Wide Open
by Nick Pinkerton

The Canyons
Dir. Paul Schrader, U.S., IFC Films

Some years after the fact, Paul Schrader reflected on being removed from the production-oriented end of the UCLA film school on the strength—or rather weakness—of his single student film. “[A]lthough mine was very ragged,” Schrader said in its defense, “it was chock-a-block with ideas…”

This goes triple for The Canyons, Schrader’s microbudget entrée into the day-and-date VOD market, a love-triangle sex-thriller funded with out-of-pocket seed money from Schrader, producer Braxton Pope, and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis, as well as a very public Kickstarter campaign. The Canyons opened last Friday, preceded by the expenditure of enough digital ink to, likely, guarantee its money back, though the aggregate consensus is grim. According to the proverbial festival insider, SXSW had already condemned Schrader’s film as hobbled by quality issues, and now the dollar-a-quip Internet nothings have taken a morning off from the TV recap beat to practice their art, as the Rotten Tomatoes pile on.

I wanted the full The Canyons experience, so I watched it at home, alone. Credits roll over a prologue montage of abandoned, dilapidated, collapsed movie theaters—not the bedraggled movie palaces that have been converted into flea markets along downtown Los Angeles’s Broadway, but suburban strip mall multiplexes that were never much to look at to begin with. This film’s first scene, introducing the dramatis personae as they finish dinner at the Chateau Marmont, is willfully disorienting, characters looking directly into the camera, eye-lines tangled, spoken dialogue unmatched to who’s on-screen. Two couples are on a dinner date. Christian (James Deen), a born-rich movie producer whose real passion is making amateur porn, fiddles on his smartphone, using a hook-up app called Amour to set up a threesome “assignation” for himself and his girlfriend, Tara (Lindsay Lohan). He boasts of their varied sex life to the more conventional couple across the table, his assistant, Gina (Amanda Brooks), and her boyfriend, Ryan (Nolan Funk), whom Tara helped cast in the trash slasher film that Christian is financing. Gina and Ryan are embarrassed at Christian’s intimate revelation; Tara is peeved; Christian shrugs: “Just being transparent, baby.”

Because we have read Stephen Rodrick’s reportage about The Canyons in the New York Times Magazine, we’ve been warned to be wary of this opening scene, which in Rodrick’s opinion “dragged endlessly,” while “[s]ome tricky camerawork that Schrader threw in to break up the monotony only emphasized [its] deadness.” We know a lot because, per Pope, this was meant to be “the most open film ever,” and such openness leaves few unanswered questions about intention. The abandoned theaters, for example, must connect to the idea of the “post-theatrical era” that has been a talking point in Schrader’s innumerable interviews, his recent Reddit AMA, his live-Tweeting the movie, his countless Q&As. Schrader has made so many in-person appearances with The Canyons, in fact, you wonder if there isn’t more than one Paul Schrader out there, if he might not have multiple body doubles, like Stalin.

This goes beyond merely “doing press,” to the point where The Canyons’ interactivity—“Just being transparent, baby”—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. You can no more ignore context in considering The Canyons than Tara can ignore the program that blurts a text message onto her TV in the middle of a movie she’s desultorily half-watching, as many will half-watch Schrader’s film. To this extratextual freight you may add the dialogue inspired by The Canyons, in the language bred of online forums: Do you think The Canyons is “overrated” or “underrated”? Is it “so bad it’s good”? Did you see Kanye’s cut of the trailer? Are Paul Schrader and Ellis “trolling” their audience? How would you describe your reaction to the film in five .gifs or less? Can you send me a link to your Letterboxd review? All of this suits a movie addressed to this moment when we’re deciphering how our interfacing with various social media networks, and their etiquette, have affected our real, private lives, such as they are.

To prove a point, John Grierson, documentary theorist and the founder of Canada’s National Film Board, once divided a piece of paper between two columns: “Public” and “Private.” He put only two items under the “Private” column, Prayer and Making Love. No one in The Canyons shows any inclination towards the former, and the latter has become a performative, ritual act in thrall to an all-encompassing voyeurism—so what’s left? As Christian puts it, in one of the film’s many on-the-nose epigrams that only work because they come from a pseud philosopher: “Nobody has a private life anymore.” Ours is an always-on plugged-in world, and this brings anxiety about the erosion of inner integrity by constant exposure to the grind of social media feed. Would Grierson, if alive today, have Tweeted the above observation? Imagine Schrader’s most famous diarist, Travis Bickle, chopping his screeds into 140-character chunks.

