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.
Finding the entrance points to New York’s musical undergrounds has never been quite as simple as decoding MTA maps, though that’s usually the first step. Two excellent new books chart a decade-and-a-half worth of street-level detail, illuminating not only entrance points, but how they were willed into existence. Ed Sanders’ Fug You: An Informal History of the PEACE EYE BOOKSTORE, the FUCK YOU PRESS, the FUGS, and Counterculture in the Lower East Side handles 1962-1970, while Will Hermes’ astonishing Love Goes To Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever takes care of 1973-1977. The City’s secret connecting forces, the subway and otherwise, rumble evocatively beneath each, both New York classics in their ways.
Besides Allen Ginsberg, there was perhaps no bigger mover, shaker, or self-promoter in the mid-’60s East Village than Ed Sanders. Born in Kansas City in 1939, he founded The Fugs with the poet Tuli Kupferberg, immortalized in Howl!, who “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley ways & firetrucks.” As a singer, bookstore owner, and poetry zine publisher Sanders found national notoriety, including a February 1967 cover of Life, and helped network the New York counterculture to a larger national platform. Like Neal Cassady in the west, Sanders provided a link, as well, between the Beats and the hippies, and — in Sanders’ case — soon the Yippies. “We’re on the EAST SIDE,” The Fugs sang proudly on “We’re The Fugs,” a sloppy and joyous theme song that came two years pre-Monkees, and giggled in the face of congenial West Village guitar strummers. “Dope, peace, magic Gods in the tree trunks, and GROUP GROPE,” Sanders declared on “Group Grope.” They never quite made it big — they didn’t quite crack the top 50 on the Cashbox chart — but it was enough.
There is glee in Sanders’ vivid telling, playing straight man to an absurd world, despite being the one making the pornographic avant-garde films and selling Allen Ginsberg’s pubic hair and “well-scooped cold cream jar” through a rare books catalog he operated from his bookstore, where he spat out publications on a mimeograph. He is fond of asides that call lightly on deeper traditions he locates himself in, often the Egyptian hieroglyphics he taught himself to read at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Allen and Peter Orlovsky located a three-room pad at 704 East Fifth Street, near Avenue C, on the sixth floor. It was just $35 a month — Hail to Thee, O Rent Control!” For Sanders, the glory of the City is as a staging ground for what he has called “the forces of peace,” a thread he traced in his nine-volume America: A History in Verse, published between 2000 and 2008, which reads like an upbeat Howard Zinn and (besides The Fugs’ first recordings) is arguably Sanders’ most essential work.
In Fug You, those Forces wander local bars and underground newspaper headquarters, weather obscenity busts and CIA tails, and engage in pornographic avant-garde cinema and the still-thriving poetry scene. Sanders spews a dense and heady stew of facts, dates, and addresses with a mostly compelling lightness, cutting it every now and again with some groovy beauty. Here he is on The Fugs’ entrance to a 1968 gig in Los Angeles:
The club had rented a searchlight the night of our rite, which beamed white tunnels of psychedelic allure up towards Aquarius. There was an anarcho-bacchic Goof Strut parade into the parking lot of the club behind a mint-condition ’38 Dodge (similar to a Kienholz work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art).
But Sanders’ details can grow mechanical (or, worse, self-aggrandizing) as they accumulate. He enthusiastically catalogs group gropes and the varieties of drug use, but rarely gives much of his own experiences. There is almost none of his midwestern upbringing, and precious little on the brilliant and vivacious Tuli Kupferberg. Sanders himself has been a slightly-too-enthusiastic ’60s memoirist since at least 1975, when he published the first volume of his Tales of Beatnik Glory novels, and it’s possible he’s just out-biographied himself, which might account for Fug You’s occasional cold formality, despite its title. Though there is an element of archetypal ’60s solipsism to Fug You, and much of Sanders work, Sanders was there and kept his bearings.
