Like so many stories, this one begins with a shark movie.
In the post-film Q&A after last night's world premiere of his new film The Canyons, director Paul Schrader explained that he and Bret Easton Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, and a number of other novels about beautiful people doing horrible things, were all set to make a shark movie with some Spanish financing called Bait. But the euro failed, Spain's economy belly flopped, and we got The Canyons. Basically.
In the audience at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, I spotted Michael Musto in a checkered blazer, carrying snacks; Andres Serrano, in black Puma sweatpants with a chalk smear across the butt; and a number of film critics. We were given free beer and snacks. I have no idea if anyone from the stand-by line made it inside. I can only tell you what I saw.
Kent Jones, director of programming for the New York Film Festival, introduced Paul Schrader, who, at 67, looked sharp in a neat gray moustache and dark suit. The film critic turned screenwriter and director made his way to the front of the room, slowed up by a recent knee surgery. His arrival coincided with the entrance of the Dina Lohan and Friends gang. Lindsay Lohan was not in attendance. She was only on screen.
Self deprecation was in the air as Jones gently ribbed the raffle Lincoln Center was hosting. The hot prize? A year's subscription to Film Comment (which is actually a great magazine). Schrader offered a brief introduction to The Canyons. "Don't tweet during the movie," said the man who wrote Taxi Driver.
It would've been impossible. The reception was terrible.
The Canyons is mostly a success. A friend described it as perhaps the most "efficient" portrayal of Bret Easton Ellis' world on screen. That's accurate. Bret Easton Ellis writes about cold and dead person-shaped objects who fuck and acquire (and sometimes kill), and Paul Schrader has put that on screen.
With a puffy face capable of embarassment, discomfort, and tears, Lindsay Lohan's the most exciting image on the screen.
Adult film star James Deen plays Christian, a film producer who has group sex (I was going to write "likes having group sex" but that wouldn't have been correct). He's dating Tara, an actress played by Lindsay Lohan. They're both going outside of their maybe open relationship for other human interactions, mainly sex for him, sort of human interaction for her. The situation is complicated. You know, people play with their cell phones during dinner, when they should be talking face-to-face. They text via the TV, and grow paranoid about the contents of text messages they don't see.
And here's the biggest problem with The Canyons: This is not a particularly insightful or provactive film. (In the Q&A, after shrugging off the New York Times for becoming sucked into the Lohan vortex, Schrader began talking about "this hook-up culture" that the film was interested in—that phrase should be a red flag by now.) It's a film about these vacant young people and the empty sex they have, the dearth of real connection—if only people didn't write the word "you" as a single letter when they corresponded!—in a world on the decline.
The Canyons never amounts to anything more than a superficial sketch of a superficial time and place, populated by superficial people. I'm not advocating that it find some profound human despair among all these shark-eyed denizens of Los Angeles, that it become some kind of Malick-esque sham. But if it wants to talk about a pathology affecting a culture, show us the extent of that pathology, like Michael Haneke does in The White Ribbon. Move beyond a single generation. Both Schrader and Ellis have been alive long enough—they can't believe that kids on cell phones are that much more terrifying, or different, than, say, Patrick Bateman or Travis Bickle. (A brief scene with an exceedingly calm Gus Van Sant playing a therapist suggests the discreteness of Deen and Lohan's characters.) Technology has changed things, and 2013 doesn't look like 1993 or 1973, but great artists shouldn't be content to let it go at that.
Perhaps, as a kid with a cell phone, I'm not the right audience. Maybe I should ask my parents to watch this on VOD while I watch Spring Breakers for the fifth time.
Of course, many people of my generation will flock to this movie to watch Lindsay Lohan. She's the best thing about this movie, along with a monologue from James Deen peppered with the word "bam" and a gut-busting Pringles reference that I pray will become a line recited for years to come. With a puffy face capable of embarassment, discomfort, and tears, Lohan's the most exciting image on the screen. She's the living dead in a movie full of corpses.
Here are three cold and dead movies I would recommend in place of The Canyons:
Cosmopolis (Croneneberg, 2012)
The White Ribbon (Haneke, 2009)
L'aventurra (Antonioni, 1960)
Written by Ross Scarano (@RossScarano)