Bad movies, like all bad art, have an important job to do. Without them we wouldn’t be able to identify, appreciate, and differentiate the great, the good, and the merely passable. It’s not that bad is the new good. It’s that bad is vital and timeless because without it there could be no good.
And make no mistake about it, The Canyons, the new movie directed by Paul Schrader, written by Bret Easton Ellis, and starring Lindsay Lohan, is very bad. You sense this from the first frames when, to droning synthesizer moans, the credits play over washed-out still photos of abandoned movie theaters. Bummer! People have stopped going out to see movies!
Says who? Says Paul Schrader. In an interview with the Tribeca Film Festival, the writer of some classic movies (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and the director of some pedigreed dogs (Hardcore, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper) explained that this credit sequence was his way of lamenting the fact that technology is killing the communal experience of going to a theater to sit in the dark with strangers and watch large pictures move on a screen. “The two-hour format is under siege,” Schrader said. “But the whole concept of visual entertainment is expanding… This myth that people will always want to go out to the movies, they’ll always want a communal experience – I don’t know that that’s necessarily true.”
This sounds like those doomsayers who worried that television was going to kill the movies half a century ago, but whatever. The Canyons opens with a long, rudderless scene in a restaurant where we meet the main characters, a reptilian crew who are all involved in the making of some kind of B movie. The king lizard on this reptile farm is Christian, played by James Deen (get it?), a veteran of some 4,000 porn movies but a newcomer to a serious dramatic role. It shows. Deen has a hard time giving a convincing line reading, and yet after a while I started to see him as an inspired casting choice. Christian is a trust fund kid (he refers to his father as “The Asshole”) and he wears his sense of entitlement effortlessly and convincingly, on his face and in his body language, in his car and his clothes and his promiscuous sex life and, especially, in his preposterous house perched above the Pacific. He’s a character only Bret Easton Ellis could love.
His girlfriend is Tara (Lohan), who looks puffy and wears Kabuki eye makeup and sounds like she’s back on the Xanax. As a pampered party girl who doesn’t do much of anything but have sex, drink, and go to the gym, Lohan is another inspired casting choice. It’s impossible to separate her tabloid meltdowns from what’s on the screen here, and in an unsettling way, it works. Christian and Tara are celebrating the fact that Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), a pretty-boy hick just off the bus from Michigan, has won the lead role in Christian’s new movie, with a boost from Tara. Ryan’s girlfriend Gina (Amanda Brooks) is Christian’s assistant. Neither Christian nor Gina is aware that Ryan and Tara are having an affair. Welcome to the reptile farm.
Throughout this scene, Christian and Tara gaze into their smartphones as if they’ve been hypnotized by the things. Eventually we learn why: Christian likes to take videos of the hookups he and Tara make with a revolving cast of men and women. Who needs movie theaters when you can make porno in the comfort of your own home?
And that’s pretty much what The Canyons is about. It seems to want to join the venerable company of movies about the making of movies, from Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive, The Player, and Hugo. But there isn’t any actual movie-making in this movie. Instead, these people do drugs, they do lunch, they do each other. They drive around and walk through malls and shop. The sex scenes are graphic without being even slightly erotic, which could be the whole point. The dialogue is often dreadful (“Nobody has a private life anymore” and “Who’s really happy?” and this line of inspired sexual foreplay: “Get to work. Put it in your fucking mouth”). In the end it’s hard to care about any of these people, with the possible exception of Tara because Lohan, our distaff Charlie Sheen, brings a raspy vulnerability to the part. Again, that might be the whole point. After all, we’re deep in Bret Easton Ellis country, southern California zip code. Which means there will be sex and there will be blood and anything goes and nothing matters.
Much has been written about how Schrader made this movie on the cheap after raising $170,000 on Kickstarter. His goal was to get out from under the thumb of studio suits. As someone who has written magazine articles that got carved up by committees of editors, I can appreciate Schrader’s yearning for creative control. But if this mess is what creative control produces, I say bring back the suits.
On paper, the pairing of Schrader and Ellis looks like a natural. Both have had long, if uneven, careers working society’s margins, exploring the lives of misfits, the privileged, the kinky, the benumbed. I’ve long admired Ellis for having the courage to create mercilessly repellent characters, especially given today’s tyranny of likability. I think the anomie-soaked Less Than Zero is his best book. But he has given up novel writing in favor of screenwriting, a sensible career move given the way moving images continue to overwhelm and marginalize the writing of serious fiction in America. Based on what’s on the screen here, though, maybe he should consider returning to his fictional roots. I haven’t read The Canyons script, but I saw what’s on the screen. At one point Christian, who is about as deep as a mud puddle, offers this bit of gravitas: “We’re all just actors.” And when Tara takes control of a four-way sex scene, Christian moans to his shrink the next morning, “I felt objectified.” Everyone in the theater burst out laughing.
Ellis was unhappy with the finished product. “The film is so languorous,” he told the New York Times. “It’s an hour 30, and it seems like it’s three hours long. I saw this as a pranky noirish thriller, but Schrader just turned it into, well, a Schrader film.”