For all that, though, Will Hermes’ Love Goes To Buildings on Fire comes across as more personal than Fug You. A Queens teen in the mid-’70s, Hermes himself shows up throughout, offering surprisingly tender evocations of his music-loving youth. “I’d been mugged on trains a few times, twice at knifepoint, coming home from Manhattan shows alone at night,” he writes, segueing from a Village Voice cover story about the atrocious state of the subway.
But the worst was in May , when I was stuck on a broken-down E train for an hour en route to the Port Authority Bus Terminal to meet a girl I was cross-eyed crushed-out on. She had tickets to see the Grateful Dead five hours north that night, at Cornell University’s Barton Hall. When I finally arrived, the girl and the bus — the last Ithaca run of the day — were gone. …Fucking subway.
Though drugs and the Dead turn up enough times to communicate that Hermes is writing from his continued position as a serious music head, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire is hardly a memoir in a literal sense. Instead, he picks up not long after where Sanders left off, the East Side counterculture almost in ruins at the outset. Though plenty of books have covered similar subjects — notably Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, and Tony Fletcher’s All Hopped Up and Ready to Go — Hermes finds fresh details everywhere, a dizzying succession that piles luminously atop another in a bright layering of punk, hip-hop, disco, Latin, avant-garde, and jazz history.
In a typical passage, he writes, “As it turned out, Einstein [on the Beach]’s most indelible music involved the incantations of ‘One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight,’ which were being rehearsed on Spring Street just as the Ramones, down at CBGB, counted off every song “One-two-three-four!” He specializes in sudden juxtapositions, jumping from Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese’s favorite post-work Chinese-run Latin joint (La Tacita de Oro on 99th and Broadway) while shooting Taxi Driver, to Rubèn Blades’ favorite post-work Chinese-Cuban place (La Caridad on 78th and Broadway) not far away, near the Beacon Theater.
Two of the genres whose births Hermes recounts — hip-hop and disco — arguably evolved into the two most global pop genres of the 21st century, both in forms directly traceable to New York in the mid-’70s. Other developments in punk and minimalism forever changed the conversation, sound, and infrastructures of rock and roll and classical music. Though the ceaseless crashing of names might prove overwhelming to non-music obsessives, quick trips to YouTube are an easy fix. At its most basic, the book is a rich and invaluable crash course in the roots of contemporary music.
As much as it belongs on that of any serious music fan, Love Goes To Buildings on Fire especially, belongs on a long NYC-centric bookshelf that begins with Russell Shorto’s Island at the Center of the World. Read as an oddly upbeat and unintentional sequel to Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, the heroes of Love Goes To Buildings on Fire are themselves pivot points in New York’s history between “Ford To City: Drop Dead” and the MARCH squads dispatched by the Rudolph Giuliani/Michael Bloomberg-era NYPD to crack down on illegal artist lofts. Mark Alan Stamaty’s Buildings on Fire cover illustration depicts the teeming City perfectly, musicians’ caricatures sprouting like towering fauna from the cement. It was a City growing denser. In 1960, just before Ed Sanders arrived in New York, there were roughly 336 artists, writers, and musicians per 100,000 American citizens, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. By 1980, just after the end of Hermes’s period, that number was up to around 565 per 100,000, and likely even greater in Manhattan, where the general population had shrunk to its lowest level in a half-century, a City about to transform into something beyond its own oddest dreams.
The sounds and ideas of disco and hip-hop and punk and salsa and minimalism and free jazz made their way across rivers and around the world on the backs of ever-cheaper technologies. Everywhere, they mushed into advertising and bland pop mutations, but also freethinking new turns, where the blueprints for counterculture remain deep inside the music, ready for deployment against lame government, bureaucracy, or blandness. And though those people making wondrous new things in their bedrooms or garages might not identify themselves as the Forces of Peace as much as Sanders and his Pentagon-levitating brethren may like, there is little else they could possibly be.