable. There is at least one moment of a man fellating another man by sucking on his thigh, so we probably did enter softcore, Showtime territory by the end.
And that’s more than likely where this exercise in salacious thriller meets Melrose Place is bound, though I think Showtime has upped its standards since I was 16, so who knows. What I do know is that of the three main players, here, only one brought her A game. Yes, her A game. I guess I don’t expect too much of Schrader as a director or Ellis…as anything…but it’s often hard to tell if each scene fails because of the writing, the directing, the acting or all of the above. And when a scene clicks, like it does whenever Lohan starts to lose her shit or gets victimized by her abusive boyfriend, Christian (Deen), it feels like it’s working in spite of those things, working because Lohan actually is relatively captivating on the big screen, and her whiskey and smoke-charred voice only seems to add to the tragedy. (She’s 27 years old. Good money’s on her being mute by 40.) I don’t even know how to define an actor, or acting, anymore. If what Cate Blanchett or Daniel Day Lewis does is acting, then how do I describe what Greta Gerwig or Michael Cera does? Much like Eminem in 8 Mile (yes, I went there), Lohan’s character, Tara, is more or less Lohan without the fame, and judging by this enthralling piece in the New York Times Magazine about the making of the film, much of her best stuff came from drawing on personal experiences. Is it acting? Who knows? It’s the best thing the film has to offer.
As for the film in question, the plot can be summed up, thusly: a rich, trust-fund-baby psychopath (the only characters Ellis has any interest in writing about), Christian, is the producer of a low-budget horror film in order to prove to his daddy that he’s doing something with his life so as not to interrupt his cash-flow, though his one true love is making cellphone porn videos with his girlfriend, Tara along with other people he meets on the internet. The star of his horror film is a young, unsuccessful actor named Ryan, played by Glee’s Nolan Funk, who is the boyfriend of Christian’s assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), and also the once ex, now current lover of Tara. In the end, things get bloody**, but really the whole thing’s so silly, the characters so flat, the big ending so unearned and so much less profound than Ellis or Schrader clearly meant it to be that what the film is about is irrelevant.
What I see is a novelist who never quite figured out how to write a script, who can’t write a pithy line of dialogue without adding “but anyways” and continuing on unnecessarily. How no one stopped at anytime in the production of this film to say, “Boy, that sounds pretty stilted/unnatural/campy” is beyond me. Hell, maybe they did. Maybe it was worse before they filmed. I have no idea how bad Ellis is out of the gate, but I imagine pretty. I also see a leading man who’s never acted in a “legit” film still reading lines the way he might say, “I hear you have some pipes that need cleaning.” I’ve read some nice things about Deen in this film, but the man acts with the stiffness of a cardboard cutout of a psychopath. And maybe that’s Schrader’s fault. That Times Magazine article made it seem like he was doing everything he could with the trainwreck production he was given — a budget of only a couple hundred thousand comprised almost entirely from his and Ellis’ own pockets and Kickstarter fundraising, not to mention a leading lady who was only occasionally present, physically or mentally — but Brooks and Funk are empirically decent talents and Lohan I’ve covered. I see at least five no budget movies every year with more wit, more attention to detail, better acting, and better storytelling than what Schrader delivers with The Canyons. So what gives?
The film’s main motif is a series of still shots of dilapidated and abandoned movie theaters marking each “chapter” of the story; Christian is producing a movie he doesn’t care about and wishes would just go away; Gina and Tara have an overly thematic conversation about how they never go to movies anymore. The idea being that traditional filmmaking, the “movie” as we knew it, is dead. Which is why I can’t shake the Boogie Nights analogy. Personal choices crushed most of the Boogie Nights characters, but Jack Horner was crushed by technology. When video stores made his porno cineplexes obsolete, he failed to adapt. He tried — shooting video in a limo with Roller Girl — but his heart wasn’t in it. The Canyons feels like Schrader’s Roller Girl limo video — the work of a man willing to aim for the lowest common denominator out of self-preservation (VOD), but frustrated enough with New Hollywood not to care too much about the results. I don’t know if he knows it, but that lack of caring did more to harm the industry than any .mov file or Netflix account. But hey. Lohan.
*Screenwriter on those bad boys.
**I desperately wanted to stick with the PT Anderson allusions and suggest that “there will be blood” but I chickened out.