The Canyons: The People of the Abyss

(Spoilers, darlings.)

A movie about when people stop watching movies, but just keep watching. A movie that has gotten one respectful review “Paul Schrader’s The Canyons”, from a very good writer, Richard Brody, and many reviews which ridicule it. Brody sees the public life of Lindsay Lohan and James Deen’s porn career as tangential, where I see them as central to the movie, the film deliberately built around the off-screen, the movie’s principal theme the overwhelming of the on-screen life of movies by the off-screen.

It opens with a series of black and white stills of abandoned movie theaters, accompanied by an ominous electronic score. The Canyons is about the collapse of one industry that benefits from the collapse of another; though it was shot on a micro-budget, it has a far better collection of music than anything with such a fractional budget might have in the past two decades, graced by artists who might otherwise have been scooped up by major labels, who instead are stuck in the vast abandoned expanse that was once the American music business. The synth music that plays over these opening credits, and much of the movie, is professional, compelling, and cheerless; you feel like you’re hanging out at a discotheque run by Torquemada. Reviewers have tried to connect this opening with what follows, but for me, the connection is simple, and it’s what makes the casting of Lohan so crucial: American movies as a cultural force have collapsed, but the celebrity industrial complex built around it, persists, exists now outside and independent of it. Lindsay Lohan has not been in major movies for a few years now, yet she’s one of the biggest stars in the world, her name alone the reason for the furor around this tiny movie. The casting of the film’s leads implies that the voyeurism of this celebrity is something like the voyeurism of pornography.

This theme has three anchoring shots, at the very beginning, during its most explicit sequence, and the movie’s end. The opening is a restaurant sequence where we hear the voices of the characters, but they are out of sync with the faces shown, the characters seen head on, as if we ourselves were at the table, intimates; celebrity culture is built around this very idea of the voyeur, the stranger, feeling as if they are an intimate of some famous man or woman. The course of the movie follows the ongoing degradation of Ryan by Christian, the exertion of power by one man over another, and we move back and forth from the perspectives of Ryan and Christian, across from each other, at the table. Though not quite – when we look at Ryan, it is our perspective, it is we looking at Ryan, it can’t be Christian’s perspective, because Christian is looking down at his phone, Ryan’s own looks only briefly and occasionally returned. So, this is a movie that establishes immediately that it is the audience looking at Ryan, Ryan looking hopefully back, as if at Christian, but in actuality, at us, and we confuse our own looking with Christian’s perspective.

The Canyons People of the Abyss

The Canyons The People of the Abyss

The names of the lead couple are not, I think, idly chosen. Movies are, as portrayed here, an empire in decline, like that of Rome, and the christian creed was of course born within and begins its spread during this decline. Christian is a man who constantly surveils his girlfriend and manipulates her into various couplings. His girlfriend is played by Lohan, and Christian acts something like the celebrity press, always monitoring the celebrity, always looking forward to them ending up in a new assignation. Christian’s creed, this creed, is the nascent faith of our time, the one that has developed in the wake of the collapsed movie empire. Christian’s girlfriend is portrayed as a complicit party in this, someone who abides her boyfriend’s brutal behaviour, who cannot leave him, and this, I think, accurately captures the mixed feelings of most celebrities: I don’t think I want this attention, not like this, but I can’t walk away from it. The girlfriend is named Tara, and I think this must be a nod to the most famous plantation in movie history, that of Gone with the Wind. Tara is a woman, but she’s also a piece of valuable real estate.

That the film is about our own gaze, our looking on what Christian arranges for us, is established in this opening, when we look at Ryan as if we were Christian, though Christian isn’t looking at him. The characters looking at the camera in this scene can at least be explained in the context of the action; the camera is taking the perspective of the facing character. There is no such explanation for the two other anchoring shots, which I think can only be explained by the theme of the audience’s own voyeurism. In the midst of the orgy, Tara looks up, directly at us, and there is no explanation within the action for this. We are given no sign of a camera filming her, there is no character she is looking at. She is looking at the audience, and her look is accusatory, not seductive at all, and I read it as simply as this: is this what you came for? This isn’t Tara looking at the camera, facing down the audience, it’s Lohan, the Disney princess in the midst of a bacchanal, challenging the audience: is this what you finally wanted, or isn’t it? This is the second anchoring shot, and the movie ends with the third. Throughout, Tara is under surveillance by Christian in one way or another, whether it’s having a man follow her during her travels, monitoring her cell conversations, or getting his assistant to relay the details of wha they talked about at lunch. The film finishes with Tara once again under surveillance, a dinner guest sharing with someone by phone what Tara has just told her. We expect the person at the other end to be Christian, but it turns out to be Ryan, the most vulnerable, powerless figure of the film. He moves the phone away as the caller wonders if he’s still there, and unmistakably looks directly at us, and that is the closing shot of the film. What can this final shot mean, why does Ryan look at us as if we are complicit in spying on Tara, unless the complicity has nothing to do with spying on Tara, but our complicity in spying on Lindsay Lohan?