Certainly The Canyons didn’t have a private life at any stage of its production, nor have two of its stars had one, in any traditional sense of the word, at any point in their adult lives. As Schrader says, The Canyons is post-theatrical—but it is still a narrative text in a vestigial movie-like shape that captive audiences, in New York City at least, will have the option to experience without paused breaks for bathroom and snacks and Internet, in a darkened room full of strangers, a 100-minute dramatic artwork with a visual schemata and storyline and characters and performances, and these things are worth considering as well.

First we must speak of Lindsay, LiLo, La Lohan. Her career is described in Wiki subheds as an arc from “breakthrough, Mean Girls, and music” to “Machete and legal issues” and “television work,” and she’s now fresh from her latest stint in rehab, which her director attributes to a fondness for Adderall. After some piecemeal work in unquestionably dismal farces (InAPPpropriate Comedy, Scary Movie 5), Lohan’s most recent high-profile appearance was playing Elizabeth Taylor in the 2012 Lifetime Original Movie Liz & Dick. At 27, Lohan does have something of the ripe-to-bursting appearance of 1960s Taylor, who, emerging from the stifling safety of studio publicist damage control, was among the first to experience the kind of modern celebrity that made a sideshow of Lohan’s DUI-collecting flailing. Like fellow child star Taylor, Lohan also has a certain inviolable veracity before the camera which can only come from a lifetime of faking it, from Jell-O commercials to probation officers. No noir cut-out, Lohan’s Tara is a very real woman, right down to the pink hosiery-mark visible on her midsection in the shower, the dappling of bruises on her thigh. (Under her messy mass of red hair, she seems notably less groomed than her preening costars.) The same note of roughness shows in Lohan’s tobacco-cured, beautifully gravelly voice, a reprimand to the macadamized smoothness of so many contemporary American screen actors’ delivery, and a remnant of the good old days when our brightest stars were dead of lung cancer by 55. And, unlike the vacationing Disney properties of Spring Breakers, the onetime star of The Parent Trap participates with her film’s debauchery in a far more complex, compromising, consequential fashion than tee-hee good-girl-gone-bad—if only on an intuitive level, Lohan understands trapped-in-a-golden-cage Tara’s ongoing struggle between abandon and strategy, despair and rebellion.

It’s Lindsay & Dick this time around, as Lohan’s been paired with the world-famous peen called James Deen. More ghosts of Hollywood past: Born Bryan Matthew Sevilla, the pompadour-wearing Deen lifted his nom de porn from the Rebel Without a Cause actor who, dying at age 25 with only three films in the can, became a legend. (Dean had rehearsed Rebel at the Chateau Marmont.) Compactly built like his namesake, Deen knew he wanted to be a porn star since he was a kid, and banished performance anxiety by putting on sex shows at parties, John Grierson be damned.

Deen has now lived longer and certainly logged more screen time than Dean, appearing in thousands of hardcore scenes to-date, tackling such roles as Quagmire in Family Guy: A XXX Parody. In 2012, Deen and his female following were the subject of a mock-concerned ABC Nightline profile, “Porn’s Boy Next Door,” which, as with much of mainstream press cashing in on the allure of porn stars, was content to leave the specifics of the subject’s work vague. Like any male performer, though, Deen is frequently called upon to avenge his honor in the sexual arena against bitchy lady bosses, shop girls, dad’s hot girlfriends, sister’s hot friends, etc., and that coiled, ready-to-lunge-and-fishhook air is hardwired into his performance style. Sex tape auteur Christian cultivates it, in fact, having cast himself as the bad guy in the multi-million dollar movie of his life, and much of what we see is the material projection of this fantasy, as corny as his colonized imagination. Christian straddles two spaces outside his vanity production office when he parks his Nissan GT-R. (Poor Ryan drives a beat Ford Bronco.) At his home on a Malibu hillside, an isolated white outpost that cascades towards the sea, Christian prowls his property with a proprietary, splay-footed saunter. This is a little boy’s idea of a villain: the curt, smug, final pop of Deen’s line-readings; the way he swirls a permanent smirk from one side of his mouth to the other as though he’s savoring a sweet; his forbearing, belittling air of always having to explain things to morons.

This attitude is not entirely unprovoked, for Ryan is not the brightest of bulbs—though unbeknownst to Christian he’s also an old flame of Tara’s from her starving actress days; when he is reunited with her during the casting process, the affair is reignited and he wants her back. Nolan Funk, playing Ryan, puts himself in the hunt for this year’s Craig Wasson Award for a mediocre actor playing a mediocre actor. Even in his most emotional scenes Funk sounds like he’s at a table reading. This, curiously, isn’t a liability for most of the movie—it plays as galling, clueless callowness—although when Ryan has to confronts the stranger who’s been trailing him through Amoeba Records, Funk shows that rage is well beyond his command.

