I’m trying to understand the way film critics’ minds work. It’s funny, when a film gets appalled, you can read their reviews and they would go into saying “Not even the roses in the character’s garden were right” underlining the fact that their comments have more to do with their “Liking” or “Not-liking” than an actual evaluation of the object. Film criticism has become now, more than ever, something like a trend where one critic follows the other until they elevate a film to an almost-masterpiece or irrevocably destroy it.
My cry for help comes after seeing Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. I left the theatre in a trance. It even reminded me of the feeling I had after watching David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive with the added ingredient of being a Schrader-Easton Ellis film, which doesn’t give much room for uplifting feelings. So I get home, open Rotten Tomatoes and there it is “22%”. Critics disliked it because it’s the same old Schrader giving another lecture on the decay of the modern society, because it’s low budget, because it stars an actress in disgrace (Lindsay Lohan) and a porn star (James Deen), among many reasons. Well, I have to say I enjoyed the film precisely because of all of the above, and more.
First of all, to throw rocks at a filmmaker that gives us another version of his favorite topic/style, and not do it to others who do exactly the same is really immature. Paul Schrader is a filmmaker interested in the dirty side of modern society, in what lurks under the skin, what ignite the engine of those perfectly built individuals. And he always finds a rotten core at best, and emptiness at worst, which links him perfectly with Bret Easton Ellis, a writer who brings out the stylish beast in people.
The film is structured throughout a period of a week, where most of us should be engaged in our responsibilities of work and routine. Christian and Tara are at home texting. And when they get tired of the phone, then they transfer it to the TV screen. Even the opening sequence in a restaurant, finds them texting while their friends Ryan and Gina try to engage them in a conversation that is basic and pointless.
The trick of this “dramatic” scene is that Christian loves Tara to the point of obsession (we need to remember that in this film, the word “Love” has been downgraded and does not exist as we might know it), but Tara already had an affair with Ryan without the other two characters knowing. Ryan is still attached to her because he is the innocent sexy man that comes to L.A. to become a star on the grounds of his good look (So Schrader isn’t even talking about talented people here). So he is, as Christian, obsessed with Tara.
Tara is Lindsay Lohan. They are just one person, or what we think Lohan is after the whole media craze of her twisted life. If Norma Desmond were still alive, Tara would be a perfect daughter, a woman involved in the film industry who has lost any sense of wonder (if she ever had). Her only instinct is to survive by dating rich men (which is why she left Ryan in the first place). Lohan’s presence in the film is magnetic. Her rendition of the dialogue gives goose bumps. You’d find it hard to detach her from Tara because they are both passing through a rough time trying to survive an industry that is always watching for its fallen creatures. And I underline her speech because it is rendered in a matter-of fact no-bull-shit manner. She even has the time to ask Gina “Do you really like the movies? When was the last time you actually went into a movie theatre?” Here is where we actually find the connection of this lazy-sordid story with the abandoned movie theatres that structure the film in days. Characters that have lost their way and live an existence in auto-pilot.
The presence of porn star James Deen as Christian is pivotal to the film as Lohan. He is a producer, but we hardly see him working throughout the film. Most of the time he’s lying on the sofa texting, or engaging in sexual activities that involve voyeurism or multiple sex partners. Cheating is thrown in too. Dean always speaks and stares at other characters with a macabre banality, the way actors used to “act” in Hollywood’s golden age: fast and not very believable. This is in synch with a life that doesn’t have any connection to reality. He owns a beautiful house in the hills, minimalistic in its decoration, and separated from the city. And he attends therapy once a week with Dr. Campbell (Gus Van Sant), the only sequence I find unnecessary in the film. It was included to clarify that Christian's only motive in life is to control others (he says it three times in a one-minute sequence), when the story has already made it absolutely clear.
Built around these characters and a simplistic drama (which mirrors their existence), Schrader makes the best use of a low-budget production to bring the story to a naked L.A., unveiling the mystery Lynch and Wilder imbued it in. The abandoned theaters remind us of the ghost little town of Bogdanovich “The Last Picture Show”, turning a once-glamorous mecca into a desolate milieu where people destroy each other.
Yes, The Canyons is depressing. It's depiction of an amoral society where friends don't matter, love doesn't exist and we can get away with murder might be redundant but its unavoidable and current. It’s stylistic simplicity manipulates you into believing you’re watching a bad movie. But Schrader’s film will never achieve cult status or be “so-bad-it’s-good” because he is not making a satire. He is showing you what’s going on without pretentions or embellishment. Yes, he keeps looking at the world through Travis Bickle eyes and nothing has changed in the past 40 years.