The Canyons The People of the Abyss

The Canyons People of the Abyss

The film’s title, The Canyons, feels like a nod to the reality TV soap opera, The Hills, the shift to the depths not simply geographic. The title nod is not an idle gesture either, the movie itself designed like a soap opera. Scenes reveal almost nothing of the four main characters themselves, only information necessary for specific plot twists. Gina spies on Tara for Christian. Tara and Ryan are still seeing each other. Cynthia, an ex-girlfriend of Ryan’s, tells Tara a story of her past, that is actually something constructed by Ryan in an attempt to break up the relationship of Christian and Tara, etc. The dialogue is generic in the manner of a soap opera; though the story is set in Los Angeles, nothing in what’s said gives away the setting – you could re-locate the story in New York without difficulty. I look up for reference to find out where “General Hospital” is set – Port Charles, some place in the northeast. It might as well be set in the northwest or the midwest. This applies as well to the way characters use social media. When you read Maureen O’Connor’s excellent “All My Exes Live in Texts: Why the Social Media Generation Never Really Breaks Up”, you see how all the old desires and erotic memories which might have had no path to traverse in the past, now have a ubiquitous, ever present path, by which one might connect with, or surveil, a past love1. O’Connor’s amatory ecosystem could not be reimagined with landlines, but the plot of Canyons, could without difficulty.

Though it’s set in the movie industry, nothing in the way the characters speak suggest their industry, the way the speech of those in IT might be different from a group of doctors, say. The overwhelming indicator that we are dealing with people in the movie industry, and often the only one, is their sense of desperation. Ryan keeps submitting himself to one degradation after another in order to keep his role in a terrible horror movie, and almost every relationship is the submission of one person to another. A producer suggests that Ryan can only keep his part through sex. Ryan gives him what he wants, but shames him at the same time that he satisfies him, and this shaming look is something like the one Lindsay Lohan gives the audience: I’ll give you what you want, but I’ll make you feel lousy for wanting it. Ryan asks another man for work, and the man suggestively places his leg next to Ryan’s. There’s a photo session of Ryan posing in his underwear, and whether this is for publicity or extra money is unclear, and it is unnecessary. It is the same question that exists with many of the pictorials that Lohan has done – is this for publicity, money, or both? And the overriding reason is the same reason for Ryan’s photoshoot: to see you with your shirt off. To ask that you be naked, and for you to comply.

The Canyons The People of the Abyss

The Canyons People of the Abyss

The Canyons People of the Abyss

The Canyons People of the Abyss

Ryan’s experiences are those of many, if not all actors, and so they inevitably overlap with Lohan’s life, where we might see this constant insecurity, this desperation, reach a kind of diminuendo. You can have it all, and still have nothing. The poster for Apocalypse Now in the production office feels like a sick joke: there is no possibility that Ryan will ever be in such a movie, nor that such a movie could even get made now.

The Canyons The People of the Abyss

If you’re an actor, you do everything you can to hold on to the roles you can get, because they might be a stepping stone for actual, quality work, quality work that’s so rare or even ceased to exist in Hollywood. You can see why this stress may have gotten to Lohan, and this subtext is the only explanation for why her character looks so worn down – we assume a desperation that is something like what Ryan feels, and what Lohan most likely felt: I want to succeed, but it feels like every move is a losing move, that people get more out of me losing than winning. When Christian puts down Ryan’s ambition it feels like a putdown of Lohan and her career that you can find without difficulty on-line, of Lohan or many others who’ve had great success followed by failure:

The Canyons The People of the Abyss

CHRISTIAN
Poor, poor ryan. It all seemed so exciting. When you were 18, and that photographer found you. Class trip from michigan, all the way out to los angeles. Yeah, hollywood. And you were suddenly so far away from that shithole town you grew up in. So you did some modeling shoots. Everyone was so encouraging. You even did a commercial or two. I saw one on youtube for pringles2. Looked like a fucking moron. Then what, huh? Nothing. Nada. So now you’re bartending with the occasional hotel gig to supplement your income.

That the celebrity life outside of movies is now given greater focus than the movies themselves is embodied in the very actions of the characters in the movie itself. The film that has brought these four people together is barely mentioned, and is assumed to be terrible. Christian says at the opening dinner that there’s no way he’s going to be on-set for the film, he’s too busy making his own movies – the private sex films with Tara. When Tara is followed by a stranger, I was briefly unsure of whether this was part of the movie, or a stray parapazzo that had been integrated into the film’s plot3; I think this is intentional, a deliberate reminder of the off-set movies which now dominate Lohan’s career.

The Canyons People of the Abyss

When Tara asks Gina when was the last time movies meant something to her, it feels like Lohan herself asking what’s the point of all of this. Cynthia describes the fabricated story she tells Tara as the first acting gig she’s had in years. The plotting and counter plotting of Christian and Ryan consumes them entirely, something they give themselves over instead of moviemaking. Perhaps the moment most revealing of this idea of the off-screen overwhelming the on-screen is when Christian explains to his therapist why he hated so much his brief loss of power, when Tara forced him to kiss another man, let another man fellate him. He describes what he sees as the distinction between directors and actors. The roles have no aesthetic quality. Actors are objects. Actors are exposed to others. Actors are slaves, and directors are masters. The difference is a question of power. The difference is a question of control.