If that scene sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because it’s a composite of scenes from Schrader’s 1980 American Gigolo: Lauren Hutton trailing Richard Gere into Tower Records; Gere later ambushing the goon hired to follow him outside of a movie theater. This isn’t the only borrowing from his own filmography that Schrader has done. Christian makes regular zipless fuck visits to ex Cynthia (Tenille Houston), a yoga instructor, at her pagoda-style bungalow on the East Side. Through the various moves that occur as Ryan and Christian try to out-maneuver one another, Ryan is reconnected with Cynthia, whom he’d had a fling with when they were in an acting class—“Strange how things work out,” she says. This line occurs nearly verbatim, as an emotional climax, in two of Schrader’s previous films: 1992’s Light Sleeper and 2007’s The Walker, itself a reworking of elements of Gigolo, which ends, in the same spirit, with Gere sighing, “My God, Michelle, it’s taken me so long to come to you.”

This is, in turn, a borrowing from the conclusion of Robert Bresson’s 1959 Pickpocket: “Oh, Jeanne, what a strange way I had to take to meet you!” Schrader wanted to emulate Bresson, whose films of the Pickpocket period suppressed emotion until it finally erupted in moments of devastating transcendence. In each of the above examples from Schrader’s films, the line occurs when a character who has heretofore been pursuing one thing—money or position or influence or some combination of the three—is pulled outside of his orderly world of immaculate appearances, finding himself at another destination: Let’s call it love. In The Canyons, though, that “Strange how things work out” is offhand, symbolic of very little, for indeed nothing has worked out at this point, we’re not given to believe that anything will, and the only thing that’s “strange” is how ubiquitous the territory-marking promiscuity is among this set. (That great tossed-off line by Ron Livingston’s pig agent in 2002’s Adaptation: “See her? I fucked her up the ass.”) It may be that, in this, The Canyons is more Ellis’s film than Schrader’s. But, beyond the influence of Bresson, it should be remembered that Schrader also took much from Godard—not just repurposing the fractured sex scene from 1964’s Une femme mariée for Gigolo, but also taking to heart JLG’s idea of the world-as-brothel. Schrader expressed this from a markedly nonpartisan perspective: Blue Collar, Schrader’s 1978 directorial debut, dealt with the cupidity of Detroit unions, while American Gigolo, released the year of Reagan’s election, anticipated and delineated the aesthetic, as well as the mercenary class stratifications, of the decade ahead.

The rich haven’t gotten poorer since, and Christian, whose “grandparents own, like, half of Thousand Oaks,” has a leg up on everyone else, as those with money always do. “I like the idea of someone lookin’ at something they can’t have,” he matter-of-factly tells Tara while planning the mise-en-scène of one of their shoots, “Guy thing. Power. Control.” And while Christian can afford final cut, those without cash have to use whatever they have at hand for leverage. The ink has dried on Tara’s contract, but she tries to maneuver within its boundaries. Ryan, still hustling for bartending shifts and pursuing an acting dream for nugatory rewards, only has his body to bargain with—Funk, a former gymnast and diver, shows off his cut torso at a physique mag shoot.

This corn-fed oaf makes a cuckold of Deen, America’s most famous professional cocksman, and Christian avenges his aggrieved pride by exhuming Ryan’s gay-for-pay past and railroading the dumb beauty into the firing line of menacing dicks, for Ellis’s queers are, given the opportunity, no less predatory than his straights. Well, almost—for Christian also has the trump card of being a psychopath. “Usually I’m the one in control, but last night I wasn’t,” he sulkily tells his psychiatrist after Tara has sexually humiliated him, suddenly a brat ready to take his ball and go home once the game turns against him. “Usually I’m the one directing the scene. Made me feel like I’m an actor.” In one of The Canyons’ nastier inside jokes, the psychiatrist, whom Christian must visit as a condition of his trust fund, is played by Gus Van Sant, director of Good Will Hunting, in which beardedly serious Robin Williams untangled Matt Damon’s knotted psyche and taught him to follow his heart.


Love is a class issue, contingent on money. This is by no means a novel observation, though the circumstances surrounding the arrival of The Canyons, pulling back the curtain on the film’s backstage workings, give it an added dimension. The transparency of the production illustrates how the packaging of a deal custom-made to meet the editorial criterion for significance resembles the arrangement of a tryst. A novelist dispirited by the marginalization of the novel turns to belligerent social media and writing screenplays; a screenwriter-cum-director dispirited by the marginalization of character-based film drama turns avatar of post-theatrical cinema. Unable to gain any traction individually, they hook-up, bringing on board a publicly troubled actress whose casting will at least convince the train-wreck spotters and celebrity death-pool ghouls to pony up their $6.99 at the iTunes store. Now just add Deen, the current matinee idol of the hardcore set, who, using his wiles like Ryan, as good as propositioned Ellis for the job through a Twitter courtship. (Deen is probably the only person who didn’t bring any anxieties about his relevance to the set.)