Indeed he did. When this Schrader film’s final scene ended, everyone in the theater burst out laughing again. This was not amused or delighted laughter. It was derisive, and it indicates just how very bad this movie is, how far apart its intention is from its achieved effect. Which is why it is such an excellent misadventure, and very much worth seeing.
Film and literature are two vastly different mediums of communication, an argument best captured in the sentiments a friend wrote to me recently:”I identify books with age and place. It’s a nasty habit as it carries with it a certain sentiment that is not in the book itself, rather the impressions of habitat where and when I was reading a particular book, not to mention my desires at the time.”I replied to my friend that he had defined and distilled the reading experience. It’s those precise differences in approach that make the reading experience so monumental. No two people can read a book the same way, particularly people with different life histories.But film is a visual medium. Movies give us iconic images that last a lifetime. Or so I believed until recently.In early 2004 I wrote a series of 28 blithely interconnected short stories for L.A. Stories. One of the tales, “Bill’s Bottle,” is a first-person narrative that provides a voyeuristic look at the tragic death of film icon William Holden from the point of view of the fatal bottle of vodka that contributed to his passing.Immediately after “Bill’s Bottle” appeared on the fiction page at the L.A. Stories website I received perplexed e-mails from my readers, all asking the same question: “Who the hell is William Holden?””I just looked up his movies on the Internet Movie Database,” one reader wrote, “and I have to say that I am not familiar with the man or his work.”Not familiar with the star who appeared in a bevy of classic motion pictures? Consider just a small handful of Holden’s iconic roles: The struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Major Shears in David Lean’s epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Max Schumacker in Paddy Chayefsky’s clairvoyant Network. Pike Bishop in Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked western The Wild Bunch.There was a time when Billy Wilder’s 1953 classic Stalag 17 – set in an Allied POW camp in World War II during one memorable Christmas, starring Holden as rough-hewn Sergeant Sefton – was a holiday perennial on television. Not anymore. This year I was compelled to rent the movie on video in order to add it to my plate of favorite Christmas movies.I purchased a previously viewed VHS of Stalag 17 at my local Blockbuster just a few days before Christmas. Pawing through the bin of discarded videotapes I discovered a virtual treasure trove of William Holden films being chased out the door for a mere $4.99 apiece: Picnic, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the original Sabrina. (A further irony is that every title mentioned possesses either a theatrical or literary pedigree but that’s another matter entirely.)William Holden was an alcoholic for much of his adult life. Biographer Bob Thomas points out in his book Golden Boy that the ruggedly handsome actor was embarrassed to make a living as an actor, believing the profession to be not only unmanly but downright humiliating. Holden began having a snort or two before scenes, a shyness killer that would eventually kill the man himself in a most gruesome and embarrassing manner.Holden was no Olivier but he was one of the greatest stars who ever graced the silver screen. In 1995 – fourteen years after his death – Empire Magazine selected Holden as one of the 100 Sexiest Stars in Film History. Securing Holden’s lofty place in the often-strange intersection between literature and film is this interesting factoid: J.D. Salinger got the name for protagonist Holden Caulfield in the classic book The Catcher in the Rye from the movie Dear Ruth, which starred William Holden and Joan Caulfield.Today, though, William Holden, sadly, is largely unknown. I moved “Bill’s Bottle” to my website earlier this year and reading the site meter for that page provides an excuse to ponder where our culture is going and has gone. “Bill’s Bottle” receives less than two page views per month. On the other hand, “Dead Porn Stars,” a trade magazine piece I wrote for X Biz World exploring those in cyberspace who are cashing in on late, great porn stars, receives over 1,000 page views per week.One thousand page views for dead porn stars per week. Two page views for Bill Holden.You do the math.
Sara wrote in looking for a specific Hollywood-related novel:I found a link to your site about books relating to Hollywood. I need to buy a gift and can’t remember the title of a recently published fiction book about screenwriting and Hollywood… wondered if you could steer me in the right direction. Interesting site; glad to have found it through google.Glad you found The Millions, Sara. After I received Sara’s question, I immediately thought of a new novel by David Freeman called It’s All True (an exchange of emails confirmed that this was correct) because the book store where I work had just hosted a signing of his new book. Freeman is a “reformed screenwriter,” and his novel about an aging world-weary scribe has been better received than most novels that use Hollywood as a backdrop. The question made me wonder if there are any other notable novels with screenwriter protagonists. I feel like I’m probably missing some notable titles, but I was able to find a couple that sound interesting. Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood. Here’s the description: “Originally published in 1945, Prater Violet is a stingingly satirical novel about the film industry. It centers around the production of the vacuous fictional melodrama Prater Violet, set in nineteenth-century Vienna, providing ironic counterpoint to tragic events as Hitler annexes the real Vienna of the 1930s. The novel features the vivid portraits of imperious, passionate, and witty Austrian director Friedrich Bergmann and his disciple, a genial young screenwriter — the fictionalized Christopher Isherwood.” The other one that caught my eye is a later work by Ray Bradbury called Death Is a Lonely Business. It is an interesting foray into noir with a supernatural twist. I also, in thinking about this question, couldn’t help but recall one of my all time favorite movies, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard about a struggling screenwriter who becomes the kept man of an aging, and increasingly delusional, Hollywood starlet.