Up front I want to acknowledge that this is not a review. If I had to write a proper review of The Canyons, it would exist solely of the one sentence that came storming into my head about 20 minutes in — which was “Why did I do this to myself?” — and then I would have turned it off and read a book.
My interest here didn't come from any hope that the movie would be good, but rather a morbid curiosity. Movies have always been for groups, best experienced in theaters as a communal activity, but the advancement of new media has made every step of the process a spectator sport. We can follow the development of a movie from the moment a writer and director are signed, through casting, and every day leading up to release with teasers, trailers, viral marketing campaigns, and, my favorite when it comes to the utterly shameless arena of modern movie publicity, trailers teasing the future release of an official trailer (looking at you, Prometheus). The industry has harnessed all the communicative power of the internet to turn movies into the incidental end product of a never-ending reality show.
The Canyons was maybe the weirdest example yet of an attempt to force interest in a movie no one cared about, primarily because the efforts to generate buzz seemed to come from a place where it was implicitly acknowledged that the movie would be horrible. Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis vacillated between shameless and quietly embarrassed in their endless shilling for the film on Kickstarter and in interviews. An entertaining if somewhat suspect New York Times article painted a picture of the production as a real-life Hollywood satire, a meltdown of epic proportions (maybe someone will actually make that movie one day). A general narrative arose around the movie that the movie itself had no necessary connection to — would it signal a kind of comeback or redemption for its Schrader/Ellis/Lindsay Lohan trifecta, all of whom could desperately use one, and, implicitly, who would actually care if it did?
Again, my interest isn't really in the movie itself — watch it, you'll see why. There's isn't much to say here about the finished product other than that it turned out about as is to be expected from Schrader, Ellis, and a Kickstarter. So instead, here's a quick Sunday State-of-the-Union — some thoughts I had while The Canyons was happening in the background.
Where Does Talent Go?
I am a huge fan of Ellis' pre-2000 novels and much of what Schrader has done up through and including 2002's Auto Focus, and while there are those who undoubtedly don't share those opinions, if there's one thing everyone seems to agree on it's that the new millennium has not been great to either of the two. I haven't seen Schrader's The Walker or Adam Resurrected, but the reviews lead me to believe I'm not missing much, and while I've read and seen some of Ellis' recent work, I mostly wish I hadn't.
One of the things that made sense about a movie like The Canyons from the outset was that Schrader and Ellis made their names trafficking in some dark and complimentary, if not overlapping themes. Schrader is comfortable with seediness and the process of descent — characters slogging almost helplessly toward points where they will either be redeemed or hopelessly and forever lost. Travis Bickle's efforts could land him in prison, dead, or (and maybe they still do) insane; LaMotta's uncontrollable jealousy makes an island of him; Nicolas Cage's character in Bringing Out the Dead continues returning to situations where failure will add another ghost (literally) to his already crushing existential guilt; even his not-as-bad-as-people-said-it-
Ellis' characters, however, are already lost — they occupy branches of society where privilege has made superficiality the entire currency and everyone is a one-dimensional “let them eat cake”–moment Marie Antoinette. Where Schrader's iconic characters often seem to be unwittingly courting their own destruction, Ellis' characters — unable to assimilate into the empty, morally bankrupt culture they're a part of, but simultaneously unable to identify the precise reason for their own malaise — become sources of menace and destruction. The combined efforts of the two on a story like this could have and should have yielded a pretty intense modern morality tale.
Instead, we get two artists going through the motions as if they never quite understood the “why” behind previous successes. There is mimicry here rather than genuine invention, and that the mimics are targeting themselves makes the flatness of the failure even stranger. I expected a disorganized catastrophe — an uneven roller coaster of characteristic elements banging together to no avail. That Schrader maintains what seems like complete control over every frame we see, and that every word of dialogue sounds like exactly what Ellis would have written all support the sense that making the movie was the exercise here, and the movie itself is a participant's medal already thrown to the bottom of a drawer.
Let's Not Make This a Thing
Remember when Steven Soderbergh made The Girlfriend Experience and everyone ran around beforehand yelling “There's a porn star in it! There's a porn star in it!” and it got the movie at least a bit more exposure due to the 95% artificially cultivated “controversy” of that fact, but then Sasha Grey gave a nuanced, simultaneously powerful and vulnerable performance in a movie entirely about the ways we construct control in various relationships?
Ellis and Schrader beat the same drum leading up to The Canyons, but forgot this last part, and as a result James Deen's empty, sometimes uncomfortable performance often seems worse than it actually is. If there's one thing Deen has down perfectly for this material, it's that he effectively radiates menace from a deep-seated discomfort with his place in an empty upper-class world. Given dialogue that betrayed more about the character's motivations — aside from the 5 or so minutes of mostly cliché daddy issues we get late in the movie — there may have been something here. Sitting around for an hour and a half uttering disconnected Ellis-isms about hooking up and casting people in a movie while looking at his phone, the performance is wooden and feels like we're watching rehearsals.
Is Kickstarter a Good Thing for the Film Industry?
I think Kickstarter, like many new applications of internet technology, will have tremendous potential right up until the moment where people display their incredible ingenuity in ruining it. On one hand I want to say with a resounding yes, that of course something like Kickstarter is good for contemporary film, as it provides a broader and possibly more democratic way for filmmakers to raise funds for projects while maintaining complete artistic control. As with video on demand releases for new films, any way to help filmmakers make their movies their way and get the final product to more audiences faster will be something I want to embrace.
The question here is how easy something like Kickstarter may also make it for established filmmakers to take advantage of crowd-funding in order to get around a studio process that would have halted a bad project before it began. Ultimately, putting control in the hands of fans as opposed to film execs (businessmen), seems like a win-win, even when you lose.
But even in a case like The Canyons, the mere fact that an established director and writer were using Kickstarter (still somewhat questionably viewed as being “off limits” for those who've already achieved a particular level of career success) got the film more mentions. Much like the James Deen factor, the benefit of Kickstarter here seemed primarily to be pre-release attention, with funding as a latent benefit — a key difference between this project and others recently where established artists have turned to crowd-funding as a genuine means of retaining full authorial control that would otherwise be compromised.
There Are Pretty Pictures at the Beginning
The film opens with stunning shots of beautiful old theaters that have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair. Combined with the story, in which characters occasionally use a film and potential roles as a means of manipulation, this could suggest a pessimism on the movement of the industry into the new media age — the industry exists as a device unto itself, even as film as an art form and a communal experience is dead. I don't really buy that that's what they were going for, but it would be more interesting.
The unfortunate singular success of The Canyons, then, is as an unintentional meta-movie; the product of a new filmmaking (and marketing) process that treats an individual film as an end to a means. One that does everything it can to make a film's actual quality irrelevant by the time audiences finally get to it. Either Schrader and Ellis have demonstrated that slyly by delivering a movie entirely devoid of any inherent justification for its own existence, or they've failed miserably by sacrificing their craft in favor of marketing attention that faded before it even got any traction. I know which one I think it is.