Let’s get this out of the way right off the top: by most objective standards, The Canyons is a bad movie. Bret Easton Ellis’s screenplay is filled with the worst kind of tin-eared dialogue (“I’m really sorry I didn’t congratulate you on starting your own PR company”) and situations that seldom rise above their soapish base instincts, and in the third act, he clearly just gives up and inexplicably turns one of his characters into Patrick Bateman. The photography careens wildly between scenes that are sleekly, gorgeously captured and others that are embarrassingly amateurish; either way, the picture has the aesthetic of your average Cinemax After Dark feature. And its second male lead turns in one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a theatrically released motion picture.
If you can wade through all of that, if you can tolerate the film’s jarring inconsistencies and its cringe-inducing, non-sex-scenes-of-a-porno screenplay, you will see one good performance, and another great one. Adult film actor James Deen plays Christian, a trust fund kid-turned-movie producer with an appetite for anonymous hookups. He doesn’t strike me as an actor with a tremendous range, but he’s got this character’s sleazy entitlement down cold, and his porn-star posturing is absolutely right for the role.
And then there is Lindsay Lohan. Lohan is credited as co-producer on the picture, and you can see why she wanted her role so badly (and wanted to get the film made): she clearly knows this woman from the inside out. As Tara, a former model who sees in Christian less a soul mate than a free ride, Lohan embodies the kind of dead-eyed, vacant-souled California girl who uses sex as currency, sees desire as weakness, and isn’t sure anymore what to make of feelings that fall outside of that tightly constructed box. It’s an open, raw, exposed-nerve kind of performance; when she finally crumbles, late in the film, it doesn’t feel like acting. It feels like one of those performances in which an essence is captured and bottled, like Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan or Viola Davis in Doubt.
Or, as director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Auto Focus) said after last night’s Lincoln Center preview, Ann-Margret in Carnal Knowledge. “Lindsay has moved out of her ingénue phase,” he said, which generated a few titters — she just turned 27, after all. “She’s now in this kind of tough, blowsy phase: kind of Ann-Margret, Angie Dickinson, Gena Rowlands, tough American broads.“
Lohan has been both the production’s blessing and its curse, and Schrader didn’t hide this mixture of emotions when talking about his leading lady. The Canyons was initially a film of interest because it was one of the first projects by people you’ve heard of to seek crowd-funding via Kickstarter. But when Lohan got involved, that became the story — literally, in the case of the notorious New York Times magazine feature on how her fragility and unreliability made the shoot a bit of a nightmare. I asked if that piece was accurate, and if it was damaging.
“I liked the Times story,” he said. “It was to our advantage, enormously. It got hijacked by the Lindsay phenomenon, but then she tends to do that.” The Times’ all-access pass was in place before Lohan was on board. “And then Lindsay came on, and I said to her, ‘The New York Times is gonna be there every day, and they’re gonna see how conscientious you are. They’re gonna see you show up on time, that you’re a professional, we will put you beyond reliability.’ Well, unfortunately, the new Lindsay didn’t show up. The old one showed up.”
And when you come down to it, Schrader notes, “not even the august New York Times is immune from the hurricane force of this celebrity phenomenon.” He noted that the Times changed the title of the piece from “The Misfits” to “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.” He fumed about the powers that be at the SXSW Film Festival leaking why it was rejected from that event, “a major breach of etiquette and protocol… people who run film festivals simply do not do that.”
But there is an explanation. “The phenomenon of Lindsay is such that it makes normal people do stupid things… there is something about Lindsay that makes people get red.”
On one hand, he’s right. Schrader’s Q&A last night was over 30 minutes long, and was more invigorating and entertaining than the film it followed. He spoke on a variety of topics, and gave plenty of good quotes, but you’ll note which ones I’ve used. There is interest in a film that Bret Easton Ellis is involved in, and there is interest in a film that Paul Schrader is involved in, but both are dwarfed by the interest in a film that Lindsay Lohan is in — especially, as the Dick & Liz debacle proved, if it’s a film that might be a train wreck.
In spite of its flaws — and there are many — The Canyons is not that train wreck; Lohan’s performance is terrific, Deen’s is decent, Schrader snatches an evocative snapshot or two of LA’s neon-soaked decadence, and the sex scenes are refreshingly free of the conventional taboos of mainstream cinema. (For a change, there’s roughly as much male flesh on display as female.)
But no one is blameless in the issue of celebrity exploitation here. Schrader certainly cast Lohan because she was going to be very good, and she is. (“I would work with her again in a heartbeat,” he said. “She is magic. You can shoot around bad behavior, but you cannot shoot around a lack of charisma.”) But he also knew the kind of attention her participation would attract, and it has. Lincoln Center knew they could fill the house by promising a chance to gawk at the cause célèbre first, and they did. Finally, with two features and an Ellis-penned column, Film Comment (where Schrader is a frequent contributor) bends over backwards in its new issue to prop up the picture as a major work of film art, and it’s not. But hey, the magazine got to put Lindsay Lohan on its cover.