The Canyons People of the Abyss

CHRISTIAN
There were certain things that tara and the other girl wanted us to do, and I don’t even know why I care. Just some dumb kids on the
internet I’ll never see again. Just…didn’t feel like I wasn’t in control. I felt objectified. The way the two of them just watched and told us what to do. Doesn’t usually go down like that. Usually I’m the one directing the scene. [chuckles] It made me feel like an actor. It’s kinda like how I feel when I’m here.

THERAPIST
You feel like an actor when you are here?

CHRISTIAN
We’re all actors, aren’t we? I mean…we all act differently, depending on the situation we’re in or we’re around. I don’t act the same way with you as I do when I’m with tara. Just last night and here…were pronounced, that… Disconnect. So do you worry about being an actor when you’re here? It doesn’t worry me. I just don’t like it. I don’t like to feel like I’m not in control.

The conjunction of this desperation and Lohan’s own life is what I see as giving the movie the power that it has. That Lohan’s skills remain formidable, that she is given the same plot driven dialogue as everyone else, yet builds something substantial out of it, only contributes to the power. Without this, it is simply a generic exercise, one that appears insistently generic, so generic that it makes you wonder, why was it so difficult to get financing? It is very much a plot driven film, with an all white cast – there is nothing here that we might think of as something that Hollywood avoids producing or does not produce. The film replies to the modern emptiness of American film, by re-creating this emptiness in a different context, one that makes it about the space surrounding the emptiness that we all think about, that preoccupies us more than the movie itself. I think it is done with specific intent, but even with thist intent, it remains emptiness. American film is an abyss, and this movie is an abyss that gazes back. When an empire collapses, a new, more vital tribal art might make clear why the empire fell, that a vitality that was once within the city gates is now without. This new art will not simply wear mourning robes for the old, but carry new life. When the old way of making movies in the 1970s was questioned, new movies sounded the death knell, but they also provided new paths, an escape route. This film provides no such thing. The Canyons gives us no exit.

All images copyright Canyon Productions and associated producers.

FOOTNOTES

1 Perhaps the most emblematic moment in O’Connor’s piece, when a old boyfriend from college contacts her:

That night, Jason sent me a friend request on Snapchat. It was 1:30 a.m.

“It seems odd that at the beginning of the Internet everyone decided everything should stick around forever,” Snapchat co-founder Evan Spiegel noted months after the launch of the app, now the preferred messaging client for sexting because messages are photographs and designed to self-destruct after a few seconds. “It’s about the moment, a connection between friends,” Snapchat’s website says. “Enjoy the lightness of being!”

The Czech novelist Milan Kundera coined the phrase “the lightness of being” in 1984’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He meant it as a counterpoint to “the heaviest of burdens,” Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return: “If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus was nailed to the cross,” he wrote. “It is a terrifying prospect. In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.”

When we talk about sexual history, we often talk about “the number,” a quantification of sex partners that haunts or ennobles. But when I asked my friends, I found their running naked-picture tallies were just as readily available—if not more available. My friends were polarized: Either the number was so low it could be counted on one hand, or it was too high to count. “Hundreds?” one offered.

Sending a message designed to self-destruct is like prefacing a conversation with “Can you keep a secret?” or pausing a make-out session to turn out the lights. Tawdriness is not guaranteed, but its possibility is part of the fun. Not that it’s always wise. I wrote my reply to Jason on a piece of paper and snapped it back: “NO GOOD can come from a soon-to-be MARRIED MAN friending an ex on SNAPCHAT.” His defense: “It was only 10:30 my time. Also you’re wrong about Snapchat.”

2 I thought this ad was a reference to something from Lohan’s career, but it might be taken from someone else, whose name might be known to you:

3 I give one surreal moment from Lohan’s life as an example. From “In Lindsay’s Stardust Orbit” by the movie’s producer, Braxton Pope:

Fueling the growth of tabloid blogs and entertainment-news shows is the paparazzi, which similarly seem constantly subject to Lindsay’s gravitational pull. They hightailed it after Lindsay in a locust swarm when she left our suite at a Santa Monica hotel and followed us to the local mall, where we were trying to steal a shot. Later, filming at my house, their heads popped over the six-foot-tall cinder-block wall in my backyard, whack-a-mole style, cameras dangling around their necks, as a blonde reporter from the L.A. Fox affiliate prepared to issue a live report. Meanwhile, on two separate days a peculiar man lumbered up and down the sidewalk, carrying a bucket. Lindsay recognized him instantly. Between drags on a cigarette her assistant causally observed that he was hiding an old-school camcorder in the bucket. Apparently he follows her around constantly, shooting video, for reasons unknown.

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