Critical Dialogue: The Canyons
“It’s post-good,” one friend said. “The perfect bad movie,” declared another. It’s hard to find an appropriate critical rubric to apply to The Canyons—Paul Schrader’s micro-budget erotic thriller/multi-media performance piece/study in postmodern ennui/Elegy for the Fall of Western Civilization The Canyons—in part because it isn’t exactly, or isn’t only, a movie.
That’s not necessarily in the sense of “cinema for the post-theatrical era,” as Schrader puts it in the July/August issue of FILM COMMENT—although the film’s prologue and chapter divisions, set over images of decaying multiplexes, certainly point in that direction. Rather, Nick Pinkerton gets closest to the point in an extended essay for Reverse Shot: “The Canyons’ interactivity . . . has become an extension of the text, a conceptualist outgrowth of the movie. To block out the hype and focus solely on the sacred film itself, as critics indignant at all of this ballyhoo would have us do, is to supremely miss the point.”
The scandal-seeking/vulture-like New York Times Magazine profile, the prodigious promotional tweeting, the many, many interviews and press conferences (any and all Intentional Fallacies having at this point been tossed decisively out the window), Lindsay’s on-set meltdowns, Lindsay’s nude scenes, her equally camera-hungry, equally well-endowed co-star—it’s all part of this big, lumpy multi-platform experience: come one, come all, take it, leave it, love it, hate it, tweet about it, and don’t forget to tell your friends.
And the movie? You know, the actual, time-based record of people and events that, if so inclined, you can watch start to end at home, or, per Pinkerton, “without paused breaks for bathroom and snacks and Internet, in a darkened room full of strangers”? More specifically, what is Paul Schrader—the transcendental cinema scholar, prolific critic, Columbia prof, Taxi Driver writer and director of 17 features whose deep-set, conflicted conception of grace runs hand in hand with his fascination with the lurid and perverse—attempting with his vision of a nightmare Los Angeles populated by trust-funded psychopaths, dissatisfied trophy girlfriends, and blank-faced aspiring actors?
For a contingent of critics led by Variety’s Scott Foundas, The Canyons is Schrader’s “most stylish picture in years,” full of “surfaces [that] gleam as attractively as [the movie’s] toned and tanned bodies, the latter constantly framed small against vast canvases of Oceanside bluffs, Sunset Boulevard traffic and hazy nighttime skies.” Much of the praise has centered around Lohan’s vulnerable, transparent performance, which for Foundas “comes across as some uncanny conflagration of drama and autobiography.”
Yet Phil Coldiron in Cinema Scope maintains that Schrader has made a meticulously ordered and willfully vacant reflection on 21st-century America in “an era where Change turned out to mean drone strikes instead of ground troops, PRISM on top of the Patriot Act, and not nearly enough of the socialism we were promised was coming by those on the right.” In The New York Times, Manohla Dargis also has no problem assigning Schrader similarly lofty intentions: The Canyons, she suggests, springs from Schrader’s disappointment, as voiced in a 1999 interview, “that the existential hero had been supplanted by what he called the ‘ironic hero’—the guy who asks not ‘should I exist?’ but ‘who cares?’”
Yet Dargis goes on to say that something must have gotten lost in the translation from noble idea to low-budget reality: “the entire [opening] scene, from the camerawork to the stilted, stop-and-go dialogue, can be read as a Brechtian enterprise, but mostly it feels like Mr. Schrader isn’t in control of his material.” In the film’s profusion of crane shots, foregrounded cuts, and often affectless line readings, Dargis finds the same balance of good intentions and muddled execution. “With The Canyons,” she concludes, “[Schrader] tries to get at something real under all the hard, glossy surfaces, but ends up caught in the divide between the movie that he seems to have wanted to make and the one he did.”
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, writing for The AV Club, demurs—sort of. By his estimation, The Canyons is “a movie that simply doesn’t want to work in a conventional sense. There’s something brazen, maybe even admirable, about Schrader’s mismatched camera setups, or the way he uses wide-angle lenses to cram as much empty space into the frame as possible . . . Schrader made his name with feverish portraits of self-loathing and self-destruction . . . but here he adopts a tone so cold that it is becomes deliberately off-putting.”
For Coldiron, too, Schrader has made more or less exactly the movie he wanted to make, only to find that the “something” under all the hard, glossy surfaces is a blank void:
In a 2005 interview with Rouge, Schrader spoke of a desire to follow his previous examinations of anger, narcissism, and anxiety with a film about superficiality, ‘pretending that life has no meaning.’ Here he’s made a film that is entirely and essentially superficial, populated by the least expressive actors surrounding two not-quite-stars. What makes The Canyons more radical yet less intelligent than Spring Breakers or The Bling Ring, which both find formally inventive escape routes out of this indefinite American nightmare, is its commitment to a system that can only convey no meaning—there is no pretending it is absent, it simply doesn’t exist.
Coldiron and Vishnevetsky both suggest that the formal clumsiness and dramatic inertness spring from Schrader’s desire to find a visual language that might correspond to a kind of life in which meaning “simply doesn’t exist.” (For Foundas, incidentally, it’s the movie's parade of sleek, attractive surfaces that reveal its L.A. as “no more than a flickering illusion”—a product more of Schrader’s skill as a visual stylist than of any kind of conscious directorial self-sabotage.) But there’s also a sense, as Vishnevetsky suggests, in which Schrader wants viewers to feel dissatisfied, put off; to feel as if there’s a divide, as Dargis puts it, between the movie that should have existed and the movie in front of them.
It’s a clever way of responding to a difficult ethical question: what motivates us to think that a certain state of affairs ought to be different than it is? Perhaps the movie’s aesthetic clumsiness—its “mismatched camera setups” and awkward swaths of empty space—is a kind of moral argument, a way of prodding us to find something lacking in the sight of a life without meaning or value or weight.
At the very least, it’s a way of getting us to distinguish between the brand of modern-day ennui in The Canyons and the kind that one finds in the aesthetically refined high modernism of, for instance, Winter Light or The Devil Probably or L’Avventura—which is less a question of what’s present in each film’s moral universe than it is a matter of what’s missing. As Schrader puts it in his FILM COMMENT interview with Larry Gross, The Canyons is about what it’s like to “still [believe] in appearances, like still believing in movies when you don’t believe in them anymore…. You don’t believe in the thing you believe in, because you’re afraid not to believe in it. And it means nothing. It’s not like believing in God because you’re afraid of not believing in God.”