It is no small thing for Schrader to turn his back on theatrical cinema, for the writings of Parker Tyler on the ritual aspect of moviegoing once had a profound impact on him. Yet Schrader’s superstition hasn’t vanished with the multiplexes; on this point a passage from Tyler’s 1947 Magic and Myth of the Movies seems apt:

It is meaningful to recall that one of the ancient magical beliefs was the soul as shadow and reflection—the identity of the life principle of a human being with his shadow thrown by the sun or his image in water. Even in this century urban Chinese are found to be afraid of having a camera set before them, since apparently they believe that it is an evil eye or a machine that will rob them of their souls and cause their death as a result. Is it any wonder, therefore, that some of our most worshiped film actresses seem to be sleepwalkers, the mirages of souls incarnate, their own shadow selves, rather than real women? And those creatures known as zombies, the living dead of the West Indies, the body deprived of its individual soul, do they not have a place in the movies that might be defined as prophesied, inevitable, even scheduled?

Schrader already made his Cat People; this is his I Walked with a Zombie.

I haven’t elaborated on The Canyons’ previously stated raggedness. This is because what is interesting here is so much more interesting than the technical imperfections are vexing, and I’d prefer to witness an awkwardly shuffling beast like The Canyons any day to sitting through a finely wrought fraud like Short Term 12, which won the Audience Award at the same 2013 SXSW that Schrader’s film was turned away from. But, if you insist, here we go: A smartphone swap is used as a plot element and goes unnoticed for an entire day, which makes no sense in a movie that’s established that its characters spend their waking lives fondling their mobile devices. While cinematographer John DeFazio generally acquits himself, getting off some shots that capture the lushness and tropical lassitude of Los Angeles, there are some incongruous bits with blown-out hot spots that look like he’s doing a bad Robert Richardson impression and which should’ve and probably would’ve been discarded if there’d been time and money for reshoots. Finally, the timeline is a little dicey—Christian and Tara are established as having been together for a year, though Ryan says he hasn’t seen her in three years, “since she started hooking up” with Christian. (This may also be reflective of the vaporous anniversary boundaries that define “relationships,” as “hanging out” has become a coy synonym for fucking.)

Everyone’s “hung out” with everyone in this roundelay, and everyone seems to stay together “for about a year.” That “about a year” is part of the movie’s lingo, in which certain phrases and words recur with such frequency as to be stripped of all meaning: “babe” without tenderness, “love” without meaning, and of course, “happy.” “You guys look happy,” Christian shrugs at Ryan and Gina over that first dinner, an observation that Ryan and Tara’s clandestine meeting the next day disproves. “I know you better than he does. You’re not happy, Tara,” Ryan implores, to which Tara responds “Who said anything about happy? Fuck it, Ryan, who’s really happy?” And the film’s final line, once everything’s gone bust for good: “She seems happy, even if she’s, like, totally faking it.”

Like a road winding through the Hollywood Hills, The Canyons wends and doubles back incessantly, then drops you where it began. Another double-date, another small-talk conversation about going out-of-town and hotels, though this time Tara’s with a new man, across the table from a new couple, at a new restaurant. The blonde brings up a mutual acquaintance, Christian, and cross-examines Tara with questions about him. She then excuses herself to the bathroom, and phones to report the details of the conversation to an unseen interlocutor. “She seems happy…” she begins, more intent on smoothing out her wrinkles in the mirror. I won’t say who’s on the other end, for “spoiler alert” is another product of our degraded 21st-century discourse.

A far more esteemed movie-of-the-moment, 2010’s The Social Network, ended with Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg left alone in his triumph, waiting for an ex-girlfriend to confirm his Facebook “friend” request, anxiously refreshing the page. It’s a poignant little “Rosebud” reveal explaining the lonesome secret of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s Web 2.0 Kane, but the line “She seems happy, even if she’s, like, totally faking it” and The Canyons itself, get deeper into our fear of what we’re becoming. “Transparency” is just another word for reflection, a narcissist’s hall of mirrors. A culture of “reconnecting” and “keeping in touch” becomes a surveillance culture where, when being happy ceases to seem like an attainable goal, we settle for reassuring ourselves that no one else is any happier. It’s true the movie is cold; true it’s populated with self-serving dolts. So why, here, is it suddenly so heartbreaking?