The Canyons

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

22 July

Paul Schrader born, 1946

Today in 1946, the writer, critic and director Paul Schrader was born, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA. The son of religious parents, he was brought up by strict Calvinist standards and didn’t see a film until he was 17. He studied theology, then went on to do film studies at UCLA Film School, having met the famous critic Pauline Kael by accident en route and become one of her critic protégés.

His first screenplay, co-written with his brother Leonard, was The Yakuza, and commanded the highest price for a script ever paid (according to the scuttlebutt). Next he wrote Obsession for Brian De Palma and Taxi Driver for Martin Scorsese. Not a bad one, two, three.

Schrader’s debut as a director came with 1978’s Blue Collar, and he followed that up with Hardcore, based on his own Calvinist background. Since Schrader’s sensational debut he has continued to write (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Affliction) and direct (Patty Hearst, Touch, The Walker, Adam Resurrected), his films often touching cultural hot-button issues, often dealing intensely in guilt, redemption and the difficulty of doing the right thing in a bad world.

The Canyons (2013, dir: Paul Schrader)

The Canyons is a work of douchebag genius, Paul Schrader’s best film since god knows when also generating publicity headlines because of the presence of Lindsay Lohan in the cast. In the fickle up and down of public taste – as gauged by the highly selective mass media – Lohan was at this point a pariah, a laughing stock, a “train wreck”. So the film got sidelined and Lohan’s brilliant, gutting performance got ignored. And she’s playing close to home too, as the ingénue on the outer rings of Hollywood who’s hooked up with some trustafarian asshole (James Deen, of porn star fame) hoping he’ll get her some gig somewhere, anywhere.

Schrader ushers us into the action having first shown us a series of stills of abandoned movie theatres. We’re living in a post-cinema world, seems to be the idea, before Schrader embarks on a genre of movie straight from the high water mark of cinematic culture – film noir. Tara (Lohan) used to be in a relationship with Ryan (Nolan Funk), but dumped him to be with Christian (name surely ironic, played by Deen), who now suspects that she has taken up with Ryan again (because she has) and is having her tailed, him tailed, everyone involved tailed, is reading her phone messages, and so on. That’s all the plot anyone needs to know.

If no one likes a porn star trying to go straight, then Schrader has cast the dubiously talented Deen perfectly, because he’s playing a nasty piece of work, someone who’s basically a psychopath who’s been kept out of real trouble by his cushion of wealth. Total control is Christian’s game, hence the most attention grabbing sections of the film, when he routinely invites random good looking people over for sex with him and Tara.

We see it all – close-ups of his cock, her swinging breasts and corned beef legs (Lohan so suddenly middle aged for one so young) – but also, and just as tellingly, the drinks by the pool, the swish cars. Whether Tara is going to carry on being a hostage to her own greed, wants to be a pampered pet or her own woman is ultimately what the entire film revolves around, Bret Easton Ellis’s screenplay a-bristle with deadpanning morality.

Schrader knows his films and his film-makers and his careful choice of old Hollywood locations means there’s always a hint of Sunset Boulevard in the mix – the Billy Wilder flick about Hollywood’s dark side that had Louis B Mayer so incensed he wanted Wilder tarred, feathered and horsewhipped. And the casting of Lohan is iconic too, since she’s the direct heir of Elizabeth Taylor at her peak – wanton, mascara-streaked, uncontrollable and on her day just about unbeatable. This is Lohan’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and if Taylor was then playing a spitfire drunk whose marriage (on-screen and off-screen to co-star Richard Burton) was on the rocks, then this peek behind the celebrity pages at a young woman who is told by her dominating boyfriend that “no one has a private life any more” is a case of same-same.

If you don’t like sleaze, you won’t like this film’s 1980s porn vibe. But even with an Easton Ellis script it’s undoubtedly a Schrader film – full of acid energy with the possibility of redemption as its key. Once a Calvinist…

Why Watch?

  • A brilliant Lohan performance
  • Hollywood’s underbelly
  • Too good for Sundance and SXSW, among many
  • A notorious movie

The Canyons – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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