Hollywood: The Wasteland

The Canyons
(USA, 99 min.)
Dir. Paul Schrader, Writ. Bret Easton Ellis
Starring: Lindsay Lohan, James Deen, Nolan Funk, Amanda Brooks.
Tara (Lindsay Lohan), and Christian (James Deen).
Courtesy of Mongrel Media 
“You can work around bad behaviour,” noted director Paul Schrader during an extended chat in Toronto earlier this year, “but bad casting leaves an irreparable, permanent imprint on a production.” Schrader made the comment while discussing his then-upcoming film The Canyons after presenting a clip at a screening of Taxi Driver hosted by The Seventh Art. Schrader’s comment, which was made in reference to the notorious on-set behaviour of star Lindsay Lohan, seems appropriate when the clip of The Canyons is put in the context of the film as a whole. The Canyons doesn’t suffer due to Lohan’s bad behaviour. In fact, she’s probably the best thing about the film. Bad casting, however, might still be the downfall of Schrader’s admirable misfire.

The seedy innovation of The Canyons makes it a cinematic event of sorts, however ironically one applies the term, and the novelty of the production is plainly evident in the unconventional casting of porn star James Deen as the male lead opposite Lindsay Lohan. Casting the top star of the adult entertainment industry alongside a former teen star gone tabloid headliner almost makes The Canyons a spot-on realization of screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis’s concept of “post empire culture,” where the residue of one generation becomes art in the next. The Canyons, however, never quite becomes art. The ruin of The Canyons, pre-release notoriety notwithstanding, may simply be the film’s earnest attempt to make art out of trash.

James Deen, despite his good looks and novel persona, isn’t the right person to sell yesterday’s garbage. Lohan can still carry a film, but Deen can’t. It ultimately seems pointless to cast an adult film star in such a heavy role, since The Canyons calls upon Deen only once to fill the frame with his, er, large screen presence. Whenever Deen holds the screen, The Canyons does indeed have “a deadness to it”, as one SXSW programmer aptly noted.

Deen’s brooding come-hither stare provides a good tease during the opening few minutes of The Canyons, yet his lack of dramatic skills betray him early in the film. For example, one ensuing scene sees Deen fill the frame with his well-toned body as his character, a sleazy trust-fund brat turned schlock movie producer named Christian, engages in one of his many nefarious affairs. Deen is rather convincing in the bedroom scene, but The Canyons quickly becomes flaccid as soon as Deen stops his business mid-thrust and opens his mouth. His line delivery has a flatness that would do Madonna proud. Deen, for all his extensive credits, can’t even provide a convincing “Y-E-S”.

Lohan, on the other hand, deserves more credit for The Canyons than the pre-release snark has given her. Lohan’s performance as Tara, Christian’s girlfriend/play-thing marks a surprisingly appropriate role with which Lohan may salvage her career. It’s hard not to see the parallels between the actress who made it big at a young age but got caught up in the scene that goes along with the spotlight and the twenty-something character who made a decent start in modelling but fell into a comfort zone of booze, sex, and excess to fill a meandering career. Lohan hasn’t shown this much dramatic range in years and she easily gives her best performance since Mean Girls almost ten years ago. The infamy of Lohan’s star persona enhances her performance unlike Deen’s, which brings untenable expectations.

The toll of Lohan’s lifestyle is plainly clear on Tara. One can almost see the hangover in her face as Tara restlessly drifts from one lover—or bottle—to another. There’s a desperation to the performance, too, but not in a bad sense, as Tara tries to break from the sex-kitten mould that Christian has put her in. She’s tired of the lifestyle and she wants a break from it, but she doesn’t know how to do so.

It might sound like trashing-humping to read so much into The Canyons, but the conflation of character and star persona is hard to shake from the film’s weary look at Hollywood in decline. The Canyons is very much about the decay of the film industry: it’s a way of business that’s killing itself off through its own methods and madness. Lohan delivers a monologue that affords the film its most coherent substance as Tara muses to a friend (Amanda Brooks) about the decline of the film experience. Going to the movies just isn’t something people do anymore, she notes. The Canyons stresses Tara’s nostalgia for the moviegoing days by offering chapter cards that indicate the time-frame of the film atop still frames of abandoned and decrepit cinemas.

The cinema, like Tara/Lohan, is killing itself off by its own reckless behaviour. As moviegoers turn away from franchise flicks that cost thirteen bucks a ticket and as the studios continue to churn out films of costly gaudy excess, the business devolves so that it survives on a temporary high. Fewer films are built to last these days and The Canyons plays upon a generation that thrives on sensory overload versus substantial communication. Like the redundant studio films that can’t bring people to the movie houses, the characters of The Canyons have an apathetic deadness to them that is filled with sex, alcohol, and blinking lights. Almost every major revelation in The Canyons is mediated through a text message or some form of iThing. These people have nothing to do but find anonymous sex partners on the internet and check their phones will the sit with other people during lunch. There’s nary a soul to be found in The Canyons, just hot young disposable things.

The debauchery and sordid behaviour of the despicable souls in The Canyons doesn’t make its point succinctly enough, though, to be entirely convincing. Comparisons to Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring or Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers might yield better (or worse) examples of films that have told similar cautionary tales of the youth of today, but The Canyons meanders too much in subplots and half-baked lewdness to make a strong impression. The cinematography by John DeFazio, though, is consistently striking, especially during the much-hyped group sex scene that accentuates the sleaziness of Christian’s urges with flashing neon lights, and the music by Brendan Canning adds a sense of blasé LA self-indulgence. Likewise, Lohan certainly holds her own and provides compelling moments, although comparatively weaker performances by less able supporting players and the fascinating, if limp, Deen suffocate the morale of The Canyons with dead air.

The film might be saved if Tara’s nostalgia for the moviegoing days is taken in light of the film’s production. The Canyons, famously known for its creation outside the studios and for its independent financing by the filmmakers and crowd-sourcing donors, is essentially the proof of Tara’s query. (The fact that the film is only available on VOD outside of major markets is an added bit of irony.) One knows that the industry is in a shady state when a great filmmaker looks into his own pockets and starts mining the dumpster for inspiration. The Canyons is not so much trash but innovative recycling, which is basically what the studio tent poles are but they find their way to theatres. Studio junk at least has some mind that the picture is being made for others, while self-financed films can circumvent studio red tape and move forward with self-indulgent and self-destructive choices. The Canyons has already turned a profit for the filmmakers, as the $250 000 film sold to IFC for a million dollars. The final product, however, suffers from a lack cohesion that is largely due to casting choices of which conventional backers might have been cautious. The Canyons, for all its admirable attempts to use the newest trends in independent filmmaking, is itself ultimately a by-product of circumstances that pay off commercially, but not artistically.

The Canyons’ air of vapidity never fully sells the idea that this new-age noir is really a moral fable about the decrepit state of cinema. The revival of Lindsay Lohan shows that something can indeed be saved in Ellis’s seedy scripting of post-empire culture, and the aura of sleaze and the laid-back stylishness of Schrader’s approach certainly give one the sense that The Canyons has something smart to say about the wasteland of Hollywood; it just never really comes together. (One would think James Deen could at least ensure that.) The Canyons a hot mess, which, ironically, is what many people say about most studio extravagances these days.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

The Canyons is currently playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
It is also available on iTunes.